The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition, Episode 13 – Keanu Reeves Week

Welcome, dudes and dudettes, to a totally triumphant episode of The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition! Five score and, like, some extra amount of days ago, our intrepid bakers were brought forth upon a most excellent culinary adventure to produce their finest tributes to everyone’s favorite Wyld Stallyn. Now, without further ado, we give you Keanu Reeves Week! Let’s feast!

I’m not sure where Mandy got the idea for a Keanu Reeves inspired bake off. To tell the truth, I’m not even sure it was Mandy who came up with the idea. It seems to me the idea had been floating around the group for a while, but Mandy’s was the first voice I heard say the words, so we’ll say this was Mandy’s baby.

There is no shortage of pictures of Keanu Reeves eating online, mostly snapped when he’s looking sad and lonely. Keanu seems to live in a melancholy world of culinary gloom. Keanu himself has gone on record as saying “You need to be happy to live, I don’t.” That’s fairly dark for a man who wrote a book called Ode To Happiness, but if Keanu Reeves wants to be self-contradictory, I say we let him. He looks too depressed to pick on.

Of all the pictures of Keanu swallowing his feelings, about 50% of the ones I dug up feature pizza. My very favorite Keanu Reeves pizza pic is the one above. First of all, once the cameras have stopped rolling, I think Keanu is probably a pretty likable guy, so it’s good to seem him with a little more life in his eyes. And clearly his depression has not diminished his appetite, judging by the whole pizza in front of him. But what makes me love this is the knife and fork. This is not a man who sat down to have a casual slice. He brought out tools. This man means business. He’s about to John Wick that pizza, and the extra spark he’s showing makes me think he feels pretty good about it.

Mandy seemed to likewise feel pretty good about her Pizza Margherita, an ode to what appears to be one of Keanu’s favorite foods. And it was very tasty. The problem was that it was cold. Mandy correctly pointed out that her dish was ready on time, and we men were the ones holding up dinner. Guilty as charged. But while that statement is absolutely true, it didn’t really hold much water as a defense. I have often overlooked Mark’s bakes when they occasionally fall somewhat on the cool side. After all, Mark and I have to bake, pack our food, drive 30+ minutes, then try to finish or reheat our food when we arrive, assuming that Dan and Mandy are done with the ovens. Our food is likely to be either soggy from being packed hot, or dried from the time spent in the car. Either way, our bakes are almost always cooler or warmer than we would like. But Mandy lives there. She has a microwave, a gas cook top, and TWO ovens at her disposal. Her food was on the table FAR earlier than it needed to be. She could have warmed these things up.

And it really is a shame she chose not to give them a little heat before serving, because her flavors were spot on. The shapes, however, were… inexplicable. That’s the only word that fits. I sincerely don’t understand the differences in size of these pizzas, nor to I know exactly what to call the mutated trifurcated shape of the large one. Why did she do this? My brain tells me that she was trying for a shamrock shape, which represents the Trinity, which is the name of a character in The Matrix, which completes it’s connection to Keanu. That seems like a real stretch, but it’s the only thing I can think of. Which doesn’t explain why the little one is kinda sort round, or why it even exists. Was it an accident? A pizza shuttlecraft departing the main dish? Does pizza reproduce by budding, and Mandy just happened to capture it after it split? Or has Mandy simply lost her goddamned mind, as is evidenced by the fact that she was captured on camera cutting pizza with scissors? I suspect I will never have satisfactory answers to these questions. But as ugly as these things are, her flavors were hard to argue with. They were just allowed to cool for too long, turning what I could tell was once perfectly crispy crust into a hard dough disc that was difficult to bite through. My hope is that some day Mandy will call a do-over on these pizzas and I’ll get to try them hot out of the oven, because they really were very tasty.

Like Mandy, Mark chose pizza as his tribute to The One. Here we have his Steak & Arugula Pizza, which relates to Keanu Reeves because of… reasons, I suppose. I did find this pic of Keanu shoving a softball sized wad of salad greens into his mouth. Maybe there was arugula in that. Maybe Mark was making a subtle nod to Cypher’s steak scene in The Matrix. Or, as I’m starting to suspect, maybe this pizza just had nothing at all do with Keanu Reeves whatsoever, and Mark was making use of the same pizza dough which he has been using for everything he bakes lately. Actually, I’m going to say it was none of the above. I think it’s far more appropriate to declare this pizza an homage to John Wick: Chapter 2, and I’ll make the case for that shortly. First, let’s talk about eggs.

