If I were on The Great British Bakeoff (and I would be -- producers, you hear that??), Bread Week is the week I would be dreading from the beginning. Not that I'm scared by bread. Or that I don't know how to work with yeast. Or I'm afraid of the elbow grease of kneading (isn't that what mixers are for?). But just because so much can go so wrong, and I'm never quite sure why it does. When something goes wrong with a cake, like it sinks in the middle and looks like a butthole, I know the few things that could cause that: overmixing the eggs, too much leavening, or prematurely opening the oven door or poking the cake. But with bread? Who the hell knows? Just make sure your water is the right temperature, and pray (if that's your jam) is some of the rare advice I have to give.
And on GBBO, they talk up Paul so much, to be working with his recipe is a bit of pressure.
Anyway, yeast is always the place to start. I guess one other tip I have is: keep your yeast and your salt separate until your yeast is activated and working. Salt, allegedly, kills yeast, and at this point, you need all the help you can get--or at least I do.
So, after you make sure to keep your yeast far from your salt, you have to "activate" your yeast, if you're using "active dry yeast," like I do. Paul's original recipe calls for rapid rise yeast, where you can just dump it in with your dry ingredients, but I happen to like the added suspense of activating the yeast, and the smell of yeast activating, so I go old school. For this, the beginners (ahem, and me...) can whip out a thermometer. First, make sure your water is between 95F and 115F. That's what most people would call "lukewarm," but because I'm perpetually cold, and have a terrible sense of, well, anything, I whip out the digital thermometer and get precise about it. Once you sprinkle the yeast and mix a little, then sit for 10 minutes, you get this foamy, bubble, delicious-smelling (unless you're fiancé--he thinks it smells like feet) liquid. Mix it into everything else, and you get what they (the bread-making people) call a "shaggy mess."
And this is when I would throw it into my mixing bowl with the dough hook attachment on and leave the room for 5 minutes. But, alas, GBBO wouldn't make things quite that easy. Paul Hollywood, Mary Berry, and those two foxy minx hosts are nefarious. The one rule they had was: no mixers. Hands only. So, I got to kneading.
But I'm not that good at kneading. You're supposed to knead until the dough is stretchy enough where you grab a piece, stretch it taught in four directions, and see light shining through--it's called the "windowpane" test. I wish I had a picture of this test to show you, so you can see what to look for, but I didn't take one. Because I never got to that stage. Mine stayed pretty weirdly pock-marked and rough. I tried to let it do its thing and rest for 5 minutes, but it never got better. But because I don't want to waste ingredients (I'm not bankrolled by Channel 4 here), I threw it in a container, covered it, and went to go watch Little Women: LA. When I came back: it had risen!!!
Things were working. So I went about shaping the dough: Pro-tip (am I allowed to call them "pro-tips" if I'm an amateur?): take your risen mass and punch it down, then roll it around on your counter and gather everything at the bottom of round, so the top is taut, shiny, and smooth.
One of the most fun things there is in making bread is slashing it right before you put it in the oven. Besides the foaming yeast and the growing dough, this is where you can really see how alive the dough is. When you make the slashes, the bread opens up like the San Andreas fault. With some flour topping it off -- heaven.
I think I maybe made too many slashes too close together, because my bread came out with nubbins hanging out on top. It was just so fun to do though. And I actually enjoyed plucking them off and crunching them in my gaping maw.
Anyway, the bread came out delicious. Paul Hollywood would say it needed another 3 minutes in the oven, since the inside, while done, was only just done. It was just what you could want in a regular white bread loaf: it had a tight crumb, a springy texture, a chompy crust (is that a descriptor?), and a mild taste. It was soft thanks to the butter, and even better thanks to the salted butter I slathered on top of it (butta' is betta').
Much as I hate bread, I didn't hate this challenge. But I think GBBO is starting me out easy. Next week, we stop being polite and start getting real.
