Kimberleys-toadstool-butternut-squash-spiced-cakePreviously on The Great British Bakeoff: Frances’s fancy work won her star baker, while Glenn reached the end of the line and earned Paul’s derision for his unconventional puff pastry making technique.

It’s the semifinals, folks, and unlike last year, it’s all ladies. They arrive at the tent and suit up, ready to begin their baking weekend. These people must all be sooooo sick of pastry and desserts once the whole thing’s over.

Their first challenge is to make a loaf using unusual flour: chestnut, spelt, whatever, as long as it’s not wheat. Off they go. Paul tells us that every flour has a different gluten level, which can affect anything—rise, flavor, texture. Most of them are using spelt flour. I love spelt flour, but it has a weak gluten structure, so you have to be ready for that. Frances is making a tear-and-share loaf made to look like a bouquet of flowers, decorated with honeycomb and bees. Ruby’s doing a mango and nigella seed spelt cob. Mmmm, sounds nice. She interviews that she’s bettered her stress management over the past few weeks.

Beca’s using boiled potatoes in her spelt and rosemary focaccia. Not a bad idea. The starch in the potatoes can help build up the bread’s structure.

Christine’s doing a completely gluten-free multi-seed loaf with pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds. Her dough’s super wet, like a batter. She pops it in a tin and sets it aside to prove. The others knead their doughs and put them in bowls to prove. Kim’s filling her spelt loaf with wild garlic pesto and parma ham before proving. Oh, YUM! I’ve only recently discovered wild garlic, and it’s amazing. When it starts popping up next spring I’ll have to go pick some and do this bread. She interviews that her sister’s one of her taste testers, and lately she’s started coming over several times a week. Heh. She does the twisting method they employed on the apricot couronne challenge, rolls the twist up, and sets it in a springform tin to prove.

Doughs come out of the proving drawers. Ruby’s hasn’t risen as much as in the past, but she thinks it’s still ok. Mel stops by Frances’s station and comments that everything she does is rather pretty; even her prepped ingredients are all colour coordinated.

Loaves start going into the ovens to bake. They all look really good so far.

Time for our history lesson. Before the second world war, Britain imported a LOT of food, but with the war, they had to come up with ways to encourage people to use what was on hand and make it spread further. Since white bread is really wasteful (it uses only 70% of the wheat grains, meaning the rest is filtered out and tossed), the national loaf—basically a wholegrain bread—was invented. The public hated it, calling it Hitler’s secret weapon, and the Ministry of Food put a lot of effort into making people love it. And it worked: by the end of the war, people were happily chowing down on it.

Christine pulls her loaf out to put on an egg wash, then returns it to the oven. Kim’s loaf looks like a rose, it’s really pretty, but Mel calls it a ‘beautiful cabbage.’ Heh. Beca starts singing ‘I’m Coming Out’. Everyone always gets pretty punchy by this point in the competition.

Christine’s loaf breaks apart horribly as she’s taking it out. Oh, poor lady. The others look just like their pictures.

Frances’s tear and share has a good bake all through and Mary says it’s full of flavour and she can taste everything in it. Paul suggests more proving. Beca’s focaccia has a nice colour and a good bake. Mary calls it absolutely scrummy, and Paul says that it melts in the mouth and has a lovely crumb, just what you want. Ruby’s mango and nigella loaf is underproved and underbaked. She gets whiny about it. Sigh. The flavour’s good, though. Kim’s gorgeous loaf is apparently delicious, but Paul says the texture is too dry inside. Paul notes that Christine’s loaf is a bit of a mess on the sides, but it’s got a good flavour and structure. She’s pleased with that and decides to make it again for her gluten-intolerant friends. Ruby wails that she’s an idiot, and Kim’s disappointed that hers wasn’t perfect.

Technical Challenge this week is one of Mary’s recipes. They have to make hazelnut dacquoise, which is several layers of meringue and hazelnut cream. Oh, I think my mom’s made that in the past. It’s sooooo good. Sweet and nutty and light and crispy and creamy and…man, do I have some hazelnuts and egg whites? Now I want this.

FYI: if the nuts are chopped too finely, the oils in them will start to harm the meringue. Top tip! Ruby’s a bit of a meringue novice, since she never had a mixer at home and couldn’t be bothered doing it by hand. Understandable. Christine comments that she’s never added cornflour to a meringue before, and guesses that it adds a bit of structure. That is correct, it helps the meringue hold together a bit better. They toast nuts, fold them into the meringue, and start piping out big circles. Ruby has no idea how long to bake the meringues. A while, typically. Usually an hour or so, then leave them in the oven for several hours or overnight to cool. But obviously that won’t be the case here. They move on to a coffee custard.

Christine’s meringues are not crisping at all. Whipped cream is folded into the coffee custard and meringues come out of the ovens to cool. Now they have to make a caramel to make praline clusters.

With 10 minutes left, they start assembling. Beca’s cream is a bit thin, so it’s dripping out from between the layers. They start decorating the outsides with chopped nuts and piping swirls of ganache on top, which get capped with little pralines.

Time’s up. The dacquoises are brought up for presentation. Mary thinks they all look good at first blush. Ruby’s is first and has a good meringue with good definition between meringue and filling. Flavours are quite good too. Frances’s doesn’t look great, because of the loose custard. Christine’s has too-thin layers, so there’s no definition and the meringue didn’t properly dry out as it should have. Beca’s has wet ganache and cream, but decent crunch in the meringue. Kim’s has good definition, good crunch and is very neat looking. Ranking from last to first: Christine, Beca, Frances, Kim, Ruby. Ruby can’t believe she actually managed that. Christine tries to remain optimistic, in the post-mortem.

