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It’s Judgment Day for Paul Hollywood

Six Americans test-bake the most American staples from “The Great British Bake Off” host’s new cookbook, “Bake”

Haarala Hamilton

Like any good supervillain and/or reality TV judge, Paul Hollywood is an easy target for anger. On television’s gentlest show — The Great British Bake Off — Hollywood plays the bad cop to co-judge Prue Leith’s good cop, jabbing his pointer finger into fresh-baked bread loaves and maligning delicate Swiss rolls as cracked and dry, no matter that they were made lovingly by retired NHS workers who bake every Sunday morning with their grandchildren. Hollywood is the kind of judge that reality television was made for: mean and icy, with a laser stare and button-down shirt. But no matter how irritable his feedback makes people, viewers and bakers alike can’t help it. Everyone still wants to impress Paul.

Yelling angrily at the screen while Hollywood critiques another perfectly delicious Black Forest gateau within an inch of its life is one way to find catharsis. Another? Becoming the judge yourself. This week, Hollywood releases Bake, his first cookbook in five years and a compendium of over 80 recipes that he calls “my best ever recipes for the classics.” Oh? We’ll be the judges of that.

In an attempt to put the judge himself to the test, six Eater editors with intimate experience of both eating and baking American desserts got to work testing some of Hollywood’s most American recipes. Were they approachable or were the instructions as slimmed down as those of a technical challenge? Did the ingredients make sense? Was the process accurate and the result delicious? Were there any soggy bottoms, or worse, underbakes? In a snafu, the recipes that Eater editors originally used were from Bake’s U.K. edition, so ingredients like Bird’s Custard Powder had to be special-ordered and finer-grained caster sugar swapped for regular sugar, a more standard American ingredient.

“A good bake is a good bake regardless of where it’s baked,” Hollywood wrote to Eater by email. “The globe has adopted the brownie. Cheesecake is an ancient recipe from Greece. I developed these recipes for all types of cooks and bakers, especially someone curious about the ways they can transform what’s ‘classic’ and expand upon recipes that stand the test of time.” Sure, sure.

But the question remains: Is Hollywood himself deserving of a Hollywood handshake?

Key Lime Pie

Over email, Hollywood told me that Key lime pie was his favorite American recipe to bake. “Had it in Miami and made it with a chef there and loved it,” he wrote. This description is short, sweet, and to the point, just like Hollywood’s recipe for Key lime pie. The U.K. version that I originally read called for digestive biscuits or Hobnobs, which if you can believe it, I already had, but once I got access to the American edition, I was relieved to see that Hollywood knew what was what: Graham cracker crust or bust. The real tell was whether he called for actual Key limes or just regular limes, the latter being a fairly common suggestion given limited regional access to Key limes. What do you know? “Here I have adapted the recipe for regular limes,” he writes.

The thing about a Key lime pie is that pretty much anyone can bake it and that’s why it’s so great. You need only whisk egg yolks with a can of sweetened condensed milk, lime juice, and lime zest, and voila. You have a perfect summer dessert in very little time. I appreciate that Hollywood’s recipe is fewer than seven actual steps — that’s the right number to accomplish Key lime pie. And the result tasted just like Key lime pie — tart and creamy with a buttery crunch from the graham cracker crust — due to Hollywood’s call for simplicity. However. When Hollywood asks you to “whip the heavy cream and load it into a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch fluted tip,” I did this only because I imagined getting scolded by him for not doing it. In the future, I will do what I always do and just dollop a pile of whipped cream on top of the pie. The American way. — Dayna Evans, staff writer and Eater Philly editor

Apple Pie

The Paul Hollywood apple pie was far from my best. This, of course, could very well be my fault. I was cooking from a version of the recipe that used British measurements and ingredients, so it felt unlike a typical American apple pie from the get-go. I had to make swaps and adjustments. In the recipe I was working from, Hollywood requested Braeburn apples, caster sugar, and something called custard powder. I swapped the Braeburns for Granny Smiths, opted for granulated sugar, and ordered custard powder from Amazon, only to realize upon opening the dusty canister that it was essentially cornstarch.

It turned out there was a fully Americanized version of the recipe that I should have been using, one that does indeed call for cornstarch. I chose the correct apple variety, but learned that for some reason it was not a one-to-one switch and I used one fewer apple than called for. But even if I had gotten everything right, I’m not convinced this would have been a good pie, or at least not the kind of apple pie I’m used to. The crust, which included a couple tablespoons of powdered sugar, was difficult to work with. The cornstarch, sprinkled on top of the bottom crust before filling to prevent a soggy bottom, wasn’t quite the hack Hollywood promised. The recipe also called for making an apple stock with the leftover apple peels and cores and a cinnamon stick, which added a significant amount of time but, ultimately, little flavor. And it could be because of an off apple ratio (Pink Ladies were the second variety in play) but the resulting filling was more tart than sweet, tasting (almost) healthy. It worked well as an ice cream topping, but for my time and money, I’ll be returning to Nicole Rucker’s sour apple pie (not actually sour!) from her cookbook Dappled. That’s an apple pie that tastes as one should. — Monica Burton, deputy editor

