Cheers, everyone, and welcome to The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition! This week our bakers extend a pinkie in celebration of the refinement and repasts of our neighbors across the pond. Join us, won’t you, as we settle in for English Tea Week!
Normally I would provide a bit more in the way of introduction, but this week each baker (including myself) showed up with TWO entries, so we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Let’s jump right in!
Dan’s Moroccan Orange And Cardamom Cake was a new one for the bakers, as none of us had ever had pastry containing polenta. I’d only heard of polenta. I want to be very clear here; when I say I’d only heard of polenta, that means I had seen the word, I had heard it spoken aloud, and I knew it was some kind of food. That literally was the extent of my knowledge on the subject. I had no clue what it was, but I assumed it was something I would never eat. I’m not usually someone who can be culinarily turned off by something so shallow as linguistics, but I can’t hear the word ‘polenta’ without also hearing ‘poultice’ and ‘placenta.’ Neither of those words conjures up even the smallest part of my appetite, and although I know it’s childish, being reminded of both simultaneously is a deal breaker. The only way I was ever going to consume polenta was if someone cooked it without warning me, then served it to me as part of a competition in which I had already given my word to taste and fairly judge all foods set before me to the best of my ability, without prejudice or bias. Furthermore, it has never occurred to me to tell anyone about any of this, because who the hell sits around and talks about polenta? So Dan could not possibly have known that he was serving me something I would never have freely eaten, and that he was doing so in a way that I was honor bound not to refuse. This wasn’t Dan’s doing. This degree of irony can only be cosmic. Well played, universe. You win this round.
Polenta, it turns out, is just corn. It’s kind of like cornmeal, but not, and kind of like grits, but not. When I find myself in times of nomenclatural trouble, I often turn to the only celebrity I trust to be as anal retentive about getting the right answer as I am: Alton Brown. And while that is usually fruitful, this time it only led to more confusion. I don’t remember the season or episode – to be honest, I don’t even remember what series I was watching – but a good while after this meal I found Alton’s polenta vs. grits segment. I heartily encourage you to look it up. Not because it’s helpful, but because it proves that Alton Brown is some kind of witch. His “explanation” of polenta is so convoluted that it transcends the realm of cooking lessons and reveals itself as a hex designed to subtract information from the human mind. I went in wanting to learn about polenta; I came away not knowing what polenta is, and not at all confident I understand what grits are anymore. It is the only time I’ve ever watched something educational and walked away knowing less than when I started.
The cake itself was… interesting. It wasn’t really like a cake at all, more like coarse cornbread soaked through with a very tasty cardamom orange syrup. I had no issue with the flavors. Most people reading this will have grown up in America, where the flavor of sweetened corn breakfast cereals are ubiquitous. Anyone familiar with the flavor of Frosted Flakes or Corn Pops can easily imagine what it would be like to throw just a hint of spiced orange in the mix. The mild corn flavor pairs very well with the sweetness of the orange; it was almost Christmassy. It was the texture that was odd. No matter how much I worked my jaw, it never quite felt like I was done chewing. We all were slightly put off by the polenta, but I still don’t feel certain that we can blame it solely on Dan. I’ve read recipes that say polenta can be creamy. But I took a nibble of the raw polenta grains that night, just to see what they were like, and I don’t see any way those rather large, rock hard grains could have achieved any smoothness as part of a batter. I think it’s possible whatever recipe Dan used is partly at fault.
We may not have been overly enthused by Dan’s polenta cake, but everyone loved his Ploughman’s Scones. ‘Ploughman’s Scones’ is hands down the most English sounding food I’ve ever heard of. Just look at that beautiful word! No Americanized ‘plow’ here, thank you. In England ‘plow’ is a verb. It’s what you do with a plough. And they’ll have no such generic term as ‘farmer,’ thank you very much. English specificity demands you recognize the role of the ploughman. “Bangers and mash with a pint” might as well be microwaved Tex-Mex compared to the pasty white Englishness of “Ploughman’s Scones.” That’s more British than the Thames.
But don’t let the name fool you. Ploughman’s Scones aren’t just scones; they’re very specific scones made into a very specific type of sandwich. Traditional Ploughman’s Scones, if I understand them correctly, are cheese and thyme scones that hold a filling of thinly sliced apple, a spread of chutney, and a few sprigs of something called cress (or garden cress, or peppergrass to us mutinous Colonials). Wikipedia says cress is a pungent herb related to cabbage and mustard. I’m not sure if Dan actually used cress or if he made a substitution. Apparently cress isn’t grown commercially in the US, and it can’t be dried and shipped because the drying process removes almost all the flavor from the plant. So I’m guessing Dan called an alternate off the bench to play this round. I think he might also have put a little shaved cheese in the sandwich in addition to the cheese baked into the scones. It’s been a while, so I don’t really remember. Whatever it was that he did or didn’t do, I’m perfectly fine with it, because these things were DELIGHTFUL.
