For the past few months I have been ever-so-slightly glued to watching the institution that is the Great British Bake Off.
As this most recent series unfolded I took to recreating each and every technical challenge that the contestants were set – one a week for ten weeks.
Now, I love to cook, but I’ve never really been much of a Great British Bake Off (GBBO) fan – until now!
I hadn’t planned to follow the technical challenges but on week one, the bakers were tasked with making Wagon Wheels. Like many people I’m sure, the Wagon Wheel for me is synonymous with childhood so I was marginally tempted to give them a go.
A few days later a friend of mine posted a photo of her attempt at the squishy-chocolatey-crunchy-biscuit on her Facebook page and that tipped the balance and sent me into the kitchen.
Inspired by the journey of making this beautiful biscuit, I vowed to take up the challenge of following, week-by-week, the programme’s technical challenges.
For those of you who haven’t seen GBBO the format is simple. Each week the bakers are set the task of a different baking skill and are tested across three challenges – and they get progressively harder as the weeks go by! The three challenges are – a signature bake (to test creativity), a technical bake (which is unknown to them until the day) and finally a showstopper bake (a test of skill and talent).
The technical challenge is intended to be a tricky one as the bakers are given the recipe on the day and have no idea what it will be, so there’s no chance for preparation – the recipe details are also often scant.
Luckily for me the full recipes are made available each week.
The technical challenges were:
- Week One – Biscuit Week – Wagon Wheels
- Week Two – Cake Week – Le Gateaux Vert
- Week Three – Bread Week – Naan Bread with Garlic Ghee
- Week Four – Dessert Week – Raspberry Blancmange with Langues de Chat
- Week Five – Spice Week – Ma’amoul
- Week Six – Pastry Week – Puits d’Amour
- Week Seven – Vegan Week – Vegan Tropical Pavlova
- Week Eight – Danish Week – Aebleskiver
- Week Nine – Patisserie Week – Torta Setteveli
- Week Ten – The Final – Campfire Pitta Breads
This is how they all panned out:
- Wagon Wheels – Two plain biscuits sandwiched with marshmallow, jam and coated in chocolate.
They look a long time to make and the recipe included homemade jam and homemade marshmallow. On the afternoon I made them I wrote ‘I can tell you for sure that I wouldn’t last a minute on GBBO. Making a batch of Wagon Wheels in my own kitchen nearly sent me over the edge’ (looking back it was one of the easier challenges!). However, I learnt a lot of new skills and they looked the part. I will even forgive the fact that there was enough mess in the kitchen afterwards to test even the most keenest of cleaners. With the first bite I was swept back to primary school and my delicious packed lunches, only these were a little more grown up!
Would I make them again: Yes, without doubt.
- Le Gateaux Vert – Apparently this was Claude Monet’s favourite birthday cake. It’s a genoise sponge covered in crème au beurre, pistachio marzipan and fondant icing.
Making this was a journey. For a start I had to order 500g of pistachio nuts (they’re not cheap these days I can tell you – the cake cost £12 in nuts alone!) I set aside a Sunday afternoon to tackle this bake – which became the day of choice for my technical challenges. I embedded myself in the kitchen and took a cool, calm approach to, what at the time felt a bit overwhelming. I’m used to making lemon drizzle cakes and shortbread, so this was in another realm completely. Maybe it was this approach that helped in the production of (even thought I may say it myself) a fairly flawless cake. The genoise was light and fluffy (it was the first time I’d attempted to make one), the crème au beurre was silky, the marzipan crunchy and flavoursome helping to create a rich and decadent cake.
Would I make this again: I’ve been told this is now my husband’s birthday cake of choice, so yes!
- Naan Bread and Garlic Ghee – Unlike traditional naan that is leavened with yeast, this recipe uses baking powder to cut down production time.
I found these much more difficult to make than Le Gateaux Vert, even though they were ten times quicker to turn out – but this probably has more to do with my grill than the recipe. I make naan breads fairly frequently but tend to use yeast instead of baking powder. I served these with cauliflower, onion and tomato curry and hard boiled eggs in a spicy cream sauce (sounds dubious but is divine). They were garlicky, buttery and light.
Would I make them again: Yes, they are a curry essential.
- Raspberry Blancmange with Langues de Chat – A gorgeous take on a 1970s classic.
I was dreading making this but, for me, it was the most enjoyable challenges to date. When the task was revealed a lot of people told me how much they detested blancmange as it reminded them of rubbery school-dinner desserts. It was simple to make but turning it out did slightly stress me out (I am easily stressed and wanted it to be perfect!). All was well and it looked bright and cheerful. The buttery, langues de chat biscuits were simple to make and pipe out. They were dipped in white chocolate and served alongside the blancmange. The biscuits melted in your mouth and the blancmange was full of flavour – raspberry and almond – neither lasted very long.
Would I make this again: Absolutely.
- Ma’amoul – These buttery pastries originate from the Levantine region of the Middle East – half of the batch were filled with sticky date paste and the other with chopped walnuts and orange blossom.
