The Great British Bake Off 2016 – Botanicals – Week Six

Firstly ERMAHGERD. It’s week six. How can this even be possible? Time on The Great British Bake Off seems to distort. It waves a floury, two-fingered salute to all the normal rules that govern this sort of stuff (I don’t know what it’s called. Ask Brian Cox). You wait three quarters of a year to watch the damn thing and it’s all over in about a nano-second.

Then there’s that terrible thing where you want to watch it, and Wednesdays to roll around quicker, and yet you don’t want it to be over, and you’re just torn and it’s like argh! Or is it just me?

Tara put this better in one of the comments for last week’s episode, by the way. What she said.

I’ll get my coat.

This week we had botanicals week for the first time in Bake Off history. I was not convinced. It sounded too much like a shampoo commercial squeezed into a baking format and not enough like hard core cake making, but on balance I enjoyed it more than batter week, which was mostly a total nonsense.

It may have been that the bakes were actual bakes this week that made it better. It may have been that in my humble opinion, this week was the tensest yet, and each week has been tenser than the last. As Nicki said at the end; ‘We spent most of the time texting ‘Oh no!’ to each other. The other favourite sentence we typed this week was ‘Poor X ‘(insert appropriate baker’s name here). My jaw now hurts from clenching its way through three rounds of culinary trauma disguised as a gently entertaining baking show.

The bakers started the challenges by warming up with a citrus meringue pie. The pastry, Paul said, must be crisp (as if we didn’t know this), the curd must be a riot of citrus and according to Mary, who went on about this alarming, the meringue must have a satisfying crunch to its top, preferably baked in the oven, before cutting through to the meringue goo below. Mary obsessed about this throughout the challenge. I haven’t seen her quite so aerated in a long time. She even had a  sub rant about the over reliance of the modern baker on the new fangled blow torch instead of the old fashioned oven.

Blow torch manufacturers up and down the land wept into their balled up hankies and pulled the shutters down forevermore. Setting fire to their now, redundant stock with one last flick of the despised blow torch before throwing it on the pyre, followed by their own, despairing bodies.

Andrew had yet another bad round in terms of actually cooking things. He did turn the oven on, which is one blessing at least, but the bottom of his pastry case was worryingly pale, and Paul’s spider senses were tingling as soon as fork hit crust. I have a theory that Andrew’s oven is cursed, and is actually out to get him by either over or under baking everything he puts in it, except for the weeks where it just refuses to bake anything at all. I think he should put in for a bench transfer. It was a problem that plagued him for the entire weekend, and there were tears before bedtime.

Tom had a disastrous meringue round. This was once more down to his stubborn refusal to bend to the dictates of flavour. This week he decided that pumpkin was actually a citrus fruit. Now, pumpkin may be many things, but it is not and never has been a lemon. No amount of finessing or stern, beetling looks from under Tom’s perpetually furrowed brow was going to convince anyone that it was. As far as that went, I think he was trying to take on Val’s mantle this week, due to there being a huge, Val shaped vacuum left in the tent. One of the things that made Val’s words work magic however, was that Val herself believed everything she said. Tom just couldn’t pull that off. You could see he was trying to convince himself as much as everyone else, and it just didn’t work. I did yearn for Val in this round to be honest. I entertained myself imagining what meringue based shenanigans she would have come up with, given that she probably makes one every week.

Selasi and Benjamina were a delight this week. They seemed to be having a competition within a competition, when Selasi could shift himself out of zen mode long enough to participate. He does like to lie down on the floor a lot, which to be fair is where I would spend a lot of time if I were on Bake Off. The only difference is, he chills out, and I’d be rolling around in the foetal position, crying.

Also, I am really hoping that they are not having a competition. I am hoping they are going out, and the final legacy of Bake Off will be a wedding, with cake from every baker that ever participated on the show, and lots of drop dead gorgeous Selasi/Benjamina babies. Please let this happen. Thank you. Kind regards.

As far as the pies went, I thought Selasi’s looked better, but Benjamin’s won hands down on taste. Jane ticked all the boxes for Mary and would have won even if she’d have piped her meringue onto a shoe box full of satsumas, because she was the only one who baked hers in the oven.  Candice’s looked promising until her piping nozzle got clogged with coconut and her subtle green stripes ended up a bit toxic waste like, and absolutely everyone except Jane and Selasi had problems with getting height on their meringue this week. I would suggest firm hold gel, and hanging upside down off the bed. It’s always worked for me.

