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It’s style versus substance as The Great British Baking Show powers through “Pastry Week”

Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show
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Season 10 is in a precarious place heading into its quarter-finals. “Festival Week” did a lot to right the ship, but with only a few episodes left, it won’t take much for the season to finish on a sour, frustrating note. Fortunately, while it’s far from the most interesting or inspiring episode of the season, “Pastry Week” solidifies the tonal adjustments of “Festival Week.” The signature and showstopper challenges may be disappointingly familiar, but the technical pushes the bakers out of their comfort zones and their showstoppers, while almost uniformly dry, are creative and beautiful. Most importantly, the transparent, thoughtful judging that seemed to vanish mid-season is once again back, tempering the loss of yet another fan favorite.

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Challenge fatigue has been a bit of a theme in season 10, and that continues in “Pastry Week.” Each of the briefs fits clearly into the episode’s theme, but both the signature and showstopper rounds are retreads of previous pastry challenges. The signature is particularly on the nose. The bakers must make a savory tarte Tatin, a tarte baked by first caramelizing ingredients—typically fruit, but here, eggplant, potato, onion, leek, and carrot—in a pan, then covering the filling with a pastry crust and baking the tarte crust-up in the oven. The tartes are inverted and de-tinned when they’re done baking, making for a dramatic, TV-ready reveal. Season five of The Great British Baking Show (series three of The Great British Bake Off) gave its bakers more leeway in its “Tarts” signature, allowing them to make either sweet or savory tarte Tatins, but otherwise, the challenge is the same.

As the bakers dive into their work, several comment on the temperature in the tent. Pastry needs to stay cold, lest the butter in the dough melt, ruining the delicate chemistry that gives pastry its tender, flaky texture. Each of the contestants is diligent about freezing their rough puff dough between workings, however, and in the end, their pastry is the least of their worries. While Steph and Henry deliver delicious looking and sounding tartes, those who struggle run up against a common theme: moisture control. David’s carrot tarte is a bit too dry, while Alice’s leek and apple tarte is too wet and Rosie’s is soggy, as she accidentally doubled the butter in her eggplant and shallot filling. Steph’s caramelized onion tarte is knocked for her decision to plop slices of goat’s cheese on top, instead of incorporating the ingredient into her filling, but she gets terrific marks otherwise. As for Henry, both he and the judges are surprised at how well he pulls off his crab, tomato, and new potato tarte.

The judges’ example technical bake, a Moroccan pie
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show

This makes for a nice spread going into the technical, which has been set this episode by Paul. The bakers must make a Moroccan pie using warka, or brick pastry. They must make 12 sheets of brick pastry and assemble the pie by wrapping the pastry around a savory, spiced filling and then baking it. As has become standard this season, none of the bakers are familiar with warka. Henry feels particularly secure in just how obscure the technical is, at least to this set of bakers, “If anyone’s heard of this, I will get naked. I’m that confident.” Of course, that remark is followed immediately by David saying, “I know what this is. I’ve seen it on a travel program.” The cut back to Henry, who smirks, at least appearing to have heard David, is delightful. Warka is made by painting batter onto a hot skillet, resulting in a paper-thin layer of pastry. Too thick, and it will be tough. Too thin, and it will burn. Watching the bakers experiment with and eventually at least start to get the hang of this technique is a lot of fun. It’s great to see them explore and try something so outside of their wheelhouse. It may be stressful—Steph has a particularly hard time of it, before Noel steps in and gives her a pep talk—but considering how lost they seemed at the beginning of the round, their bakes aren’t bad.

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Ultimately, Henry’s pie collapses, and that along with his mild flavors puts him last. Steph is fourth, courtesy of her too-thick pastry, and Alice is third, due to her soggy bottom. Rosie is shocked to come in second—her pie burst—but while it looks messy, both Paul and Prue compliment her excellent pastry and flavors. That means that at long last, David comes in first, his lovely Moroccan pie finally getting him the technical win he’s been looking for. David’s consistency in the technicals has been remarkable. “Pastry Week” may be his first win, but if you combine first and second place finishes, only James from season five of Baking Show (series three of Bake Off) has him beat. While David and Rosie are excited for their strong showing, the judges are a little thrown. The bakers who did best in the signature round did worst in the technical, and vice versa. The signature has been weighted far heavier than the technical this season, but theoretically, it’s an even playing field heading into the showstopper.

Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show
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For the showstopper challenge, the bakers must make what the judges and producers have labeled a vertical pie. This is basically a pie sculpture, made of one base pie supporting the weight of at least two other pies, which are stacked on top of it. The final product should be visually stunning, and can be either savory or sweet, and feature any kind of pastry. As with the signature challenge, this showstopper will be familiar to long-term fans. Season one of Baking Show (series five of Bake Off) featured a similar three-tiered pie showstopper for its “Pies And Tarts” episode. The main difference is that the original challenge drew visual inspiration from three-tiered cakes, with decorative pastry work but nothing as fanciful as Alice’s treehouse or Rosie’s dragon-guarded tower. While this isn’t in the brief, or at least isn’t mentioned to the audience, the judges have high expectations for the overall visual effect of these season 10 showstoppers.

There are two main threads to the final round, and they’re beats the episode returns to time and again. The bakers must take care with their pastry, making sure that it’s strong enough to support the weight of the stacked pies, but still tender enough to deliver on texture and taste. Also, it appears that none of the final five are particularly fond of pie or working with pastry. Perhaps this is why the final results are so mixed. Steph’s comparatively simple carousel showstopper is deemed delicious, with Prue going as far as to say it’s, “faultless.” However, the rest of the bakers’ creations are dry. Henry struggles with the clock, delivering a fairly straightforward tiered final bake, but Rosie, Alice, and David each deliver beautiful, intricate showstoppers that easily earn the title. Rosie, Alice, and Henry each get notes on their pastry being too thick or tough, but the larger critique they and David face mirrors those of the signature round: They’ve over-corrected for moisture and wound up with dry, unsatisfying bakes.

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Steph’s carousel may not hold a candle visually to the more elaborate treehouse, tower, and ship-scape bakes presented by Alice, Rosie, and David, but in an encouraging affirmation of substance over style, Steph is awarded Star Baker. The question of who will be eliminated is trickier. Henry got high marks in the signature, but came in last in the technical and had the worst notes of the showstopper round. The other baker in contention to leave is Rosie. Her signature was soggy, but she got second in technical, and while dry, her showstopper was whimsical and fun. Ultimately, the judges save Rosie and eliminate Henry, his fate likely sealed by the line of raw pastry in his showstopper. With two episodes to go, season 10 certainly appears to be Steph’s to lose. The more intriguing question is whether the judges and producers will be able to keep the season on track. “Pastry Week” may not make for thrilling TV, but it’s satisfying, and given the escalating stakes as Baking Show heads to the final, that’s enough.

Stray observations:

  • Henry has been charming and fun all season, and he and his double entendres will be missed. This episode alone, he gave us the instant classic, “No one likes a soggy tart” and managed to completely puncture Paul’s attempts to look intimidating as he stalked around the tent, Henry deadpanning, “Do you like a meaty pie?”
  • The glimpses of between-the-scenes fun with the bakers continue to be a highlight. Here, it’s Henry and the other bakers playing catch with a lime as they wait for their technicals to bake, while Steph quizzically looks on, “Has everyone forgotten that we have to get them out?”
  • I loved Bert the Camembert dragon, and may have let out a little sound when Paul cut into him.
  • If the producers are struggling this much to find new challenges, why not brand season 10 as a season of challenge revisits and re-imaginings? Or at the very least, why not lampshade the direct pulls featured in “Pastry Week,” calling on the bakers to raise the bar from their predecessors?
  • Purple carrots are not obscure, and they don’t look like charred orange carrots. The bakers can bring in specialized ingredients, but most of the groceries are acquired by the show. There’s no reason Paul or anyone else should be surprised by something as straightforward as rainbow carrots.
  • This feels like the first time this season that the technical results actually impacted the judging. It’s a welcome and overdue change. If the judges are going to put the bakers through the technical, the results should matter.
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