Here we are again then! Somehow, it’s the semi-final. Bake Off is almost over, Brexit is almost, possibly, hypothetically happening [note to self: must check] and a sentimental mood has descended on the tent, as our four remaining bakers mourn their most recent loss and reflect upon the ties that bind them. Literally; they’re all wearing ties over their t-shirts. It’s like a pop punk funeral in here.
Still, no amount of novelty neckwear can distract from the fact that Lovely Henry is gone, and with him the last twinkly glimmer of a baker who, underneath it all, wasn’t really that arsed. Everyone left is extremely arsed. There’s no disguising it – brows are furrowed, lips pursed, cheeks clenched. You get the feeling that one overly laboured gag from Noel could send somebody full Lizzie Borden with a KitchenAid attachment.
Patisserie week is traditionally a high blood pressure bonanza – but where in previous years we might have had a wisecracking nan in the mix to help take the edge off, this lot are going to be entirely millennial about it. “Excellence is expected,” intones the voiceover. “I never feel calm,” mutters Steph. “I’m having a total disaster,” whimpers Rosie.
If this were GCSEs, they’d be handing out pamphlets about mindful walks and remembering there’s more to life than A* sugarwork. But it’s the Bake Off semi-final, so instead we’re going to fetch more snacks and wait to see if they crack before the caramel does. Fun fun!
Welcome to the pressure dome
The signature patisserie challenge is domed tartlets – more like DOOMED tartlets, amiright? – which must be dainty, identical and exquisitely decorated.
Most bakers are using the crisp, buttery pâte sablée for their tart shells (y’know, Pat Sablay! Does zumba with your Auntie Linda? Had all that fuss with the dodgy timeshare in Torremolinos?). David, true to form, is giving his a minimalist spin – he’s only using a disc of pastry at the bottom, meaning his tarts have no sides. But his bigger challenge is making Aperol-flavoured tartlets without being able to say ‘Aperol’. Mmm, love a refreshing Generic Botanical Italian Liqueur Spritz on a balmy summer’s day! It’s like that 2014 ad campaign never happened.
Steph is in a uniquely strange position, of having four star baker titles under her belt, but knowing that the most regular star baker is often pipped to the final prize by a plucky underdog. Her hope of breaking the curse rests on raspberry, lemon and white chocolate domes with a mirror glaze and chocolate drizzle. Alice is people-pleasing with a chocolate, hazelnut, orange and mocha concoction that one can fully picture on the Costa seasonal special menu, while Rosie has been taking instruction from a sassy tea towel reading ‘When in doubt, gin’. She’s also serving up an anecdote about bull castration, which probably explains why she doesn’t like custard.
As ever, getting all those wibbly fillings set in time is a near-impossible challenge, especially in soaring temperatures. Nobody has been this stressed about the construction of superfluous dome since Tony Blair in 1999. But even after a lot of fretting over mirror glaze, gold leaf and whether Alice’s clammy hands can hold a piping bag, every single tartlet looks the tits. Especially in the case of Steph and her raspberry nipples.
Unfortunately the judges think David’s nuts are too big, but his Unidentified Orange Alcoholic Booze Drink flavour wins them over. Rosie’s runny crème pât (y’know, what we called Pat Sablay the day she did the Park Run with her St Tropez mousse still on!) is her only bum note.
Steph’s domes are also too soft but “nearly perfect”, and Alice’s clumsy piping is her only protection against a Hollywood Handshake. “I think your flavours and your textures and your base are stunning,” says Paul, which is the Meghan Trainor remix nobody asked for.
Soft choux shuffle
Time for the technical – and hip hooray, it’s gâteau St-Honoré! A kind of overly complicated French Viennetta made from two layers of puff pastry and choux buns filled with ‘crème chiboust’, topped with ruffles of chantilly cream.
Prue, who loves choux buns so much that she’s wearing a few spares as a necklace, gives it her highest problematic praise: “worth the calories”. But is it worth the wrist ache and emotional toil, Prue? When Magnum Double Salted Caramel tubs are down to £2.50 in Sainsbury’s? Look me in the eye and tell me that.
Continuing her theme of runny disasters, poor Rosie can’t seem to get her batter thick enough. “I don’t understand, I just don’t understand,” she cries, relegating two batches to a choux bun graveyard. Nobody said the semi-final technical was easy, but no one ever said it would be this hard. She’s going back to the start.
Meanwhile David has already regressed to the safety of childhood, and is singing the theme to The Shoe People while everyone else looks on blankly. Being the only person in the tent over 30 can’t be easy. Tell them how big Wagon Wheels used to be Dave, blow their tiny young minds.