Mark did something I’ve heard about but have never personally tried; he salt-cured egg yolks and used them as a cheese substitute. Egg yolks, like cheese, are largely made of fat, so it stands to reason that condensing them would produce something not unlike a cheese curd. The result was definitely cheesy, but a touch too salty for my taste when eaten directly. Based on Mark’s experiment, I wouldn’t recommend salt-cured egg yolks as a stand alone snack. As a pizza topping, however, the salt was a lovely addition which brought out the flavors of the slice as a whole. There’s definitely a hint of egginess about them, but what do you expect? They’re eggs. But they’re also distinctly cheesy. If you or anyone you know is lactose intolerant and craves a salty cheese substitute, salt-cured egg yolks are the closest thing I’ve tasted to actual cheese. I look forward to trying salt-cured egg yolks in/on future dishes, and I definitely consider Mark’s experiment a success.

His pizza, however, not so much. In John Wick: Chapter 2, when John refuses to honor the marker held by Santino D’Antonio, Santino burns down Wick’s house in retaliation. Remember the aftermath, how nearly everything was scorched to a deep, irreparable black? That is how the bottom of Mark’s pizza looked. Worse, it was how it tasted. Mark is an excellent cook, and he usually has a good sense of which ingredients compliment one another. But sometimes – and I can’t for the life of me figure out why – he will put together a tasty, nicely balanced dish and then bake the ever loving shit out of it. It’s like he’s not so much trying to cook his food as sterilize it. It even happened in our competition; back in Episode 4 his gingerbread was beautiful but dry throughout and burnt tasting on the bottom. I’ve had my share of stone baked pizzas, and a little burn comes with the territory, but this was too much. Had it not been for the unpalatable, gritty carbon char on the crust, Mark’s pizza would have had my vote. He puts together a good pie.

“But I did ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.’ They made a cereal out of it, so once you’ve had a cereal, it doesn’t get much more surreal than that. Surreal cereal.” – Keanu Reeves

When trying to devise a recipe for this bake, my initial inclination was to research Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal that was made back in the day. But, looking back, I’m not sure I ever actually had it. It’s got mini marshmallows so it’s definitely something I would have eaten, and the idea of Bill & Ted being associated with crunchy cinnamon sounds right in my head, but I’m failing to experience any actual memories of eating it. Some cereals, like my beloved and sorely missed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cereal, were so good they transcended their tie-in properties and left me with lifelong cravings. Ninja Turtles cereal was phenomenal, and I almost wish it hadn’t been associated with a franchise, because when the Turtles’ popularity sagged the cereal went away. If it had been an independent product I firmly believe they would still me making it today. It was that good. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, however, is not pressing any of my buttons. Either I had it and it was forgettable, or I never tried it. Either way, I’m not one for forced, fake nostalgia, so I would find my flavor inspiration elsewhere.

Keanu is a pretty fit guy, so I wasn’t surprised that it was kind of difficult to find something that would appeal to his sweet tooth. Fortunately, Keanu is also a pretty open guy, and he dropped the info above when he took part in a Reddit AMA about five years ago. I’m not a fan of sweet breakfast foods early in the morning. My morning meals tend to be very flavorful and spicy; lamb korma at maximum spice over basmati rice with a little red onion chutney and generous side of tabbouleh to be scooped up with garlic naan is basically my idea of breakfast heaven. It really doesn’t get much better than that. But roughly half of all American breakfast foods are basically dessert, and it’s just too much sugar in the morning. Later in the evening, however, when the sun is long set and night is well established, when dinner has settled and it’s time to binge watch Ash vs. Evil Dead, THEN give me some buttery flapjacks with boysenberry syrup, or a bowl of Raisin Bran Crunch. Breakfast sucks for breakfast, but it’s a wonderful late night snack. As soon as I read Keanu’s waffle comment, I knew it needed to be my dessert.

