As challenges go, Italian week made last week’s adventures in pastry look like a walk in the park for Stacey Hart and her fellow GBBO contestants.
Kicking off with a fake gondola skit, the theme (new for 2017) gave Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig plenty of material.
Italy also offered judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith a wealth of flour-based treats to test the bakers on. However, the pros eschewed the familiar in favour of challenges that were as much of a mouthful to pronounce as they were to eat. Only the seemingly simple pizza-based technical was commonplace.
The Sicilian cannoli in the signature round were tricky enough, but sfogliatelle — a Campanian classic layered lobster tail-shaped pastry built from wafer-thin layers — were nigh on impossible.
Add to that the tent’s Mediterranean micro-climate and there were a lot of red faces. Even Hollywood needed a cold flannel to the face at times — some might say he needs it most of the time. “When it gets hot“ he said, “the bakers get flustered and then they make mistakes.” There were plenty this week.
Most were at Yan, Kate and, yes, Stacey's benches, leaving the two men and Sophie, looking like frontrunners. Sophie has been consistently good and Liam’s fantastic flavours and creative presentation is starting to give him an edge. Steven’s early glory faded but has returned in the last couple of week with the three currently looking like potential finalists.
The signature bake was 18 Sicilian cannoli — a crisp, deep-fried, pastry roll filled with a ricotta-based cream. Who, other than Antonio Carluccio, perhaps, has cannoli as their signature? Not Kate, Yan nor Stacey. The competitors had to make three different fillings.
Leith and Hollywood raised their eyebrows at Stacey's plan to include cocoa in the dough. “How will you be able to tell when they are done?” asked Leith. It turns out they couldn’t. A flustered Stacey even managed to decorate the wrong rolls with her raspberry garnish. Although the judges liked her fillings, they had a "told you so" moment over her undercooked pastry.
Kate’s were also judged messy and left Leith — loving a tipple as much her predecessor, Mary Berry — feeling deprived of booze in some of the the cocktail fillings.
Steven’s Italian heritage helped him pull off perfect pastry shells; Liam also managed sufficient crunch to his. Sophie, taking a risk on mascarpone instead of the customary ricotta in her rolls, managed to pull off a coup, converting Leith to this departure from tradition.
The pizza technical was made devilishly difficult. Seemingly simple, the twist was the removal of the baker’s rolling-pins, forcing them to fling their dough around to get it as thin as possible. Using the professional bakers’ peel — the paddle used to put bread and pizza into a wood-fired oven — also created difficulties.
Yan’s dough slinging went too far, leaving her having to reprove. Kate’s pizza collapsed on the way into the oven and Stacey messed up her mozzarella by tearing it into teeny tiny pieces. (Not the only time she’d have size issues this week.) They came in respectively sixth, fifth and fourth.
The terribly English Sophie’s terribly English pizza left her in in third place in the technical, whilst Steven narrowly pipped Liam to the post.
Yan, Kate and Stacey needed to pull something out of the bag in the showstopper but the weather was not on their side. Pastry needs cool and there was not a lot of that about.
“Stacey’s problem is that she panics,” explained Leith.
“She’s like the John McEnroe of baking. You might get a saucepan in the face or you might get a hug,” quipped Fielding, whose slapstick antics worked this week. His leaning tower of pizza was laugh-out-loud funny for anyone with a sense of humour verging on the childish.
The sunglass-clad judges striding into the tent in Reservoir Dogs-style brought a fleeting smile to the flushed faces of the six bakers, but frowns took over as they fought to create the delicate layers of pastry needed for the unpronounceable sfogliatelle for the showstopper round.
Lamination — not the practice of covering kitchen tops, but the industry term for making pastry layers — is made even harder by heat. The butter melts and your layers vanish. It was a battle that only some managed to win.
Sophie pulled it off perfectly; Steven manage to achieve both style and substance with more lamination than B&Q and tasty fillings. Liam’s gorgeous presentation won praise from the judges.
At the other end of the scoreboard, the judges were questioning the showstopper element of Kate, Yan and Stacey’s pastries. Only Liam had the wherewithal to present his pastries in anything other than a basket — and how showstopping can a basket of pastry be?
Kate’s efforts weren't pretty — “they’d taste quite pleasant if you shut your eyes” said Hollywood; Yan’s were raw in parts and lacking layers; and Stacey’s plan to line hers with choux pastry turned out to be a task to far. She admitted it hadn’t worked in nine out of 10 practice runs so the odds weren’t in her favour.
With crème patissiere pouring out of them, she alternately termed them “crapalatelli” and “sfoglia-teeny” when Leith raised her eyebrows at their diminuitive proportions. And the icing sugar blanket she’d used as camouflage failed to fool the judges.
“You've let yourself down a little bit,” said the judges. Had the treife-a-like shells proved her undoing?
Well, Star Baker went to Stephen. Stacey lives to bake another week, but it was perilously close!