In the last series of Bake Off, bread week was dominated, both figuratively and literally, by Paul Jagger’s bread lion. Those who saw it will never forget it; it was a construction so magnificent that you thought they might cancel bread week this year and replace it with an hour of solemn music. But no, this is a crucial part of Bake Off; bread week is often a flashing neon signpost to the outcome of the series, with its Star Baker having always ended up in the final. And, of course, it’s Paul Hollywood’s specialist subject. This year he seemed in a particularly vicious mood. Many bakers were already quaking in the signature challenge as Paul challenged Candice on her butter quantities, argued with Benjamina over the difference between a couronne and a babka, and disputed Andrew’s decision to single-prove. “The silverback of sourdough,” as Sue described him, wasn’t going to be generous.
The signature challenge
The challenge was to make a chocolate bread – as Paul put it, “bread texture with the flavour of chocolate” and most definitely not the other way around. Tom, who’s been pretty quiet in the last two episodes, suddenly seemed to brim with doughty, doughy confidence. He stretched his dough in front of the light, explaining that this was a “window pane test” to see if enough gluten had formed. Paul, perhaps noticing his hubris, brought him back down to earth. “When you fail,” he said, “you catastrophically fail.” You might say that Paul comes from the Voldemort school of mentoring.
The baker’s traits are becoming cosily familiar: Val sidestepping to and fro as she kneads, Selasi chilled and nonchalant (“I don’t usually stick to recipes, it looks alright to me”) and Candice looking slightly panic-stricken and emotional. The fear in bread week, of course, is presenting Paul and Mary with raw dough and failing the Hollywood Prod Test, aka it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that spring. The dilemma, then, is whether to leave it to prove for longer but risk not having enough time to bake it properly. When it came to the judging, success was split almost exactly down gender lines: Benjamina, Val, Kate, Jane, Candice and Michael came a partially-baked cropper, while Andrew, Selasi, Tom and Rav pretty much nailed it.
The technical challenge
The technical challenge was to make 12 dampfnudel, a German steamed bread described by Paul as “notoriously difficult”. Our plucky bakers, woefully ignorant of 18th century German baking techniques, were working almost entirely in the dark. Some, like Kate, were stoic (“I don’t know what I’m doing, so if I get it wrong it doesn’t matter”) while others, like Rav, were less so (“I HATE them.”) Once again, Tom looked strangely confident, but really the bakers were competing to be the least worst, here. Val might have come out on top, but Paul emphasised that it was still “a million miles” from his own effort. Rav was right to hate his dampfnudel: they were almost completely raw (quite an achievement).
In the showstopper, a considerable shadow was cast by last year’s lion, with many of the bakers’ plaited bread centrepieces characterised by their sheer scale. Tom, by this point showing so much self-belief that you half expected him to start moonwalking through the kitchen, prepared a Nordic collision of a serpent (Jörmangandr) and a hammer (Mjölnir). Michael made a bold attempt to recreate 9,000 square kilometers of Cyprus in bread form, while Val went for Noah’s Ark – although due to issues of space and time she restricted the animals therein to one elephant, two giraffes and a dove (“one of them flew away”). Paranoia seized the kitchen as they panicked once again over raw dough. Bottoms of loaves were knocked, tapped and knocked again as they sought the hollow sound of success.
Emboldened by the spirit of Thor, Tom romped towards the top of the heap in the showstopper and ended up as Star Baker, but other notable plaits included Andrew’s harvest basket, Benjamina’s heart and Jane’s chorizo and pesto combo. Michael, sadly, had to leave the tent, and his reaction was genuinely heart-breaking. We’ll miss his audacious flavours and his nan’s Hellenic influences. Next week, it’s batter week. That’s a first for Bake Off. We have no idea what to expect. (Except batter, obviously.)