This week, the bakers tackle some notoriously tricky pastries: laminated dough, into which butter is folded over and over, and phyllo dough, a pastry so paper-thin you can read through it when it’s raw. In between these challenges, they make cakes for old ladies. Does this mean age and experience will win out over youthful energy and innovation? All will be revealed in this extra-flaky episode of The Great British Baking Show.
The signature challenge this week is 24 Danish pastries, 12 each of two types. If you’re like me, you heard that and thought, “So, like, 12 round cheese things and 12 round things with cherry jam in them?” But I learned from this episode that Danish pastries can come in multiple shapes: the kite, the plait, the whirl. What defines a Danish pastry is the pastry itself: an enriched, leavened dough that’s been laminated, so it rises into delicate layers. Wikipedia doesn’t say whether Danish pastries necessarily have fillings, but our bakers know what’s good for them, so theirs do.
For a challenge that starts with all the bakers just whaling on cold butter with rolling pins, this one turns out to take precision and more than a little calculation. Andrew the engineer has measured the dimensions of his slab of flat butter so that he can fold the dough around it precisely, and Benjamina shares the formula for figuring out how many layers you’ll get in laminated dough: the number of folds, plus one, to the power of how many times you turn it. I haven’t fact-checked that because I don’t understand baking or math.
As usual, some bakers are going traditional and some are being innovative, but it’s not necessarily the ones you’ve come to expect. Rav has decided to tone down his flavors because his coconut, lime, and chili concoctions keep going over badly, while Val has brought dental floss to garotte her pastry for a clean cut that doesn’t smoosh the whirl. Tom is on the experimental side, making his own granola and mixing crème patissiere with wheat biscuits for reasons I don’t fully understand, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
In addition to the precise calculations of folds, turns, and butter size, Danish pastry turns out to require some Olympic-level time management. The dough has to rest for as long as possible, so the bakers shouldn’t fill and shape their pastries too early — but the longer they wait, the less time they have to actually bake their creations. That’s how Benjamina and Val end up with underdone Danishes (Val insists she likes them that way, because at this point “it’s a little doughy, but I like it doughy” is practically a catchphrase for Val). Paul also pronounces Benjamina’s banana and peanut butter combination “mad,” because Brits think banana with toffee is normal but banana with peanut butter is insane. Don’t tell them about Elvis.
After time is called, Candice stands by her station for a while trying to inconspicuously fan smoke away, and finally announces, “I think someone put some butter in the bottom of my oven.” But though her pastry may be leaky, the apple roses on her sweet Danishes go over well, and Mel snags six of her steak-and-mushroom kites — the only savory entry in the signature challenge — to take home. Other bakers struggle for reasons that have nothing to do with butter or time: Paul isn’t impressed with Selasi’s mango, rhubarb, and ginger combo; Andrew’s are too thin; Tom’s are bad; and Rav just totally forgot to do one of his plaits. Jane’s chocolate almond Danishes are overfilled, but her actual pastry is the most highly-praised.
As an American, I have no strong associations with Bakewell tarts, today’s technical challenge, although I’d eat the heck out of one (maybe without the icing for preference, but based on a Google search that doesn’t seem to be mandatory). But the younger bakers’ associations are pretty clear, though they mostly won’t come out and say it. “I think there are people in the room who know how to make a Bakewell tart,” says Benjamina meaningfully. “I’m sure someone like Val has made a Bakewell tart before,” Rav specifies. “I think the winners will be the... aged,” says Selasi, spelling it out.
Val has in fact made Bakewell tarts before — she says she makes one every week. But far from giving her an edge, this seems to have made her cocky. She charges ahead without noticing that there’s a second page to the instructions. Sue says: “What is a recipe for if not to just totally ignore?”
