Life in the tent is a tiny bit glummer without Benjamina around, but the stakes are so high that nobody really has time to be sad. It’s the semifinals, so anyone who makes it through this week is up for the ultimate prize. (Just as a reminder to anyone new to the show: it’s an engraved cake plate. England leaves all the showy “top prize of one million dollars!!!!” foofaraw on the tackier side of the pond.) Plus, Selasi had a dream he baked for the finals wearing a dress, and he pledges to make it come true if he makes it through, and I for one would love to see Selasi in a shopping montage.
This week is Patisserie Week, and Mel and Sue put their Cambridge educations to good use with a Godard-esque introduction, shot in black and white, in which they wear sunglasses and smoke and talk about patisserie entirely in French without looking at each other. In the semifinal, even the moments of levity are tense.
Mel and Sue’s film isn’t exactly a contender for a Palme d’Or, but it might win a Palmier...d’Hors D’oeuvres? The point is, the signature challenge this week is savory palmiers, which you might also know as elephant ears. The key for this bake is going to be lamination, which the bakers also contended with back in week five. The bakers will need to make a puff pastry by folding dough around flattened butter, which will hopefully lead to delicate flaky layers — but they won’t really know if it’s worked until it starts baking.
The first decision is whether to use strong flour or plain flour; strong flour, which is called bread flour in the U.S., has more gluten. Paul is in favor of using strong flour for puff pastry, and he’s going around shaking his head superciliously at anyone who’s using plain flour (i.e. cake flour) or a mix of the two. The second challenge is flavor: too much filling will ruin the pastry, say Paul and Mary, so any flavors have to pack a punch without adding bulk. “I do think you have to be fairly generous with the filling,” says Candice, incorrectly, layering bacon on top of her pastry and potentially sealing her fate.
“The key to get your puff right is chilling,” says Selasi, which means he should be pretty good at it. He’s feeling so chill he’s finishing Mary’s sentences and taking Sue’s job of announcing how much time is left. Andrew is significantly less chill: An hour into the bake, he’s decided his too-dry pastry is a “disaster” and he’s starting over. It worked at home, he says, but sometimes things just turn out differently in the tent. Perhaps it’s the air of desperation.
Jane’s palmiers are artistic: she paints the filling onto the dough and then executes a complicated origami-like fold that winds up with a sort of flower-shaped cross section, with different fillings in each petal. But for Andrew, an hour behind, even a double spiral is proving daunting. “In hindsight I wouldn’t have picked such a complicated shape,” he says ruefully. “In hindsight I would have done a lot of things differently. We’ll just keep calm and carry on, because that’s the British thing to do.” Get this man on a poster.
Mel still hasn’t learned that you can’t make Selasi nervous, so she’s hovering by his shoulder asking if he’s worried about disappointing his family. “Are you about to cry, Selasi?” she asks. This is unlike Mel — she and Sue have always protected the bakers from crying on camera, and once nearly quit over U.S.-style human interest goading. But perhaps Selasi’s unsinkable calm is too tempting, like punching a Weeble. Selasi shrugs that he’ll “leave the crying to Andrew,” which comes off a little mean-spirited for a moment until he adds sincerely that he’s glad Andrew seems to be doing better with his second round of dough.
The bakers’ old nemesis gravity is back, as both Jane and Selasi dump half a batch of palmiers into the bottom of their ovens. “Five-second rule,” chirps Andrew, who’s happier now that his pastry is, improbably, laminated. (“I’m gobsmacked,” he says.) Indeed, when the judges come around, Paul has to grudgingly admit that Andrew’s plain flour pastry came out excellent. “You’ve got away with this,” he says. Jane’s positive thinking — “It'll be absolutely fine,” she chants with Mel while the palmiers are cooking — doesn’t pay off as well. Her palmiers look beautiful but are a little soggy inside. Candice’s taste good but are overfilled and have lost their definition. To Paul, her onion palmiers don’t even count as palmiers, because they’re too thick. And Selasi, too, has underbaked and soggy pastry. The lesson, I think, is that fear is an effective motivator, and confidence is bunk. Carry on, yes, but keep calm under no circumstances.