Paul Hollywood's Crusty Cob Loaf
makes 1 loaf
500 grams (1 pound, 1 ounce) BREAD FLOUR
40 grams (1.5 ounces) SOFTENED BUTTER
12 grams (2 sachets) (3 teaspoons) ACTIVE DRY YEAST
10 grams (2 teaspoons) SALT
300 milliliters (1 1/4 cups) WARM WATER
1. Mix the YEAST with half of the WARM WATER in a bowl and leave for 10 minutes to activate -- it should get frothy and bubbly and smell yeasty
2. Put the FLOUR into a large mixing bowl and add the BUTTER and SALT
3. Add the yeast mixture and begin to turn the mixture with your fingers to combine
4. Continue to add the remaining water a little at a time, until you've picked up all the flour from the sides of the bowl -- you may not need to add all the water, you may need to add a little more (you're looking for a dough that is well-combined and soft, but not sticky or soggy)
5. Use a teaspoon of oil to lightly grease a clean work surface and begin kneading by folding the far edge to the middle, turning, and repeating until covered in dough
6. Knead more aggressively by pushing the dough out in one direction with the heel of your hand, then fold it back in on itself, turn, and repeat for 4-5 minutes until smooth and stretchy
7. Clean and oil your bowl and put the dough back into it, cover, and leave to proof until doubled, about 1 hour
8. Line a baking tray with parchment paper or a silicone mat
9. Knock the risen dough back, roll it up, turn, and repeat several times, then smooth into a round loaf shape
10. Place on the baking tray, cover, and proof again until doubled in size, about 1 hour
11. Preheat the oven to 425F, and put an empty pan in the bottom of the oven
12. Sprinkle some flour on top of the risen dough round, and use a sharp knife to make shallow cuts 1 centimeter deep in a diamond pattern across the top of the loaf
13. Put the loaf and tray in the middle of the oven, and pour cold water into the empty tray at the bottom, close the door quickly, and bake 30 minutes
14. The loaf is cooked when it's risen and golden, and sounds hollow when tapped underneath, cool on a wire rack
This isn't really part of the technical bake, but Paul Hollywood's scones are really not that interesting by themselves, and if you're going to pair British scones with something, it might as well be clotted cream. And jam. But I prefer to work with fat (surprised?), so I bought the jam and made the cream.
The problem is, when I had this great idea to have myself a right British tea time with clotted cream, I realized I had no idea what clotted cream exactly is. I've had tea in England before (and on the Upper West Side), so I recall having clotted cream at some point in my life, and it being amazing, but I couldn't wrap my head around what exactly it was. Was it just lightly whipped cream? Was it some sort of tangy buttermilk concoction?
It turns out, clotted cream is cream that has been cooked a bit, then cooled, which naturally thickens the liquid into a spreadable paste. Why is this? Well, heavy cream is 36% butterfat, and a lot of the remaining 64% that isn't fat is water. When you cook down the cream, the water slowly evaporates, and some sort of science happens that leaves us with a butterfat that is much higher--somewhere around 55% or above. With less water and more fat, the cream thickens, and because of the heating, it takes on a tanginess that gives it more depth than heavy cream's bland (but addictingly delicious) profile.
And it's a painless process. Most recipes call for you to stick it in a pan the oven on the lowest setting overnight, but seeing as A) creeps me out to leave my oven on overnight, and B) that seems like a racket for the energy company, I found a stovetop version, where you have a little more involvement (once an hour for a few hours -- do it while you do laundry like me!), but it doesn't take nearly as long, and I feel like it saves some natural gas.
Anyway: make this, love this, eat this with scones. And let me know what else I should use clotted cream for, because I made an entire jar, and I only wanted a couple tablespoons for my pastries.
