The Great British Bake Off 2017 – Week 4 – Caramel

‘Can you guess what I’m thinking?’ Noel asks, as he and Sandi stare into the clouds.

You know what, I bet I can’t.

Turns out he’s thinking about being part wasp, a bizarre throwaway that gets points for actually coming up again later in the episode as if Bake Off were some sort of Kafkaesque treatise on the interconnectedness and fundamental meaninglessness of it all. Maybe it is. Now I want one of the challenges to be ‘bake a thing themed on an author’s works’: you could have Murakami muffins, which contain a smorgasbord of seemingly unrelated ingredients yet end up somehow fusing into a reasonably cohesive whole; Dostoyevsky digestives, which drop crumbs in the shape of a psychological narrative about what it means to be a biscuit; Camus cake, which strives to be both nihilistic and free at once and expresses this by tasting simultaneously rather sour and quite pleasant. Stacy would probably just do wizard-hat shaped Harry Potter cookies or something. (I’m sorry, Stacy. I don’t have anything against you. It’s just… ‘good boy stars’.)

Anyway, it’s caramel week, which if previous Bake Offs have taught me anything probably means that there’s going to be a lot of chucking things away and starting again; Stacy’s the first to give up on a batch of caramel in this episode, but she’s certainly not the last. I mean, I thought I could make caramel myself, but then I realised I didn’t actually know what it was. Thought it was just melting some sugar in a pan, but it turns out there’s a bit more to it than that – not that you’d know it, because the majority of this episode’s runtime does seem to just be people staring at what is definitely just some sugar in a pan.

Our first challenge this week is one of my favourite things, millionaire shortbread. For those who aren’t familiar (how could you not be?!), this insanely sweet treat consists of a layer of shortbread topped with a layer of caramel and finally one of chocolate. I’ve made it before, but I may have cheated on the caramel by using caramel-flavoured condensed milk instead of making it from scratch, something that would probably be frowned on in the tent. I wasn’t sure how many variations could reasonably be made on the theme, though, since plain and simple chocolate caramel shortbread seems perfectly good enough to me. I guess you could do… fruity chocolate? Praline caramel? Vodka-and-lime-marshmallow-squid-ink-banana-split-white-chocolate-martini shortbread?

Well, yes and no, as it turns out. Julia goes with pecan (nuts seem to be a favourite, which perturbs me) and also sticks some sea salt in, which used to be a really fancy idea but is now basically the single most simple addition you can make to some caramel. It’s not even that good! It’s like dropping a Mars bar in the ocean and deciding that’s somehow improved it. Basically, although it sounds very… baker-y, I don’t think I’d like pecan and sea salt millionaire shortbread very much. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t like most of the entries in this challenge: James goes with maple and pecan, apparently going back to his ‘American roots’ (which is to say he lived there for three years, but at least he and Sandi get an opportunity to sensually lick gold leaf off their fingers for no good reason). Steven goes with orange and macadamia while Liam uses peanut butter; can nobody do something with marshmallow fluff or something like that? I guess that’d make it a rocky road, but I don’t think anyone would complain.

Scottish Tom finally bucks the trend with his stem ginger and… oh, no, wait, almonds are nuts too. Ugh. Hannah and I quickly chat about what we’d go for – she suggests orange zest, which almost immediately prompts Sophie to reveal that she’s going for a four-layer Jaffa theme using exactly that. Jaffa cakes were actually a technical challenge last year or the year before; surprising presumably nobody, because this is the point of the technicals, most of them were shit.

While all this is going on, Sandi does deign to divulge the details of exactly what caramel is: sugar and heat. Great. Thanks. Apparently it’s stupidly hard to prevent burning or crystallisation, giving caramel a reputation as an extremely difficult thing to make despite apparently containing only one ingredient. (As it turns out, we later learn that actually it’s also got butter and cream, which somehow makes the difficulty EVEN MORE DIFFICULTER. And we’ve got three whole challenges of this legendary trickiness! How the hell did the first person ever discover caramel, anyway? Were they just sitting around going ‘I bet something cool happens if I do this in a way that doesn’t cause it to become a total balls-up, which it seems to be doing every time’?) As already mentioned, Stacy’s the first one to give up and start again on her rum and chilli chocolate recipe; naturally, Paul grabs the rum and actually chugs it as if he were a pirate or, more likely, an absolute nutter – as in ‘holy shit, Dave just snorted a whole bottle of vodka, what a nutter’.

