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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cuteness is king for The Great British Baking Show’s first ever “Japanese Week”

Noel as a manga character, The Great British Baking Show
Noel as a manga character, The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix
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Whether it’s the pressures of baking in a bubble or the general anxiety of 2020, the bakes on this season of The Great British Baking Show have been uneven to say the least. In early episodes, the showstoppers left quite a bit to be desired, but in recent challenges, they’ve been great. Sometimes the familiar is a boon—the pasties from “Pastry Week” come immediately to mind—and sometimes the signatures are better forgotten, like those brownies. The producers have done well with challenge selection overall, but the bakers as a group have yet to deliver a full episode of consistent bakes. They need a change of pace, and introducing “Japanese Week” is a terrific way to shake things up. Japanese cuisine is not particularly known for its baking and pushing the bakers outside of their comfort zones proves to be just what they need.

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As they head into the tent, the bakers comment on the creativity of the upcoming challenges. They were less than enthused over the pointless, “put a cage on it!” “Pastry Week” showstopper, so their excitement is promising. It’s borne out by the reveal of the signature challenge. The bakers will have two and a half hours to make eight soft, delicious, steamed buns. The traditional Japanese fillings are pork or curry, but the bakers can use any sweet or savory filling they like. Prue is hoping for some Japanese flavors, but mostly both judges are focused on the rolls themselves. They must be soft and chewy, with just enough tooth before they melt in the mouth.

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The bakers get to work on their dough, all very comfortable with the challenge. Four of them have chosen animal-themed decorations, looking for presentation points as well as texture and flavor. Dave is mixing minced chicken breast with katsu curry sauce for his filling, and using turmeric to color his yellow chicken-shaped buns. Peter has chosen lamb, his cute black and white buns filled with spring onions, Chinese cabbage, and minced lamb, flavored with garlic, ginger, chili, fish sauce, soy sauce, cumin, and coriander. Laura’s going more traditional for her pink piggy buns, using pork. Rather than mince, she’s caramelizing pork belly, which she’ll pair with hoisin, oyster sauce, honey, and sake. Then there’s Hermine, who like Dave is using chicken, paired with shiitake mushrooms and fresh chili. She’ll be shaping her black and white buns into pandas.

Only Marc has opted for a traditional presentation, folding the smoked paprika dough of his mango chutney and onion, apple, and lentil dhal buns. Last but not least is the Battle of the Burgers. Both Mark and Lottie are making burger-inspired buns, featuring beef mince and gherkins. Unfortunately for both of them, Paul hates gherkins, and he asks them to make one for him without their relishes. Mark’s burgers also feature diced onion, cheese, and sesame seeds on top, while Lottie goes above and beyond with bacon, sun-dried tomato, and curly fries on the side. The hosts have some fun pitting Lottie and Mark against each other and they’re good sports, keeping the banter flowing.

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As time winds down, the bakers measure their dough and make their crucial filling-to-dough ratio decisions. Before long, the buns are in the steamer baskets and there’s nothing the bakers can do but wait. With moments to spare, they pull their buns out and present them on their trays. Hermine’s pandas may be a bit untidy, but both Paul and Prue love her flavors, complimenting her filling and the texture of her buns. Laura’s piggies are a little the worse for wear visually, as she over-filled them, but her bread is good and her sauce is lovely. Unfortunately her filling is dry, but overall the judges seem pleased. Dave’s chickens get high marks from Paul, who appreciates his design and shiny buns, but mixed reviews from Prue, who wanted a stronger curry punch from the filling. As for Peter’s lambs, his filling is tasty, but he didn’t pull the dough tight enough when shaping his buns, resulting in air pockets that caused the dough to pull away from the filling. He would have had better luck with less filling, but both judges appreciate his flavors.

The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix
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Marc’s dhal buns are quite large, having grown quite a bit during steaming, but both Paul and Prue like his seasoned dough and his flavorful filling. Paul is a stickler about the size, but Prue doesn’t mind it. That leaves the burgers, both of which run into trouble with texture. They look neat and capture what the bakers are going for, but it’s tricky to nail the texture of a burger with steaming. Mark’s burger looks great, but is quite dry and needed a hit of sauce inside. Lottie’s flavors are right on, but despite putting her patty in raw—Mark pre-cooked his—her burger is dry as well. As Lottie prudently argues to camera, once Paul is out of earshot, maybe Paul’s bun wouldn’t have been dry if he’d tried her gherkin relish.

