Great British Bake Off's bread week opened with a flat-capped Noel Fielding cycling (with a basketful of loaves) in a Hovis style skit while Sandi Toksvig did the Yorkshire-accented voiceover.
Lets be honest - they’re not Mel and Sue. The scene was awkward but mercifully short.
This stage of the competition has historically been a biggie. Until last year, the winner of bread week in each series had gone on to reach the final. With dough close to baker Paul Hollywood’s heart, kneading and proving skills are clearly key.
Stacey Hart, the Jewish contestant from Hertfordshire, regularly dabbles in dough, having shared that she bakes a challah each Shabbat.
“This is a big week for me. It’s my chance to show them I can bake bread” she said at the outset. She needed a good round to take her from the drop zone, with her only notable bake to date, glittery marshmallow brownie sandwich biscuits. Would Hart’s bread save her from fetching her coat?
Bread is magical. With elbow grease, flour, yeast and water can be turned into a staple food. All it requires is an energetic knead; patience, and the skill to judge just how long to let it rise. You don’t want your bread dense and heavy, but leave it too long, and it can collapse. It’s a fine line.
The signature bake was 12 perfectly formed tea cakes. There were a range of riffs on the traditional treat, from Kate’s spiced blueberries to Sophie’s tagine flavours and Steven’s Madras cocktail version, complete with a martini-style glass of vodka butter that would have brought a smile to Mary Berry’s face.
For Scottish Tom, the challenge was amplified. He’d never eaten the tea cake the judges were after. In his home country, a tea cake is a different treat entirely — a chocolate covered marshmallow. Nonetheless, the architect produced the judges’ favourite — “the closest thing I’ve had to a tea cake so far,” said Hollywood (after the revelations of his Nazi fancy dress in the Sunday papers last weekend, it was a relief to see him in his usual combo of jeans and shirt with two or more buttons undone).
Stacey, despite being spooked by Hollywood’s warning that her chosen milk glaze would make her cranberry and cinnamon flavoured treats too soft, earned praise from both judges. “It’s a good teacake” said Prue Leith, with Hollywood begrudgingly agreeing it to be “decent” while maintaining the milk was a mistake.
Stacey was happy but still hankering for higher praise: “All I want is for them to say ‘you’ve nailed it’, and that hasn’t happened yet,” she complained.
Golden boy Steven had a disastrous start, with his teacakes over-proving and collapsing into airless puddles. Even his vodka butter couldn’t save them.
The technical round was the seemingly simple task of making a cottage loaf. Two round loaves, the smaller one sitting on top of the larger base. Hollywood warned if the bakers failed to bond the two, the smaller one could “explode off the top”. Ballistic bread sounded interesting.
Stacey, getting plenty of airtime this week, was gleeful. “I do know what a cottage loaf is — I’ve made it before,” she smiled.
Her experience paid off as she cruised to victory (in the most innuendo-riddled round to date) while many of her fellow contestants’ bready balls were sliding off their bases. Punching the air, she was delighted: “First in the technical on bread week. That is massive!”
Going into the showstopper as frontrunner had turned her fortunes around. As Leith said: “Bread week has blown it wide open”. Even Hollywood was rooting for her: “I’d like to see her do well in the showstopper. She’s set herself up to be star baker.”
The task was to make a colourful bread sculpture using natural colours — beetroot, spinach, turmeric etc. Not quite last week's biscuit board game, but sufficiently challenging. The potential pitfall here was that every ingredient added would inhibit the yeast and slow down the bread’s rise.
True to form, most chose ambitious projects, from Tom’s yellow and pink rose-decked table centrepiece, to Sophie’s grape-filled picnic basket, Yan’s vegetarian dragon, and James’s owl and hedgehog tableau.
Stacey’s continued her fashionista theme to form a hat with a challah brim and breadsticks poking up from the crown. The writing was on the wall when it became clear that she hadn’t got the memo about the flavour of the bread being as (if not more) important as the colour and design.
Julia’s phallic snail sent Hollywood (and others) into schoolboy giggles but gained her praise for her Russian rye bread, while Steven’s handbag sent him rocketing up the judges’ ratings.
So impressed was Hollywood with the flavours, which included chocolate and peppermint breadsticks that he pretended to swap roles with Steven, ushering him to the front, and taking his seat at the baking bench. An honour higher than the coveted Hollywood handshake.
At the other end of the scale, Flo’s over-paprika-d pirate piece sent her further down the rankings, Kate’s squid-ink-flavoured sea creature saved her from the drop zone and James’s owl and hedgehogs looked great but missed out on flavour.
Stacey also got her flavours wrong. The bonnet — which had acquired a pink feathery rim — was judged elegant, but she crashed and burned on taste, Hollywood even complaining the challah was under proved (shock, horror.)
She came so close to glory, and although she did walk away with first place in the technical, for Stacey, this will be the week that got away.
Still, Stacey lives to bake another day and Scouse granny Flo went home.