Bake Off: Crème de la Crème – episode one

Bake Off: Crème de la Crème – episode one

by Howard Middleton 30 March 2016

Great British Bake Off alumnus Howard Middleton talks us through the show's new professional format hosted by Tom Kerridge, which pits teams of pastry chefs against each other in a high pressure environment.

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Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

Howard is a food writer and presenter from Sheffield, who first caught the public’s attention on series four of The Great British Bake Off, going on to win their affection with his quirky style and love of unusual ingredients.

Well, quelle surprise – just when you thought you’d have to wait until summer for your next Bake Off fix, Auntie Beeb dons her best starched whites and serves a trolley of teatime treats in the form of Bake Off – Crème de la Crème. But this is a very different fête – no tent, Mel, Sue, Mary, Paul or amateur bakers. The Bake Off baton is temporarily passed to the professionals, as teams of patisserie experts battle it out. Well, I say ‘battle’ – this is the theatre of meticulous perfectionism so we’re unlikely to see much of a bunfight.

It’s clear from the off that this is a new class of baker – whilst we amateurs muddled along in a tent in the garden, this elite lot have been allowed into the house. And what a house it is – Welbeck Abbey – majestically marbled and resplendently resistant to the threat of any airborne ingredients.

The judges observe proceedings from regal chairs that are either Baroque or Rococo. Well, it’s hard enough keeping up with the finer details of patisserie – don’t expect me to be an antiques expert too.

Jolly Tom Kerridge jollies things along nicely. The three judges scowl and purse their lips to indicate high expectations. On the BBC’s publicity shots, their smiles whisper, ‘you will rarely see us happy’. Indeed, they look like they could zest lemons with the sharp edge of their tongues and suck on the residue until the cameras roll. They prove to be less daunting as the programme progresses – obsessive but by no means heartless.

Benoit Blin is from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, which is one of those French phrases that I like to throw into everyday conversation, like L’Apres Midi d’un Faune. Does anyone else pretend they’re more fluent than they are? Cherish Finden is the passionately pernickety executive pastry chef from The Langham in London and award-winning Claire Clark completes the panel.

The judges included Cherish Finden, Claire Clark and Benoit Blin
The interior of Welbeck Abbey provided a suitably opulent environment for the contest

The contestants

Facing this week’s challenges are a trio of chefs from the five-star Grove Hotel, a team of dessert inventors for M&S and three chefs who work in ‘hidden restaurants’ in London. This is a new one on me – I’ve often struggled with directions to a restaurant, but never considered the possibility that it was deliberately hiding.

The hotel chefs – Reece, Lauren and Ben – are in their twenties and are frequently called ‘the young guns’ (and to add to the confusion, they’re also referred to as ‘Reece’s team’). For the first challenge, the teams have three hours to each make three lots of thirty-six ‘miniatures’ – framboisiers (raspberry layer cakes), Paris-Brest (choux rings) and cylindrical petits gateaux (you guess). Tom helpfully reminds us this is 108 cakes per team.

Reece’s team’s framboisier has a pistachio sponge with raspberry and lavender jam, raspberry cream and a Greek yogurt and honey mousse. Complete with precisely placed pistachios, it’s finished to perfection. Their Paris-Brests are flavoured with hazelnut brittle and filled with an unconventional rum and banana caramel. Topped with a classic but random scattering of flaked almonds, they’re judged to lack a little finesse.

Possibly overambitious with the petits gateaux – orange and chilli curd, tuile biscuit, orange mousse and chocolate and Szechuan pepper cream – the young guns misfired and the cakes ended up unfinished.

The final round was showstopper-esque – but without any mention of the famous Bake Off challenge
The teams' first task was to each create 108 cakes

The M&S team is James, Makiko and Graham. Though James is nominally leading, it’s Graham who seems to be having a bad day and subsequently claims more airtime; he seethes and bristles as the pressure mounts. Their framboisier consists of coconut dacquoise, raspberry mousseline and tonka bean ganache, topped with a delicate tube of vanilla and mascarpone. Graham’s lip trembles at the sight of his wobbly miniatures.