This week’s technical was to create two herb fougasse, which are like a French version of a ciabatta, but more crunchy. Rav, I was delighted to see, got the perfect crunch. Tom trounced everyone with his top notch bread skills, and Selasi bombed this week due to being far too relaxed and producing loaves like small, underdone trampolines.

The fougasse, is apparently, supposed to look like a leaf. From the decoration that Paul asked for,  you need to think of Seventies Swiss cheese plant leaves, and about as large. Sadly, due to issues with where Paul said the slashes for the leaf pattern had to be placed, I was put in mind rather more of lady gardens than cheese plants. This kept me cheerful throughout.

Especially when Paul commented on their chewiness.

The showstopper this week was where it all went a bit insane and everything you thought you knew got turned around.  The challenge was to create a three (or more) tiered floral cake. You could go for flowers on it, or in it, or round it, or everywhere. It was a fairly loose brief. Mine would have been three Vicky sponges decorated with a lot of privet clippings and some carnations from the garage.

Nicki and I like to place bets on who will get star baker and who will go home. It’s part of our weekly ritual. This week, we had agreed that Tom would probably be going home, and Candice would win star baker. We made this decision as soon as Tom announced he was going to make three, tea flavoured cakes. One chamomile, one jasmine and green tea and one so horrifying I blacked out with floral tea based cake stress at this point and remember no more. It was the mention of chamomile that tipped me over the edge. Who the hell wants a cake that tastes like boiled grass?

Mary and Paul seemed to be in agreement with me there, but we were all stunned when Tom’s cakes were pronounced excellent, and won him star baker. I was pleased for him, but worried for next week’s desserts, because he will now become even more emboldened with flavours. He’s like the Jilly Goolden of cakes. It will all be pampas grass flavoured Swiss roll made with hemp flour and a yard of ale whipped up to look like cream, and I will cry.

Andrew was the one crying this week. Everything went so wrong for him, he had to have a sit down on the crazy paving and fall apart a bit. For a boy faced, ginger optimist with the heart and mind of an engineer, this was terrible. This was almost as upsetting as watching Val getting teary last week. Oscar was in pieces. Andrew is his favourite baker and he just couldn’t take the emotion. He kept shouting. ‘Andrew! Noooo! Pull yourself together!’ which is something we could all get behind.

Luckily for Andrew it was Rav that went home this week. I was very sorry about this. I have a huge soft spot for Rav, who is as cute as a bug’s ear and just a lovely, lovely person who just wants to make sensible cakes and not get flustered by having to make nine thousand small sugar flowers. I don’t blame him. You could tell he was close to having a crazy paving moment himself at one stage, and defeat was in his eyes. I was sad to see him go.

Next week, desserts. Swiss roll will feature. Also the first time I have ever seen cakes on a small ferris wheel. Except in my dreams.

You can catch up here.

 

 

 

 

 

Bucket List Moment

On Friday I was early for my interview for Radio 5 Live, and as the weather was fine, I decided to spend the time I had to wait, wandering around the rather beautiful environs of what is known as Media City.

Before Friday, the only thing I knew about Salford was that it was home to one of my heroes, the ever cheerful Morrissey and his band, The Smiths. From various album covers I had pieced together the idea of sooty, back to backs, rows of terraced houses, and of course, the iconic, Salford Lads’ Club.

Media City could not be further from this if it tried. It is gleaming cubes of glass, experimental architecture by another hero of mind, Daniel Liebeskind, and great swathes of polished up post industrial chic. It is the sort of place you imagine Morrissey shrivelling up in, like a salted slug.

Nevertheless, I thought it was fantastic. I love urban regeneration, particularly urban regeneration that manages to blend the old and new seamlessly, and Media City does that in spades.

Wandering around like Fotherington Tomas of today, squeaking ‘Hello glass. Hello chrome.’ I found myself in a garden space. Walking idly through it, I saw, poking out of some rather leafy shrubbery, the bronze nose of a dog I instantly recognised. As I did so, I experienced a visceral thrill of excitement, for it was the bronze nose of no other than Petra, one of the iconic, Nineteen Seventies, Blue Peter dogs.

On seeing this, I pushed my way through the foliage in a growing frenzy of excitement to have my initial suspicions confirmed within moments, for I was, indeed, standing in The Blue Peter Italian Sunken Garden.

I had no idea that when they closed down BBC TV Centre in London, they had moved the entire Blue Peter garden to Salford. It was nothing short of miraculous to discover it there.

Never have I been so excited to stand in a garden. Not even when I dragged my entire family to Sissinghurst to see Vita Sackville West’s white garden after developing a massive crush on her, did I come close to the joy I felt on discovering this frankly, ordinary looking bit of sunken crazy paving with a fish pond in the middle of it.

