“I’m just making some chilli sugar,” said James cheerily, stirring a bowl of what really, actually was icing sugar and red chilli. “I’ve got a whole chilli in here. Not sure how wise that was…”
The French-themed semi-final was a tense affair, about as dramatic and unforgiving as telly can get while still being about cake. Hardcore patisserie.
Round one was petit-fours: delicate macaroons (the ones the size of a 50p piece that cost that much each, not the big ones with paper on the bottom), tiny tartlets and waffer-theen choccy treats. Precision and respect for baking tradition were paramount. Naturally, James chose this week to go completely off-grid.
He started by becoming the first Bake-Offer this year, perhaps ever, to taunt Paul Hollywood quite openly. “Have you not tried that flavour combination before, Paul?” said James of his chilli and lime macaroons. “Oh. I’m surprised,” he added, goading the big man still further.
That this was potential suicide was underlined when Paul replied with the dreaded “Good luck!” As we know by now, this translates as: “Your plan is ridiculous. I look forward to squashing your failed cakes with the back of a spoon.” James was unruffled.
Brendan was in his element, piping to the millimetre, but suddenly John and Danny both looked like their mojos had soggy bottoms.
Danny scored well with raspberry and basil financiers, less so with blackberry and peppermint macaroons. Her third offering was langues de chat, so called because their long, thin shape and dipped-chocolate end are meant to resemble cats’ tongues. Danny’s chocolate dip, however, was overenthusiastic and thus bulbous and phallic. Paul diplomatically said it looked like a foot, but was still unimpressed.
“It’s red mucus,” said John, morosely trying to stir his raspberry tartlet filling. At judging time, he was told his madeleines looked horrible and his macaroons lacked shine. Paul then dismantled a raspberry tartlet. “That texture between the raspberry and the chocolate…”
“It’s like mucus?” interrupted John. Don’t help him!
The technical bake was a fraisier: two slices of tricky Genoese sponge separated by tricky crème pâtissière, delicately edged with strawberries. John’s crème egg cooked, so the mixture went into his consistently lucky bin. As he got redder and shakier, James fretted over the cruelly vague recipe the judges had left for the contestants. Tension mounted.
Danny looked to be in control, marking her sponge with a ruler before slicing it exactly – until she put her bake together. Her crème pât had splurged; the roof was coming in. A strawberry mockingly leapt onto the worktop.
The barometer rose still further. I held my breath as, with ten seconds of the challenge left, Brendan uncertainly transported his cake onto a presentation plate that was five agonising feet away, with spatulas not quite meeting underneath.
Brendan made it, but the time lag between finishing and judging did for Danny’s fraisier. A tragic reveal showed us that all the strawberries had left the building and were hanging around outside, smoking and giggling.
Shockingly, Brendan’s filling was also insufficiently assertive – but James muddled through again to win the round, and despite all the sweating John got his right too and was back in the game.
To finish, a choux gateau. Everyone made a St Honoré, the classic puffy ring with little puffy balls on. Everyone, that is, except James, who went for a Paris-Brest, which is normally a choux bike wheel. James was going to do the full bike.
How would he build it, the judges asked? “I don’t know.” Where would he put the filling? “I don’t know,” smirked James. “Bare-faced cheek,” said a shocked Paul.
John was nearly in tears as his choux refused to puff, while Danny’s gateau looked perfect, with only the nagging memory of the judges not being sure about her rose and lychee flavours standing between her and survival.
But that was enough. Rose water had fatally flooded Danny’s bake. John had salvaged his: he waited for the judges to say his choux were like old boots, but they never did. Danny was going home. So who’s going to win?
“Mm hmmmm,” said James as time ran out on the showstopper, licking icing sugar off his fingers and grunting like a satisfied Frenchman.
“Absolutely lovely,” chirped Mary Berry, chewing on James’s spectacular pastry bicycle. Paul waited for everyone else to stop cooing, then tried to take revenge for earlier: “I actually think you could have got a lot more volume from your choux,” he sniffed. “It hasn’t gone to its full explosion. I was expecting more balloon.” Too late. James was star baker again.
WIN A BAKE OFF BOOK!
Each week, readers of these reviews can WIN a copy of the Bake Off book, How to Turn Everyday Bakes into Showstoppers by Linda Collister, normally priced £20.
To enter, follow us @radiotimes and tweet, using the hashtag #gbbort, your best and funniest answer to this question: Who should win the 2012 Bake Off, and why?
Entries by 12 noon on Friday 12 October, please.
Last week’s WINNER: June Harrison, with the answer: “Paul Hollywood cools mine down by blowing me kisses over them.”
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