Bake Off: Crème de la Crème – episode six

Bake Off: Crème de la Crème – episode six

by Howard Middleton 5 May 2016

Howard Middleton provides running commentary on the first round of semi-finals, complete with chocolate poles and sugared ballerinas.

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Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients. He now demonstrates his creative approach to gluten-free baking at numerous food festivals and shows and by teaching baking classes around the country, including at corporate events, commercial promotions and private parties. Howard continues to entertain audiences as a public speaker, compere and broadcaster.

Unlike the Bake Off tent, where every change in the weather is heard or seen, the Crème de la Crème crowd has essentially been confined to a windowless cell at Welbeck Abbey, with no sense of day, night or the seasons. But this week, we learn that the first semi-finalists have started preparation the night before in a room with windows! It’s dark – we still can’t see anything.

Moving on, we welcome back the dessert inventors from Marks & Spencer – James, Makiko and Graham, who previously seethed and bristled through episode one, his spikes of hair standing upright with nothing more than sheer indignation. I’ve missed Graham – he makes good TV. We’re barely five minutes in and he’s already flustered, this time with the heat of the kitchen.

From episode two, we have the team from the armed forces – Liam, Andrew and Ian. The boys call each other ‘mate’ a lot, as in ‘spot on, mate’.

Finally, it’s a return for Sajeela, James and Sam – the trio from the Hilton Hotel on London’s Park Lane. A detailed time plan for episode four kept them reasonably on track and mapped out their path so far.

The miniatures

Not content with the pressure of producing 108 goodies, the contestants are now challenged to bake 144. This time it’s a selection of breakfast-time viennoiseriescroissants, brioches and Danish pastries. My savoury breakfast craving salivates at the prospect of a little Danish bacon or some Danish Blue cheese. No such luck – the chance of a black pudding brioche is binned and the nearest we get is a meagre smattering of salted caramel. The teams must produce twenty-four classic croissants, brioches and pastries and the same number of each ‘with a twist’.

Sajeela, James and Sam work at the Hilton Hotel on London's Park Lane
Armed forces
The armed forces team – Liam, Andrew and Ian – struggled with the finer details

Liam and the armed forces squad admit they’ve only ever practised these once. Using standard butter instead of professional pastry butter (shame on me for not knowing the stuff existed), it melts onto the oven bottom, smoking out the kitchen.

Their creative croissant has a blueberry and almond cream and is topped with a fresh viola flower. Liam temporarily forgets what the judges are like and says, ‘It doesn’t have to be exact, mate.’ They’re judged to be crispy but unsurprisingly uneven.

Their brioche à tête has a milk chocolate and hazelnut truffle with a toasted hazelnut garnish. It goes down particularly well with the judges – Claire says it’s very enjoyable and Benoit declares it’s ‘as good as it gets’.

The boys in uniform’s first Danish pastry is a peach and raspberry pinwheel. Cherish decides they’re ‘not quite as uniform as I like them to be’, but frankly few things are for her standards. Their second Danish is a swirl of blood-orange-soaked raisins and sultanas. Cherish is confusingly contradictory when she says they’re ‘very doughy, but I quite like the texture’. Liam consoles his team saying, ‘This isn’t us mate – it isn’t what we do.’

The Hilton team’s classic croissants are a perfectly risen morning glory – beautifully crispy and with more lamination than a Formica showroom. The trio’s croissant twist is an S-shaped curlicue filled with zesty orange and dark chocolate ganache, which Claire judges to be too sticky.

Benoit spots inconsistency in the team’s batch of Crème Parisiennes – some are fuller than others. The boys suspect they might have completely missed filling one or two. Their second brioche is a pretty rose of apricot-glazed apple petals, crafted by Sam. Claire, who is picky about her apples, judges the caramelised Braeburn ‘a little bland’.

Sajeela’s team produces classic pinwheels of poached apricot and pistachio, but he says he’s returning to his roots for his second pastry – Sri Lankan twists with apricot and pistachio cream. Hang on a minute, aren’t they the same ingredients as the first? Raspberry mousseline masks any duplication. Sajeela scoffs, ‘Just look at the M&S croissants.’

Sajeela's team's croissants managed to keep them in the race
Makiko's team went all out for the showstopper, creating chocolate drawers

And so we move on in our search for the M&S croissants, which are eventually discovered hiding under a blanket of icing sugar. Claire says they look flat, which is not surprising given the weight of their covering.

