The Great British Baking Show ups its challenge game for “Chocolate Week”

Kate Kulzick
·13 mins read
The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show

The Great British Baking Show does not have a great track record with chocolate challenges. While this is only the second season to have a dedicated “Chocolate Week”—the other being series six of Bake Off, aka season three of PBS’s Baking Show, aka Netflix’s collection three—chocolate bakes have plagued contestants throughout the run of the show. Whether it’s struggling with temperatures in the tent as the bakers attempt collared cakes or trying to guess at golden brown with chocolate loaves and sponges, adding chocolate to the equation, beyond decorative flourishes, makes for challenging baking. Season 11 has some ground to make up after the shaky “Bread Week,” and despite a weak showing in the signature, the bakers ultimately deliver, thanks to the surprisingly creative and demanding technical and showstopper challenges.

The episode begins inauspiciously, with rain. Chocolate is notoriously finicky and it tends to hate water—yes, this is a first challenge gun, we’ll check back in at the showstopper—so having excess moisture in the air is a disconcerting way to start chocolate week. Fortunately for the bakers, the producers have taken the weather into consideration this season and for the signature round have asked not for a tempered chocolate concoction, but for the bakers’ take on the lowly, but beloved, brownie. They’ll only have 90 minutes, which isn’t much to bake, cool, and decorate their 18 brownies, but the bakers can use any kind of chocolate and any additional flavors or decorations, so long as they achieve a fudgy texture.

The bakers set to work immediately, cognizant of the impending time crunch. Brownies make sense as a signature challenge. They’re well known home bakes, the kind of recipe any amateur baker should have down and should be able to bring their own personality to. However, aren’t they just a bit too easy for Bake Off? The bakers have the same doubts, so they work overtime to bring more flair and complexity to their brownies. Linda takes inspiration from her childhood Christmases, topping her mixed nut and date brownies with white chocolate and Turkish Delight. Marc, a relative newbie to brownies, makes praline buttercream to top his roasted macadamia nut brownies. Dave goes for texture contrasts, making milk chocolate ganache and honeycomb to top his and incorporating popping candy into his batter, while Peter is more health-conscious, with pistachios and dates in his caramelized fig upside-down brownies.

The rest of the bakers steer well clear of healthy with their signatures. Sura goes for a bold combination with ruby and dark chocolate brownies, topped with Italian meringue. Lottie makes the round difficult for herself by doubling down on sweets, with a layer of baked raspberry cheesecake on top of her chocolate and pecan brownies. Hermine layers on the flavor as well, topping her coffee and chocolate brownies with white chocolate ganache, pistachios, and raspberry sprinkles, and both Mark and Laura opt for s’more-inspired bakes. Mark’s have a chocolate chip cookie base and are topped with Italian meringue and caramelized cranberries, while Laura’s Italian meringue-topped chocolate and hazelnut brownies feature a salted caramel drizzle.

The editors do a good job of keeping the tension up throughout what should be a rather straightforward challenge. As the time ticks down, it becomes clear that several bakers are in trouble. Laura’s brownies are raw, Lottie’s may be as well, and Sura drops half of hers inside the oven. What should have been a walk in the home-kitchen park has gone massively awry. The ominous tone of the closing minutes carries over into the judging. Things start a bit harsh, with Paul giving Peter the crushing critique of, “just okay” on his admittedly risky upside-down brownies, and they continue from there. Laura’s brownies look a mess. They’re under-baked and much too sweet. Sura is dinged for only presenting half the requested brownies and not even taking them out of the tin. She could overcome that with a delicious bake, but unfortunately Paul doesn’t like her flavors and while Prue does, she doesn’t like the texture.

The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show

Mark’s brownies at least look good, and Prue seems to like them, even if they’re a bit sweet, but Paul doesn’t like the texture, finding the cookie base too thick. Hermine’s are messy, but Paul thinks there are too many flavors and Prue again knocks them for being too sweet, despite the nice acidity of the raspberry. Linda seems to have misjudged her ratios, because her brownies are too sponge-like for Paul’s taste, as are Dave’s. Paul likes the flavor, but they’re overbaked and Prue considers them closer to a tray bake than brownies, which require in her estimation a gooey middle and crackly top. Both Marc and Lottie are critiqued for their messy presentation, though at least Marc gets a passing grade for flavor from Paul. Paul also likes the flavor of Lottie’s, but her texture is massively off, and though Prue likes the sharpness of the raspberries, the proportion of cheesecake to brownie is off. After the particularly rough round of judging, Lottie hits the nail on its head: They all tried to overcompensate for the perceived simplicity of the brownie when they should have just embraced it and done a standard brownie well. As Mark says, “That was brutal. I mean, brownies? What are people watching this going to think of us?”

