“A thousand leaves.” That’s the literal translation of mille-feuille. While its elements seem relatively simple, this delicate pastry is greater than the sum of its parts. The beauty of a mille-feuille is in the perfection of each layer, from the crispy, flaky puff pastry to the silky smooth cream. This technical challenge uses Paul Hollywood’s recipe, which utilizes rough puff pastry, raspberry jam, Chantilly cream and fresh raspberries.
Soufflés are notoriously tricky to make. Each element must be done correctly, and timing is crucial. Once it’s in the oven, best not disturb it until it’s had time to rise to its fullest potential. But when it’s done it will only stay at its glorious height for a short while before falling, so it must be served immediately.
The texture of a soufflé is hard to describe. It’s much more cake-like than I imagined it would be — soft and moist, yet light as air, it almost melts in the mouth. Every bite was like a soft pillow of rich, creamy chocolatey heaven.
Mokatines feature a genoise sponge sandwiching a layer of coffee buttercream, surrounded by almonds and decorated with coffee-flavored crème au beurre, then topped with fondant icing. Although the recipe is a bit fiddly, the results would not be out of place in a patisserie window! These tiny cakes pack quite a punch with coffee flavor. But for a true coffee lover, that wouldn’t be a problem!
Tennis cakes were a big hit in the late 1800s, when lawn tennis became a popular sport that men and women could play together. The cakes were elaborately decorated with candied fruit or royal icing in the shape of tennis balls and racquets. Almond paste, or marzipan, was often used to cover the cake, which was then iced or coated with fondant before the decoration was added. They also contained an inordinate amount of candied fruits and citrus peel, raisins or currants, and almonds. Mary Berry’s recipe calls for more than 2 pounds of glacé cherries, dried apricots and golden raisins!
Flaounes hail from Cyprus, where they were traditionally made at Eastertime. The sesame-covered pastry is filled with a golden mound of sharp, salty cheese and studded with plump raisins that give your tastebuds a burst of sweetness when you bite into one. In Cyprus, flaounes are used to break the Lenten fast on Easter morning, but they also go well with pasta — like a cheesy garlic bread — a leafy green salad or a hearty bowl of soup!
No matter how you spell it (“pita” or “pitta”), these ancient flatbreads are pretty versatile: fill them, wrap them, or dip them. Of the two varieties — Greek pitas or pocket pitas — mine turned out more like the pocketless kind. These are also gluten-free, using psyllium husk powder to replace the gluten. They are speckled with nigella seeds, giving them an aromatic flavor profile and a satisfying crunch.
Spanische Windtorte is the precursor to Pavlova, Schaum Torte and Eton mess. In 1884, Sigmund Freud’s fiancée called it “the fanciest cake ever created in Vienna.” This elaborate creation involves stacking rings of baked meringue, covering them with more meringue and baking again to form an intricately decorated shell, which is then filled with whipped cream and berries and topped with a meringue lid, giving it the appearance of a cake
Baguettes are made with a high water content to produce an open, airy texture, and their crispy exterior is created by utilizing steam in the baking process. Baguette means wand or stick in French, and these iconic loaves are synonymous with France. In fact, France is currently petitioning to have the baguette listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Registry as a national treasure.
These delicate, crispy, wafer-thin cookies, sometimes called elephant ears, beavertails or shoe soles, are made with laminated dough using a technique called inverse puff pastry. It creates even lighter, flakier results than regular laminated dough. They remind me of the scraps of pie dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar that my mother would bake as a treat whenever she made a pie.
Mary Berry’s walnut layer cake features three layers of light, moist sponge with bits of walnut throughout, filled with vanilla buttercream and covered with what she calls boiled icing but what I recall from my childhood as seven-minute frosting. This fluffy, white, meringue-like frosting is not boiled at all, but whisked over a pan of simmering water until it forms a marshmallowy consistency.
Scones, Victoria sandwiches and lemon tarts are all historically British bakes. While this “back to basics” challenge may seem simple enough, it takes a lot of knowledge and time management skills to juggle all three at once. Mary Berry might have pointed out the bubbles in my custard or commented that my scones were too pale, but I was proud of the results!