Blueberry Muffins

Mr. Hollywood’s take on what he calls an “All-American hero of a bake” — the blueberry muffin — is delicious and flavorful and just the kind of subtly sweet thing I want at breakfast with my coffee. There is, however, just one problem: It’s not a muffin. The golden, blueberry-studded domes that result from this recipe are, in fact, some hybrid between scones and Southern-style biscuits, cooked in a muffin tin, with blueberries inside. How does this come about? Well, first he eschews oil, which is frequently used in American muffins, for butter — a lot of it — which, he claims, gives the dough more flavor. That’s true! But it also makes it less like a muffin. Equally un-muffiny? The way the dough (I wouldn’t call this a batter) is mixed, by working the butter into the flour with your fingers and pouring the wet ingredients into a well in the center. I ended up adding extra blueberries, a move I feel any natural-born muffin eater on this side of the pond would have agreed with. Still, despite not being an actual muffin, what came out of the oven was good, great even, and less cloyingly sweet than the American classic. Paul Hollywood invented the bisconuffin, and I’m into it. — Lesley Suter, special projects editor

New York Chocolate Brownie Cheesecake

I’m not the target audience for Hollywood’s take on New York cheesecake. I live a few blocks from Junior’s, the chainlet that inspired Hollywood to create this recipe after he visited during his City Bakes series. So I can walk 15 minutes to grab a slice or I can spend the better part of a day baking this brownie-cheesecake mashup. It starts with a sponge base (like Junior’s), adds a layer of chocolate brownie batter (Hollywood’s addition), then swirls in cheesecake batter (Junior’s). After an hour baking and four more in the fridge, it turned out well, even with my mistakes (the water bath penetrated the tinfoil that I wrapped around the pan; the top browned too much). The cheesecake was a lactic smack in the tastebuds and the brownie was rich as ganache, but they played surprisingly well together. Maybe it was thanks to the sponge, which remained doggedly fluffy beneath the wet layers. If you can while away a day in the kitchen (or you’re pining for cheesecake from the other side of the Atlantic), bake this up — just plan to share. Junior’s serves its cheesecake in mountainous slices, but I can’t imagine having more than a thin piece of this super-intense rendition. — Nick Mancall-Bitel, editor

Note: A 9-inch springform pan does not fit in a 9-inch baking dish for the water bath, so get a bigger pan or bend a 9-inch tinfoil pan, as I did.

Chocolate Brownies

Admittedly, I was skeptical about the prospects of these brownies, in part because I have seen the ways in which brownies are routinely bastardized under Paul Hollywood’s own auspices on The Great British Bake Off. So I imagined this recipe would constitute another crime, one that would entail, say, a thick and needless layer of frosting or Italian meringue. And certainly, the recipe headnote prepared me for the worst: “Even if I say it myself,” our man writes, presumably while wearing the trademark grin that makes him resemble the Fancy Feast cat, “these are the best brownies you’ll ever taste.” Oh, you say it yourself? Quelle surprise, mister. But you know what? These are actually very good brownies. First, they are extremely chocolatey, owing to almost one pound of chocolate (semisweet, bittersweet, and milk). Second, they are appropriately rich: There are two full sticks of butter in here, bound together with a scant amount of flour. Aside from a sprinkling of cacao nibs, they reject head-scratching embellishment. I personally don’t think the nibs are necessary, in part because it costs about $9 to buy a bag you will use precisely one tablespoon of, and the textural contrast and flavor they contribute are negligible. All in all, these brownies fall on the rich-but-not-ridiculous end of the spectrum: You can eat a couple without feeling like you will die. And I appreciate that they have a nice crackly top and soft, semi-crumbly interior. Even if these aren’t the absolute best brownies I’ve ever tasted, they are ones I would make again, minus the nibs. — Rebecca Flint Marx, Home editor

Pecan Pie

This is not a pie. This is a tart. It’s baked in a 9-inch tart tin. You heard about the U.S.-U.K. recipe mix-up, right? I was so sure Paul said to use a tart tin for a pecan pie because the British don’t really have American-style pies. They make them in tart tins. I begged Dayna for the U.S. recipe as soon as I found out. The only ingredient swap was molasses for black treacle. I began to read the instructions: “Line a 9-inch (23cm) loose-bottomed tart pan” — um, okay. For the record, this matters: The sides of an American dessert pie are angled and it’s served out of a dish, whereas a tart is straight-sided and served unmolded. Now you know. Does Paul not know? He must. No fan of pecan pie, I dreaded making this for weeks. I shouldn’t have: This pecan tart is one of the best things I’ve baked this year. Credit goes to the golden syrup and black treacle in the U.K. version of the recipe I followed; the flavor here was deep and warming in a way that corn syrup just isn’t. The pastry is a keeper, too: Easy to make, easy to roll, and easy to finish with a clean, sharp edge, the result of baking with dough overhang that’s trimmed off before filling and finishing. Wait for the entire thing to cool, and you might get a clean cut. If not, who cares? The filling is good enough to eat with a spoon; it is a pudding, after all, in the much broader British sense. It certainly isn’t a pie, but since that’s the only thing off about this recipe — a technicality, really — I think Paul deserves the win here. Ice cream entirely unneeded. — Rachel P. Kreiter, senior copy editor