Baking challenge: the showstopper that left me a basket case

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week three (bread week) of series two: 12 sweet and 12 savoury rolls…served in a bread basket. A BREAD BASKET. I ask you…

For the longest time, I just didn’t do it. I don’t do fiddly food. I don’t ice biscuits, don’t roll fondant, don’t twiddle with decorations. I could say that’s because I’m a generous, hearty, rustic kind of cook – but really it’s because I lack the patient dedication and the skill that go into craftsmanlike work. I have no aptitude for the fine arts. Long story short: I didn’t want to make a bread basket. By which I mean an actual basket, woven out of bread dough, and baked.

But I did it.
But I did it.

Do I weave? Do I ‘eck. Etc etc.

The basket was meant to hold 24 rolls – two types, 12 sweet and 12 savoury. This didn’t actually faze me at all. It was the weaving that put me off for a while. And then I reasoned that the whole idea of setting myself a ‘baking challenge’ was that it should be a…challenge.

And yet, when I actually did it, it was…not easy, exactly, and I won’t claim I’ve done it since, just for fun, but something about making that basket from raw bread dough was logical and came together. Because of the yeast, bread dough properly proven has a bit of a spring to it, so sometimes the rolled-out dough strips bounces back a little, which isn’t the most fun in the world. And, although I had a recipe and instructions in front of me, at one point I had to forget careful and structured overlapping and just went for something that held together. In the end, however, I was rewarded with something I really thought I could never bake and that was beyond my structural abilities. The basket wasn’t picture-perfect but, unlike some of the contestants’ it stood upright and held the bread rolls (although it could only hold one batch at a time).

Bread basket how-to
How to make a bread basket: cover your mould; roll out the dough; lay out your strips. You will get there!

Oh, and the contents? Black Forest ham and cheese rolls from Dan Lepard, which were sturdy and hearty – the kind of warm, filling food which would make a hearty addition to a picnic (it can be cold if you picnic in the first flush of early spring enthusiasm) or a complementary side to cabbage soup. The rye gives them not only heft but a little smokey depth which I like. And for the sweet, Baba a Louis Sticky Buns from Diana Henry’s Roast Figs Sugar Snow, which sadly disappointed me – they were a little too vrunchy and the sugar caramelised hard rather than remaining gooey as promised. It may have been user error – my oven could have been running hot, for example – so I have included the recipe for reference below.

Sweet and savoury
Sweet and savoury – Baba a Louis Sticky buns (L) and Black Forest Ham and Cheese Rolls (R)

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Baking challenge: Technically, focaccia

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week three (bread week) of series two: make Paul Hollywood’s focaccia.

I always like it when one of the bakes I do for this slightly crazy challenge is savoury. I do have a strong sweet tooth but sometimes it’s nice to be able to bring one of my baked goods in to lunch for work or have it as a non-sugary snack.

Paul Hollywood's focaccia
Paul Hollywood’s focaccia

So, Paul Hollywood’s focaccia, one of the technical challenges in series two. What I primarily remember about this challenge is that the dough was very wet and some of the contestants struggled with its liquid nature and added more flour. The trick, as Paul H articulated in the episode itself, is to add the water gradually, so that the flour slowly absorbs it, rather than all it once – when it just becomes gloopy, sloshy paste. The recipe does specify some turning and folding and honestly, the dough was so liquid that it was very difficult to follow through as it just all flowed back into one. I went through the motions of the actions required, however, and miraculously the dough did over time develop a structure and got a bit more body. It was certainly never as solid as the more conventional bread doughs which can be kneaded and pummeled, though, so don’t expect that.

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Baking challenge: Flavoured free-form loaf

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week three of series two: make a free-form (i.e. hand-shaped, not baked in a tin), flavoured loaf.

“I’ve lost my baking mojo,” I said to my boyfriend.

“What about that baking challenge? Are you still doing that?”