THE BLUE PETER ITALIAN SUNKEN GARDEN, though, eh? Eh?

It’s such stuff as dreams are made of.

Well, mine are, anyway.

As a child growing up in Seventies Britain, there was a real dearth of watchable children’s telly, and Blue Peter, which was on twice a week, was one of the staples of mine and nearly every other child I knew’s viewing schedules. I used to religiously try to make all the makes, and failed, due to lack of sticky back plastic.  I used to pester my mother incessantly for stuff for bring and buy sales to raise money for life boats and guide dogs. Everything I thought I knew about tortoise care I learned from Blue Peter. I had my first girl crush on Lesley Judd, for God’s sake.

It wove its way into the stuff of my life like no other programme I ever watched. Except perhaps for those nightmares I had about the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Anyway, I vividly recall the presenters at the time helping to build the Italian Sunken Garden. I watched as they stocked the pond with fish, and Percy Thrower showed them which plants to put in the borders. I remember them sticking the bronze head of Petra on a plinth in one corner. I wondered why they called it the Italian Sunken Garden. Well the Italian bit anyway, I got the sunken bit. It didn’t look very Italian to me though. It still doesn’t. However, that is what it was called, and that is what it remains to me, and many other people like me.

Mostly I remember the scandal that hit the news when vandals broke into BBC Television Centre and trashed the Italian Sunken Garden. It was roughly on a par with the trauma of hearing that the Bake Off had been sold to Channel Four. There was a national outcry. I believe Percy Thrower might even have actually shed a tear on live television.

For some reason, this garden is one of the most potent memories I have of the Seventies. I remember petitioning my parents to take me to London, just to see it. I equally vividly remember my disappointment when they refused on the grounds that it would be hugely disappointing.

Having seen it on Friday morning, I think that had I actually been allowed to drag my parents all the way there at the time, it would indeed have been a huge disappointment. As it is basically, a sunken patio constructed of crazy paving, with a small pond and some raised beds round it.

In my mind it was like the Taj Mahal, but better. In reality it is grey, and drab, and the only things that remotely enliven it are the bronze dog’s head and Shep’s paw prints in the concrete.

Having said that, my seven or eight year old inner child was over the moon to be standing on that crazy paving, first thing on Friday morning. I nearly cried, it was so brilliant. I was so genuinely delighted I rang Jason on his way to work, and when I told him where I was, he was equally as amazed as I had been a few, short moments earlier. It was truly a bucket list moment for me.

I was so excited about it, I spent the entire day telling everyone I met what an absolute thrill it was. Every person of roughly my age that I met, knew exactly what I meant when I talked about it. Every single one of them said: ‘Do you remember when it was vandalised?’ We all got a bit misty eyed about Percy Thrower, and bemused as to why they had to make a dog such a massively impressive statue. I bonded, properly bonded with everyone over that patch of wet concrete. It was one of those moments like remembering where you were when a famous person got shot. It was that good an ice breaker. I am thinking of making it my number one dinner party story, even though I never get invited to dinner parties. That’s how good it was.

As I write this, I am still smiling about it. Every time I tell the story, and I have bored everyone I know rigid with it over the weekend, I smile.

Would swimming with dolphins ever be that satisfying? I truly doubt it, unless they were Italian Sunken Dolphins, obviously.

 

Why blog?

So much has happened in the last few days I don’t know where to begin.

I am spectacularly late for my amazing friend Ann’s cake fest which is raising oodles of money for Syrian refugees. I should be driving. I am in my pyjamas, blogging.  She will understand. Also, cake fest will still be going when I get there. She makes a LOT of cake. Over the years she has raised thousands of pounds for Bliss and for the Riding for the Disabled charity and now refugees. She is a powerhouse.

Ann is someone I met through blogging and I still can’t resist calling her Mrs. Hairy Farmer Family, even though the blog is dormant at this point in time. She and I have become friends in real life, and through her I met Jess, who was also a blogger and now also a real life friend. Both are amazing, brilliant, clever, compassionate women who do enormous amounts of good things in life. I would never have met them if it weren’t for blogging, so absolute hats off to social media, despite what everyone else says.

That is by way of an introduction to a gorgeous piece of writing by Emma who blogs at Belgian Waffle, and who has written this astonishingly beautiful book, which you must all buy.  She too is a wonderful human being (she will say she is not. This is part of what makes her wonderful. Also owls, and krill, and small ponies make her wonderful). We have met a few times, and she is just as good in real life as she is in the virtual sphere. She appreciates cake like no other.