After a solid, if not spectacular signature round, the bakers are raring to go for the technical. Prue has set the challenge this episode, giving the bakers two hours to make a matcha crepe cake. The cake consists of 12 matcha-flavored crepes stacked on top of each other with layers of white chocolate ganache buttercream and thinly-sliced strawberries, topped with fresh fruit and edible flowers. The top layer of crepe is larger than the others and curves around the stack, resulting in an elegant final presentation. Dave hasn’t heard of a crepe cake before, but Mark isn’t too worried, giggling as he tempts fate, “Crepes? What could possibly go wrong with crepes?”

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As Prue tells Paul, quite a bit could go wrong. The main challenges will be making the crepes very thin, lest they run out of batter, and of course, time management. The cake will need enough time to set up in the freezer, so the bakers can’t take too long finessing the layers. Back in the tent, things start more or less comfortably, except for Laura, who hates matcha. Noel is not a fan either, though Hermine enjoys matcha tea and touts its antioxidants. The bakers put together their crepe batter then move to their Swiss meringue, egg whites whisked with sugar over a bain-marie or double boiler to help bring the meringue to shiny, stiff peaks. Lottie doesn’t know exactly how to make Swiss meringue, but fortunately for her, the meringue is folded—the instructions actually say “added,” another wrinkle of uncertainty for the bakers—into a white chocolate ganache and whipped butter mixture to make white chocolate ganache buttercream. Her approximation looks to be close enough.

The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix
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The bakers contemplate just how thin “wafer thin” really is, for their sliced strawberries, then move on to cooking their crepes. Here is where the differences in their technique start to show. Laura’s batter is clearly an issue. It’s gloopy and thick on the crepe pan. The others seem to have an easier time with their batter, able to get thin, delicate crepes they eventually gingerly flip. Noel, reigning agent of chaos, does his darndest to get the bakers to throw caution to the wind and flip their crepes like so many diner pancakes, but Laura, Lottie, and Peter refuse. Eventually, Dave humors him, flipping one of his later crepes to Noel’s delight.

As the bakers finish their crepes, Marc joining Laura in the gloopy batter camp, they begin to assemble their cakes, layering crepes with buttercream and strawberries. Once they’re layered, the cakes are placed in a shaped bowl and go into the freezer to set. With a few minutes to spare, the cakes come back out and the bakers top them, sprinkling the tops with matcha powder and arranging their fresh fruit in a crescent. Some of the final bakes are a bit messy, but overall they look good, a far cry from the previous episode’s éclairs.

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Laura never managed to overcome her thick batter, winding up in last place due to her thick and chewy layers. Marc fared a bit better, but had similar troubles and ended up in sixth. Too-thick strawberries and a messy external crepe put Mark in fifth, while Hermine snagged fourth thanks to her neat layers and light strawberries. Third went to Dave, whose cake got pretty high marks, but was dinged for its decorations, and Lottie’s delicious buttercream put her in second. That leaves Peter in first place for the second episode in a row, thanks to his lovely and flavorful cake. Given the fairly even critiques in the signature round, most of the bakers are clumped in the middle of the pack going into the showstopper. Lottie and Dave have inched ahead a bit, and Laura’s definitely in trouble, but a lot can still change depending on the final challenge.

The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix
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For the showstopper challenge, the bakers will have four hours to make a spectacular kawaii cake, with their flavors, type of sponge, and decoration inspired by Japanese cuisine. Kawaii cakes are cute and charming, usually made with tall and fluffy sponges and decorated to resemble stylized cartoon characters. Paul will be judging with a critical eye, wanting professional-level decoration, and Prue again will be looking for Japanese flavors.

Dave and Marc are early favorites, styling their cakes after their dogs. Dave has a Shiba Inu and he’ll be making his cake with chocolate and matcha and rose sponges, paired with apple jam and vanilla buttercream. Marc’s dog Hamish is a Border Terrier who, among other misadventures in their production bubble, ate Marc’s practice bone-shaped macarons. His cake will feature honey and tahini, and ginger and soybean powder sponges, with lemon Swiss meringue buttercream. Peter’s showstopper may not be based on a pet, but it’s a cute concept nonetheless. Peter coaches badminton, so he’s making Dizzy the Shuttlecock, a badminton birdie that’s been hit on the head and is seeing stars. He’s using a Castella sponge and finely chopped, poached pears along with chestnut cream and white chocolate feathers, with sparklers for decoration.