These were fairly easy to make. I was dubious about the recipe when I made it as the pastry is laden with rose water, but the fillings are flavour bed-fellows. However, the resultant taste was dominated by rose to the extent that it was overpowering everything else which was a pity. Any re-bake would need adjusting dramatically.
Would I make them again: Probably not, but the method would lend itself well to a more simplified bake using shortcrust pastry.
- Puits d’Amour (Wells of Love) – Rough puff pastry, berry compote, crème patissiere and choux pastry.
Where do I start? They took a very long time to make. Although there were a number of elements I can honestly say that the finished bake was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever eaten – no exaggeration! I made the rough puff pastry and the compote the day before I made them to save a bit of time. I quickly discovered – with the first bite – that they absolutely must be eaten as soon as they are assembled, which was a shame as we had eight!
Would I make them again: Yes, yes, yes.
- Vegan Tropical Pavlova – Instead of egg whites this uses aquafaba (chick pea water).
I totally understand why many of the bakers struggled with vegan week. My attempt at a vegan pavlova was disastrous! While I know some people may enjoy a vegan meringue it’s not a patch on a traditional meringue. If I were vegan I’d have so much respect for each and every vegan dessert or cake I ate. Let’s be honest, if you’re not used to it, cooking without eggs is a hassle. I’m afraid to say I will remain a fan of the goey stickness and unmistakable crunch of a good old egg meringue. Ok, so I didn’t have the right piping nozzle to make my attempt pretty but as soon as it cooled it collapsed and there was no way it was going to hold the coconut cream and fruit. The meringue was almost tasteless apart from a hint of vanilla, it was brilliantly white but it was sticky (in a bad way) in the centre.
Would I make it again: Absolutely not.
- Aebleskiver – These Danish pastries are cooked on the hob in a special pan with hollows.
I love Danish bakes, enough said. These are a cross between a pancake and a Yorkshire pudding – what’s not to love?! These puffy and light little Danish beauties are filled with spiced apple and are delicious straight from the pan. These really proved that the challenges were getting more tricky. I started by putting the batter into five hollows on the pan and quickly realised that the pan was too hot and five was more than I could manage at once. You pour the mixture into the hollows and once they start to firm on the edges you use two chopsticks to turn the batter by 90 degrees before quickly placing the apple and cinnamon filling in a hole that magically appears in the centre of the mixture – before turning it over another 90 degrees to seal the hole. You have to be quick or the batter hardens and the filling remains on the outside of the batter. The first five were burnt on the outside and uncooked in the middle. I started making one at a time to perfect the method – and getting the pan to the right heat – before cooking the rest of the batch.
Would I l make them again: Yes.
- Torta Setteveli – This is traditionally served at birthday celebrations in the city of Palermo in Sicily. There are seven layers of chocolate and hazelnut in a variety of different ways (settevelli is Italian for ‘seven veils’). It includes genoise sponge, sugar syrup, praline, hazelnut bavarois, chocolate mousse and mirror glaze.
Crikey, I set aside a whole day for this, I started at noon and finished at 4.30pm as the light was fading. I’ve never known a cake to use so much double cream (there’s about a litre in this). My attempt certainly isn’t pretty but it was tasty. I learnt a lot making this and boy is it rich. I had issues with the genoise sponge (it isn’t light and fluffy) and the mirror glaze (it’s too rubbery) but I was super proud of my effort. In week one I would have buckled at the thought of making this but by week nine I felt up for the challenge. Three quarters of it went into the freezer – it freezes relatively well – and chunks are taken out as a treat every now and then!
Would I make it again: Yes, for a special occasion.
- Campfire Pitta Breads – I went all out for the final challenge. The pitta breads – cooked outside on an open fire – were accompanied by three dips, the vegetables for which were all cooked on the fire.
I found a corner of concrete in the yard and set up a ring of bricks to make the fire within. I used oak wood felled on the farm and after about 90 minutes the fire had died down to dark, even coals which was perfect for cooking the vegetables – aubergine, garlic, onion, pepper and chilli. It was then time for the pitta breads – I found an old slate to place on the coals and when it was hot enough I placed the pitta rounds onto it. The slate could have been hotter so they took a while to cook but they puffed up and cooked evenly without burning. We enjoyed them the same evening with the three dips – burnt pepper salsa, babaganoush and smoked garlic salsa verde. There’s something really wonderful about cooking outside, the rewards of your labour taste so much better!
Would I make them again: Yes, on every campfire!
My journey through the last ten weeks has really taught me a lot – I have new skills, I’m not afraid to try a challenging new bake, I’ve learnt to take the postivies from things that don’t go so well and try again. I’ve realised how much work goes into beautiful bakes and more importantly I want to continue baking and learning.
Now that GBBO is over I do feel slightly lost without the discipline of the weekly challenge. But I have vowed to set myself weekly challenges going forward, on my list so far I have Cornish pasties, Bakewell tart, Scotch eggs, Danish pastries, a variety of breads and more, many more cakes. All suggestions gratefully received.