The bakers don’t have much opportunity to lick their wounds, however, as it’s time for the technical. Paul encourages them to focus on their textures as they bake chocolate babkas. A babka is a traditional Jewish loaf cake made from enriched dough which is stretched thin, layered with nuts and chocolate, then rolled, split, and twisted into its distinct, decorative shape. Once it’s baked, the loaf is brushed with syrup, and it should be crisp on the outside and fluffy and light inside. The bakers will have two and a half hours and given Paul’s warnings about the difficulty of this challenge, and their performances in the signature, they’re hesitant to say the least as they get started.

None of the bakers are familiar with babka—has Seinfeld not made it across the pond?—but their spirits seem to lift as they work with the dough. Several comment on the feel of it, liking its stretch and stickiness. They’re able to successfully windowpane their dough, stretching it to check whether light will pass through, telling them the gluten is fully developed and the dough doesn’t need any more kneading. It’s fun to watch them play with and work the dough, rolling and twisting it into shape. Sura, Hermine, and Lottie fall into the trap Paul mentioned to Prue at the start of the round, making their twists too long for their pan, but Linda and some others manage to nail the size. Most of the babkas fail to fully double in size after proving, but compared to the signature, the bakers seem to be on track. Things are looking up as the bakers pull out their babkas and take them to the table for judging.

Linda’s chocolate babka, on The Great British Baking Show
Linda’s chocolate babka, on The Great British Baking Show

Lottie’s size and twisting woes put her in last place, her babka having sunk in the middle. Dave’s twist has gaps and his dough is too dense, putting him in eighth. Next is Sura, who struggled with the plaiting and wound up with a heavy, tight loaf. Marc’s babka isn’t bad, just a little dry, putting him in sixth, and Hermine’s is neat, albeit under proved, which earns her fifth. Peter is fourth, as his babka hasn’t risen appropriately, but it’s well baked and tender. The top three all get high praise. Mark is third, his babka delicious, even if it could have used more plaiting. Laura is second, with a lovely, cakey dough, and Linda gets first place, with what Prue calls a model babka. Even Paul is unable to find fault in it. It’s great to see Linda get another technical win. She’s over the moon and Paul seems genuinely surprised and impressed when he finds out she’s never made a babka before. On the other side of things, Lottie and Sura are in trouble, having struggled in both rounds.

The next day, the bakers head back into the tent for the showstopper and once again, the producers impress with a surprising and canny challenge choice. The bakers have four hours to make a spectacular two or more tier white chocolate celebration cake featuring decorations that display an expert use of white chocolate. Since the contestants are baking the chocolate, rather than making candies, sculpting, or doing other detailed chocolate work, their bakes are less likely to go awry due to conditions in the tent. They will have some temperature-sensitive flourishes in their decorations, but had it been a particularly hot or rainy day, the bulk of their showstoppers would not be adversely affected. It’s a smart choice of brief, and more importantly, one that sets the bakers up to succeed.

Instead of asking them to battle the elements, the judges are asking them to battle their main flavor. White chocolate is incredibly sweet and, as Laura notes, it’s much less nuanced than other types of chocolate. Finding a way to present a white chocolate cake that isn’t cloyingly sweet or one-note will be challenging. It also is incredibly difficult to temper and work with and has a high cocoa butter content, which can throw off baking ratios. Anyone on Bake Off should be able to make a delicious, flavorful chocolate cake. Making a delicious, flavorful white chocolate cake is much trickier.

The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show

Inspired by her two-year wedding anniversary, which was the day before, Laura is pairing her white chocolate cake with Italian meringue buttercream and a sharp black currant jam, with a large white chocolate flower decoration on top. Lottie’s also celebrating an anniversary, her grandparents’ sapphire or 65th wedding anniversary. Her cake will feature sapphire geode crystals, a passionfruit curd, lime drizzle, and a white chocolate sail. Sura and Hermine both thought of their parents for their cakes. Sura’s will celebrate their 36th anniversary, with strawberry and lemon jam, tempered chocolate ruffles, and piped buttercream flowers. Remember that challenge one gun? She’s attempting to counter the sweetness of her white chocolate sponges by watering down her white chocolate. Paul is skeptical, as is this viewer, but Sura seems confident. As for Hermine, her cake is a throwback to her parents’ wedding, a white chocolate genoise with lemon syrup, lemon curd, vanilla extract, a white chocolate collar, and piped ganache roses.

