I’ve made no secret of the fact that, if I were to compete on the Great British Baking Show, I would get absolutely waxed. My chances of escaping Cake Week would be slim to none; my chances of making it more than halfway through the season would be functionally non-existent. It’s not that I’m a terribly untalented baker – if you give me a recipe, I’ll produce something edible – it’s that I only bake a small handful of times per year, and never have I ever needed to bake under duress. I’ve also never needed to decorate any of the things I’ve baked, and it is certain that were I to attempt to do so, it would result in disaster. I have no visual flair and atrocious manual dexterity, so the thought of, say, precisely icing 24 cookies not only terrifies me, it also gives my wrist sympathy cramps.
I do my best to be transparent about this because, in my capacity as GBBS power ranker, I am often left with few nice things to say about a baker’s performance. It’s important to me that anyone who reads this column knows that I know even the worst baker in any Tent is a better baker than I am. I’ve been fighting a lifelong battle with my unfortunate tendency to come across as a colossal asshole when I don’t mean to do anything of the sort, and therefore it is also important that I be as conciliatory in each baker’s write-ups as possible. But alas, within my limited personal capacity for diplomacy, there’s only so much spin I can put on a performance like Amanda’s in Pastry Week. (Maggie, of course, is excluded from this. She bad-mouthed mint chocolate chip ice cream, and I will exact my vengeance for this insult.)
If you’ve watched the Caramel Week episode, you do not need me to tell you that no one, not even the eventual Star Baker, put forward a particularly good showing. All six of the remaining bakers had issues. Some of these issues were relatively contained; a textural issue here, a flavor balance issue there. Yet, even the best bakers this season has to over had split creams and presentation problems and occasionally, overdone caramel. Star Baker was awarded to the baker who presented the best Show Stopper, in part because that’s just how GBBS operates these days but also in part because no one did all that well in the Signature, and this week gave us the first true Disaster Technical of the season. It gives me no pleasure to report that true success stories in Caramel Week were few and far between.
I am not surprised, because while I am a baker of limited experience, I have enough experience with making caramel to know that it absolutely sucks ass. There is an extremely narrow window of time wherein a caramel is done – we’re talking maybe 30 seconds, here, quite possibly fewer – and there is absolutely no margin for error on either side of this window. If a caramel is underdone, you’re left with runny sugar water flavored with butter. That’s not the worst thing in the world, and perhaps I can market it as the latest innovation in beverage technology (You’ve heard of bulletproof coffee, now try bulletproof soda!). It is, however, too liquid to have any culinary purpose, and will leave you with little choice but to roll the dice and attempt to cook it further, edging closer and closer towards the impending doom of overdone caramel.
Describing overdone caramel is itself a tremendous strain on my ability to communicate tactfully. Crystelle may have done the best job possible when she pointed out that an overdone caramel is extremely noticeable. That she did not go into further detail and expand on what ‘noticeable’ means in this context is a lie of omission that would make a master ambassador jealous, a finessing of the truth so deft it should merit consideration for the Nobel Peace Prize. Overdone caramel looks like tea that has steeped in discarded Marlboro reds, and tastes likewise. It is bitter, acrid, and thoroughly vile stuff, unfit for consumption in any context.
I know this because, in a rare and moderately regrettable display of baking ambition, several years ago my wife (then fiance) and I once decided that, as we were hosting a New Year’s Eve party and had been fiendishly devouring all the GBBS we could find, it would be lovely, festive, and delicious if we were to make a towering croquembouche for said party. Since neither of us had ever made anything of the sort, we decided a practice croquembouche was in order, and the practice phase revealed that everything – the choux pastry, the crème pat, the physical filling of the puffs – was easier than anticipated. Everything, that is, except the caramel, which we burned, then burned again and again after. We never got it right, not once. I forget if we actually presented a croquembouche at the party – I think we might’ve just arranged a bunch of crème puffs into a pyramid and called it a day – but the whole incident left me terrified of caramel, and I have yet to even sort of attempt to deal with this fear in an emotionally healthy way.
All of this is to say that, while there isn’t much praise to dole out in these rankings this week, I understand exactly why Caramel Week tripped everyone up to varying degrees. Every baker who had to suffer through this has my sympathy, and they all did a vastly superior job that I ever possibly could have simply for presenting baked goods at the end of each challenge. If it were me making these things, I would’ve eschewed the baking and cooking portions of the challenges in favor of collapsing at my station and sobbing uncontrollably. I hold all of the bakers in the highest respect for their unfailing courage.
