Week nine of The Great British Bake Off and the semi-finals of the show. This week the contestants would take on some French cookery skills & try their hand at petits fours and choux gateaux. Former contestant Urvashi Roe, the Botanical Baker, watched the show and presents her thoughts as the four semi finalists become three for the finals.
There was a distinctly sombre mood this week from the start. The music was slower. The bakers looked tense and agitated. There was some light humour with exaggerated accents from Mel and Sue and I loved the lingering shots of snails as the show went all French in theme.
Perfect petit fours
First up were Petit Fours. In the last series this was one of the final bakes so I was really interested to see what the contestants would come up with. They were tasked with three different baking styles and had to present twelve of each. I thought this was a tough one and as Paul and Mary both said, it was all about time management. Paul was looking for flavoursome, little mouthfuls – small, exquisite and perfect.
Perfection has been the name of the game with Brendan and his objective was uniformity, great flavours and contrast. He certainly delivered this with his amazing Choux Pastry Cygnets. These were pure class and raised the game in the tent to a new level. His Coffee Meringues with Hazelnut Cream and Apricot Friands looked equally amazing. Real showstopper quality.
The other three semi finalists opted to include macarons of some variation. Chilli, Lime and Raspberry for James, Blackberry and Peppermint for Danny and Chocolate and Cherry for John. I think after last year’s macaron shenanigans, avid viewers will know how tricky these little blighters are and it was great to see no disasters.
There was an even spread of “Mmmmm” and “great flavours” married with a few “nice bake” and “scrummy” comments but overall all the contestants did well except John. His presentation ‘looked terrible’ according Paul and it wasn’t ‘exciting’ enough for Mary which was a shame as the idea of ‘bejewelled’ Madeleines was something I was looking forward to seeing.
The grandfather of the home oven and the patron saint of baking
They really pulled out some great interludes this week. I was fascinated to learn about Alexis Soyer – the man who brought the gas oven into British homes and kept those soldiers well fed during the Crimean war. He even had time to create soup kitchens and some of the first recipe books of the time.
And Saint Honore – the 6th Century bishop who got the title of ‘Patron Saint’ of Baking after a miracle witnessed by his nanny. She refused to believe that this 6 year old boy would become a bishop. She said she’d only believe it if the orange peel she was baking sprouted flowers which of course they did.
Fabulous and Floppy Fraisers
A Fraiser is essentially a strawberry sponge cake. In this week’s technical challenge the judges were after a light, Genoese sponge – eggs and sugar whisked over a hot water bath til almost four times in volume and then flour folded in while trying to retain this volume and finally melted, cooled butter added. It’s a lovely light and rich sponge which Rob from last year’s series did just right in episode one. They were also looking for a thick crème patisserie as this would need to hold firm in the middle. And then the final technical element was piping with melted chocolate on top of the marzipan topping.
I think they all did really well. I’ve made one of these after attending a Masterclass with Eric Lanlard and it’s a tough one.
My first crème patisserie was floppy and oozed out of the middle just like Danny’s. Brendan’s was better but still not as stiff as it should be to cut into a firm slice. James came top but it was a close one and John simply looked relieved to have made it through after the poor comments during the first challenge.
A Showstopping Semi Final
The final fab four were asked to create a Choux Pastry Gateau. What a wonderful way to end the semi-final. This is my favourite type of pastry and I think this was a beautiful challenge to let the bakers be creative and really go to town on making something showstopping.
All the flavours sounded amazing. Danny brought back the wonderful Isfahan flavours that had inspired James in Tart Week Lychee, Raspberry and Rosewater. John’s Passionfruit Curd sounded lovely too and it was Brendan that decided to play it safe with just a little Kirsch.
All three were making a Gateau St Honore whereas James was going all out in creativity with his unique take on a classic Paris Brest.
He created a bicycle shaped cake filled with toffee and hazelnut cream. It was inspired by the origins of the cake which commemorated the 1200km Paris-Brest-Paris cycle race in 1891. I thought this was truly worthy of a semi-final bake and the others looked simple and plain in comparison.
Paul and Mary were impressed with Brendan’s presentation and simple flavours and John’s choux but felt Danny had overdone it with the rose flavour. Easy to do with rosewater and Danny looked completely devastated. You almost could see the frustration oozing out of her.
James and his ‘winging it’ ways paid off this time because the judges punctured his pastry wheels to gush over the tastes coming through each layer. Paul’s only comment was that the wheels could have done with a little more inflation.
So after three amazing bakes, James was quite rightly crowned Star Baker for the second week in a row. He looked genuinely surprised to have gotten through but I don’t think he realises how good he actually is. I think even some professional chefs would struggle to make a chocolate mousse using the scientific method he showed this week. That really was a technique worthy of a semi finalist.
Danny was the one to leave this week. She looked tired, frustrated and a little lost in her final interview but did well to hold back the tears. She’s performed consistently well during the series, producing some amazing bakes but runny crème patisserie and overpowering rosewater got the better of her this week. I bet she won’t be able to look at a rose for a long time.
So…an all boy final next week. The bakers with very different styles will make it really interesting viewing. Who are you keeping those fingers crossed for?