Early on, Mandy made it clear that she was using store bought bread for her Cucumber Sandwiches. She asked that we specifically judge her combination of fillings as well as the homemade spread she had made. But when she criticized Dan’s polenta cake, Dan took that as the opening salvo in a war of words. As Mandy reiterated to us that the bread had been purchased instead of home baked, Dan returned fire with, “Do you really call that a ‘bake’?” Damn! I don’t think any of us saw that coming. Mark and I shared a chuckle and sat back contented to watch the coming fireworks while we ate the feuding couple’s food. Mandy is a wily opponent, however, and merely responded with a steely look at Dan that told us there would be no battle today, but the war would be so much the bloodier after Dan’s ignoble sneak attack. Good! I want these two competing for my vote in the kitchen. Mandy is already a seriously impressive cook, and Dan has turned into a powerhouse out of left field. Their food will be all the tastier and more innovative if they both want the win.
Unfortunately for Mandy, the store bought bread ended up being the very thing that made her sandwiches unenjoyable. It was a tough bread, bordering on stale, but the real problem was its sheer volume. As thinly as it was sliced, it was still far too much bread for the amount of filling. Dan and Mandy mix up more homemade dips than anyone I know, so I reasoned that her homemade sandwich spread would almost certainly bring some of that expertise to the table. And unlike Mark and Dan, I am a huge fan of cucumbers. As you can imagine, I was really looking forward to trying a cucumber sandwich for the first time. But I don’t even remember the spread. All I could taste was dry, lifeless, mass-produced bread. Mediocre!
Mandy’s macarons, on the other hand, were an absolute joy to eat. Like cucumber sandwiches, I’d never had a macaron. They always looked like they would be just okay, so I’ve never really given them much thought. And although these were a bit sweet for my taste, they were excellent. Something I never knew about Mandy until we started this competition is how good she is at working with chocolate. Almost all the chocolate confections we’ve ever enjoyed there have been either made by Mandy’s mother or purchased from bakeries. And that’s a real shame, because Mandy’s chocolate game is on point. Bearing that in mind, she probably made a ganache to fill these. Or it may have been Nutella. For all I know it was Nutella ganache. All I know for certain is that I ate more of these than can really be considered wise for an obese diabetic. And I don’t even feel guilty. If carbohydrates are the gun that kills me, I’ll gladly let Mandy be the one to pull the trigger. Lady’s got skills.
Next up we have my Herbed Butter Crackers With Sriracha Salmon Spread. Ugh, my poor, poor crackers. I wanted these to be good so badly. And they were very nearly perfect until I did what all stupid cooks can’t stop themselves from doing; I kept messing with my food. As I have discussed elsewhere, I think my two major downfalls in these competitions are presentation and a misunderstanding of the other judges’ gastronomic comfort zones. I made my crackers first, but although they were crisp (and actually stayed in one piece, unlike my heartbreaking Stovetop Stuffing Crackers from Canapés Week), they tasted like underdone saltines and were not uniform in color. To remedy this I brushed them with a melted compound butter made with parmesan, garlic, oregano, and rosemary, and put them back in the oven until the butter was half baked/half fried into the crackers. And, oh my god, they were good. So good that I probably should have served them by themselves.
But, no, I had to fiddle with it.
If any of you out there are guitar players, then you may be familiar with a very handy invention called the fake book. Simply put, a fake book is a collection of songs, usually compiled by a performer for his or her own use, which have been simplified into their most basic chords. They are designed to be easily read, quickly memorized, altered as needed to suit the performer, and played on the fly. Fake books contain very little of the fine detail and musical flourish you would expect to find in a professional recording. Played in a bar or at a party, however, where catchiness and volume are often more important than technical precision, fake book songs are usually all one guy with a guitar really needs.