Stovetop Clotted Cream
makes 8 fluid ounces (1 cup)
1 pint HEAVY CREAM
1. Pour HEAVY CREAM into a large, wide-bottomed pan and place on stovetop
2. Turn stove to the lowest setting possible, and let sit for 1 hours
3. After 1 hour, use a spoon to skim off the top layer of "skin" that has formed, and place into a bowl
4. Continue to skim the skin off the top of the pan once an hour, until pan is nearly empty
5. Let skimmed cream sit in a bowl and come down in temperature -- don't worry, it will look curdled and gross, but trust it
6. Place cream in a jar and put it in the fridge for at least 4 hours
7. Stir cream to make it all come together, keep refrigerated
I don't know why, but I thought this would be an easy one. I swear I must have made them before. I make American biscuits on the regular, and I've made plenty of pie crusts and shortbread dough. I definitely eat a lot of scones -- beautiful tender triangles of floury goodness. They can't be that difficult, can they?
Enter, Paul Hollywood, and the GBBO. In baking these technical challenges, I've vowed to use the same exact recipes they use on the show, meaning they come either from Paul or Mary, depending on who is identified in the show as the genesis of the recipe. Granted, I get the benefit of the full instructions, whereas the contestants in the show are usually just given an ingredient list, and forced to make it up from there.
This recipe comes from Paul, and it is a weird one indeed. In biscuits and pie dough, and most anything that yields a tender flaky crumb, you generally use cold butter and cut it into the flour, so every crumb of fat (butter) is coated in flour. This creates pockets of butter in the finished dough, which evaporates in the oven, creating pockets for flakiness to prevail.
When I looked at Paul's recipe though, I saw "softened" butter, which you rub into the flour, like you would with the chilled butter preparation, until the flour resembles breadcrumbs. I was skeptical, but then I trusted the recipe. I mean, if I think about it more, the butter crumbs would still be covered in flour to create those layers, but the butter would be softer, meaning less flake in the layers and more tight of a crumb in the baked good. Regardless: breadcrumb stage.
The other weird part of the recipe is how the milk is added: a little at a time. It was easy enough to add the first bit of milk, working it in with my fingers (as instructed to do on the bake off), but by the time I got toward the end of the milk (and I didn't end up adding the whole amount), I felt like I was working the dough like bread to incorporate the milk I felt it needed. I'm sure I ended up working it too much, since my scones seemed a little tough compared to what I was expecting, so, in fairness, I probably would not get star baker based on this bake (especially up against genuine Britons), but I definitely would not go home from it.
Once it became a sticky, wet mess -- that's where the fun begins. I'm a big fan of working with my hands, so dumping it all out, getting my hands floury, and getting this into formation is what I live for. On the show, nearly all the bakers used rolling pins, but I'm more comfortable pressing it out gently with my fingers, especially considering how I'd roughed up the dough trying to incorporate my milk. I left mine 1-inch thick, which seemed super thick, especially considering these puppies are going to double in height thanks to nearly 2 tablespoons of baking powder. But, trust the recipe--week 2 and I've already learned that lesson.
I chose a 2-inch round cutter, which gave me a baker's dozen scones, after I gathered and re-rolled the scraps a couple of times. I knew already mine would rise at funny angles because when I cut them, a bit of dough stuck to my biscuit cutters, since I didn't flour them liberally enough. Paul Hollywood would not be impressed.
However, I think he would be impressed with the taste. These guys were so dense, but so tender. They flaked apart in a crumbly rain of fatty, carby goodness, and left a good cake in your mouth that forced you to savor the simple flavor of pure butter and flour. Being a pure technical challenge, these had no flavorings, no currants, no berries, and no sugar on top. But they are far from bland. I paired mine with some raspberry preserves (leftover from the Victoria Sandwich), and some clotted cream. The simplicity of the scone made those accessories shine, and paired with a cup of tea, I could have been in Yorkshire for all I knew. I mean, San Francisco is quite foggy.
