This week I studiously sat down at 8pm to watch The Great British Bake Off – in the spirit of a keen student I sat there, notepad and pen in hand.
Having decided to bake along with the show this year, I felt that taking notes was a surefire way to success.
My previous three bakes had been OK but there was a lot of room left for improvement – taking notes was bound to make me remember the top tips that are were revealed throughout the course of the technical challenge – from both the judges and contestants.
It was a new way of working but one I had great faith in.
Pen poised the technical challenge was revealed – Maids of Honour.
Maids of what?
Apparently they were a favourite of Henry VIII who preferred them served at tea time whist at Hampton Court Palace.
It all sounded rather wonderful. Being dairy week I’d been expecting the challenge to be Portuguese custard tarts but this was so much more regal!
Then I found out what the process of making them involved.
Filled with lemon curd.
Topped with sweetened curd cheese.
Decorated with an icing sugar Tudor rose.
There was one element of the tart that slightly put me off – sweetened curd cheese – I didn’t really know what that was.
I knew that Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey but the ingredient is not as widely used today in baking as it once was.
It turns out that making curd is very simple. Curds and whey are traditionally products of cheese making. Very simply you curdle warmed milk by adding vinegar and wait for the magic to happen – the curd and whey split and you’re left with two ingredients.
For the tarts the curd is left to drain for more than 30 minutes before being added to lemon zest, sugar and eggs (whisking incessantly until smooth) to form the main bulk of the filling.
But, back to my notes.
- Prue said “All the elements are equally important”
- The lemon curd should be lemony
- The cheese curd should be silky smooth
- They should be well risen
- The puff pastry should be flaky
- I also made a note of contestant Henry’s reaction to the task – “I haven’t made curd before, I haven’t made puff pastry before – hell!” – He’s already my favourite baker.
I set aside time on Sunday to attempt the task for which the bakers had been given two and a half hours.
I started with the curd cheese which was very straightforward to make and while the curds were draining I tackled the pastry – puff pastry.
I’ve made it a few times, but I’ve almost always lost a little bit of butter from it – which in the world of baking is disastrous. As I know from my interview for The Great British Bake Off, they key to great puff pastry is lamination.
In the interview one of the questions I was asked was What’s the key to making puff pastry?
Puff pastry is a flaky light pastry made from laminated dough. Frozen butter is grated on an oblong of dough which is repeatedly folded, chilled and rolled before being baked. It takes time and precision – and I had that, I was going to get it right this time.
This process alone takes 75 minutes in elapsed time.
In between I prepped my lemon curd – who knew it was so easy to make? Mix butter, sugar, lemon zest and juice in a bain-marie and then add an egg – whisk until custard-like, pass through a sieve and cool (this will now be a regular condiment for toast in our house).
At this point I realised that I was missing a vital piece of equipment – a 12-hole muffin tray – eeek! Normally I read the ingredients and equipment list thoroughly but this time I had slacked and had forgotten to cast my eye down the equipment list.
I battled on with a 12-hole bun tin (yes, there is a huge difference) and was annoyed that I wouldn’t get the depth of tart Prue was so keen on – but needs must.
I whacked the oven on to 230C fan (the hottest I’ve ever had it at) and prepped the pastry.
I was feeling good – as I rolled out the pastry there didn’t seem to be any butter oozing out of the sides and sticking to the rolling pin – maybe this would work?
The rounds varied in thickness but being puff pastry I couldn’t rework it so I stuck with what I had.
I delicately placed the pastry rounds in the tin, making sure not to puncture the pastry and lined them with parchment and baking beans.
They were meant to bake for 20 minutes – which seemed an awfully long time at such a high heat. My oven is a hot one – I know that sounds ridiculous but I’ve become accustomed to its intensity so I knocked the temperature down to 210C and cooked them for 12 minutes.
They looked just as Prue had hoped – flaky.
Reducing the oven to 160C I added the lemon curd to the blind-baked tartlets and topped with curd cheese filling before placing them back into the oven for 12 minutes.
I used this time to lovingly craft a Tudor rose stencil. I wanted it to be beautiful – it might have been the only part of the dish that was!
Opening the oven, I felt ever-so-slightly joyous, the pastry was still golden and flaky and the filling had risen – it wasn’t the hell that Henry and I had envisaged.
I popped them onto a cooling rack and stared at them (mouth agape, I won’t lie). The pastry had a form of lamination that I’d never achieved before. That alone made my day.
Now, they weren’t particularly pretty or uniform – but neither were any of the contestants’ efforts.
This was a technical challenge that had stumped most of them on the show – to the point where Paul Hollywood mockingly pretended to walk away from their efforts when they were presented for judging.
The success of mine was all going to depend on the taste – if the curd was lumpy, or even cheesy, it was game over.
I dusted my icing sugar over the stencil on top of the tarts, in a flurry of anticipation.
I took a deep breath and took a bite – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the only time I’ve come close to a food-gasm is while tucking into Puits D’Amour (rounds of rough puff pastry topped with a circle of choux pastry and filled with strawberry compote and creme patisserie), but this was a close second.
The pastry was flaky and crisp, the lemon curd was tangy and fresh and the curd cheese was smooth and fluffy – they were so light they felt almost healthy.
They might not have had the depth that a muffin tin would have given them but I was proud none-the-less.
Would I make them again – most definitely (given time).
Were they difficult to make – no, but they needed time and patience. This is not a bake to rush.
Were they worth it – hell, yes.
What would Paul and Prue think – optimistically I’d like to think I’d be in the top third!
At this point, I felt like I was back on track – this was the first technical challenge that had pretty much gone to plan and where the final bake was almost spot on.
Let’s see what next week brings – the theme is the roaring twenties.
Your guess is as good as mine…