If the five remaining bakers were expecting The Great British Baking Show's quarterfinal round to be business as usual, they were in for a nasty shock. Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry weren’t playing around as they set some monster challenges. This week featured the largest number of signature bakes ever assembled, the hottest technical challenge ever attempted, and the biggest showstoppers ever constructed. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s review how we got to this point.
Due to extraordinary circumstances created by a kitchen accident in week six, a double elimination was called for in the following round. After a Hollywood handshake for his signature lardy cakes, Ryan’s luck ran out with a disappointing Chinese roast pork loaf showstopper. Sarah-Jane never got off the ground and suffered several raw dough disasters. On the bright side, Dr. Danny finally had her turn at the Star Baker crown. She impressed the judges with an original Chelsea bun/Bakewell tart mashup, second place technical jam doughnuts and a deliciously festive Christmas wreath showstopper.
So this week all that stood between the bakers and their chances to move on to the semi-finals were two days and three biscuit challenges. It should come as no surprise that Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc were in fine form for the occasion.
“It’s crunch time. Are they going to snap? They’re feeling brittle. Will they crumble?”
For the signature challenge, our quintet of contestants were asked to produce 48 crackers or crisp breads in two hours. They could be leavened or unleavened and made of any flour. Paul and Mary expected them to be thin and crack when snapped in two. (A comparison to Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman was made at this point by Ms. Giedroyc.)
This week’s technical challenge would have been difficult in ordinary weather conditions. The bakers were tasked with creating six perfect chocolate teacakes consisting of a biscuit base, covered in a tower of marshmallow, then topped with a dome of chocolate. However, with the temperature in the tent exceeding 85 degrees, it was near impossible for the chocolate to temper (or cool) properly.
In the showstopper, the contestants were challenged to take the humble gingerbread house to another level. The judges wanted a gingerbread “structure” akin to the Eiffel Tower or Sydney Opera House. Paul was adamant that he was looking for architectural genius and threatened to smash down anything that resembled a traditional gingerbread house.
For the signature round, most of the bakers produced a decent cracker. The stand out was Brendan’s multi-seed savoury crackers featuring sesame, flax, pumpkin and anise seeds. They were beautifully even in size and bake with a nice break and a good seedy texture.
The sweltering conditions during the technical challenge meant that no one achieved chocolate teacake perfection. James came closest with a good biscuit base, firm marshmallow, and was the only teacake the judges could cut through cleanly. In second place, Brendan’s teacakes had the best chocolate shine, but the biscuit was too thick, making the cakes rock on their bases.
In the showstopper, John upped his game with his gingerbread Roman Coliseum flavored with black treacle and spices surrounded by peanut praline gravel. Paul and Mary thought the construction was magnificent with its many windows and doors. Danny and Cathryn also received kudos for their replicas of Big Ben (though Big Ben refers to the bell and not the clock tower) and Buckingham Palace respectively.
But was birthday boy James who claimed his second Star Baker title this week. The favorable reception of his smoky cayenne, cumin and chili crackers with yeasted polenta combined with his first-place technical finish put him within striking distance of Brendan. It was his showstopper however that put him over the top. Mary was enamored of his derelict barn with ginger biscuit planks and ginger cake for cladding all stuck together with caramel. She was most impressed with the fact that you could eat the entire structure to the last crumb.
Meanwhile, Paul praised the brilliant flavor and the complexity of the structure, whether James intended it to look this way or not.
There were a few minor criticisms of the signature crackers, namely Danny’s slightly salty spice almond drinks crackers and the somewhat inconsistent bake on John’s otherwise delightful Asian spice crackers. Unfortunately, it was Cathryn’s cheese and pickle crackers, based on the classic British ploughman’s lunch which, in her words, turned out to be “car crash crackers.” Their tasty flavor couldn’t rescue the very inconsistent state of their thickness and color.
The heat took the biggest toll on Cathryn’s technical teacakes. Following the conventional rules of chocolate tempering she didn’t chill her domes until it was too late. This resulted in exposed marshmallow and too thin a layer of chocolate on top which earned her last place. Danny’s teacakes came in fourth. Her biscuit was lovely and crisp but her tempered chocolate was an issue and her marshmallow was more the consistency of whipped cream.
It was a surprising turn of events when Brendan’s fantasy gingerbread bird house didn’t enchant the judges. Paul said it was a bit much, and that the gingerbread was rather too spicy. Mary was disappointed with the thatched roof made of breakfast cereal and said it wasn’t creative or structurally demanding enough. They apparently weren’t fans of the cute, Disneyesque vibe Brendan attempted.
Alas, it was Cathryn who failed to make it to the semi-finals. Despite her solid gingerbread palace effort, Paul and Mary disagreed on the chocolate orange flavor. But it was the irregularities of her crackers and her calamitous teacakes that ultimately doomed Cathryn to elimination. She said she wasn’t surprised but was little bit heartbroken as would be her daughter who believed her mum would win. Her son, on the other hand, will be happy to have her home. Personally, I will miss her vexed exclamations of “Heavens to Betsy!” and “My giddy aunt!” ringing throughout the marquee.
Next week will pit four bakers against one another. This quartet of Star Bakers, Danny, John, James and Brendan, will bake their hearts out hoping for a spot in the final. Each seems to have a different outlook and mindset on the competition. James thinks a bit of luck (and some nice weather) may have gotten him this far. Brendan is confident that his experience over the others has been key to his success. John has admiration for his fellow bakers, but his fight and perseverance are probably his greatest assets. And Danny? Well, she’s going to give it a real go.
Only the best of the best remain, so no one can afford to slip up moving forward. How do you see this shaking out? Even if you know who the eventual winner is, do you have a favorite? And what do you think of the side trips we’ve been taken on this season? Do you enjoy learning about the historical significance of gingerbread as a love token/medieval greeting card? Or would you prefer they focus on the competition? Let’s discuss all things crisp, crunchy and crumbly in the comments!