Paul Hollywood's Scones
makes 13 scones (2" diameter)
500 grams (1 pound, 1 ounce) (4 cups) ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR
80 grams (3 ounces) (1/3 cup, or 6 tablespoons) SOFTENED BUTTER
80 grams (3 ounces) (1/3 cup) GRANULATED SUGAR
2 LARGE EGGS
5 teaspoons BAKING POWDER
1 cup (250 milliliters, 8 fluid ounces) MILK
1 LARGE EGG + SALT + splash of WATER (for glazing)
1. Preheat oven to 425F, and prepare baking pan with parchment paper, silicon mat, or grease lightly with butter
2. Put 450 grams of the FLOUR in a bowl with the BUTTER and rub with your fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs
3. Add the SUGAR, EGGS, and BAKING POWDER and turn the mixture gently to incorporate all the ingredients
4. Add 1/2 cup of the MILK and keep turning the mixture until combined, then add the remaining milk a little at a time to bring everything together (you may not need all the milk)
5. Sprinkle most of the remaining flour onto a work surface, tip the dough out, and sprinkle the rest of the flour on top -- the mixture will be wet and sticky
6. Fold the dough in half, turn, and repeat until you've formed a smooth dough.
7. Roll out the dough until it is 1-inch thick, lift up the edges slightly and let them drop back down
8. Using a pastry cutter, stamp out rounds and place them onto the baking tray - leftover dough can be re-rolled
9. Let rest for a few minutes, then use a pastry brush to glaze them with the EGG + SALT mixture, making sure to keep the glaze on the top of the scones, with none on the sides
10. Bake for 15 minutes, until scones are risen and golden-brown
Series 1, episode 1. Cake week. So it begins.
To get into the mood of this challenge (which I've just realized will be one year and two weeks long, not including the currently-airing season -- what did I get myself into?), I started by re-watching series 1, episode 1 of The Great British Bake Off. Where it all began. The early days of the show are actually a lot like this cake: simple, unobtrusive, straightforward, easy, sweet, and... not really that interesting. At least on the surface, but there is definitely something special lurking underneath. Something that needs time to understand how amazing it is.
I had never heard of a Victoria Sandwich before the show, and when I learned what it was, I thought "So what? It's two butter cakes sandwiched with some jam? That sounds boring." When I started in on this project and found Mary Berry's original recipe, I also thought, "So what? Four ingredients, all the same quantities, and one bowl? That sounds awful." I thought it would be too buttery, or too sugary, or have a tough texture from over-mixing the flour.
I was wrong.
I woke up this morning, took a shower and popped a couple Advil (what? I was out late last night). Whipping out my kitchen scale and my mixer, and I loaded in the ingredients. Everything in one, big bowl.
When I see a bowl like that, I get nervous. In every baking book, on every baking show, you're advised to add things in one at a time, otherwise the flour will over-beat and leave you with a tough cake, or the fat won't emulsify and the mixture will curdle and separate. But, Mary Berry is Queen Baker, and I wasn't about to argue with her -- not on a technical challenge! So, I threw it all in one bowl, flipped the switch to mix, and trusted in the recipe.
I mixed on low, then medium, then high (because I'm dangerous like that), knowing I was looking for what Mary calls a "drooping" batter. As you can see in the picture above on the right, drooping it was not. It was much stiffer than I was expecting (that's what she said?). I tried to think of what that might do to the cake. Liquids evaporate when cooking, so maybe the thinner the batter, the lighter and fluffier and maybe more moist it is? Was my cake about to come out dense and dry? At this point, I didn't have time to turn to the Internet, so, again, I trusted in the recipe.
25 minutes later, it came out of the oven, golden brown with a springy texture, just as Mary Berry told me it would be. A quick cool and some assembly later, and I completed my very first technical challenge.
And because I'm baking at home, and not on a televised competition show (though, I would be more than happy to--call me?), I got to judge myself. And let me tell you: I had nothing to worry about with the weird ratios and too-easy-to-be-good instructions. It was , in a word, delicious.