I present to you my Keanupés. My goal was to create a single bite dessert that would appeal to Keanu on all levels, so that on the off chance he and I ever become surfing buddies but he’s still not totally sure about me, my Keanupés will give us that last little nudge that pushes us into super best friends forever territory, and I will be the one he asks to help him rob banks and skydive and stuff. I’ve never seen Point Break but that’s what the commercials made it look like he was into. Anyway, I started my Keanupés with a confession to the other bakers which I will now share with you: I bought the waffles. I’m sorry, but I don’t like crap cooking devices in my house, and if you want to buy a quality, heavy duty waffle iron, that’s going to cost you at least a hundred bucks. What’s more, it’s going to be a bulky, heavy, hard to clean waste of space after you buy it. That’s more of an investment than I’m willing to make for a single dessert. I eat a waffle maybe once every five years. I’m not buying a machine which I will use, at most, twice a decade, but which will clutter up my kitchen every damned day. Besides, I sprung for Eggo Nutri-Grain, so, you know… shut up. They’re quality waffles.

I cut my multi-grain waffles down into bite sized pieces and toasted them very gently until they were crisp but not completely browned. After they cooled I topped them with a hand whipped maple syrup compound butter I made from a combination of American and Canadian maple syrups to honor Keanu’s multinational heritage. As you can hopefully see, I was careful to leave the outer edges of the waffle’s divots intact. In case my compound butter broke, I wanted to err on the side of maximum syrup containment. Real maple syrup is delightful and it belongs in my mouth, not on the plate.

Atop the compound butter I placed strips of very lightly peppered candied bacon and a single banana slice. The second biggest take away from this dessert is that candied bacon is a lot easier to make than I assumed it would be. It is really worth your time, and is absolutely delicious. Just let it cool to room temperature before you try to cut it or it will stick to your knife and be nigh impossible to work with. That was the second biggest take away.

The biggest take away is that Mark Allen Mains is a goddamned diva. I have known Mark for about 30 years now, and I’ve seen him eat all manner of disgusting foods, usually of his own creation. Two of the foulest things I’ve ever tasted in my life were cooked recently by Mark. The first was a thoroughly burned pizza, far more burnt than his entry in this week’s bake off, atop of which Mark saw fit to place about a quarter of an inch of the slimiest, most repellent spinach I have ever encountered. I’ve never smelled a pizza that actually stank until Mark opened the oven and revealed this monstrosity. And as repulsive as the smell was, the taste was even worse. The spinach had cooked down to a literal slime. Nothing reminiscent of plant life remained of the spinach save for the swampy reek of rotted biomass and the lifeless, drab olive green color. It was stinking snot on a carbon disk, like something only Shrek would eat. It was literally nauseating. I had to stop myself from gagging when I took a bite. Yet Mark wolfed down three slices like the goddamned Tasmanian Devil.

The Prosecution enters into evidence this photograph of the Defendant striking a pose while wearing a t-shirt printed with a different photograph of him striking a different pose. We submit this proves beyond reasonable doubt that the Defendant is, in fact, a diva, and we move to adjourn to the sentencing phase. The Prosecution rests.

Some time later Mark made pasta into which he placed cubes of some sort of cheese that reeked even worse than his spinach “pizza” did. When I took a bite I was struck by a flavor not unlike a combination of the odors of meat that has gone bad and the shoes of an athlete who has lost numerous sets of toenails to a deeply embedded and altogether untreated fungal infection. I’ve had strong cheeses before and I’ve enjoyed some of them. But this was beyond the pale. Maybe on its own it would have been tolerable, but as part of a salted dish containing a tomato based sauce, it was repugnant. I wasn’t alone in this thinking either, because Mark’s son commented on the stench, and even Mark himself withdrew momentarily when he first tasted it. I asked him if he was sure it hadn’t gone bad, and that’s when Mark gave an answer that made it clear where his thinking was. He asked if I could feel the stinging sensation on my tongue that indicates the presence of toxins created by a living bacterial colony. He didn’t mind that the taste was intolerable and that the cheese had made the whole dish smell like a wet dumpster in August. His only criteria for judging whether the dish was “good” was if it was causing enough pain to indicate that it was actively rotting. I stopped eating right then, and TO THIS DAY whenever Mark makes pasta his six year old son asks him not to use that cheese again. I don’t even remember what the cheese was called, but I will always remember that it scarred a child. That’s how bad it was. Yet Mark kept eating, more and more furiously, like it was his last few minutes in the chocolate factory and Willy Wonka was coming to take his gum away.