In this article for today’s The Pool, she writes about whether blogging is dead. The answer, in a nutshell, is not really. From my precis you can clearly see why she was commissioned to write it and not me. She does it much more elegantly than me. She also, I am profoundly grateful to mention, quotes me in it a bit. That is not why the article is good, by the way. It’s a great privilege to be in it, and it made me very nostalgic for the old days of blogging. If you’re an old school blogger you will love it. If you want to know what all the fuss was about in the beginning, reading it will give you a hint.

Yesterday I went to Media City (darling) in Salford where I was interviewed for the BBC radio 5 Live Daily show, hosted by Emma Barnett. You can catch up with the show here. I also got my gurning face on the BBC News website article, here. I’m at the bottom, where I belong. It’s the first half hour segment of the programme. Because of that I was also asked to take part in the BBC Radio London, drive time show talking about the same thing later that day.

I was part of a debate around the taboo on women’s periods and whether women should be allowed time off of work for menstrual problems. This too, came out of blogging, thanks to a post I wrote about the woman tennis player, Heather Watson, last year, which got picked up by Mumsnet, who I then wrote a follow up article for.

Because of the show, I met an amazing woman called Nancy (also in the BBC news article), and later on BBC Radio London, another fantastic woman called Claire, both of whom have suffered with terrible period problems and were happy to speak out. We are now in conversation about something we might be able to do to reach out to more women and spread the net a little wider.

It has been an incredibly rich and rewarding couple of days. This might sound like a bragging post, but really it’s not. I am incredibly privileged to have met all these women, and have them in my life. I am incredibly privileged to be able to use my voice to make small changes that might, one day, have a bigger effect than I ever dreamed.  All of this came through a small, unglamorous, personal blog I started ten years ago to stop myself going mental.

Over the years this blog has repaid me a thousand fold what I put into it, whether it be through opportunities or friendships or a platform to speak that reaches a wider audience. People still ask me why I blog.

This is why I blog.

And the not going mental thing.

The Great British Bake Off 2016 – Week 5 – Pastry

Glazing brushes aloft people! Look lively. It’s pastry week on The Great British Bake Off. Set off the flour cannons. Sprinkle sultanas like confetti. It’s time to find out if Andrew uses a micrometer to measure his pastry thickness (yes). It’s time to see if Val ever does anything as Hollywood intended (unashamedly, no). It’s time to see if Tom will find a way to shoehorn hint of polish with tarmac rubble and Old Spice into his baking and pretend it’s sweet (yes).

Pastry week means many things, but two things were as sure as eggs is eggs. Firstly, that the word lamination would be used excessively, and secondly there would inevitably be talk of layers. I was not disappointed by this, losing count of the number of laminations, and being amazed to find out that there is actually an algebraic equation to measure the exact number of layers in pastry. I was so amazed by this, my eyebrows actually shot into my hairline.

They still haven’t come down.

Before we get to the nitty gritty, can I just say that this is one of the tensest seasons of Bake Off, if not the downright tensest-est I have ever seen? Every week there are disasters, in every round. Every week the star baker from the week before has a crisis and everything is turned upside down as it becomes a star baker free for all. Usually, by now there is a firm favourite, someone who even though they might wobble here and there, you’ve got pegged as a potential winner, but this season? In my opinion, it’s all to play for. Seriously, I wouldn’t be that surprised if Mel won, things are that up in the air.

I do think she should get an honourable mention this week, even if she doesn’t actually go on to win the series. I commend her for her excellent Danish pastry theft. I could not have done better myself. If it weren’t for Paul’s gimlet eyes catching what she was up to, she would  totally have made it out of the tent with a stack of five of Candice’s pastries balanced in her hands. Top work, lady.

Given talk of stealing Danish pastries, it seems a good time to mention that this week’s signature round was to make twenty four Danish pastries, 12 sweet and 12 savoury. Long term readers will know that I am intensely interested in Danish pastries, having essayed a trip to Copenhagen two years ago on the pretext of wanting to experience the culture, but actually just wanting to stuff my face with cake. It was everything I dreamed of and more.

I paid very close attention to the Danish construction going on. Val, as ever, going against the grain and doing things entirely her own way, made a virtue out of slightly soggy middles and other middles that just fell out of middles and became holes. Tom tried to convince us that adding what he said was granola, but which looked suspiciously like guinea pig food to pastry was the way forward. As for the unspeakable abomination that was his Weetabix custard surprise Danish, I shudder at the mere thought.