The technical challenge is a savarin, a yeast cake soaked with liquor. Most of the bakers have heard of it but don’t really know what it looks like or how to make one — they’re not even sure which attachment to use on their mixers. According to Mary and Paul, the challenges are proofing the dough exactly the right amount and getting the liquor to penetrate all the way through.
In practice, though, the bakers are running up against a whole other set of problems: making a successful caramel, decorating with cream without having it melt in the heat (Selasi does his decoration inside the fridge), neatly piping “savarin” onto a seven-centimeter chocolate oval, and trying to figure out how to make a seven-centimeter chocolate oval in the first place.
“We’ve got a bit of melting going on with the cream, but I think we can allow that, Mary,” says Paul as he surveys the offerings. She stares at him. “Did you really say that?” But he hasn’t gone soft: Candice’s savarin is overbaked, underproofed, and too close-textured; Andrew’s is underproofed and slightly overdone; Selasi’s is inconsistent in color; Jane’s is slightly underproofed and she never quite managed a good caramel; and everyone had a hard time getting the liquor to soak into the middle. Selasi comes last, then Candice, Andrew, and Jane, who does a little Kermit flail when she hears she’s come in first.
The showstopper bake sounds simple: two types of fondant fancy, or what I normally think of as a petit four (I’ve learned from this show that there are way more kinds of petits fours than I ever realized). They’re tiny bite-sized cakes covered in buttercream and fondant icing, and Paul wants them to be “shop standard” — even though if you were making them for a shop, you’d make the sponge the day before so it has plenty of time to cool before you cut it. Even though the bakers in the tent will have to make the sponge and immediately cut and decorate it, Mary expects “sheer perfection.”
Selasi is the first baker to start over: he didn’t sift the flour for his Barbie-pink Genoese sponge, and when Mary gently disapproves, he takes the hint. That puts him behind everyone else, with his sponge just going into the oven as everyone else’s are coming out. And time is really of the essence here, because putting a buttercream crumb coat on 36 delicate tiny cakes is an immensely time-consuming job. It’s so time-consuming that Jane has decided to put buttercream inside her fancies but not on the outside or the top. “Say you spend five minutes on each one — that’s three hours,” she points out. They have four and a half hours total. But a crumb coat is essential for a smooth fondant finish, so the other bakers are trying to do them as quickly as possible instead of skipping it wholesale.
The bakers have different methods for covering their little cakes in fondant: Selasi and Candice pour it over them on a cooling rack, Andrew spears each cake on a fork and drapes fondant around it with a spoon, and Jane uses her potato masher like a little cake elevator to dip them. When Sue calls 15 minutes, they’re all still scrambling to make tiny roses, butterflies, bow ties, and flowers for decoration.
Candice has displayed her fondant fancies on a tiny piano and some of them have little musical notes; the others are sort of zombie-colored. They’re “cracking,” according to Mary, though “they don’t look so brilliant” — a little untidy, but “stunning” flavors and textures, plus the juice from the cherry at the heart of the zombie ones hasn’t bled into the sponge. But when it comes to music-themed presentations, she can’t hold a candle to Andrew’s chorale of fancies, half of which have little sheet music books on top and half of which sport bow ties. His alto section has suffered some mishaps, with jam bleeding through the fondant alarmingly, but the biggest criticism on his taste is “too buttery,” which is a pretty great way to go wrong.
Selasi’s white fancies with roses and butterflies on top look very “doll tea party,” but only if the doll isn’t such a great baker. They’re a little squished, the brightly colored sponge is showing through the white fondant, and his pink velvet cake just tastes like “sweet.” Jane’s taste good, with the right amount of sharpness, but because she didn’t do a crumb coat, they look off-puttingly lumpy on the outside.
Andrew is already in the middle of raising a congratulatory eyebrow at Candice when he’s announced as Star Baker, and his eyes almost bug out of his head. And it’s goodbye to Selasi, “who we just love.” Mel and Sue have a fake fistfight over who gets to hug him more. I’ve seen every episode of this show that can be accessed legally or illegally, and Selasi has been one of my favorite to watch. It couldn’t really have gone another way this week, but it’s a bummer. At least he doesn’t have to shop for a dress.
Jess Zimmerman is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Hazlitt, the New Republic, and others.
Editor: Greg Morabito
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