There’s a reason I bring all this up. Longtime readers may remember that I was a bit salty ( <– cooking pun!) when Mandy spat out my mushroom dish back in Episode 11. I get that she does not enjoy the texture of mushrooms, nor the flavor and aroma of Parmesan. I didn’t know that when I made the dish, but I understand that now. But my perspective is this: you’re an adult. You know whether or not you can handle the food in front of you. We all explain to the group what our bakes are made of before anyone takes a bite. There were no surprises hidden in my dish. If you can’t stomach something, don’t put it in your mouth. But once you’ve committed to taking the bite, take the damn bite. You forked it, you cut it, you lifted it to your lips, and you put it in your mouth. Just eat it. It’s just food. Was it the best dish in the world? No, not remotely. It was roundly rejected by the other bakers, as it should have been. It was an utter failure of a bake, and I freely admit that. But if I can force down two or three forkfuls of her painfully acidic balsamic carrots, and if she can endure the stinging chemical weapon that was Mark’s Poison Cranberry Deathtart, then I feel that she could have handled a single small bite of mushroom, no matter how objectionable she found it to be. If it was going to be that much of an issue, JUST DON’T EAT IT. But if I thought Mandy’s spit take was over the top, well, my friends, I assure you that I had seen NOTHING like what happens when Dame Mains treads the boards.

As I said before, I’ve known Mark for about 30 years now. I’ve been privy to his wants and desires, I’ve cataloged the scant few things that bring him lasting contentment, and I’ve been witness to the thousands upon thousands of things that have born him outsized irritation. And in all those years, never ONCE have I heard of his dislike of bananas. Not once in 30 years has his displeasure with one of the fruits most common to the shared American palate arisen. I’m actually pretty sure I’ve seen him eat bananas on more than one occasion, devouring them with great gusto and furious intensity, like a starving gorilla in a third world zoo. I’m CERTAIN of it. But somehow, when I serve him a single, thin, freshly cut slice of banana, perfectly firm and ripened to perfection, suddenly they are his lifelong textural nemeses.

Kryptonite.

The first thing I heard from Mark as he bit into his Keanupé was a plaintive, suppressed glottal vocalization. It wasn’t the sound of someone gagging. It was the sound someone makes when they want to sound like they’re gagging. I looked to my left to see that Mark Mains had disappeared entirely, and in his place sat Blanche DuBois, clutching her pearls in dismay. No, really, he was literally clutching at his upper chest where a necklace would hang. He took in a labored and dramatic breath, as if surfacing from the wreckage of a sunken battleship, and stood. Only he didn’t stand with his legs. No, that would never befit the moment. Mark had the spotlight, and he was damned well going to give his audience a show. Because everyone knows that my bakes mystically increase the gravitational pull in the area in which they’re served, it was impossible for Mark to simply stand up like a normal human being. Impossible, I say! Instead, he was forced to brace himself on the edge of the table with both hands and then, like a wounded brontosaurus rising from a primordial swamp, heave his entire mass up on all fours with tremendous and heartbreaking effort. He raged – raged, I tell you! – against the dying of the light! It was better than opera. It was better than art. It was theatre! There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

But that wasn’t all. Oh, no, my friends. You see, Mark typically sits closest to the trash. That’s not a criticism of his social tendencies, I’m speaking geometrically. His chair is closer than anyone else’s to the refuse bin. A lesser performer might have seen this foreshortening of options as an impediment to his art, but Mark Mains is nothing if not cognizant of his stagecraft. Have you ever seen a World War II movie from the 1950s? There’s a scene in every one of them where a wife receives a telegram informing her that her husband/brother/son won’t be coming home. The mandatory response is explosive sobbing and heaving of the chest, followed by a face first fall into nearby soft furniture or a big man’s chest. Mark didn’t sob or fall. But in a moment that would have made Sir Laurence Olivier bristle with professional envy, Mark raised a hand to his puckered mouth to indicate nausea, and then gave a WWII dead husband chest heave that you could measure with a seismograph. The only word to adequately describe it is “grand.” I’m sure they felt it next door.