Val is the only one going off-book, but not the only one having trouble. Rav’s frangipane layer is mixing with his jam instead of sitting nicely on top of it, and his crust crumbles like a ruined castle when he takes it out of the tart pan. But nobody’s problems are as poignant as Andrew’s, who discovers after 15 minutes that he’d forgotten to turn the oven on. This means his tart is still baking while the others are frantically trying to cool theirs enough to put icing on, and when he finally takes it out, he has to ice it hot — a fruitless endeavor that he eventually abandons entirely. His half-naked tart is only saved from the bottom by the fact that Rav’s is “just goo” and Val’s tart has the dreaded soggy bottom. (If you didn’t know, this isn’t just a double entendre; it’s an iconic Great British Baking No-no. The show’s official cookbook is even called How to Avoid a Soggy Bottom.) Rav winds up last for the third week in a row.
Jane comes in first in the technical, lending some credence to the idea that more, shall we say, seasoned bakers are going to have greater facility with Bakewell tarts. Although, as she says to Benjamina, “It’s just classic and classy. Not... old.”
Experience, it seems, might also help with the showstopper challenge: a whopping 48 phyllo dough amuse-bouches. (This basically just means “the kind of bite-size hors d’oeuvres you get at Trader Joe’s,” like tiny quiches and pigs in a blanket, but fancier.) They’ll need to make 24 each of a savory and a sweet — although Tom, ever the innovator, is combining the two in his steak and spicy chocolate mousse cups. Candice seems confident, auditioning for Mel and Sue’s spot by noting that “it’s good to get your hands in and give your sausages a good squeeze.”
There’s a variety of phyllo techniques in the tent. Andrew stretches his unusually runny (on purpose, he claims) dough on the counter by hand. Rav rolls his out with a rolling pin, and Val with a broom handle (“clean, brand new”). Benjamina is tossing it on her hands like a pizza, and Candice is using a pasta maker. Jane and Candice both stick written words under their pastry — a bottle label, a sheaf of printed instructions — to see whether it’s thin enough to read through.
The bakers seem to have fewer tricks for dealing with the phyllo once it’s stretched. Tom’s “uncooperative” dough doesn’t want to hold its shape. Andrew’s parcels are leaking. Jane’s goes nicely onto her cone-shaped molds, but then the molds keep falling over. (She apologizes to them. I love this show.) And Val’s entire pile of phyllo kind of fuses with itself. “Have you seen any John Carpenter films?” Sue asks her, picking at the mass.
In the end, though, this showstopper has very few stumbles. Selasi’s dough is a bit too dry, Tom’s amuse-bouches are too big and weird, and Val only managed to get half of her savory tartlets in the oven. But everyone else wins praise for their flavors, presentation, and baking (although Paul is of the opinion that Jane’s painstakingly-made chocolate cherry cones are too big to count as amuse-bouches). It’s a tight race to the top, but Candice’s beautiful apple-shaped sausage balls and “to die for” banoffee whiskey cups edge out Jan’'s great performance across the board. Rav and Benjamina, who’d teetered on the edge, are pronounced to have “done enough” to save themselves, and it’s only Val and Tom on the chopping block. Ultimately, doing half the job badly is decided to be worse than doing a wacky job overall, and it’s Val’s turn to go home.
It sounds like Val was really the grandmother figure in the tent, as well as out of it. “Val was just a really positive presence,” Andrew confides. “She'd come up with little games for us to play in between bakes, like today she was reading a 1977 shopping receipt and having us guess the prices.” Producers take note: I’d watch a whole show’s worth of behind-the-scenes Baking Show footage.
But despite the “retro” technical this week, it turns out the Baking Show competition isn’t really made for the grandmotherly baker, the kind of person who says “it’s doughy, but my whole family likes it that way” and expects that to hold water with Paul Hollywood. The show may be a competition among amateur bakers, but it expects professional-level execution, and eventually anyone whose main interest has always been pleasing their family is going to find themselves falling behind. “Whenever I make anything, I stir love into it,” Val says at the end, but that only goes so far. Paul and Mary are plausibly your stern, demanding mater- and paterfamilias, but they sure ain’t your kids.
Jess Zimmerman is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Hazlitt, the New Republic, and others.
Editor: Greg Morabito