Welcome, everyone, to the episode of The Great British Baking Show: Walton Edition! This week’s very timely theme was Cold Weather Comfort Food, and it proved to be our finest week yet!
When Mandy proposed the idea of Cold Weather Comfort Food Week, she also announced her intention to make bread bowls as her entry. But she wanted something to put in those bowls, so she decided to make her beef stew, a delicious meal she has served us many times over the years. And although her beef stew is always reliable and satisfying, Mandy made very clear that the stew was not her entry. However, for the sake of completion, I am showing it here.
Our first entry in our Cold Weather Comfort Food Week are Mandy’s Parmesan and Salted Bread Bowls. These bread bowls were perfect for small bowls of stew, each designed to compliment the flavor of the stew served in it. Mandy timed her bake perfectly, ensuring the walls of her bowls had a sturdy crust browned to a hardness which would not collapse after contact with moisture, but showed neither sign nor flavor of over baking. Her Parmesan Bread Bowls lent the butteriness and tang of their toponymous cheese to her beef stew, while her Salted Bread Bowls were the ideal accompaniment to Dan’s delicious entry!
Dan’s entry was his outstanding Brazilian Fish Stew, an overly simplistic and somewhat inaccurate name for this unmatched culinary mélange.
To the best of my recollection I’ve never had real Brazilian food. Sure, I’ve been to Boi na Braza, which by all accounts is a truly authentic Brazilian churrascaria, but I was there for the meats. And while those were expertly prepared, there was no distinct flavor that set them apart from other grilled or spit-roasted meats. In fact, despite a single evening at a Peruvian restaurant of dubious authenticity, I don’t think I’ve ever had real South American food at all. And if Dan’s Brazilian Fish Stew is any indication, I’ve been missing out.
For the life of me, I can’t recall which fish he put in this stew, but I know there were shrimp, and I believe scallops as well. The combined aromas of different seafoods emanating from this pot was literally mouthwatering, but I was unprepared for what awaited me when I tasted it. The immediate flavor was that of a mild, cream based whitefish chowder, backed by the spice palate of a Tex-Mex chili. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it, and I couldn’t pinpoint what it was that was so different. Dan illuminated me; it wasn’t cream at all. It was coconut milk. And Dan, the guy Mark and I have teased for years about his aversion to eating any vegetable material that wasn’t turned into bread and topped with burgers or pizza toppings, stewed these flavors masterfully with diced onions, red peppers, and too many herbs for my inadequate tongue to identify. This was, without question, one of the best seafood dishes I have ever eaten. Simply amazing!
Dan and Mandy’s young daughter Evey once again elected to participate, making us a batch of chocolate cupcakes with pink sugar frosting and sprinkles. For her efforts, we crowned her this week’s Junior Star Baker!
Mark provided this week’s dessert, this gorgeous loaf of gingerbread! Mark picked out the perfect taste of autumn and enhanced it with a topping of crystallized ginger and dried cranberries. But what made this gingerbread stand out was that Mark glacéed the loaf with an orange juice and confectioner’s sugar glaze, a technique which I have attempted on a few occasions and have never been able to perfect. My glazes taste good but rarely set; Mark’s did both.
Mark is the only person I know who makes his own vanilla extract. I wish I had thought to take a picture of it, because it’s really quite something. Picture an old vodka bottle, painted with blue Cyrillic, stuffed with split back vanilla beans and left to age in the pantry for the last five years until the vodka acquired a brown so rich and inky that it is very nearly black. And the smell… the smell is EXTRAORDINARY. The aroma is as powerful as any vanilla you’ve ever smelled, without the sharp chemical edge of a commercial extract. Instead it has a heady, deep, surprisingly sweet aroma. I’ve never seen that bottle outside of Mark’s pantry until yesterday. To accompany his gingerbread, Mark brought his vanilla elixir and used it to flavor cream that he whipped for a topping. You can see the flecks of vanilla bean in the whipped cream. I assure you, no matter how impressive you think it looks, it tasted even better.
When Mandy proposed a Cold Weather Comfort Food Week, she also proposed an assignment of responsibilities; she would make bread bowls, Dan would make something to fill the bowls, Mark would handle desserts, and I would make a side. Mandy’s bread bowl got me thinking about making a food with another food inside. And if I was going to do that, I thought I might as well do it with a little flair. That’s when I had the idea for my entry this week, my Baked Potato Surprise!
These were a new challenge for me, as I am partial to Yukon Golds. I’ve never baked any other kind of potato. But in order to create a cavity to stuff with the cold weather comfort food I had in mind, I needed something bigger. I needed Russets. I oiled and salted the skins as usual before baking directly on the oven rack. But instead of my usually 45 minute bake time for Yukon Golds, I had to bake these for an hour and a half, which made me late for dinner! But the results were worth it. After I scooped out the flesh of the potato, I mashed them roughly to use as a decorative and tasty lid to hide my filling.
Surprise! My Baked Potato Surprise is not a baked potato at all, but my two favorite comfort foods: mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. I knew that cutting into these potatoes would be a nice reveal, but that alone wouldn’t pack enough wow factor to win. I needed to step it up, so I mixed herbes de Provence into the béchamel and cheese sauce. I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of herbes de Provence until very recently, but Mark was already familiar with the ingredients, and Dan has been buying bread with herbes de Provence baked in for some time now. Apparently I’m late to the party. Newcomer though I am, I can tell you that when it comes to herbes de Provence in mac and cheese, a little is enough. I usually cook by pinch and taste, so I don’t have exact measurements, but for these four potatoes I would estimate I used maybe a quarter of a teaspoon. The cheese should always take center stage in mac and cheese; the herbes de Provence are just there to give it a little something extra.
To my great surprise and delight, while browning the mashed potato lid, the mac and cheese baked down just enough to hold together when sliced without drying out. My experimental bake worked, turning out better than I could have hoped. To my even greater surprise and delight, my Baked Potato Surprise was a big hit with the other contestants, and won me the title of this week’s Star Baker! I sincerely didn’t expect to win against such excellent competitors, and am very flattered that everyone enjoyed my bake!
Be sure to check in next time for what promises to be one of Mandy’s most delicious challenges yet. Next Sunday it’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Week!
Until next time, bon appétit!