The M&S team’s second crois-sort-of is a ‘reimagining’ of a kouign amann. Bake Off anoraks like me will tell you this was the technical challenge in week seven of series five. I really do need to get out more. Claire likes the combination of sea salt and sugar and Benoit says it’s ‘not bad’. Inventive Makiko has frozen individual portions of chocolate crème pâtissière, which she wraps with dough to make hazelnut brioche crowns. Unfortunately, she has no idea how long they take to prove and they turn out too dense – a metaphor for the heavy weight of royal responsibilities or just bad buns?

As Graham and Makiko prepare their pastries, there’s a surprise personality switch – he suddenly becomes calm and she looks like she’s about to flake out. Cherish has already made it clear that she doesn’t want ‘anything too crazy for breakfast’, but the M&S party is already awash with alcohol – a Grand Marnier custard in the first pastry and booze-soaked apricots in the second. Already hungover, I have no idea whether they’ve added something called ‘burnt’ fresh orange or ‘beurre’ fresh orange – either way they slap a bit of gold leaf on it. Sadly it can’t mask the raw dough beneath.

The M&S team drowns its sorrows, scraping a meagre twenty-eight points, with the military boys comfortably ahead of them and the Hilton crew taking the lead. M&S Graham admits he’s addicted to stress, which probably explains a lot.

The showpiece

For this week’s showpiece challenge the teams must produce an impressive box of tempered chocolate treasuring three confections – nougat, dipped chocolates and pâte de fruits (chewy fruit jellies).

Liam and his military mates are basing their chocolate container on his grandmother’s jewellery box. It’s probably not to scale as it turns out to be the size of a small horsebox. Deliberately working with the bloom that forms on chocolate, they create an ingenious wood grain effect.

Ian says, ‘I have to carve a ballerina – hopefully it won’t look too crap.’ He admits it’s going to take him a good five minutes to complete his task, but it looks like his five minutes weren’t so good. She seems to be modelled on a character from classic children’s TV, though I can’t decide if she’s a Moomin or from Camberwick Green. Like a frantic beautician, Liam tells him to ‘get her sprayed up, lacquered up – get a bit of colour on her’. She pirouettes in the tragic tradition of Black Swan and The Red Shoes – a seriously unbalanced tiny dancer.

The team’s confections are struggling too – the apricot and pistachio nougat is undercooked and the pear and sour apple pâte de fruit is so soft they can only present pastille-sized blobs of it. Liam tells Andy to make a nice even cut of the layered kirsch-soaked chocolate centre, just as it bends and slips under the knife.

Cherish decides it’s ‘cut too chunky’.Frankly, it’s a miracle he managed to cut it at all.

M&S team
The chocolate showpiece had only been created using card before the competition
Armed forces
The armed forces team soon found their softer side

Sajeela’s team is constructing a Japanese-inspired chest of drawers filled with apple-shaped jellies, lemongrass chocolates and a mango and papaya nougat that’s decorated to look like sushi. On top of the chocolate chest are a sugar bonsai tree, an edible fan and a little lucky yellow cat. The hotel chefs are confident in their construction, having made the chest five times before.

The M&S team has only ever constructed its creation in card before today. Its homage to showbusiness inexplicably centres on a huge chocolate pole, which it falls (hopefully not) to Graham to construct. Gloved Graham firmly grasps his chocolate pole and asks, ‘Is it kinky? It looks kinky.’

Tottering on a stepladder, he attends to his high-rise creation. Tom says, ‘It makes me very nervous standing here.’ I’m yelling at the TV, ‘Well move the f*** away then!’ At the last minute, the bottom drawer of pâte de fruits cracks open, and the jellies tumble out. Graham’s stress addiction is comfortably sated and he can seethe to his heart’s content.

I have to admit that I thought the M&S team’s vision of ‘Show Time’ looked a bit scary, with its deathly mask, dismembered hand and faceless mannequin, but what do the judges think? Cherish says it looks a bit scary, calling it ‘Friday the Thirteenth’. I think I may be turning into Cherish. Even more worrying, I don’t dislike the prospect. The judges decide the passion fruit pâte de fruit is sticky, as is the nougat and the tempering is off on their chocolates – though the hint of balsamic with the cherries and hazelnuts is tasty.

Back to Sajeela, James and Sam, who’ve decided to don samurai-style bathrobes for the judging. It looks like a stag weekend they’re already regretting. Amazingly, all three chocolate drawers pull out of the chest completely intact. Graham spits off camera. Impeccably shaped jelly apples are judged to have a good texture and design, though they lack apple flavour. Lemongrass is also absent from the chocolates and the nougat is undercooked, but the lucky yellow cat delivers and the Hilton team has done enough to secure a place in the final, leaving the military boys to wait to see if they’ll nab the spot for the highest scoring runners up.

Second semi-final next week – goodness, I hope I’m not the only viewer left who’s still quite excited.