Inventive Makiko seems to be faring better. ‘You can’t hide anything with a Paris-Brest,’ warns Clare, but Makiko seems intent to prove her wrong. With a secret choux ring (apparently it’s not just restaurants that hide) and hazelnut and espresso praline, she tops the lot with a disc of almond, vanilla and sea salt, which should bake to a flavoursome crust. Their petits gateaux are grande on flavours too – smoky lapsang, sharp yuzu and salty miso are all in there, along with a peanut butter feuillettine, encased in a copper dusted chocolate cylinder.

Neil, Alice and Paula are the trio of ‘secret’ chefs. Their framboisier has an unusually breakfast-like base of puffed wheat, topped with raspberry mousse, pistachio frangipane and Swiss meringues. Espresso crème pâtissière and praline mousse fill the team’s Paris-Brests, which are topped with crunchy craquelin. Cherish is exasperated by Paula’s casual cutting of the craquelin – ‘No passion, no love,’ she bemoans. However, passion does pop up in their petits gateaux in the form of a passion fruit and mango brûlée, along with a chocolate caramel mousse and another coconut dacquoise.

Makiko's elegant tree and beautiful apples certainly looked the part
The pressure was incredibly intense during the final round

Judging time

So what do the judges think? Cherish does a little theatrical armography and insists, ‘It has to be so beautiful that it’s telling me to eat me, eat me’. Benoit gets some coconut stuck to his tongue, James’s team is missing two framboisiers and Cherish could do with a little more booze. Ah, the spirit of Mary lives on. Neil’s team of secret chefs takes the lead, with Reece’s young guns coming second. Graham looks like he’s ready to seethe all the way home.

Going into the final challenge, Benoit thinks it’s between Reece’s team and Neil’s, which sets things up nicely for an ‘unexpected’ turn of events. The teams have three hours to make ‘a centrepiece dessert’. Nobody utters the word ‘showstopper’. The homely pud of apple crumble and custard must be translated into a towering spectacle of its humble components.

Reece thinks his team has pipped it for originality – they’re going for an apple tree theme. By contrast, Neil’s team is going for an apple tree theme. And James’s team? You guessed it. Oh, but James is also adding a pastillage princess, or rather Graham is. Barely containing his frustration, he extracts strands from his patisserie CV as he pulls shards of molten sugar.

Graham says he’s confident with the solidity of his structure. His face fails to agree. With splendid ‘time’s running out’ music, he totters to the table clutching his princess, barking at James to move an unseen box in his path. Ben slips with the green food colouring and has to remake his so-called ‘illuminous’ mousse. Makiko quietly constructs a beautiful filigree apple.

Apple tree
All three teams went down the apple tree route, but with surprisingly different results
Precision and attention to detail was one thing the judges were looking for

Reece’s team’s white chocolate tree trunk slices are stacked with apples filled with Golden Delicious and caramel mousse and sablé Breton, sitting on chocolate soil. The judges decide it’s lacking wow… and crumble. An autumnal mist of dry ice descends upon the secret chefs’ woodland carpet of Pink Lady and caramel windfalls, filled with vanilla brûlée and juniper streusel. It’s judged to be too flat, with too much gelatine.

Finally, we come to the towering creation of James, Graham and Makiko. White chocolate apple shells are filled with Calvados and crème fraiche parfait, crunchy speculaas, apple puree with roasted fennel, sabayon custard and financiers with brown butter. Benoit likes the ‘Bromley’ apple, but Cherish wanted more of Makiko’s filigree apples… and thinks they should have been hanging from the tree. Cherish evidently wants a lot.

After a rather lengthy scoring process, which essentially throws the first round into insignificance, Reece’s team drops to the bottom slot, Neil’s lot are second and James, Graham and Makiko go through to the next round.

After an hour of that, I feel genuinely exhausted. There’s a lot to cope with – new judges, fleeting contestants and une charge de hangar of French. Mais je… je reviendrai, erm, next week.