Most people made raw Danish, or dry Danish, or raw, dry Danish. Jane however, played a blinder and had another small weep. I have decided that she looks rather like a sad owl. This is not a criticism. I am all for owls, and their sadness. Candice also did well, which is why Mel tried to sashay out of the tent with half her display under her arm. Sue had probably been gaffer taped to a mixer to allow Mel unfettered access or I’m sure she would have been in there too.

The technical this week was to make a Bakewell tart. It was a Mary Berry, old style Bakewell, with pink, feathery icing and a mile of frangipane in. I am not a fan of the Bakewell, as regular readers will know. This is due to being scarred emotionally by a party at which my dad tried to pass off twelve types of Bakewell as ‘assorted cakes’ and was nearly assassinated by an angry mob waving sharpened tbsps.

Nevertheless I laughed immoderately as Val surpassed herself by not realising that there were two pages of written instructions until she had freestyled herself and her first page into certain doom by not only ignoring everything she was asked to do, but also invoking the third rule of Bake Off by claiming that ‘I make one every week.’ It was at this point that you knew that whatever she made would be more like fish pie than Bakewell, but like Selasi and his zen approach to disaster, she just styled it out.

Rav pipped her to bottom place by producing a Bakewell that resembled the wreck of the Hesperus. His fell apart while Val’s stood firm. In fact, it’s still standing firm, and has been employed as the foundation stone for a new baking school which will be erected on the site of the first ever Bake Off tent. Andrew’s was also disastrous, due to the fact that he failed to turn the oven on for the first fifteen minutes of his baking time which meant everything was rather gelatinous and suspiciously wobbly.

Jane took the Bakewell crown this time, with Candice coming a close second.

The show stopper this week was to make forty eight amuse bouche (horses doovres), twenty four sweet and twenty four savoury, using home made filo pastry. This was a killer challenge and I can only assume that Paul and Mary were hosting a ball later that evening and didn’t want to pay for outside caterers, which was why they wanted so many of the bloody things.

Making things with filo pastry is a bit like knitting with fog, or perhaps more aptly, given the stickiness, spider webs. It gets bloody everywhere, and no sooner have you rolled it to the required thinness than it decides to try and rejoin its fellow pastry sheets and welds itself to every available surface. This was beautifully demonstrated by Tom whose pastry looked like Derek (our cat) had chewed it and spat it out. His flavours, were as ever, deeply troubling to me, and somewhat troubling to Paul and Mary too. Jane continued with her brilliant week and ended with mouthfuls of joy whose only fault were being too big. I cannot fault her on that. I would have been happy to cram it all in.

Candice took Star Baker this week with absolutely stunning looking pastries which amused everyone’s bouche no end. Rav, lovely Rav who had been up to his neck in trouble all weekend, pulled it out of the bag with gorgeous parcels of scrumminess, as did Benjamina.

Val, who completely lost the plot, flailing in pastry ribbons and making things that were so terrible even she, of the indomitable spirit and cheeriness, lost her shine and borrowed some of Jane’s moistness of eye, went home this week. I confess that when this series started, Val was not my favourite, but as the weeks have gone by things have changed. Her wonderful eccentricities, her clear kindness and her gentleness of spirit have foiled the Hollywoodinator and left him speechless, and made me rather love her. Her final words about baking things because you love them, and baking them with love made me shout:

‘NO! YOU HAVE SOMETHING IN YOUR EYE!’

Rather viciously at the television.

If you want to shout this too, you can catch up with the episode here.

Next week, not just a fictional round, an entire fictional episode. Welcome to botanicals week, in which everything must be baked using different bottles of Herbal Essences shampoo.

Or something.

Would you like to talk about Jeeeesus?

I have been promising to make the children risotto for dinner for some time now. Only Oscar and I used to have it. Now we all do (except Jason, who has beans on toast and likes it). Oscar’s loved risotto ever since he was weaned. He likes pea and prawn best. When he was very small he used to call it ‘otto’ and the prawns were just ‘pinks’. He knows the correct terminology now, which I am quite sad about, and I often call it ‘otto’, just because it seems a shame to lose the word.

I learned to make mine from The Naked Chef all those years ago, although I cheat with the stock and pour it all in at once, because I have a life and three kids and I haven’t got time to arse about, ladling stock into al dente rice for the rest of my life. It tastes fine, and I’m quite happy to have my Michelin star revoked, so yarbles to the purists.