The judges have a brief confab and it seems that it’s really going to come down to the showstopper this week, because those who had a rough signature had a good technical and vice-versa.

So, time for our showstoppers. They have to make a 3-D novelty cake. And it has to be dairy free. And it has to use some kind of vegetable. Jesus, do they also have to bake this with one arm tied behind their backs? Mary wants them to think beyond carrot cake and come up with some great decorations.

Christine’s doing a sweet potato cake shaped like a guitar, with passion fruit icing. She admits that it’s quite dense, which I don’t think Mary likes the sound of. She’s also making a marshmallow fondant. Interesting.

Beca’s making a butternut squash cake made to look like a cheeseboard. She admits she’s winging it slightly with this one.

Kim, too, is using butternut and copying a cake that her mum made for her brother when he was a kid. It’s in the shape of a toadstool house. Wow, her mum was pretty awesome to make a cake in the shape of a toadstool house. That can’t be easy. I’m curious to know more about this dairy-free buttercream she’s going to be using.

Ruby is doing a carrot cake shaped like an allotment plot. That’s kind of cute. It’ll have poppyseed soil and pistachio grass. She’s mixing it up and it looks really, really wet, but then, these types of cakes tend to look rather wet because they use oil instead of beaten butter.

Frances is doing a ‘hidden carrot cake’. Basically, it’s beetroot and walnut cake acting as the soil, with little bits of carrot cake ‘planted’ in it, so it looks like a wee garden or windowbox. Beetroot and walnut cake sounds surprisingly yummy.

Cake mixes get slopped into tins and popped into the oven. Paul and Mary think there are some really unusual ideas. Mary thinks that Christine’s will look pretty, but it sounds to her like the texture might suck. She also worries that Frances will get too caught up in the decorating and forget about flavour again.

Cakes come out and start to get trimmed and cut into shape. Those making buttercreams are using non-butter spreads. Ick. Yes, I’m a snob, I’ll own that. Non-dairy butter-like spreads are horrible. Frances is making a fudge sauce with coconut cream. That’s rather clever. Ruby somehow manages to shatter the side of her mixer bowl. How the hell did she manage that? She’s totally embarrassed and says she’s like the Incredible Hulk. Hee! Ruby SMASH! Others craft decorations from gum paste and fondant. Christine melts down marshmallows to make her fondant. Interesting.

With 18 minutes left, they start working even more frantically. Frances puts her little carrot cake carrots in the beetroot ‘soil’ while Beca paints a wood design on her cheeseboard. Kim’s piping away at the landscape around her little gnome home.

Five minutes left. Christine pipes strings onto her guitar, Ruby places little veggies and Kim contemplates making a bird’s nest. Mel starts to go a bit OCD and desperately wants to tidy up Ruby’s station, but Ruby tells her to be careful, because she could inadvertently tidy up something she still needs.

Time’s called, and Ruby almost instantly starts whining about how lopsided her shed looks. Jesus, Ruby, SHUT UP!

The Gnome Home is up first, and it really looks adorable. Like, a little girl would love that as her birthday cake. Mary says the cake’s very close textured, not very sweet (though that’s made up for by the filling), and has a good flavor. Paul agrees. He thinks it’s been executed perfectly. Kim beams.

Frances’s little planter cake looks pretty amazing. It’s even surrounded by tiny planters with bits of mint leaf sticking out. Mary takes offense at a few little ready-made pots that are scattered about, though. Paul cuts in and finds the little carrot. Mary doesn’t like that there’s no icing at all, and Paul says the cakes are too dry, dense, and almost bitter.

Ruby’s garden plot looks pretty adorable, even with the leaning garden shed. Mary says she’s done some clever things, specifically calling out the caramel praline roof on the shed. The cake itself  is good—good bake, nice flavour, they like they can taste the pistachio. Mary asks Ruby if she’s pleased with it and Ruby admits it’s the best looking thing she’s ever made, and the ladies all cheer for her having said something positive at last.

Beca’s cheeseboard cake is decorated with rather cute little fondant mice. Paul thinks it looks great, but the cake itself isn’t very flavourful. He doesn’t think she weighed everything up properly. Ouch. He can’t get over how bland it is.

Christine’s guitar looks amazing. It’s even got a little crumpled sheet music with ‘Candy Man’ on it, which is really cute. Mary approves of the look, but again, the inside is bland. Christine says there’s a lot of spice in it, but apparently not enough. Mary wonders if more spice and more of the passionfruit icing might have been advisable. Paul says he didn’t taste passionfruit at all.

Frances weeps at the thought of going out on a cake that she likes so much. Beca’s pretty wrecked too.

The judges confab. Mary calls Frances out for not concentrating enough on the cake itself. Again, style over substance. But her bread at the beginning might save it. Sounds like Christine could be in danger, despite her good bread. Beca’s cake was the blandest, so she’s in the rough as well. But Ruby did well and so did Kim. Paul heaps praise on her for her structure and attention to detail.

Judgment time. Sue tells them this was a tough week to judge, but star baker is…Ruby. Oh? Ok. Guess it came down to taste, because honestly I thought Kim’s stuff looked much better. And this week we’re saying goodbye to…Christine. Ahh, I will miss her, she seemed pretty cool. In the after-interview, she says she’s learned a lot these past few weeks. Paul admits it was really had to judge. Mary says that Ruby basically won because she showed lots of different techniques. Ruby mildly interviews that she’d rather like to get to the finals after all. Well…good? I’m pulling for Kim to win. Something about Ruby doesn’t really appeal to me. Maybe it’s all the self-deprecating whining.

Next week, it’s the quarterfinals. Canapes and opera cakes and possibly some kind of summer pudding.

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