Two of the bakers opt to celebrate birthdays. Mark makes a birthday cake for his wife, who loves white chocolate. He uses ground pistachios, Marula fruit liqueur, lemon, and white chocolate, with tempered chocolate shards and geometric shapes. Dave goes for a fruitier flavor profile, making a Frasier cake for his girlfriend, with amaretto-soaked sponges, crème Mousseline, chocolate splashes, white chocolate drips, and strawberries. The rest of the bakers celebrate their family members. Peter again is inspired by his brother, though he doesn’t go with a gluten-free option this time. His cake celebrating his brother’s graduation features chunks of white chocolate, mango curd, Chantilly whipped cream, coconut yogurt, and a white chocolate collar with colorful math equations painted on.

Marc dedicates his cake to his daughters Rosemary and Jasmine, using pureed raspberries, white chocolate fondant flowers, raspberry Swiss meringue buttercream, and a white chocolate drip on his rose and jasmine-leaf decorated cake. Cakes aren’t a particular strength of Marc’s, so he’s worried. Linda is less so, also having thought of her daughter as inspiration. She beams with warmth as she remembers her daughter, who had special needs and died when she was 18. Linda will be making a modelling chocolate rose on top for her daughter, who she calls a sweet English rose, and will be pairing her white chocolate with vanilla mascarpone cream, raspberry jam, and amaretto.

The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show

Things seem to be going well for the bakers, aside from Laura, who loses an hour when she needs to remake her sponges. The tent heats up—it’s already 25 degrees Celsius in the tent early on, which is 77 degrees Fahrenheit—but while several bakers struggle with their decorations during the endgame, they more or less pull through in time for judging. Mark is up first. Both Paul and Prue love the look of his cake, though they’d like stronger flavors. Lottie delivers as she needed to on her presentation, but her cake is overbaked, leaving her still in danger. Or at least she seems to be, until Sura realizes her bottom sponge is raw, her watered-down white chocolate recipe not working for her. As Prue says, her sponge looks like marzipan, and there’s no coming back from that.

With any suspense around the elimination gone, attention turns to who could contend for Star Baker. Dave’s Frasier cake looks a little dark, but tastes great, and Prue loves it. Linda’s piping work is not what it needs to be, but her flavor is delicious. Marc’s cake looks beautiful, with just a slight critique from Paul that the sponge is too heavy. Prue agrees it’s dense, but likes that it tastes strongly, but not overpoweringly, of white chocolate. Peter gets high praise from Paul for his clever approach to the flavors, and while Paul doesn’t love Hermine’s messy decorations, he can’t argue with her flavors, which Prue adores. Matt labels Prue’s strong response to the citrus zing of the cake a “Prue-gasm,” and hopefully the term will stick. As for Laura, remaking her sponges paid off, as both Paul and Prue compliment her black currant flavor and her thoughtful approach.

The episode tries to wring a little suspense out of whether Lottie or Sura will be eliminated, but as Prue foreshadowed, Lottie did manage to be not the worst. As for Star Baker, Paul is leaning toward Peter, while Prue suggests Mark, and ultimately, Mark gets the win. Sura’s felt like an easy top five contender, but this just wasn’t her episode. She only presented half of the signature, she was in the bottom for the technical, and her showstopper wasn’t edible. It’s crushing to see her go, and for her to go out like this, but it’s the right call. She will be missed, and it will be lovely when she inevitably pops back up for a future holiday special. Next episode, the bakers take on pastry, and hopefully put this brownie fiasco behind themselves.

Stray observations

  • I was not ready for the gut punch of Linda talking about her daughter. What a beautiful way to share her memory with the audience.

  • Noel’s offer to go home instead of Sura or Lottie certainly had some takers in the audience beyond Prue and Paul. This is such a likeable cast, it’s a shame we’re already sending favorites home.

  • Noel singing the technical instructions to Hermine is absolutely delightful, and Matt’s bit about the judges’ critiquing the bakers for making overly sweet bakes is great.

  • This episode benefits tremendously from being almost 10 minutes shorter than the rest of the season. Hopefully this tighter editing will continue as bakers continue to be eliminated.

  • Mark has officially ruined Italian meringue for me. Thanks for that, Mark. And everyone in the U.S., please vote!

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