First off, the cake was tender. That springiness test in the oven was no lie. The cake was on the drier side, but the raspberry jam counteracted that with perfect balance. The outside was crusty because of the high sugar ratio, and also accentuated by a sprinkling of granulated sugar--do not leave that out, and do not substitute powdered sugar. Regular old sugar is a deceptively simple, but perfectly appropriate topping for this cake.
To be fair, it wasn't perfect. Paul Hollywood most likely would have told me it was too dry, not even enough of a crumb, and a little over-salted. However, I would have given myself Star Baker for the week, absolutely.
Mary Berry's Perfect Victoria Sandwich
makes 1x8" round cake (2 layers)
4 LARGE EGGS
225 grams (8 ounces) (1 cup) GRANULATED SUGAR
225 grams (8 ounces) (1.75 cups) ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR
4.75 teaspoons BAKING POWDER
1 teaspoon SALT
225 grams (8 ounces) (1 cup) SOFTENED BUTTER
4-6 tablespoons RASPBERRY JAM
GRANULATED SUGAR, for sprinkling
1. Preheat oven to 350F, prepare two 8" cake pans with parchment paper and butter
2. Break the EGGS into a mixing bowl, add the SUGAR, FLOUR, BAKING POWDER, SALT, and BUTTER
3. Mix everything together until well combined. The finished mixture should be of a soft drooping consistency--it should fall of a spoon easily
4. Divide the mixture evenly between the pans and smooth the surface of the cakes
5. Bake in the middle of the oven for 25 minutes--and don't open the door
6. The cakes are done when they're golden-brown, springy to the touch, and coming away from the edge of the pans
7. Cool the cakes in their pans for 5 minutes, then run a knife along the inside edge and turn the cakes onto the cooling rack and let cool completely
1. Place one cake upside down onto a plate and spread it with 4-6 tablespoons of RASPBERRY JAM
2. Top with second cake, its prettiest side up, and sprinkle with GRANULATED SUGAR
I'm going to blame Mercury being retrograde for the events of the past 48 hours, but the fact doesn't change that they happened. Fans of GBBO, the show has officially been sold to Channel 4 and has a new home. And will have new judge(s). And new hosts.
I hate to shock you like that, but I was shocked, too. I'm American, so I don't know the ins and outs of British television broadcasting politics, but from what I read on the Guardian and the Daily Mail, the change between BBC and Channel 4 would be if Antiques Roadshow went from PBS to Bravo in the US (in short, the appraisers would all be having affairs with each other, passive-aggressively insinuate all the other appraisers are drunk, and the hurl priceless historical artifacts at one another 17 minutes through the program).
Because of this move, beloved hosts Mel and Sue have said they are leaving the show, which, to say the least, is a travesty. Their ever-increasing innuendo-laden banter is half of the reason we all watch the show. Their irreverent British banter adds yet another layer of ridiculousness onto a competition that is already ridiculous (there's no prize! they're all so polite to one another! they say "soggy bottom," for godssakes). And nobody (except maybe Cat Deely -- also British... is that a conspiracy?) can comfort the broken hearts of contestants better than Mel and Sue.
And to add insult to injury, Mary Berry and Paul are also on the fence about staying. I'm all for idealistic solidarity and fighting against The Man and standing up for your beliefs etc. etc. but (and I'm sorry, Stan Lee) these are my Fantastic Four. The Great British Bake Off without Mel, Sue, Mary, and Paul is just a tent with ovens.
And so, even though I literally have not even baked the first dish in this challenge, I feel compelled to hold myself accountable to Baking the Bake Off -- if not for me (and my taste buds), then for the principle of it. For the legacy of the GBBO. For posterity! For liberty! fraternity! equality! THE QUEEN IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!
Okay, maybe I got carried away, but I have been in shambles for two days over this. Consider my resolve strengthened, and be ready to witness the first technical challenge within the next few days: The Victoria Sandwich.
A personal challenge to conquer every technical challenge, and select signature bakes, from The Great British Bake Off
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