When I cook, particularly when I’m pressed for time, I like to use what I think of as fake book recipes. I had already procured the ingredients for salmon mousse, but I’ve never made any kind of mousse before. After spending valuable time correcting my crackers, I knew I didn’t have enough time to learn. The clock was ticking, dinnertime was approaching, and I had to get something on the plate. So I looked over the recipe and fake booked it. I hit the highlights, making it recognizable enough to sing along. It would taste like salmon and be cracker compatible. It had a little hint of sriracha, just to give it a kick. Most importantly, it looked really appealing, which is something I’m trying to improve upon. I had found that the wide end of my collapsible silicone funnel was EXACTLY the same size as my crackers. PERFECT! I think the mark of a good pâtisserie or canapé is uniformity. I realized I could put a cracker in my funnel, apply a thin layer the salmon, then remove the cracker to find a perfect disc of seafood goodness on top, exactly the same every time. It was damned tasty. And since it wasn’t a mousse I could just call it a spread and sidestep all the expecations that come with specific labels. Technically speaking, I was done, and I should have packed up and left for dinner right then.
But, no, I had to fiddle with it.
I wanted just a little more sriracha, just to bump up the flavor and set my dish apart. Unfortunately I used WAY too much. I overestimated how much salmon spread I had in the bowl. As I stirred I watched in horror as the beautiful pink spread got darker and meaner looking. It looked angry. I tried a taste, and although it was a spice level I was personally comfortable with, it was far to hot to serve at a relaxed afternoon tea. But there was nothing more I could do. My time was up. I had turned my delicious buttery crackers into little spice bombs, and I had burned up all my time doing so. Additionally, during the drive they got jostled and overheated, turning my perfect disks into uneven circular blobs. I would have to serve them as they were. Dan immediately found them to be too spicy, and he was correct. I think we all agreed on that account. Both Mark and Mandy very graciously complimented the cracker itself, which was very generous of them. The flavor of the cracker I ate was almost entirely drowned out by the overwhelming sriracha, so I was pleased to know that at least some of it had survived in theirs. To add to my failure, I should have reduced the amount of salmon spread on each cracker, or mounded it in the middle. Bringing it out to the edges made them a mess to eat. I honestly think if I had just served the crackers alone, I might have won this one.
But, no, I had to fiddle with it.
I was a lot happier with my Earl Grey Tea Cakes. I thought since we were doing an English Tea Week there should be some actual English tea in my bakes. As a Star Trek fan, I am of course familiar with Captain Picard’s favorite beverage. I’m also a proud owner of Ethan Phillips’s Star Trek Cookbook, which is where I found the recipe for Earl Grey cake. That’s the appeal of Earl Grey as a Trekkie. As a foodie, however, I have to say I think Earl Grey tea absolutely sucks. Maybe it’s better in England, but I’ve had Earl Grey on many occasions here at home, and it is only improved by adding things to it until you can no longer legitimately call it Earl Grey. It may actually be my least favorite tea. However, it occurred to me while reading the recipe that that the bitter citrus in Earl Grey may benefit from being distributed throughout a sweet cake. I thought this might be a good celebration of English tea, and a good way to sneak a little sci-fi into the competition. I’m happy to report that it absolutely works. The Earl Gray cake recipe in the cookbook is good, if a touch problematic. The flavor of the tea wasn’t mitigated by the cake, it was absolutely lost in it. Baked as written, there may as well not be any tea in the cake at all, and I wanted to taste tea. After a little experimentation I found that using four times the amount of tea leaves the recipe calls for delivers a well balanced Earl Grey flavor. It was all my little cakes needed, but even still it was mild. If you’re looking for a strong Earl Grey presence in the cake, you’re gonna have to kick it up even more than that.
If my memory serves, the recipe calls for a chocolate frosting, but slathering a layer of buttercream frosting on a light afternoon tea cake doesn’t feel very British to me. When you watch the The Great British Baking Show you will see that Brits use a lot more sauces on their desserts than we do. Befitting the ‘English’ and ‘Tea’ in ‘English Tea Week,’ I decided to scrap the frosting and go with a green tea chocolate sauce. Because the idea for this sauce came out of who knows where in the vast, disturbing darkness inside in my head, I didn’t have a recipe. But I know from experience that the whole “chocolate hates water” thing is bogus. Chocolate and water absolutely will combine if you work them enough and heat them very, very gently. My parents went to China a few years back and brought home some authentic Chinese green tea for me. I brewed a little, SLOWLY added semi-sweet chocolate chips, and whisked gently until all the muscles in my arm were on fire. Sincerely, I worked the chocolate and tea until the tendons in my rotator cuff were making an audible crunch. But it was worth it, because if you keep at it and keep the heat low, they WILL combine. This experiment turned out far better than I could have hoped. Green tea and chocolate taste unexpectedly wonderful together, and the sauce was thick enough to firm up on the cake, yet pliable enough to later liquefy over very gentle heat. I was making it up as I went, so I don’t have a recipe to share. I have no idea how much tea or chocolate I used. I don’t even think I added any sugar. Nevertheless, this sauce was simple, delicious, and definitely worth the time to try and replicate it yourself. And it tastes great on Earl Grey cake! Just don’t brew more than a cup or two of green tea unless you plan on drinking it. The sauce doesn’t require a lot.
