Sometimes the stars are set to do anything but align.
And so it was as I attempted to make this week’s Great British Bake Off technical challenge.
As week eight of the competition rolled into town we were down to five contestants.
It was pastry week, the doyenne of the show.
Paul Hollywood set the challenge – a Moroccan-style pie, it sounded right up my street.
The key to success was consistency, apparently it really mattered – doesn’t it always!?
The Moroccan pie was made using warka (or brick) pastry – a fine, crisp pastry that starts life as a batter-esque mixture. The batter is spread on a chapatti pan and cooked to create thin sheets of pastry which are then layered together before cooking.
Too thin and the pastry disintegrates in the cooking process, too thick and they stick to the pan – and each other.
For this challenge we needed to make 12 very thin sheets which would be used to wrap a filling packed with typical Moroccan ingredients and flavours – chicken, butternut squash, sweet potato, ras el hanout, harissa, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, dates, apricots, chickpeas and lemon.
It was a generous pie and one fit to feed an army.
I started the process at about 5pm at night, we would feast on it for supper.
The pastry was a breeze to make but not so much to cook.
I thinly spread the batter on the oiled chapatti pan (which was placed over a pan of simmering water) and waited patiently for it to start curling up at the edges – but curl it did not.
It stuck steadfast to the pan.
I persevered, swapping the pan for something a little more non-stick – a frying pan – and spread a new layer of batter across this.
Stick it did.
I tried again, this time putting the pan directly on the hob.
Attempt three was more successful, I had something that vaguely resembled a layer of pastry but was incredibly brittle and shattered at the slightest of touches.
This dish was to be our supper – it had to work someway or another (there was no plan B).
The answer? It had to be filo pastry.
I dashed five miles into my nearest town hoping my local Co-op would save the day – they didn’t. There was puff pastry and shortcrust pastry galore but not a dot of filo to be had.
I called all the supermarkets I could think of within a ten mile radius and none of them came to the rescue.
Why was filo pastry so difficult to find?
I briefly contemplated the 15-mile drive to Norwich but quickly got over that.
For me, the perks of living in the countryside far outweigh the downsides but, as it began to get dark at 5.45pm on a miserably grey and wet day, I longed to be in a supermarket where a (strangely rare) packet of filo pastry sat on the shelf in front of me.
I arrived home and had a stern talk with myself – this could wait until tomorrow.
I pulled together a simple pasta supper – tuna, anchovies, kalamata olives, garlic and tomatoes – and grabbed a glass of Gewürztraminer wine.
As luck would have it I was due to be in Norwich the next day so I diligently drove to a vast supermarket to track down some elusive filo pastry – there were only two packs, I bought them both.
Maybe those stars were starting to align.
Arriving home at 7pm I began to cook (not bake).
Making the filling was glorious – simply because the combination of ingredients was mouth-wateringly good, but maybe also because I think I’m a better cook than I am a baker.
There was sweet potato, chicken thighs, homegrown butternut squash, ras el hanout, onions, garlic, harissa, fennel, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, tamarind, dates, apricots, chickpeas, coriander, parsley and lemon.
Different elements of the dish were cooked in different ways and left to cool before being assembled – it took a lot of willpower not to pick at it.
I felt like cheat as I layered the sheets of filo pastry (brushed with melted butter) into a 23cm spring-form tin – in a baking challenge the only element I had failed at was the baking.
In reality I was probably being too harsh on myself, it wasn’t really a fail – I’d tried the best I could with the knowledge and equipment I had to hand. I consoled myself with the fact that given time and practice I could master this, it was of course a specialist pastry that you couldn’t expect to knock out perfectly at the first attempt (even if some of the contestants had). Life isn’t about marking your fails but giving things a go.
But, onward and upwards – in went the combined filling before scrunched layers of filo were placed on top.
It went into the oven and after 15 minutes the aromas of Morocco flooded into the kitchen.
After 30 minutes it was time to take it out.
For a dish that had caused quite a lot of activity I bloody well hoped it would be worth it.
It was Tuesday night, it was 8.15pm and we sat down to eat it with the semi-finals of Bake Off for company.
I took my first bite and relief washed over me – it had been worth it.
The spices were warming and comforting, the texture was soft and crunchy, the flavours were fruity, earthy and fragrant – all I needed was an accompaniment of sunshine.
My relief was short lived – the next technical challenge was announced in the background – Prue was sending us from Morocco to France to make Gâteau Saint Honoré (puff pastry, creme chilboust, choux pastry, caramel and creme Chantilly).
There was nowhere else we could have been heading – it was of course patisserie week.
For this I’d need to invite some hungry friends round – it was gargantuan.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, had I been on the show I’d have cracked weeks before now – thank goodness I’m still in the safety of my own kitchen…