Mr. Oliver uses white wine in his recipe, so I do too. You can just use extra stock if you don’t have/like wine, but I prefer the taste with. Last week, when I got round to cooking it, after building it up for weeks, I realised I had run out of white wine. This was most inconvenient, as I only discovered this as I was actually cooking, so I didn’t really have the option of nipping to the shops. Instead I remembered that I had a bottle of Prosecco put away for high days and holidays, and figured that would do instead.

This led to a glass for the ‘otto’ and several glasses for the ‘chief otto stirrer.’ AKA, me.

After a great deal of Prosecco and a very fine risotto (my judgement may have been slightly impaired, I confess, but the children ate it with gusto, and they didn’t get any Prosecco), I was feeling rather mellow. It was all a bit hail fellow, well met in our house. When the doorbell went, instead of my usual; ‘Who the bloody hell could that be?’ I sashayed down the hall feeling jolly and all welcoming.

There were two rather dapper gentlemen at the door, somewhere in their early Sixties I’d say. One of them had a clip board, but it was clear they weren’t selling double glazing because they were in what Alan Partridge would call ‘sports casual’, clothing.

It turned out that they were from the evangelical church round the corner. The kids and I call this the ‘Circle K’ because it has a large, illuminated circle with an equally large, illuminated ‘K’ in it, as its logo. We are also paying homage to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and often walk past the church shouting: ‘Strange things are afoot at the Circle K’ entirely to our own and nobody else’s delight.

Normally, as soon as I find out that someone on my doorstep is of a religious persuasion, I make my excuses and leave. This evening, due to the wine, I did not.

One chap whose name I can’t remember, explained that they had recently done a survey of 100 houses on our road and the church road, and I might have filled it in. I said that I had. This was a blatant lie, and I know I will go to hell, but there you have it. The words slipped out before I could change them. He seemed pleased anyway, which was nice.

The survey covered many things, he explained. Firstly it asked about life in the neighbourhood. It did not have a box for ‘relentlessly aspirational and can’t quite afford Stoneygate.’ Instead it asked about whether you were lonely, and if you were having issues with parking. Two things which they seemed to think might be related.

I know these things not because I can mind read surveys I have lied about in the past, but because the other man, whose name was Maurice, had a clip board with the survey results attached, and he gave me a copy of them.

It was very impressive. The first page dealt with loneliness and parking. There was both a graph and a pie chart to represent this, and Not Maurice told me how a lady with a high vis vest and a clipboard goes round on Sundays, taking the registration numbers of irresponsible evangelical parkers, and then they name and shame them from the pulpit.

After this, the survey asked about Jesus. Not Maurice said I might be surprised to find that 39% of people actually thought that Jesus was the son of God. He did, and Maurice did as well. Maurice bobbed his clip board enthusiastically. They waited for me to agree. When I didn’t, they suggested that like 10% of other people I might believe he was just a good man. I said this was more in my line. Disappointed, Not Maurice brushed over the pie chart that showed 3% thought that Jesus was an absolute charlatan and moved on to ‘spiritual experiences.’

He said that he and Maurice had also been surprised at how many people had said they had had a spiritual experience. Maurice nodded. I nodded. Not Maurice asked if I had had a spiritual experience. I said ‘Yes!’ I do not know why I said this either, but I did. It would have been fine if that pesky Not Maurice hadn’t pounced and asked me what my spiritual experience was.

Naturally, it was at this moment, despite the glib tongued lying I had been doing up to this point, that my wits deserted me and my mind went blank.  After some excruciating erms on my part and some sympathetic clipboard action from Maurice I said: ‘Well I’ve had two large glasses of Prosecco on a school night, and I’d count that as a pretty spiritual experience.’

They left shortly after that.

 

The Company I Keep

Well, that week went quickly didn’t it? I was going to do a lot more blogging after Bake Off, and then I didn’t because the days escaped from me like a deflating balloon whizzing around the ceiling.

Here are a list of things that happened. in no particular order and mainly so that when I am old and senile and think my children have locked me in a broom cupboard and poked me with sticks, they can refer to this to show me that it wasn’t all true.

I hung out with a lot of my friends. This is one of my best things. I may have mentioned this before, but I have excellent friends and having adventures with them, large and small, is one of the great joys of my life.

I also particularly like the fact that by adventures we are often talking about eating cake and drinking coffee, and that still seems pretty exciting.

I escorted my lovely friend Kim on her birthday outing. We went to Market Harborough. It’s a bit posh. We didn’t let that put us off one bit. We had amazing cannoli and coffee at a brilliant Italian Deli. We ransacked the generously filled charity shops and came home with lots of treasure. We ate beautiful food at a pub called The Three Swans. We laughed. The sun shone. It was terrific fun. I bought an Alice Temperley dress for £12. An Alice Temperley dress has been on my bucket list for a long time. Now it’s not, and that made me happy.

