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‘The Great British Bake Off’ series 13: Episodes 8 and 9

Episode 8: Everyone is allowed to have a bad day

 

It’s the QUARTERFINALS. And PASTRY WEEK. Leaving Pastry Week this late in the series is quite unusual (though not unheard of), and in my opinion, a bad move. Pastry is a fairly fundamental baking skill, and leaving it until the quarterfinals means someone can make it quite far without having any mastery of pastry. Seemingly invincible candidates like 2018’s Dan and 2019’s Henry have been undone by pastry. And alas, that seemed to be the case this year. But we’ll get there.

The remaining bakers march into the tent, all decked out in their pastel best. For the first time in this series, there doesn’t appear to be a weak link. Prue cruelly reminds Abdul that he is the only remaining contestant who hasn’t won Star Baker, but Abdul has been remarkably consistent while the other four have been up and down. 

The signature challenge is that deceptively difficult 1970s classic: vol-au-vents. Bake Off has done vol-au-vents before, in the 2015 showstopper (notable for being the only challenge in which the Greatest Bake Off Contestant of All Time, Nadiya, really fell apart). In 2015, it was two batches of savory vol-au-vents, and this year, it’s one batch of sweet vol-au-vents. In two hours (or “two minutes and one hour and 58 minutes,” per Matt). Totally reasonable. Not.

Throughout the challenge, it appears that Syabira is baking in a completely separate universe from her fellow bakers. Maxy is falling apart, Sandro (who is wearing leather trousers!!) seems defeated, Abdul is struggling and Janusz can’t make a creme pat (after last week’s custard fiasco, I don’t know why I’m surprised). Meanwhile, Syabira is utterly relaxed, cheery and makes her delicious, beautiful and nearly perfect spiced citrus, cream cheese and pecan praline vol-au-vents without so much as breaking a sweat.

Janusz plays it a little too safe with strawberries and cream vol-au-vents. Abdul’s berry/chocolate/coconut vol-au-vents have too many flavors, are too small and all the butter has leaked out. Sandro was seemingly onto a winner with key lime pie vol-au-vents, one of Paul’s favorite flavors. Paul, seemingly on a mission to be horrible to every baker, demands to know whether Sandro is using key limes or Persian limes. Sandro isn’t fazed. “I’m using limes,” he says. Unfortunately, Sandro forgets to turn his oven on. No, Sandro! You’re supposed to make that mistake in week one, not the quarter final! His flavors are lovely, but his pastry is underbaked and ugly. Maxy makes square vol-au-vents instead of round ones, and they look a mess. To add insult to injury, they’re also raw.

The technical challenge is spring rolls. I guess that counts as pastry? Well, it’s better than no bread on bread week. According to Prue, there are 29 ingredients in the recipe, and once again it seems like there’s more cooking than baking. Poor Maxy seems utterly confused throughout the challenge. Her spring rolls are “dinky,” underfilled and stodgy, and she comes last. Syabira underbakes hers, and comes in fourth. Abdul adds too much mushroom and is in third, and somehow only seven out of the required eight spring rolls make it onto Janusz’s plate (although the actual spring rolls are good), and he is in second. Sandro comes first, basically by default.

The showstopper challenge is a 3D pie scene inspired by the baker’s favorite childhood story or nursery rhyme. Because of course it is. Once again, Syabira appears to be baking in a completely different universe. While Sandro gets lost in the pages of his recipe, Abdul and Janusz fall massively behind schedule and Maxy falls apart entirely, Syabira flawlessly executes her “Jack and the Beanstalk” themed pie scene. Sandro’s is based on “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (I love him), while Janusz is adding a twist to the story with “The Very Hungry Sausage Dog.” Abdul’s is inspired by “Treasure Island,” complete with a pastry octopus, and Maxy’s is inspired by “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

The highlights of the showstopper challenge are Matt trying to make a fun pirate joke while Abdul takes piracy completely seriously (“Oh no, that would be crazy. So much bloodshed”), Sandro referring to phyllo pastry as “pastry made with flour and water” and making a pear that “goes pear shaped” and the fact that Janusz is making a sausage dog-shaped pie that is filled with sausage. The lowlight of the showstopper is the judging. Paul seemed to be on a mission to tear everyone’s bakes apart, and is in thoroughly poor spirits throughout. It’s just a very bad day for him. Janusz and Maxy get the worst of it, and Maxy manages to underbake her pastry yet again. Only Syabira receives more praise than critiques.

Along with Paul, Noel was on remarkably poor form this episode, making jokes about Paul’s feet on coconut shavings, Paul’s hairy hands, egg washing a priest and Prue’s sexy music.  The only conclusion I can come to is that Noel was stoned throughout the episode. Oh well. Everyone can have a bad day, as they say.

Despite attempts to make it seem close, it’s clear that Maxy is leaving the tent after a shockingly bad signature, last place in technical and a weak showstopper. Like Dan and Henry before her, pastry was Maxy’s Achilles heel. Syabira, who produced the only signature and showstopper that the judges actually seemed to enjoy, gets a hat trick of three star bakers in a row (only the fourth to achieve this feat, after Richard in 2014, Ian in 2015 and Steph in 2019).

Next week, we are back to tradition with the Patisserie Week semifinal. It’s bound to be a heartbreaker, as I can’t bear to watch any of the remaining four bakers leave. Can Abdul finally snatch Star Baker? Can Syabira keep her streak alive? And who will just miss out on a place in the final? Keep reading to find out.

