Pastry week on The Great British Baking Show is always one of my favorites. I enjoy making pies and am always curious about what recipes will be featured. When the Technical Challenge was announced as Bakewell Tart, my heart leapt with joy. Judge Mary Berry had selected one of my favorite desserts to test the eight-remaining baker’s skills. In addition, she let it be known that she expected no less than sheer perfection, warning them to keep their cool. Yikes! In retrospect, this hidden hint did not register with all of the bakers. They had 90 minutes to complete their task. The results were almost comical. Even experienced bakers like Val, who claimed to make Bakewell Tart weekly at home, had disastrous results.
Don’t be put off by the calamity. Even though it was reality cooking drama at its best, Bakewell Tart is easy to make, and the results are both elegant and delicious.
While many Brits think Bakewell Tart is the ultimate tea-time favorite, this Yank had never heard of it until the town of Bakewell came into my radar when I was reading about the possible origins of the fictional country manor house of Pemberley, in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. In the story, heroine Elizabeth Bennet departs Bakewell to tour the estate. Many scholars think that Austen modeled Pemberley after Chatsworth, the stately home of the Duke of Devonshire, which lies 3 miles northeast of Bakewell. Although there is no evidence that Austen ever visited the area, The Rutland Arms, a local hotel built in Georgian times, proudly states that she revised her manuscript while staying there in 1811. Hmmm? They also claim to be the original creator of Bakewell Pudding, which is the progenitor of Bakewell Tart. Several other local bakeries also lay culinary parve to the popular confection that has now made its town famous. While the exact creator of Bakewell Pudding may never be determined, nor the fact that Austen stayed in their hotel, we can confirm that the earliest recipes can be found in cookbooks such as Eliza Acton’s, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), and Mrs. Beeton’s, The Book of Household Management (1861).
When I had the privilege of tasting authentic Bakewell Tart when I visited Lyme Regis in 2013, I finally knew what all the fuss was about. This dessert is exactly what judge Mary Berry expected from the contestants: sheer perfection. Rich, flavorful and satisfying—the dessert consists of a shortcrust pastry, underneath a thin layer of tart raspberry jam, covered with sweet frangipane and topped with almond flavored white icing that is elegantly feathered in pink arches. Many restaurants in England proudly offer it on their menu and I ran across it again when I was in Bath. After my return home, I found a recipe online that was converted to the US volume measurement system and gave it a try. It was fabulous!
It was very interesting to watch the contestants attempt to make a Bakewell Tart. I feel that the Technical Challenge is the hardest component of the three weekly tests, asking the bakers to use their instincts when the recipe supplied to them is not complete. Making a shortcrust recipe can be tricky, requiring cold butter to be worked into the flour to form a course, cornmeal-like texture. The pastry needs to be worked quickly, and evenly rolled out to form a thin shell to line the pie tin. When judge Mary Berry told the contestants to keep their cool, she was sending them a signal to be sure to chill their pie crust before blind baking. The other ingredients – the raspberry jam, the frangipane filling (ground almonds, butter, sugar, eggs, and almond flavoring) and the icing give the dessert a beautiful layered affect when it is cut. Each step requires moderate skill and patience. Amazingly, this challenge even threw seasoned bakers like Val, who should have known better than to purposely roll her dough thick, in an effort make it unbreakable when it was removed from the tin. During judging, both Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood gave her low marks for her thick, under-baked crust and filing. For her effort, she received the first dreaded “soggy bottom” remark from the judges. Sadly, this contributed greatly to their decision to send her home, while Jane, the winner of the Technical Challenge with an almost perfect tart, wound up Star Baker of the week.
Don’t let a Bakewell Tart be your undoing, like some of the contestants. Just remember to chill your pastry prior to baking, let your filling cool completely before icing, and serve your tart at room temperature! It will be the hit of you next family meal, or the showcase at your next tea party!
The Great British Baking Show continues with the seven remaining contestants competing during Botanical Week. May the best baker rise to the top!