Week 7 – Caramel Week
Signature Bake: Caramel Tart
-Recipe: 10 Legally Non-Actionable Caramel Biscuit Bars
-Judging Parameters: Identical biscuits with caramel exclusively on top, not down sides. Properly set caramel that is neither too hard nor too soft. Properly mixed shortbread.
-Did Anyone Succeed? Hell no!
Show Stopper: Caramel Dessert with Sugar Dome or Sphere
Star Baker: Jürgen
Place In Technical: 6th
Alas, poor George. Coming back into the Tent after a Pastry Week that he barely survived, and that visibly took a hefty mental toll, George at least got some shine from the judges before being eliminated, anyway. I’m not sure why the parameters of the Caramel Week Show Stopper demanded the production of a dome to encase the outside of the dessert (I suppose that, like caramel, clear sugar domes are sugar work), but George used this challenge as one last opportunity to show off, making his dome out of pure sugar and not isomalt. It paid off spectacularly, as his dome looked amazing, and drew praise accordingly. It was a nice moment, you know? George had very few successes to hang his hat on in the last three weeks (he squeaked past German Week by the slimmest of margins, too), so it was nice to see him swing for the fences and knock his Show Stopper out of the park, if only aesthetically. Paul got on him for a dry inside, although Prue didn’t seem to mind as much. For a bit there, though, I thought maybe George had done well enough to keep going for yet another week, but that was not to be. His caramel curdled in the Signature and his Technical was the worst of a bad bunch. The Show Stopper is the only round that went right for him, and even that wasn’t a total success. As sometimes happens when a baker has been just barely hanging on for a few weeks, George seemed at peace with his fate by the time his name was called. From where I’m sitting, he appeared legitimately grateful to have made it this far, but he was also ready to be done and ready to go home. It was inspiring, in its way. We should all have the good fortune to remain calm and grateful when our names are called, you know?
Place In Technical: 5th
Now is as good a time as any to spoil the conceit of my own column and tell you point-blank that absolutely nobody changed positions in the rankings this week. There are two reasons for this. The first reason is that, as I mentioned in the introduction, nobody really did all that well in the absolute sense. Were the point of these rankings to rank each baker based on their week-to-week performance (as opposed to their holistic season outlook), everyone would be kind of bunched up into a knot, with the top of the rankings consisting of a four-way tie at 3rd place. No one gets 1st this week. The second reason is that, to the extent the bakers’ weeks could be separated, their performances mostly reinforced this Tent’s existing hierarchy. Most seasons, while a front-runner or two has typically emerged at this point, the rest of the bakers are still jockeying to distinguish themselves, but this season has afforded few such chances for upward mobility. Lizzie could still make it into the Semifinal, but even in the context of a week where none of the bakers did well, her Caramel Week showing did not inspire confidence. Her Signature exemplified her typical struggle this season. It tasted good, and that taste emphasized the caramel in the way the judges were expecting; the only problem is looked all messy. Her Show Stopper had the opposite problem. While George was the only baker to attempt a pure sugar dome, Lizzie was the only baker to attempt a sugar sphere. She pulled the look off admirably, but then the inside was a mess, and it didn’t taste all that great either, apparently. Making the biggest, thickest dessert of anyone in the Tent and then filling it with cake (as opposed to of the custards and mousses everyone else used) was…a choice, and one that backfired pretty spectacularly. I thought her Show Stopper was worse than George’s, all told, and as such I’m a bit surprised she wasn’t eliminated. For most of the time I’ve been doing this, it’s seemed that the Show Stopper is all that matters. Good on Paul and Prue for judging more holistically, for once, I guess. Anyway, if Lizzie is this inconsistent next week, she’s probably toast, and in order to have any chance at the Finals, she’ll need to put together the best two weeks of her entire season. No pressure.
Place In Technical: 3rd
After the Show Stopper, Paul mentioned that he thought Chigs had a shot at Star Baker, and I’m not sure how that could possibly be the case. Granted, none of his bakes were disastrous, and in a week like this sometimes that’s enough. But the problems with Chigs’ bakes were problems with caramel. His Signature tart had too much chocolate, which overpowered the caramel itself, and in the Show Stopper, his caramel was too light and too runny, and it leaked out through the base, although it was at least in balance with the chocolate the second time around. I fail to see how he could’ve been in contention for Star Baker when he struggled with the caramel aspect of Caramel Week. It seems like that’s a pretty unfortunate problem to have. Even though none of his issues were major in the same way that curdled custard and stodgy cake wads are major issues, I’m a little surprised he didn’t end up in minor elimination danger, now that I’m thinking about it, wherein his name is mentioned as a Baker In Trouble during the judges’ interview, even though nobody watching takes that threat seriously (for an ideal example of this, think back to Bread Week, when Paul said Jürgen was in a bit of trouble. Like, come on dude). All of this is to say that I’m not super high on Chigs’ Finals chances at this point. He was Star Baker in Dessert Week, but ever since then he’s had weeks like this, where his bakes are consistently good but also marred with non-catastrophic but noticeable flaws. If he can regain that form, he could absolutely make this Finals. But Dessert Week was three weeks ago now, so I think it’s fair to ask if Chigs can return to that level of performance.