Speaking of nuts, Prue wanders over to Liam’s peanut butter recipe to tell him that ‘what [he’s] good at is very strong flavours’. We all then wait for the ‘but’, which Prue leaves tantalisingly unspoken, resulting in all our minds automatically just filling in the gaps with all the things Liam’s not so good at. I’d really like him to do well. He seems nice, and might well be my second favourite behind Yan. She’s gone mad this episode, going thermometer-less on her recipe; it doesn’t pay off. Stick to the science, Yan, it’s what you know! Finally, we’ve got Kate, who’s the only one to use herbs in her recipe. She sticks salt and bay in her caramel, and she’s even got a historical reason for it to boot. I reckon Kate might be a dark horse, y’know – recent winners Candace and Nadiya were both just sort of solidly there until the last few weeks, when they suddenly stepped up and owned the whole thing.

It’s not a bad turnout, in the end. There are a few failures, though: James had too much pecan, Julia had too much salt and Yan apparently just got the textures totally wrong (that’s what you get for giving up on science). Sophie and Tom don’t even get theirs out of the cases, with Tom leaving his as a tray bake in true Scottish fashion; Sophie’s at least taste pretty good, though. ‘Soft and silky’, Paul describes them, much like his own scrotum. ‘They look hideous, but they taste amazing’, Paul adjudges, much like his own balls. (These latter comments being unspoken, of course, but you can totally see him thinking it.) For the first time, Paul doesn’t even like Steven’s, neither taste nor texture being satisfactory – annoyingly, though, Prue still thinks they’re pretty good because she’s basically just a fangirl.

On the more successful side, Kate’s are all uniform and apparently rather good, but they look something like 70% caramel! Mine are like 40-30-30 (shortbread, caramel, chocolate) – I’m pretty sure I instantly became diabetic just watching this episode, and I daren’t think what’s going on in Paul Hollywood’s arteries after sampling all these. Liam also makes a decent visual display with his Tetris-themed thingy, which does appeal to me, but… Liam, the showstopper’s the one where you do props. Luckily, the taste is also top-notch, enough to get a coveted Hollywood handshake. Poor little guy’s a bit overwhelmed by the praise (as opposed to Steven, who was just sort of like ‘well, yeah, why not’ when he got his back in the first episode).

Moving on to the technical, it’s a Dutch treat (Sandi makes an obligatory marijuana joke). I immediately bet that it’s stroopwaffles, a very sugary and very delicious thing I ate far too many of when I was in Holland; I turn out to be right, astonishing Hannah. When Prue gives her ‘advice’, she reveals that she pronounces ‘caramel’ much as it’s written, which prompts me to lament about how Mary Berry would have said ‘caaaaarmel’. I’m jolted out of my despair, however, by the return of a feature the Beeb’s version of the show used to have: a ‘story of the thing we’re asking them to cook’ video in which Noel goes to Holland to learn about stroopwaffles. Surely he didn’t really go to Holland for a two-minute piece about fucking stroopwaffles? It must be a Dutch bakery in London or something… nope, it really was Holland. There’s not really much worth summing up here except that Stacey came first in what was broadly one of the worst technicals of all time, which is a shame because I really do like a good stroopwaffle. Everything was just too grainy, apparently. Liam does reasonably well, but Yan seems to be dropping towards the bottom of the pile at this point, which is a concern.

Let’s forget that pile of stroop and mosey over to the showstopper, which is a caramel cake with a spun sugar element. This sounds like it could very easily get waaaay too sweet, but also I would totally eat it. Perhaps cleverly anticipating another stroopwaffle-style fuckup of grainy proportions, James claims to be deliberately leaving his caramel a bit gritty for… effect, or something; he and Liam are using nuts, again, while semi-professional Candace impersonator Kate’s using fruit for her toffee apple recipe. Tom, who sort of needs to redeem himself at this point, goes all out with a recipe that sounds like it could be amazing: hummingbird cake using banana and pineapple (I think) with passion fruit cream and pecan praline. Yan’s also going for it with a rainforest tiger thing; her ideas always look the best in the little preview sketches, but I always worry it won’t look quite as good in real life.