 

Episode 9: Vertically challenged

 

The semifinal is always a painful episode. No matter what, you’ll be heartbroken by the elimination. The theme for this week is patisserie, a long-standing Bake Off tradition. Patisserie is a true test of baking know-how. You need talent, finesse and a cool head under pressure. There have been some epic collapses in Patisserie Week, including 2015’s Paul (not Hollywood) forgetting how to make a genoise sponge and 2018’s Bryony using salt instead of sugar.

The music is somber as the four remaining bakers march into the tent. All are intimidated by the semifinal. Janusz describes patisserie as his “biggest weakness,” while Syabira takes a more optimistic “fake it ’till you bake it” approach.

The signature is six mini-charlottes. Essentially a mousse surrounded by sponge, the trickiest thing about a charlotte is setting time. The last thing you want is a soupy mousse. Paul is expecting something that looks like it could be in a patisserie shop. Prue is practically gleeful about sending someone home just before the final.

Now that we’re in the semifinal, the edit is giving each baker their own storyline along with telling us their signature. Syabira is making peanut and fruit charlottes. The judges claim that peanut and fruit sounds unusual (have they never heard of a PB&J?). In terms of storyline, Syabira seems to be the favorite and flavor queen. Those bakers either win or suffer an epic collapse in the final.

Sandro is the overachiever who always does just a little too much. His charlottes are based around his mother’s banana cake recipe, paired with peanut and caramel. Paul is equally befuddled by the combination of peanut butter and caramel, and both judges are concerned that Sandro won’t finish in time. Overachiever bakers tend not to win (with the exception of Rahul in 2018) but usually get very lucrative gigs post-Bake Off.

Abdul is making “less is more” tiramisu charlottes, and is desperate to finish on time. As the only remaining baker who has not won Star Baker, Abdul is a shoo-in for the underdog storyline, as well as the winner of the “most improved” award. Nadiya (the Greatest and Most Successful Bake Off Winner of All Time) fit into this category, as did 2019’s winner David.

Janusz is making chocolate plum charlottes as a tribute to his favorite childhood candy, flavors Paul and Prue seem excited about. Janusz is clearly the modest yet talented contestant who is meticulous and precise in his baking. Fan favorites like 2015’s Ian and 2021’s Jurgen fit this category, as do winners Giuseppe and Sophie. 

Onto judging! Sandro’s charlottes are deemed to be too rich and strong, but he gets points for a beautiful sponge (Prue even takes some to go). Janusz’s flavors are good, but his chocolate mousse is underset and his sponge is tough. Syabira’s charlottes are deemed to be pretty, if a bit soft, and delicious. Abdul’s tiramisu charlottes don’t have the perfect finish he wanted, but have brilliant textures and flavors.

The technical is a “vertical tart.” What is a vertical tart, you ask? Me too, my friend, me too. If you Google “vertical tart,” NOTHING COMES UP (other than Prue’s recipe). This is ridiculous. All the bakers are understandably befuddled, and poor Sandro gets mixed up with assembling his tarts, which is completely fair, considering the fact that vertical tarts aren’t even a thing. We are far from the land of Misérables Slices and Gateau St. Honoré—both of which are ridiculous challenges, but are at least bakes that ACTUALLY EXIST. 

Sandro’s tarts are broken and messy, and he comes last. Janusz’s pastry is underbaked, and he’s in third. Abdul’s pastry is overbaked and he comes second. Syabira has produced a perfect vertical tart (whatever that means) and she comes first.

Coming into day two, Janusz and Sandro are in trouble. The showstopper is a Swedish kraken (pronounced krah-kon), because the smörgåstårta in Week 3 wasn’t enough Swedish baking ridiculousness for one series. A kraken is essentially a tower of almond biscuits. Why did we not do this challenge in biscuit week, you ask? Your guess is as good as mine.

Syabira, whose day job involves analyzing the human genome, is making DNA in biscuit form. Sandro is baking an elaborate tribute to his African origins and his British upbringing. Janusz’s kraken is titled “Brighton Pride” (it’s gay) and Abdul is making a rocket to honor his passion for astrophysics and humanity’s achievement of getting into space. The point I’m trying to make, dear reader, is that this challenge is ridiculous. It’s a biscuit tower. We do those during biscuit week. The challenge setting this series has been questionable to say the least.

During judging, Abdul’s spaceship is deemed “magnificent” and “clever,” and his biscuits are perfect. Syabira’s showstopper is declared “wonderful,” and it’s an absolutely meticulous bake. Unfortunately, her biscuits are a little overbaked. Janusz’s kraken is critiqued for being untidy, and his biscuits are all either under or overbaked. Sandro’s OTT approach seems to have paid off, despite a broken UK flag. “Africa is raspberry and pistachio” is the type of sentence you’ll only hear on Bake Off. His caramel is deemed burnt, but his biscuits are spot-on. 

In the judges’ pavilion, Janusz and Sandro are still in trouble, and Abdul and Syabira are up for Star Baker. Abdul’s lights-out showstopper edges Syabira’s technical win and he takes his first Star Baker. It’s lovely to see him so thrilled, and he’s certainly peaking at the right time. 

Much to the rage of social media, Janusz is sent home. However, this was probably the right decision—he’s been lagging behind the others for a few weeks, and his showstopper was by far the weakest. The semifinal elimination always hurts, and this was no exception.

Next week, it’s the final. There’s really only one question to ask: will it be Abdul, Sandro or Syabira who lifts the legendary cake plate and claims this year’s Bake Off crown?

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