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Great British Bake Off episode four debrief: caramel week

Things got sticky - could Stacey Hart survive?

    Stacey Hart shares a cooking-bench moment with Sandi Toksvig
    Stacey Hart shares a cooking-bench moment with Sandi Toksvig

    After last week’s beautiful bread, Jewish contestant Stacey Hart’s star has risen. With a technical challenge win under her belt, the former teacher from Radlett must have walked into the Great British Bake Off tent for round four of the contest with far more confidence.

    She would have needed it, because the caramel week was never going to be easy. It’s an area of baking that instils fear into many and is not one familiar to most home bakers. As last week’s star baker, Julia, said: “The tricky thing about caramel is pretty much everything”.

    As well as baking, the contestants were getting in on the act, innuendo-wise. A clip of Stacey and her spun sugar sculpture, had her complaining: “Not as much of an erection as I’d wanted it to be.”

    Whether you are spinning sugar to make elaborate web-like contraptions or making a caramel filling for a biscuit, it requires precision timing. Leave the boiling sugar too long and it can burn or set too hard. Take it off the heat before it reaches the correct temperature and it will not set firm enough. Talk about stress.

    The first challenge was to make 18 identical millionaire’s shortbread biscuits - a layer of biscuit, topped by one of caramel and a thin layer of chocolate over the top. Prue Leith was looking “for something I’ve not had before.”  Co-judge Paul Hollywood explained they would be looking for three distinctive layers, a beautiful soft, firm caramel and a gorgeous thin topping of chocolate.

    As usual the bakers conjured up various combinations of flavours, including nuts, ginger, orange and spices. All relied (sensibly) on thermometers to judge when their caramel had reached optimum temperature to set. Except the usually boffin-like Yan, who chose to get in touch with her inner-caramel baker by using amount of steam rising off her pan as a measure. Her approach was bedded in science, but she admitted she was “playing caramel chicken”. She came a cropper, having taken it too hot, when Hollywood judged hers to be “toffee and not caramel”.

    Several of the contestants came up trumps, with teenager Liam’s Tetris-themed biscuits winning praise from the judges on look, texture and flavour, while Kate’s bay-scented versions also did well.

    Stacey’s very pretty, heart-shaped vanilla shortbreads topped with a rum salted caramel topped with lime and chilli flavoured dark chocolate looked the part and were identical. “So pretty” cooed Leith, but the high didn’t last long. Leith didn’t like the rum flavour and Hollywood decreed the chocolate too thick — a failing Stacey had already picked up on and berated herself for.

    In contrast, a delighted Liam was awarded a Hollywood handshake for his salted peanut butter flavoured caramel on vanilla shortbread.

    The technical round was almost certainly the most obscure yet in the GBBO tent. Leith had chosen the Dutch caramel waffle sandwich favoured by many coffee chains and the national cookie of the Netherlands, the stroopwafel. If you listened carefully, you could  hear eight bakers’ hearts sinking. 

    So random was Leith’s choice of confection, that presenter Noel Fielding was dispatched to Gouda to make a short film explaining to viewers what the biscuits actually are. He was less 'awkward boy on job experience' and more 'laugh out loud funny' this week, with a bit of slapstick. Toksvig continued to enjoy a bit of schoolgirl humour — most notably over James dipping his nuts in caramel. 

    Not one baker managed to present the judges with a perfect stroopwaffel. While some managed a reasonable version of the extremely fiddly-looking waffles, no one managed to produce a caramel that wasn’t grainy.

    It was Stacey who stole the gong. Her perfectly cut waffles with even colour and a consistency that bent rather than snapped left her top of the table. “I’m pleased, obviously, because I’m not the worst of a bad bunch, I’m best of a bad bunch. However, it would be good to be first after everyone did really well!”

    Nonetheless, it was her second consecutive technical challenge win. Could she pull off a winning showstopper this week?

    The challenge in this round was to creat a three-tier cake with any filling and powerful decorations. The bakers needed to show off their sugar spinning and plenty of caramel-related skills. The humidity in the tent had played havoc with the caramel already and there would be plenty of sticky fingers and anxious faces by the end of the day.

    There was no lack of ambition from the bakers, with Yan producing a tiger-striped orange and chocolate cake decorated with a caramel rainsforest, caramel waterfall and honecomb rocks. Liam was going on trend with caramel-drip icing — where the baker teases the icing down the sides of the cake to make it look like it has dripped.

    Stacey’s cake was to be based on the Very Hungry Caterpillar book. “I had an idea to do a theme of the life cycle of a butterfly” she explained, going on to share that the ambitious-sounding 30-cm high sugar sculpture had not been a huge success when she last practised it. “Just so long as it doesn’t fall over, it will be fine.” She had already had to redo her crystallised caramel once and has a history of rebaking her cakes, so it could have gone either way.

    It went the wrong way for James and Tom, both of whom had to rebake their cakes. Tom’s stayed flat twice and James’s first try had a tell-tale hollow that all honey cake bakers will recognise as an underbaking issue. Tom had also got the Hollywood stare when he shared his relatively simple design.

    With the tent full of bakers flicking whisks laden with boiling spun sugar, it must have been a dangerous place to be — and not somewhere you would have wanted to clean up at the end of the day.

    Stephen’s caramel crown cake looked the part with its coat of red mirror glaze, but fell down on taste. Yan’s promised jungle won the judges’ hearts and again, Liam came up trumps with his caramel drip. “You should be proud of yourself” smiled Hollywood.

    Stacey’s sculpture didn’t droop and her pretty coloured butterflies delighted Leith. “It’s just wonderful,” she smiled, but Hollywood soon rained on her parade, spotting that her icing had been too thin and run off the sides of the cake. Both thought the cake itself delicious — a better finish than last week’s bothersome bonnet.

    Despite pulling off the spun sugar nest, poor Tom’s cake was a disaster. “How could you manage with those beautiful ingredients to make that!” exclaimed Leith.  James also ended the day in the danger zone with his dry cake and randomly placed confections.

    Liam and Kate were both worthy of stardom and Stacey could feel proud this week. In the end it was Kate who stole top honours. That re-baking incident spelled doom for Tom, who was sadly banished from the tent.

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