Last but not in the least least, we have Mark’s Cheddar Scones With Bacon Jam and his Lemon Cake Bites. Normally I would dedicate a paragraph or two to each entry then announce the week’s Star Baker, but I’m going to do things a little differently this time. I’m telling you now that Mark won Star Baker this week, and I’m doing so because it happened for a rather unprecedented reason. To use Mark’s own words, he won Star Baker with a brilliant show of “consistent mediocrity.”
Earlier I wrote that, to me, good pâtisseries or canapés must have uniformity. Same taste, same color, same presentation, and especially the same size. In fact, I would say that uniform size and appearance are really what defines pâtisserie. I could go into any bakery in the world and not look askance at an oddly shaped cookie or slightly off color loaf. In fact, I really enjoy trying different versions of the same baked good, just to see if I find a new preference. I love the variation of a bakery. A pâtisserie, on the other hand, implies precision. Every pâtisserie of the same kind should look like an exact replica of the ones beside it. Yes, it obviously should taste good and be baked correctly, but uniformity is what sets a pâtisserie apart. As such, you can imagine how much the obsessive-compulsive side of me was positively seething at seeing Mark’s bakes. His Lemon Cake Bites are CLEARLY inspired by pâtisseries. And his Cheddar Scones are much too small to be served as a serious English scone. They are little sconelings, very obviously meant to be eaten in one or two bites, like a canapé. But their sizes were all over the place. Some of Mark’s Lemon Cake Bites were so small that I don’t think most bakers would have even bothered to keep them; it would have been more expedient to just scrape them into the trash and move on. Likewise some of his scones were bordering on the size of small biscuits, while others were only a little larger than doughnut holes. But here is Mark’s cleverness; he never presented his cakes as pâtisseries. He never claimed his scones were canapés. Despite the effects he was very obviously going for, he never labeled either of these bakes as anything other than “Bites” or “Scones.” And so I was powerless to hold him to pâtisserie/canapé standards. Mark made his bakes unassailable by simply keeping his mouth shut and refusing to define specifics.
Of course, semantics alone won’t get you the win, not at our competitions. Your food has to hold up. Mark’s Cheddar Scones With Bacon Jam were good. They were by no means exceptional, but they were good. I was surprised by the bacon jam. I assumed that anything called ‘bacon jam’ would have to be either amazing or repulsive, but it was just fine. Nothing wrong with it. If I got it in a restaurant I wouldn’t send it back, but I wouldn’t have found it memorable enough to order again, either. It was just solidly okay. In fact, that’s how I would describe every part of Mark’s bakes this week: solidly okay. His Lemon Cake Bites had an agreeable lemon taste and the glaze was well executed, if not particularly remarkable. His scones had enough cheddar flavor to justify the inclusion in the name, but were nothing special. He had made agreeable food, but not great food.
So how did he end up as Star Baker? Easy: he didn’t screw anything up. If you put either of Mark’s bakes in the ring against my tea cakes, Mandy’s macarons, or Dan’s Ploughman’s Scones, Mark would never have stood a chance. By Mark’s own admission, any of those three bakes on their own would have edged out either of his. But those bakes weren’t on their own. Dan, Mandy, and I had each managed to produce one really good bake. But we had Dan’s polenta weirdness, Mandy’s dry, store bought bread, and my disastrous salmon spread dragging us down. Mark, on the other hand, backed up one solidly okay bake with another equally solidly okay bake. Mark didn’t make any major blunders, while the rest of us had each made something that, if you’ll excuse the pun, left a bad taste in the mouths of all the other judges. Despite how much it irked me to have to vote for Mark’s chaotically sized foods, I had no choice but to cast my vote his way. And the others agreed, making Mark this week’s Star Baker! Well done, Mark! Please join us next time when we get a little weird with it and make bakes dedicated to everyone’s favorite Wyld Stallyn. That’s right, next week is Keanu Reeves Week!
Until next time, bon appétit!