Having thus secured his Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer In A Drama Series, Mark began his epic journey to spit out my food. The Fellowship Of The Ring had an easier time in their travels than Mark did. It was a saga for the ages, my friends. There was less drama and scenery chewing in the 18 year Broadway run of Cats than there was in that five foot walk to the garbage can. I will swear right now to any god of your choosing that if Mark had been wearing a tutu he would have spun his way across that kitchen. At the end of his torturous ordeal, apparently suffering from some form of banana induced lockjaw, Mark slowly, painfully opened his mouth into a tight, white-lipped oval, and with a vomitous bovine bellow, expelled my bake into the garbage. Fighting for breath like a dying Colonel Kurtz, Mark stage whispered to us his only spoken dialogue; “The texture… the texture…”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know what you say to a performance like that. But I do know what I say to it, and I say “BULLSHIT.” After the fetid, mucilaginous filth I have watched this man shovel into his gob, I refuse to believe that little slice of banana was somehow too much for him to handle. No way. Mark rode the drama llama hard toward that finish line, but I’m not conceding this race. I have known him to put too many questionable things into his mouth to accept that my bake was his undoing. Horseshit. My waffles were toasted and crispy without being too hard or dry, and my compound butter was creamy smooth and redolent of maple without being cloying, even with the sweetness of the banana added to it. The banana itself was ideally ripe, lending it not only a great flavor, but a gentle, tropical aroma and a perfect firm texture. The peppered candied bacon provided a hint of savory heat without taking center stage, and, not to toot my own horn too loudly, but I even nailed the name. These were all around excellent desserts that allowed each and every ingredient to shine, and I’m not backing off that opinion for an instant.

Mark would have you believe the banana was the star of the show, but my ingredients were very much an ensemble cast. The only one trying to upstage anyone else was Mark. My bakes perfectly fit the theme of this episode, and were well researched and well executed. I think Mark’s performance to the contrary was exactly that; a performance. Specifically, I think it was a performance intended to belittle my cooking after I called him out for serving us burnt food yet again. My Keanupés were a solid entry which in no way warranted being spat out, especially in such an over-the-top, blatantly performative manner. I’ve never groused about a loss before in this competition, but if I’m being honest, these were better than I was given credit for. With the possible exceptions of making them more uniform and maybe using a touch more bacon, if I had to do these over I wouldn’t change a thing.

Dan came up with a truly inspired name for a Keanu Reeves inspired dish: Point Bake. Come on, how perfect is that? I’m very proud of the name Keanupés, but it does require a little mental effort to get on board with. Point Bake, however… well that just jumps right off the page. I’m jealous I didn’t think of it.

Like I said, I’ve never seen Point Break. But I know there are surfers in it, so I’m going to assume it takes place in California. I’m assuming that because that California connection is the only thing that makes Dan’s dish make sense. Dan came up with a decidedly Mexican recipe, and despite what some jackasses would have you believe, Mexicans have contributed a hell of a lot to American culture over the past few hundred years. Nowhere in my travels have I experienced this more profoundly than California. In the toponymy, in the food, in the regional accents, even in the people themselves, California, particularly southern California, is a fantastically Mexican place. And nowhere is the culture of Mexican Americans more wonderfully and diversely represented than in California cuisine.

If you haven’t been to southern California, stop reading this and go right now. Not just for the weather (which is awesome), or the lack of bugs (which is awesome), or the gorgeous scenery (which is awesome), or the California girls (which, as two very successful hit songs have made us all aware, are awesome). No, I want you to go to California and find a fat, pasty white guy like me. Don’t believe what you see on TV; there are fat, pasty white people all over California. Just wait til it gets cool at night and listen for the sound of someone still running the air conditioner. That’s how you track them. Once you’ve found one, lure it out of it’s hole with an In-N-Out burger; for this kind of hunt, you can’t go wrong with a Double-Double, Animal-Style with both fresh and grilled onions. It gets them every time. Once the beast has taken the bait, you may safely approach, but do so slowly. Reassure it that you’re not trying to take it’s food away, then ask it for assistance. Show it a tortilla and some grilled chicken and tell him there’s an order of Animal-Style fries in it for him if he can correctly roll a burrito. Then watch the show.

