Faced with cooking a sugar-free cake, Mat and Paul both chose the same type: carrot cake! The king of cakes, if you ignore all other cakes. What’s that? You’ve brought two cakes to the office for your birthday – a carrot cake and another one? I’ll have a slice of the other one, please.
As well as making a cake that is barely a cake, Mat was risking a slack mix, Mary Berry warned, by adding dates, orange zest and raisins: this was such a lot of flavouring and so little binding, it could end up being not so much a cake as some hot ingredients.
Alvin was sunny. “I’m making a pineapple upside-down cake. Simple, classic.” Bake Off history is strewn with failed contestants who forgot where they were and knocked up a bog-standard coffee and walnut when everyone around them was making biscuit suspension bridges with ganache-powered meringue cars. Was Alvin metaphorically inserting his head in the oven?
With more than half an hour still to go, Alvin had finished. “I’m worried that it might be too simple,” he said, looking down at his small pineapple cake while Ugne arranged her chocolate and quinoa sponges into a circular checkerboard pattern. Paul expertly sculpted his frosting with the back of a spoon. Alvin caught up with some reading. Nadiya finished making experimental jam from basil seeds. Alvin gave his worktop a nice wipe-down. Ugne lost control of her top layer and ended up kneeling in front of the emergency fridge, frantically re-trowelling. Alvin stared into space.
Like ants ganging up to bring down a magnificent millipede, the other bakers were all gunning for three-time Star Baker god Ian. “It could go wrong for him at any time,” said prison governor Paul, smiling and ready to dispense punishment. Mat loomed behind Ian as they both cooled their sponges, sarcastically copying the front-runner’s tray-flapping style.
Keener than anyone to tug Ian off his sugar-spun perch was Paul Hollywood, who was delighted when his prediction that Ian’s pear sponge would be tasteless proved correct: “Pear’s not going to bring anything to the party in an unsweetened cake. It was the wrong choice.” Ugne tried and failed to suppress a gossipy Les Dawson “ooooh”.
Not faring well was Flora, who’d baked a Ryan Reynolds: beautifully presented but unpalatably dull. Ugne’s sponge was, beneath the frosting landslide, gunk. But what of Alvin? His humble upside-down cake was, in Paul’s opinion… (having waited for 40 minutes for everyone else to finish, Alv cruelly had to hang on for another 20 seconds of Hollywood pause)… “superb”!
Ah, this is what it’s all about. Time to get down, cock a hip and inject some pure funk into proceedings. “What we’re testing them on is their base knowledge of gluten-free flours,” said Paul Hollywood, having ordered the nine surviving bakers to make him 12 gluten-free party pittas.
Surprise signature high-flyer Alvin plummeted instantly, revealing not only that he had never baked anything gluten-free, but that he hadn’t baked a regular pitta and had only eaten one once. What’s more, he remembered it as being “a triangle”. Or was that naan bread? Are naans and pittas the same? Alvin wasn’t sure.
Alvin was in trouble. He approached a sink where Mat and Paul were convening and tried to look casual. Which shape would they be aiming for? Mat panicked and hurried back to his workstation. Paul remained firm, inscrutable and faintly amused by the feeble attempt to beguile him, like he would if a prisoner requested permission to set up an orienteering club.
Everyone was having trouble, though. The sticky dough smelled funny and proved impervious to kneading. Would it resist proving too? Uncertainly, the bakers slammed their bowls into the proving drawer.
A few episodes ago, some contestants flirted with the “proving setting on the oven”, but the drawer is back in vogue. I’ve done the research and can tell you that a Miele proving drawer will set you back £1,029, but it’s still just a warm drawer. In his book, series three bread magician James Morton says they’re all balls, and at home you should refrigerate overnight instead.
Anyway, Alvin was indeed last with his unacceptably thick bread. Too much density meant failing the key test of the pitta being able to form a pocket – a mark not everyone missed. “Gosh, there’s room for all sorts of things in there,” said Mary, stretching one of Paul’s pittas approvingly and mentally filling it with lettuce, tomato, hummus, yellow chillies, raw onion, crusty mutton and all the sauces.
Nadiya’s dough envelope gaped even more, so she pipped Paul to first place. In the “pitta despair” with Alvin was Tamal, who’d made rock-hard floury discs, and Ugne, whose doughy place mats put her in the mix for elimination.
A dairy-free ice cream roll: simple in essence, which meant a chance for potential champions to set their creativity free. Mat, on the other hand, made a Swiss roll with wonky jam stripes on. As he looked up to see Ugne piping something elaborately Gothic and Ian constructing a mathematically perfect cylinder of mango using special tools, Mat realised a crisis was looming.
Ian’s mousse – an unnecessary flourish in the centre of his ice cream – emerged perfectly from its Ian-made contraption, to a smattering of awed applause. The lizard king was back on his throne. “He’s clever,” said Nadiya affectionately, not quite managing to keep that smile on until the cameras were off. Ian got on with making a palm tree from green caramel – complete with not two but three hanging nuts, to ward off distracting innuendo. Ian thinks of everything.
Paul, however, had his pecker up. After a good signature and a great technical, he saw a chance to snare the Star Baker gong, He took Ian’s desert, or dessert, island theme a stage further by fashioning a sunbathing woman from fondant. Unlike Ian, though, Paul can be weakened by Bake Off sauce. Mel Giedroyc pointing out a hole in the fondant-woman bikini’s “gusset” left him hysterical. Any escape plan from Paul’s prison must involve commandeering the tannoy and playing a tape loop of the word “gusset”.
In the judging, competition was fierce at both ends. As usual, Ugne’s creation looked like she’d brought it from home in a paper bag on a crowded bus. Had her gorgeous peanut butter and grape jelly flavours saved her? Too-thin sponge meant Flora suddenly lurched downwards with something nobody wants: an unkempt bûche. And Mat had indeed made a Swiss roll: not just dairy-free but largely ice-cream free, since spirals abhor a thick filling. One of those three had to go, because Alvin continued his brilliant/awful/brilliant form by nailing his showstopper.
At the top, Paul the contestant’s island was paradise, putting him in contention despite the disturbing Freudian voodoo moment when Paul the judge maimed the fondant lady with a bread knife. Nothing shall come between Paul and Paul, not even a tiny, anatomically dubious edible woman.
Was this the chance for Paul to realise his dream and award his doppelganger Star Baker? No! Technical bake winner Nadiya had snuck up with a fine showstopper of her own… but it was one cakey landslide too many for Ugne.
>> Week four: meringue, meringue, meringue and a bloody handprint
Paul Hollywood will be talking all things baking at the Radio Times Festival. You can buy tickets here.