It’s semi-final week and Rahul, Ruby, Briony and Kim-Joy are at the gates of heaven, with book deals, chat shows, a tour of provincial cookery theatres and the holy grail of a TV series waiting just past those pastry gates.To fall at the final hurdle is a terrible thing, yet strangely enough the tension of the previous couple of weeks seems to have dissipated, with even Rahul seemingly borderline relaxed with even a smile or two appearing on his usual sour-puss features.
It was classic French patisserie week: something that we Brits are really no good at at all. If ever you are led to believe that British cooking and our culinary heritage is equal to our European neighbours, I give you the patisserie window. On the continent you will see chocolate tortes and truffles, choux structures, beautiful tarts and meringue masterpieces. Compare that with our Belgian buns with glace cherries, shortbread men in Norwich City strips, cream horns and ice cream cones filled with marshmallow and topped with hundreds and thousands. Oh how Manon must have been kicking herself.
Madeleines were the first task. They are a huge favourite in our house, usually when we buy them from Jaime Garbutt at Norwich’s Figbar. The ones baked to order at the London restaurant-cum-institution that is St Johns also take some beating.
I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to my madeleines: I like them exactly as they should be, plain and unembellished, but Bake Off being Bake Off the contestants were expected to ice, dip, pipe and generally ruin them. They all seem obsessed with “the hump”, opposed to what they tasted like. Kim-Joy’s humped the best, but that was due to an excess of baking powder or maybe Viagra. She did, however, decorate them beautifully, with yes, you’ve guessed it, rabbit faces. Ruby’s were the poorest, looking a bit like flat doughnuts.
The technical challenge was mission impossible, with Prue proclaiming it was “near impossible”. A seven-layered confection of chocolate sponge, bavarois, mousse and crouqant topped with a mirror glaze. It was in and out of the freezer more times than Mr Whippy on a summer’s day.
Kim-Joy seemed to be a near breaking point: just hearing the words “technical challenge” seems to instill panic, and at one point she was in tears and proclaimed she wanted to go home. Rahul’s work bench reminded me of the only time I’ve tried to teach a chocolate making class: and why I don’t anymore. It looked like an explosion at Rowntree Macintosh’s.
Ruby had never made a bavarois before. Good for her: any dessert that contains gelatine is best avoided, beef is not something you want in your dessert. The judges were in a sympathetic mood this week, despite Paul’s warning that it was going to be brutal. Words of encouragement, hugs and even kisses were dispensed from Prue, Noel and Sandi to all except Ruby. She is one tough cookie and definitely the sort of person I’d like in my kitchen, refusing to be intimated by Paul and taking Noel’s ribbing with extraordinary good grace. Gloriously she came first in the unveiling of the layers of the seven veils of cake.
And so to the toughest challenge yet: 36 pastries that could adorn a Parisian patisserie window. Pompous Paul proclaimed they had to cook like a professional, not an amateur. How do you do that then? Work for 14 hours straight and then do your own washing up because the kitchen porter didn’t show up for their shift?
Rahul decided to keep it simple, though his final efforts looked like someone had put a brick through his shop window. His éclairs were declared boring, his mille feuille both “hideous” and “stunning”. Perhaps they were hideously stunning.
Ruby cooked with confidence, always a good sign. Like everyone else, her pastries were twice the size they should have been but were declared delicate, despite heavy handedness with the lemon verbena flavouring.
Kim-Joy should have been at home with plenty of opportunities to show off her decorating skills. I was expecting great things which didn’t seem to materialise - I didn’t even see any animals on her cakes. Poor show.
Briony threw everything but the kitchen sink at the showstopper but in the melee it seemed she got her salt and sugar mixed up. Never a mistake you want to make, least of all in a semi-final. With blood red choux, raw puff pastry and empty éclairs it wasn’t a good week.
Star baker and an oven with her name on it in the final went to Ruby. Well cooked that woman: she’s been the most likeable from the off in a cast of lily-livered needy kneaders. Red-hot favourite Briony fell like a once-perfect soufflé. Prue was sad, saying “no one wanted her to go”…except her and Paul, presumably.
So it’s still all to play for. It’s a difficult one to call as they have all been awarded star baker on two occasions. I think it’s Kim-Joys to lose, but then again it might be one of the other two: one thing’s for certain, one out of the three is going to win. We will have to wait until next week to find out the answer: unless you follow Prue on Twitter, of course, in which case she’ll announce it before it’s even aired.