Even for the pastiest and whitest of Californians, rolling a proper burrito is a basic life skill. It transcends ethnicity. You ever try to roll one? You screwed it up, didn’t you? You tore the tortilla, or you tried to use too much filling, or you didn’t get a good seal and it spilled out the back. You probably didn’t even close up both ends, did you, gringo? Don’t lie, it’s happened to the best of us. That’s because we’re not from southern California. Mexican cuisine is so deeply ingrained in the culture there that even pasty white nerds like me can roll a textbook burrito with ease. I don’t claim to understand it, but I have seen it in action. That’s how Mexican southern California is. There’s salsa in their DNA.

While Dan’s dish did not register as 100% southern California Mexican, I have to say it was damned close. Even if he hadn’t told us the name of the dish, I would have guessed he was going for the California/Point Break connection. Point Bake was basically Mexican lasagna, but with a few key modifications. First, very nearly every Mexican lasagna recipe I’ve ever read calls for ground meat. But at his heart Dan is a grill man. Instead of taking the easy route, Dan fired up his big stainless steel meat machine and filled this dish with hunks of outstanding grilled chicken breast. Secondly, and even more importantly, Dan skipped the usual nasty mess of refried beans that ruins most Mexican lasagnas, opting instead for the vastly superior black beans. Big points for Dan on that one. Third, and this one was the real clincher, Dan didn’t just layer in his tortillas. He dipped each one in his own homemade enchilada sauce, coating both sides before laying them in the dish. HUGE winning move!

Pop quiz, hot shot: name the unforgivable sin of casserole cookery of which most Mexican lasagnas are guilty? Answer: dryness. The ingredients release water vapor as they bake, and all that free moisture is absorbed by the tortillas. The tortillas break down to mush, the refried beans turn into a thick gluey paste, and the whole dish turns into something even Del Taco wouldn’t serve. Actually, they probably still would. That place is the worst. The point is Dan avoided all of these pitfalls and produced a truly superior bake. That extra dip of enchilada sauce might seem like a small detail, but it set Point Bake apart. The tortillas were already coated in moisture, so when they got hot they absorbed the enchilada sauce. Not only tasty, but clever. The cheese on the top provided a moisture barrier, so while the dish was resting, all that steam from the chicken and vegetation had nowhere to go but right back into the chicken and vegetation. Dan even went most Mexican lasagnas one better by topping the cheese with a little cilantro and green onion. This thing was moist, delicious, filling, and gorgeous!

Normally this is where I would tell you that the final dish I reviewed got the win. Not this time. While Point Bake most definitely got my vote, the pizza twins hung together and voted for each other. One vote for Mark, one vote for Mandy, one vote for Dan. As you may recall, the rules of The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition state that judges may not vote for their own dish. Dan could not vote for Point Bake, which I assumed meant that he would be the one to break the tie between Mark and Mandy. But something happened then the Mains did not intend.

Dan voted for my Keanupés.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that Dan had all the same problems with the pizzas that I did. It was an even more pleasant surprise to learn that Dan thought my Keanupés represented the right level of delicious Keanu Reeves-ness which this competition called for. Thank you, Dan! I was vindicated! But this left us with a predicament. We found ourselves in a four-way tie, a situation we had never before encountered. Typically when two dishes tie those bakers are removed from the voting process and the other two judges hash it out between themselves. The problem is that every time this has happened, deciding on a winner takes a LONG time. In her wisdom – and more to the point, her impatience – Mandy swiftly acted upon her powers as the ultimate judge of the bake off, and declared that the four-way tie would be the final result, a decision found agreeable by all parties. And so, ladies and gentlemen, it is indeed a pleasure to introduce to you this week’s Star Baker… EVERYONE! This week was a win for all of us! Big thanks go out to Keanu Reeves for all the entertainment and inspiration, and thank you for reading! Be sure to join us next time as we shake those winter blues with Spring Bake Week!

Until next time, bon appétit!

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