While their choux buns rise, the bakers have to take on the Everest of pastry-making: puff. No roughing it this time; that butter needs to be folded in with origami precision to ensure perfect lamination. And with only an hour to go, a tearful Rosie is starting again on that too – plus her crème pât, because she forgot to add gelatin. “You’ve got this!” says Sandi, with all the misplaced confidence of the work friend before the big presentation who says you don’t smell remotely hungover.
Still, she’s not the only one with problems. David’s pastry sheet has puffed up into a kind of leathery clutch bag, and Alice has burnt her caramel – a fact she only notices after she’s already dipped half her buns in it. Steph’s chiboust looks like scrambled egg, and there’s butter chibousting out of her pastry too. This is hardly the confidence boust she needs.
When the St-Honorés come marching in, there’s not much between them. Alice is fourth with her two-tone caramel and overworked cream, Steph is third with lumpy buns and David second with soggy pastry. But, in what is either a feat of superhuman speed or crafty editing, Rosie has managed to dip and filled her choux buns and assemble her entire gateau in five minutes flat. And not only does it look passable – it’s the best bloody one! Sandi was right, she DID have this! Maybe we can all do anything we put our minds to! Maybe we will launch that app we keep talking about!
In their last chance to showcase their talents before the finalists’ fates are sealed, our bakers have to craft a crystal-clear sugar glass cabinet and fill it with “something precious to them”. At this point we’re so immune to Bake Off’s particular breed of whimsical nonsense that we can hear “crystal-clear sugar glass cabinet” and nod along as though they said “flapjacks.”.
Steph is paying tribute to her grandad Derek with an elegant opera cake, and Rosie is representing the concept of ‘time’ with an orange sablé biscuit clock face, which has the potential to go horribly Salvador Dali if conditions are agin her. I’d fill mine with nothing at all, to represent the concept of ‘space’.
For his greenhouse terrarium, David is going back to his healthy roots by making cakes flavoured with beetroot and parsnip. He insists it’s for “natural sweetness”, but I can’t help feeling that as unnecessary root vegetables go, it’s right up there with those mum on Facebook who paint their baby’s bare arse like a pumpkin. Nobody asked for the Halloween bumpkins, David, and nobody asked for this.
As founding member of the Confection Rebellion movement for climate justice through baking,
Alice is making a ‘Save our Oceans’ cake made to look like a coral reef, featuring edible plant life, sea creatures and five separate layers of Genoise sponge and custard. “We’ll leave you to it, you look a bit hassled,” chuckles Paul, with the air of a man trying to engage you in chat at the gym while you have one headphone tangled in the cross-trainer. How about you leave everyone to it unless expressly asked otherwise, Paul? And by ‘Paul’, I mean ‘all men’.
Intrepid Steph is the only baker not making a biscuit frame to support her sugar glass windows, and I fear for her. I fear for them all actually, working with isomalt – a form of sugar syrup that reaches 338 degrees. In the wrong hands this could turn into a public safety film from the 1980s, but our cautious bakers are home and dry before you can say ‘Frances the Firefly’.
In fact, everyone is so busy with their mirror glazes and decoration that Alice’s chocolate starfish barely even raises a smirk. Sue Perkins would never have let that one go by.
After four and a half hours of high tension, the results are all disappointingly, anticlimactically good. I’m not saying I wanted somebody’s sugar glass cabinet to smash dramatically into pieces in the final few seconds, but I didn’t not want it either.
At first glance, the cabinet positions go something like: Alice = Ikea, Steph = Made.com, David = priceless art deco armoire, Rosie = got it free off Facebook Marketplace. But their contents prompt a reshuffle. Steph has hit yet another high note with her opera cake, and although Alice’s sugar glass looks more like a dusty pet shop fish tank, her coral cake is stunning enough to earn her star baker.
Meanwhile David’s garden of earthy delights might look gorgeous, but the judges mark him down for not showing off more baking technique. To be fair to him, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw scones.
And not for the first time this week, Rosie’s choux has kicked her in the balls. The judges call her cake “dry and floury”, and her buns are as tired as Noel’s ‘Sandi in a sack’ joke. She might have resuscitated herself admirably in the last challenge, but sadly it isn’t enough to stop the judges putting her down.
Yes, our vet in practice is homeward bound. Bye Rosie! It’s been lovely having you. Make sure you’ve packed all your tranquiliser needles; there are kids around.
Next week: it’s all to play for! Anyone could win! Except probably Steph.