I went to see the NT Live of the Terence Rattigan play, The Deep Blue Sea, at our local arts cinema with my oldest friend, Andrea. We love Rattigan, and he didn’t disappoint. Neither did Helen McCrory who was superb in the lead role.

My mum came over and my friend Jenn came to cut her hair, and then we all went on a trip to our local Indian supermarket and filled a trolley with delicious food for about £35. We got as excited by huge bunches of fresh coriander and seventy different types of chilli as we did about my Alice Temperley dress.

Andrea and I took a road trip to London for the day and went to see the play Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour at The National Theatre. I was very excited about this because it’s based on the book The Sopranos by Alan Warner, which is most excellent. The play absolutely nailed the spirit of the book and it was raucous and brilliant and funny, and filthy and sad and just mesmerising theatre.

I had enough points on my Foyalty card to buy myself the new Ottoline book by Chris Riddell and this was an extra special treat because it was totally a surprise and brilliant.

We had a party on Friday night. There was no reason for it, we just kind of turned a family dinner into a party when our friends Alex and his boyfriend Conor and Tilly’s best friend and my adopted teenage son, Jacob came, and we talked and laughed and shouted and ate and it was perfectly perfect as things tend to be when you’re surrounded by your best beloveds.

Today we met up with some more of our best beloveds, Nicki and Rob and their children. We went to play an Escape room adventure where we had to be jewel thieves trying to steal a diamond from a bank vault and it was all very Crystal Maze and we didn’t quite do it. We needed about another thirty seconds, but it was loads of fun. It was such fun in fact that we didn’t really want it to finish, so we went to Wagamamas for lunch, and then they came to our house and the grown ups played Cards Against Humanity and laughed ourselves sick and the children surged around en masse like a flock of starlings, eating doughnuts and playing games, and laughing as much as we were.

And even though the week has had its darker moments, and there has been sadness, and today after everyone went home, reality reasserted itself and cleaning and laundry and baking and things had to happen,  I have been reminded so vividly that really, I am very, very blessed and mostly it is all about the company I keep.

The Great British Bake Off 2016 – Week Four – Batter

Welcome to batter week here on The Great British Bake Off. Well, it’s not actually the tent, but it’s as close as I’m likely to get, so slip your shoes off, pull up a mixer and let’s get cracking.

It could be argued that batter and its related by products are not strictly speaking the stuff of bakers, or indeed baking. I admit that I was somewhat sceptical. What, after all, can you really do with batter, other than make and consume four thousand pancakes and then explode, leaving nothing but a smoke filled, sticky kitchen and a pair of shoes dusted with flour?

You could argue that batter week is about as made up as dampfnudel, except that after last week lots of you commented that they are indeed a thing, albeit a peculiarly German thing and unlikely to catch on anywhere else. You would however, be missing the point about Bake Off, which is that it is all mostly made up, and it has had enough of a battering (See? See what I did?) in recent days. We will let it slide and continue with our weekly round up.

First up this week was making twenty four identical Yorkshire puddings which had to be filled with some kind of savoury mixture. Now whether you have any questions whatsoever about whether batter is baking or not, you have to agree that this was an absolute bugger of a challenge, and was possibly what the word ‘challenge’ was invented to describe.

Yorkshire puddings are, in my opinion, rather like horses. They’re delicate souls who need coaxing, and who, at the least sign of stress, let you down very badly. In fact the only difference between horses and Yorkshire puddings is that a Yorkshire pudding has never won the Grand National.

For years I could not make Yorkshire puddings to save my life, and then my brother introduced me to Gordon Ramsay’s recipe in his Sunday Lunch book, and I have never looked back. I’m sure that it’s not the only foolproof recipe out there, and I know it’s more to do with the nuclear heat applied at every stage, but I am completely superstitious about this, in much the same way that my best friend insisted on wearing her lucky knickers for every single GCSE exam. I will not budge from the strap line: ‘Gordon Ramsay Saved My Yorkshires.’

The thing that makes cooking Yorkshires so difficult is that the slightest little change really upsets them, and so you can be sure that the Third Rule of Bake Off applies double. It doesn’t matter if you always do it like that at home and it works out brilliantly. It doesn’t matter if you were crowned Queen of Yorkshire puddings twenty years on the trot, if you try and cook them in a tent under the steely gaze of Mr. Hollywood, it will all go tits up in the whisk of a batter. And it did.