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For their showstoppers, both Mark and Laura are taking inspiration from produce. Mark’s making avocado sponges with buttercream filling and marshmallow fondant. He’ll be styling his showstopper as an avocado couple, with a baby avocado in the Mama avocado’s tempered chocolate stone. Laura’s playing on pineapple upside-down cake, instead making a pineapple that’s standing on its head. Her pineapple chiffon sponge will have poached pineapple and coconut buttercream, with a lime and yuzu curd. Laura knows she’s in danger after the last two rounds and her surety that she’ll be eliminated quickly starts impacting her work. She starts tearing up when she runs into trouble with her fondant, but Noel of all people helps center her, keeping her focused and able to press on.

Out of her comfort zone with Japanese baking, Hermine focuses on the French influence in Japanese cuisine. She draws inspiration from a Japanese garden she used to visit, making a strawberry cherry blossom cake with vanilla genoise sponges, fresh strawberries, marshmallow fondant flowers, and a modeling chocolate cherry tree. Lottie is the baker who goes furthest outside the Bake Off mainstream for her cake, making a cotton jiggle cake. This is a light, fluffy, soufflé-like sponge, sometimes called a Japanese cheesecake, that jiggles when it comes out of the oven. Lottie’s will be lime flavored, with a cherry cream and fresh black cherry center, and shaped like a toadstool, with forest floor decorations: whisky fudge pebbles, biscuit bamboo, and a candy floss and pulled candy tree. Jiggle cakes are notoriously light, so Lottie will need to be careful that her top-heavy toadstool doesn’t collapse.

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The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix

Everyone seems to be enjoying the process early on, but as the hours pass, the tension amps up. By the end of the round, everyone seems a bit on edge. The past few episodes, one baker has distinguished themselves as the clear frontrunner to be eliminated, and while Laura is definitely in trouble, that hasn’t happened this episode. The margins are razor thin and any of them could be headed home should they botch their cake.

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It’s time for judging and as the camera scans the tent, everyone’s showstoppers look delightful. The bakers have excelled in this challenge, and should the cakes taste as good as they look, the judges will have a difficult choice to make. Peter is up first. Paul and Prue love his design, but while Prue is intrigued with the texture of his Castella sponge, Paul wants more flavor. Dave’s Shiba Inu surprises Prue, who didn’t anticipate the flavors matching so well, and impresses Paul, who compliments his sponges and presentation, even with its folded fondant. Lottie’s jiggle cake wows the judges, who love the concept, flavor, texture, and design. After weeks scraping by, it’s a treat to see Lottie get a full-throated win.

Hermine isn’t so lucky, complemented by Prue as a good French baker, in a Japanese cake challenge. Her cake is striking, but definitely not cute—Paul goes as far as “menacing”—and while her flavors and genoise are great, the decoration is flat and the fondant and buttercream are too thick. Mark’s Hamish goes over well, complimented for its professional look and strong flavors. Laura’s pineapple is a bit smooshed, but to Laura’s delight, that critique is tempered by Paul and Prue’s raves over her flavors. Last is Mark, whose showstopper is darling, but surprisingly dry. Instead of staying moist thanks to the oil in the avocado, the cake is tight and one-dimensional, and according to Paul, nearly inedible. That seems like a massive over-statement, but his point is made. Mark’s in trouble.

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In the end, after some deliberation, the judges return and announce the results. Lottie has her first Star Baker and Mark has been eliminated. Laura managed to save herself with her delicious pineapple cake, and Prue confirms in an aside that Mark’s avocado cake really was that bad. Mark has been a consistent baker and entertaining presence in the tent, and it’s a shame to see him eliminated. However, at this point, that’s true about just about everyone. There are only a handful of episodes left, and the eliminations are only going to get tougher. Hopefully the energy and creativity of “Japanese Week” will carry over to the next episode, as the bakers take on the 1980s.

Stray observations

  • This is Paul’s 100th episode, and the episode gives that news just the right amount of pomp and circumstance.
  • It was interesting to see Lottie and Mark deal with knowing exactly which bun Paul would be eating. And Noel is completely right, Paul shouldn’t be such a baby about traditional, mainstream ingredients he doesn’t happen to like.
  • I really hope Hermine makes it to pâtisserie week!
  • I love a cake as much as the next baking- and baking show-obsessed person, but 11 seasons into Bake Off, I’d only slightly tweak Lottie’s sentiment: Traditional cakes are boring.
  • Peter is wonderfully dorky with his badminton facts and Laura gets major relatability points as she struggles to whisk that butter. We’ve all been there, Laura.
  • The eliminations are rough for the constants going home, but they’re starting to wear on the other competitors too. Dave and Lottie teared up this episode, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the bakers’ reactions continue to escalate over the next few episodes. This cast is spending a lot more time together than they usually do on Bake Off, and emotions will undoubtedly continue to heighten.
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