“I put it on hold while writing my dissertation.”

“Well, obviously. You should pick it up again. Mm, cake.”

Paul Hollywood's fruit loaf
Paul Hollywood’s fruit loaf – clockwise from left: finished product sliced; baked; being iced; one iced loaf; two iced loaves

So, that skit above is my hello-world! return to proper cooking, baking and food blogging. Since the start of the year I suddenly found it basically impossible to keep up with my commitments, namely juggling work, and my history MA, and seeing friends, and baking. I had to knuckle down to research and write my dissertation and cut out almost all social events with friends. However, I have now submitted and it feels like I am walking into the light from out of a slightly isolated, though book-lined, cave. I was still feeling the after-effects of having handed in the dissertation – slightly exhausted and a bit at a loose end – when my boyfriend reminded me that I should really, really pick up on the baking challenge. The fifth series of the Great British Bake-Off has finished and I am still baking from the second series. I must plough on.

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Baking challenge: sweet and savoury rolls

Hopefully the Easter weekend was fun for all. Most of it was spent reading (World War One, naturally), but also lots of Great British Bake-Off re-runs, The Village (I’m sure I’ll have more to say on that soon – after all, the first episode was set in 1914!), and a visit to the theatre – my first in years – to see Mies Julie, an adapted version (i.e. borrowing the concept of, but with an original script) of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie set in South Africa, which has received universal rave reviews. Sadly I found myself disagreeing with the reviewers wholeheartedly by about 20 minutes in, and my patience had evaporated completely by the end. All I can conclude is that journalists equate the combination of copious swearing, nudity, simulated sex, jumping around on stage, race relation allusions and South Africa as cutting-edge and electric. The much-promised sexual tension and climactic scene (er, in more ways than one) actually drove me to hysterical (though silent, I hasten to add) laughter – it was just so awkward. And I personally don’t equate two people shouting at each other with irresistible sexual tension, so this ‘tension’ was lost on me, rendering much of the action pointless. The script, also, should have been tightened up – it was genuinely all over the place, extremely repetitive and didn’t actually take us anywhere. The disappointing thing was that some potentially intriguing moments touched on (Julie’s threat to cry rape, the Christine’s comments on identity) weren’t explored fully or even at all, at the expense of a continuous “I hate you”/”I love you” exchange between Julie and John (Jean in the original play). Some bits also just came out of nowehere (Christine’s reference to her effaced fingerprints) and just hung there, without context or development, and the symbolism was exceptionally heavy-handed. All in all, disappointing for me, though obviously I am in the minority on this one.

Anyway, back to the baking challenge. The showstopper challenge for bread week (series one) was to make 24 sweet and savoury rolls, which I assumed meant 12 of each. Now that I’m re-watching the episodes on the BBC, I can see that some people actually made about six different breads. Exciting – but maybe overkill? This challenge was actually one I meant to replicate faithfully (i.e., doing both rolls at the same time), but then we bought (shocker) some bread and doing both at the same time would have greatly exceeded our bread needs and been a waste.

For the sweet, I made some very British Pembrokeshire buns, adapted from a National Trust cookbook. I must admit that while they were loved by some in the house, they were too similar to hot cross buns for my taste, even omitting the candied peel which I cannot stomach. The buns were slightly unusual in using lard, which seemed to make them softer for longer than breads made with other fats. Very easy and quick, too; they also made good French toast. The only disadvantage is really the block of lard sitting in my freezer.

For the savoury, chorizo-stuffed rolls from Casa Moro, for which I had to double the recipe, and didn’t stuff enough, with the delicious result that I could snack on loads of fried chorizo while waiting for them to bake. The oil which the chorizo gives off in the original frying is incorporated into the dough, which is great as it’s not wasteful, and making them rich, slightly oily and quite salty. Delicious, but not the kind of roll you eat dozens of in one sitting. The directions from Casa Moro on timings weren’t always very helpful so I’ve tried to clarify them based on my experience.