Place In Technical: 4th
You know what the weirdest thing about Caramel Week was? There weren’t any truly dramatic meltdowns in the Show Stopper, despite the extreme difficulty of producing a sugar dome, and despite the fact that everyone in the Tent struggled with something. The closest thing to a dramatic meltdown was Crystelle’s eternal struggle to craft her dome. It took several attempts, and when she called in Lizzie to help her out, she put the finally complete dome down in her sticky dome mold, thus getting it stuck. That was less than ideal, but in the end, her dome was a lot better than I would’ve expected, after all that. Paul gave her some shit for its quality, but didn’t elaborate on what was wrong with it. I thought it looked fine, mostly. It had flattened a bit on top, I suppose, but I am annoyed that the exact issue(s) Paul had with it were left unsaid (or edited out). Not that her dome was the only problem with her dessert. Her mousse had too much gelatin, resulting in an excessively gooey inside, and the chocolate layer on the outside was deemed too thick. And yet, Crystelle was also placed in the Star Baker conversation, which again has me a bit puzzled. Granted, her Signature tart was the best of a weak bunch, being the only tart that looked good and tasted good, but even then, her caramel was slightly overdone and bitter, rescued only by the oddly harmonious balance it created with the other flavors. Even in an off week for everyone, I’m not sure how a good but not great Signature, a decent but not triumphant Show Stopper, and a typically middling Technical showing merits Star Baker consideration, but what do I know? All of that said, I do think Crystelle is separating from Chigs. Yes, her Technical placements have never been great outside of Pastry Week, but you can absolutely survive coming in dead last in the Semifinals if the practice bakes are up to snuff, and Crystelle’s usually are. That said, her Finals spot is far from guaranteed. She is merely in the catbird seat, for the moment.
Place In Technical: 2nd
Place In Technical: 1st
Of course, treating the Finals as though there is only one free spot rather strictly implies that two of the three spots are already sewn up. I’ve been wrong in these rankings enough times to know that’s foolish, but can you blame me? No one has been able to match the consistently high level Jürgen and Giuseppe have been baking at all season, and it hardly seems fair that the rest of the Tent is forced to compete with them. Anything is possible, but as I write this I am sitting and scraping the deepest, darkest recesses of my brain in an attempt to imagine how either of them could fall short of the Finals, and coming up short. I say this acknowledging that both bakers have displayed their mortality every so often, so if I am to envision either getting eliminated I can start by unpacking these rare displays of weakness. Jürgen has seemed the weaker of the two bakers for much of the season, but as I’ve said before in this sapce, I feel like his white-hot start has saddled him with unrealistic expectations. In presenting his outrageously good and outrageously complicated Show Stopper to great acclaim, Paul declared that Jürgen’s back!” when it was clear he never left in the first place. Outside of a rough Bread Week, he’s been doing just fine, and has been in spitting distance of Star Baker a couple of times since then. Who cares that he’s German and he didn’t win German Week? As Jürgen himself pointed out, the German Week Show Stopper wasn’t all that German to begin with. His only failings have been Bread Week, which I’m willing to write off as a fluke since it was his worst performance by far, and not keeping up when Giuseppe got hot in the middle of the season.
For his part, Giuseppe probably had his worst showing in Caramel Week. The caramel in his tart was too runny, and overrun by all the hazelnut. In the Show Stopper, his sugar dome was misty and his caramel contained too much gelatin, thus making it paste-like. He edged Jürgen in the Technical, but not by much, and snagged the emptiest 1st place finish of the year. All in all, it was well short of what we’re used to from Giuseppe, but it didn’t land him anywhere near hot water, so it doesn’t matter. I did consider bumping Jürgen back into the top spot, but the only real reason for doing so is that Jürgen won Star Baker and Giuseppe did not. Everyone had a rough go of things, and it’s not like any of Giuseppe’s underwhelming bakes were disasters. He struggled with a difficult week, just like everyone else. I don’t see how that shows real weakness, or invalidates his many accomplishments. See what I’m saying? How are either of these two going to fall short of the Finals? It seems impossible, and that makes me nervous that several backpedaling retractions await.
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