Sophie, who did a four-layer thing and ran out of time on the previous day’s challenge, does a four-layer thing and hopes not to run out of time on this one with her Italian meringue, buttercream and chocolate mirror glaze, four types of caramel, praline sponge and birds’ nest concoction. Stacy’s also going for style; her cake with spun sugar centrepiece looks in the preview as if the centrepiece is going to be much larger than the cake. Steven’s doing a crown-shaped red velvet cake with frozen raspberries or strawberries, I forget, which to my eternal irritation sounds quite good. We get a close-up of someone’s hands chopping stuff in latex gloves at this point, which I’m sure wasn’t always a requirement. Maybe a former contestant developed some sort of bizarre mutation from handling too many ingredients.

Bake Off‘s reputation as an absolute gold mine for Innuendo Bingo (if you don’t know what Innuendo Bingo is, do yourself a favour and find out) continues, by the way, when Kate declares that her construction is ‘not as big of an erection as [she] hoped’, which is a bit forced but you can’t really blame her. The erections only get more flaccid when someone mentions that humidity can actually destroy spun sugar creations, which seems a bit unfair; most of the impressive work is looking a little… shrivelled by the time it reaches the judges’ table.

Despite the humidity, Sophie’s nest and eggs do well, with Paul swallowing an entire egg in an impressive and perhaps revealing display of his utter lack of a gag reflex; James, meanwhile, presents a rubbery sponge. Liam gets high praise for his presentation and also happens to have made a delicious cake! Heck yeah, Liam, you’ve redeemed yourself. If you can’t make Star Baker this week, it’s probably not going to happen. Meanwhile, Stacy’s – as per the sketch thing – turns out to be less of a cake and more of a small slimy brick with a large ornament atop it; Julia goes for a nice simple presentation compared to some of the high-concept stuff elsewhere, an elegant design with shards of caramel around the outside – and her recipe, poppy seed caramel cake, sounds pretty nice.

While we’re on the subject of high-concept, Yan’s tiger cake is judged to look fantastic, even going so far as to have a tiger stripe baked into the inside of the mix, and the flavours are good, but the sponge is a bit tough. C’mon, Yan. You’ve got so much more to give! On the other end of the spectrum, as far as I’m concerned, Steven’s crown does not look like a crown at all. Please stop stroking his ego, judges, he does not need it. Fortunately, it’s a stodgy, disappointing cake. Hurray! Also in the ‘disappointing’ camp, unfortunately, is Tom: Paul says his petal-y design is a bit basic, but I think it’s quite pretty. Prue agrees it’s a nice look, but argues that the focus should have been caramel, which I suppose is fair. Sadly, regardless of how it looks, when it comes to taste both judges agree that it’s underbaked to the point of rawness and is really not good at all. Oh dear. Prue does throw him a bit of a bone in that the butter icing is apparently nice.

Finally, Kate gets a ‘wow’ – her cake does look cool, and apparently tastes beautiful. If only we could taste it too. Ah, well… let’s find out the results – WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S ANOTHER AD BREAK

When we return, which is conveniently just about long enough for me to calm down about the fact that this show now has commercials, we learn that Kate’s the star baker this week, and Tom’s done thanks to that one ballsup (which may have saved Yan, so I can’t bring myself to be too upset about it). To be fair, he did basically forget to cook his cake. ‘Just an off day, but one slip and that’s it,’ says Paul, which holds true unless you’re Steven, who had a rather bad week (to my delight).

As you may or may not be aware, I watch this with my other half, Hannah, and she comes out with some real crackers (which I occasionally repurpose in the article with total shamelessness). So from this week on, we’re going to have a weekly ‘Things Hannah said during this episode’ section, which will hopefully get a catchier name at some point.

Things Hannah said during this episode:

  • ‘Liam may be the colour of chocolate but that probably won’t help him with caramel.’
  • ‘I don’t like Tom. Oh, wait, is it Tom I don’t like? No, it’s Steven. Sorry, Tom! You’re OK!’
  • ‘I wonder where they park. It’s a big field, I hope they can park nearby.’
  • ‘Who’s the Humpty Dumpty one again?’ [She means James. Sorry, James.]
  • ‘I think we know who’s going home – it’s the man I thought I hated. Sorry, Tom.’

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