Jane, the ever moist of eye, had the proper Yorkshire fear this week. She, like me in days of yore, cannot make them and unlike me, did not have a brother, nor indeed Gordon Ramsay, to stage an intervention. She looked on the verge of insanity for the entirety of the bake, and if someone had dropped a baking tray in her vicinity would probably have either gone postal with a spatula, or run screaming from the tent never to be seen again. Despite this, she did very well in the end.

Tom, on the other hand, who I am increasingly convinced is Joaquin Phoenix’ slightly less mad, doppelgänger, had a terrible round. He insisted on using chick pea flour for his batter, which as Rule Three stipulates, worked brilliantly at home. In the tent, however, it repeatedly created things which you could easily have subbed for a discus in the Olympics. It may be that he should think on this, cut his losses and take them on Dragon’s Den instead of Bake Off.

There were varying degrees of success from the other bakers. Val nearly had a total collapse when her first batch of Yorkshires didn’t rise. It was particularly important for her, given that she actually comes from Yorkshire, and would have been denied re-entry, having to skulk the Lancashire borders, whimpering and scratching at the door, had she not pulled it out the bag with her second attempt.

The technical round this week was, in my considered and always humble opinion, absolute bollocks.

The test was to make twelve, identical lacey pancakes in the shape of hearts. I get that it was to test whether they could work consistently under pressure and produce something that looked pretty and edible, but it was even more of a nonsense than dampfnudel, frankly. And I am still wondering what the hell the point of a lace pancake is. You cannot fill it with sugar and lemon. You are basically eating something which is more hole than pancake, and WHAT IS THE POINT? I can’t even carry on down this train of thought I am so annoyed by these items.

As an aside to the whole lace debacle I was pleased to see that Paul was in a better mood this week, and even attempted joviality. I’m not sure which I find more unnerving, his grumpiness or his jollity, which doesn’t always come that easily to him. I was also pleased to see that he acknowledged the curse of pancake makers everywhere, which is that your first pancake is always a bag of shite, and must either be fed to the dog or thrown in the bin.

The show stopper round this week wasn’t really very showy in my opinion. It was undoubtedly challenging, but when you compare it to other show stoppers, things like creating the entirety of the palm houses at Kew using only spun sugar and meringue, making churros wasn’t that enticing visually.

I say that as a woman who spent an entire long weekend in Seville chomping up churros as fast as my pudgy arms could scoop them towards my face. It isn’t that I don’t like them, it’s just that they’re not really the most aesthetically pleasing item you can bake, are they? Basically they’re sweetened, fried dough that you use as a vehicle to manoeuvre as much chocolate into your face as humanly possible. Traditionally they look like extruded, ridged garden hose which has been fried.

Ideally they should look like giant spoons.

The secret with churros apparently is not putting too many of them in the deep fat fryer at the same time. If you do, the temperature goes down and everything gets soaked in oil, and instead of transporting chocolate to your mouth they transport gallons of engine oil into your face instead, which is no fun at all.

The bakers had to make sweet churros, something which Tom completely ignored in favour of pretending that fennel was a deliciously sweet treat. This is patently untrue, as any fule no. Fennel is something that I have come to tolerate over the years and which is resolutely medicinal and undoubtedly good for you, which means that it absolutely is not, and never will be, a delicious treat. Sorry Tom. It is not often I side with Mr. Hollywood, but we are definitely on the same page with regard to fennel. i.e. it is the devil’s work.

Selasi triumphed again this week with his zen baking approach. When his Yorkshires were all different sizes he reclassified them as being large for adults and small for children. When his churros were patently burned and Paul mentioned it, Selasi just looked like butter wouldn’t melt and said wonderingly: ‘Are they?’ He just styles everything out, absolutely everything. I feel like we should put him in charge of something of national importance. He is my national treasure.

Andrew made fancy pants churros in the shape of flowers, which were, unfortunately as dry as dog biscuits, despite looking fantastic, thus ruining his chances of getting star baker this week. In the end it went, deservedly to Benjamina who coolly and calmly knocked it out of the park at every stage of the game this week.

As for who went home, it was a difficult call this week. We hotly debated it as the bakers slid through disaster after batter based disaster and in the end I couldn’t choose between Tom and Kate to go. It was Kate who went home in the end, after three terrible rounds, but it could so easily have been Tom, or indeed Rav, and there were a lot of very relieved faces once Kate’s name had been read out.

You can catch up on batter week here.

Next week pastry. It will be tense. The word lamination will be used. Butter stockpiles will drop. It’s still all to play for.