Pembrokeshire buns, tea, magazines, TV remote. Happy times ahead.
Pembrokeshire buns, tea, magazines, TV remote. Happy times ahead.

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Baking challenge: Paul Hollywood’s cob loaf

I was excited to notice this week that the very first series of the Great British Bake-Off is being rerun by the BBC! This is great news for me – I get to watch it again and remind myself of the details of some of the challenges, since I am relying on Wikipedia’s summary of the baking challenges for the first and second series (I started writing them down in fairly significant detail during the third series). Watching it, I was also somewhat touched and amused by the slightly clumsy sweetness of the show. Being new, it was still finding its feet, and the challenges were slightly more gentle than in later series (particularly the third). It was also a bit more random in the introduction of the bakers: they were just introduced as ‘Britain’s best’ with no real idea of the process behind selecting them. Some of them were really simply habitual home bakers rather than champing-at-the-bit semi-professionals.

Re-watching I also noticed a few different things, namely that Paul Hollywood certainly did some to have favourites from the get-go (he was jokey with Edd and almost flirtatious with Ruth), and that Miranda was never going to win since from day one it was clear Paul wasn’t a fan of over baking style (but why! Brownie meringue cake with amazing raspberry icing – do not understand what’s not to love!). Paul’s alleged favouritism is often discussed in reviews and message boards about the show and while I acknowledge that there’s an editing process, it certainly does appear that he likes some people a lot and then backs them all the way – slightly (though in fairness not dramatically) disproportionately. I was also reminded of how great a baker Edd was from the get-go, really impressive and accomplished though in an understated way at first.

The technical challenge for bread week in series one was Paul Hollywood’s cob loaf. The recipe called for dry yeast, which I haven’t used in ages. While I don’t think the crumb of the loaf had the deliciousness and complexity compared to when made with fresh yeast, the flour rubbed into the crust, which caramelised in the heat of the oven, was fantastic. It made the bread truly addictive. Also, I appreciated the tenderness of the crust; much as I enjoy the crispy, crackly crust of a sourdough, which breaks into gum-splintering shards, it can make for difficult eating, especially the next day! And also, this loaf was beautiful to look at as well. Truly, Paul has knocked it out of the park for me with this recipe, even if his judging occasionally causes me to raise an eyebrow…I can’t wait to rewatch bread week so I can find out if my effort matched the ideal!

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Baking challenge: a signature raisin bread

Moving on with the next stage of my baking challenge, we came to bread week. In series one of the Great British Bake-Off, Edd was the star of bread week, and some of the other men mentioned they baked bread frequently and thought they’d have the edge. Bread and cake, Paul and Mary, yin and yang…baking bread as opposed to cakes is what is often seen as dividing the men from the women. I guess baking bread can be considered more masculine than fairy cakes, though I tend to see baking as gender neutral, because I have never known a man to turn down a cupcake.

Bread is where quite a number of Bake-Off competitors seem to stumble, at least in the first two series, when people signed up because they baked cakes quite a lot – but the Bake-Off really stretches one’s range. Anyway, bread baking is something I do quite a lot of – I would probably stumble on macaron week rather than bread. Which is not to say it never goes wrong (how well I remember that loaf which was completely liquid once its crusty and appealing crust was cracked in to). Still, I have nurtured sourdough starters, until I realised the demands of making a loaf every week or so exceeded the demands of a two-person household, and I have baked using fresh and dried yeast. Now that I have located a source of fresh yeast in London (I buy little packets of it from Scandi Kitchen, along with my pearl sugar), I do feel that breads made with fresh yeast are more delicious than those made with dried, which often taste quite yeasty to me, as if too much has been used. The texture is also better, to my taste. It’s undeniable that dried yeast is more convenient and readily-available, however, and the end product is certainly better than shop-bought even when using dried yeast.

Raisin bread
Raisin bread

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