The Schichttorte is derived from a German cake called a Baumkuchen (“tree cake”) that is cooked on a spit, with thin layers of batter added as it rotates over a heat source, resulting in a round cake with a hole in the middle and multiple vertical layers that look like tree rings. Schichttorte (“layer cake”) was developed for the home baker to bake in an oven broiler, with thin layers of batter brushed one on top of another until the cake has up to 20 horizontal layers.
Povitica is a traditional Eastern European holiday bread. The key to its distinctive spirals is rolling the dough out so thin that it’s practically transparent, then spreading it with a thin layer of chocolate and walnut filling before rolling it into a sausage-like log that is folded into the pan. This rolling and folding also gives it a cake-like texture and delicate crumb that falls apart easily and practically melts in your mouth.
A cross between a croissant and a morning bun, kouign-amann (pronounced queen ah-mon) is, in my opinion, the “queen” of pastries. This laminated little-piece-of-heaven-on-earth hails from Brittany, in the northwest of France. The main difference between kouign-amanns and croissants is a layer of sweet, crispy caramelized sugar on the outer edges of the pastry. While it may be time-consuming, it’s not a particularly difficult bake. On a leisurely day at home, it’s well worth the effort.
A favorite of three Swedish princesses in the early 20th century, the prinsesstårta has become a modern classic. Delicate layers of sponge cake, raspberry jam and cream are covered by pastel green marzipan and crowned with a single fondant rose. This is the technical challenge that inspired me to Bake Through the Bake Off.
These mini pear pies are a lot like apple dumplings, but with a twist! Instead of being wrapped in a sheet of pastry, these poached pears are surrounded by a long thin spiral of rough puff, which makes the texture light and delicate. They’re best served warm, and if you add a scoop of vanilla ice cream to the dish, your guests will sing your praises!
Tiramisu — what’s not to love? Although Mary Berry’s version may not qualify as an authentic version of this iconic Italian dessert, hers still features sumptuous layers of creamy mascarpone, a tender sponge soaked in coffee and brandy, and a generous sprinkling of grated dark chocolate. One bite and I’m transported back to the canal-side cafés of Venice, watching colorful gondolas glide past as the flavors mingle on my tongue. Now that’s amore!
Ciabatta is Italian for slipper, which these long, flat loaves resemble. The recipe for this technical challenge is, of course, Paul Hollywood’s. He specified that he was looking for a strong crust with a crisp, floury surface and an irregular crumb structure with big, visible air holes. These ciabatta loaves taste just as good simply dipped in olive oil as they do sliced and topped with your favorite bruschetta topping or filled with meat and cheese and grilled on a panini press!
This delicate, lacy cookie is traditionally made with almonds and orange flavors, reminiscent of Italian baking, but the use of butter and cream is evidence of its French origins. Over the years, Florentines have evolved to the point where they come in many different variations. Mary Berry’s version uses a variety of dried fruits and nuts and then, after baking, is brushed with a decadent layer of dark chocolate.
Mary Berry’s classic cherry cake uses ground almonds because they add texture, retain moisture and help to suspend the cherries in the batter. Her recipe calls for glacé cherries, the type that are popular in many British fruitcakes. The key to making sure they don’t fall to the bottom of the pan while baking is to quarter the cherries, then rinse the sticky syrup off, dry them well and coat them in flour before folding them in to the batter. This is a very good cake with classic flavors, and not overly sweet. A perfect accompaniment to afternoon tea!
This technical challenge uses Paul Hollywood’s recipe for six sweet and six savory pretzels. The savory pretzels are sprinkled with coarse salt and sesame seeds before baking. The sweet variety has poppy seeds and orange zest mixed into the dough. After baking, they’re brushed with orange syrup and garnished with candied orange peel. Any way you top them, these pretzels tick all the boxes, as Paul would say, bringing the complete package of flavor, crunch and chewiness that’s sure to satisfy anybody’s cravings for breakfast, lunch or a midnight snack! (Read on…)
Charlottes are related to trifles in that they are unbaked and made in a glass dish or mold. The two most well-known types are charlotte russe and charlotte royale. This technical challenge, set by Mary Berry, has a lot of steps but is not difficult. The end result is a showstopper dessert that is light, fruity and perfect for summer! (Read on…)
While the nuts in this particular dacquoise, obviously, are hazelnuts, that’s just the start of the flavor profile here. The delicately chewy meringue layers are sandwiched with a coffee custard, topped with swirls of chocolate ganache and caramelized hazelnuts, and surrounded by even more chopped hazelnuts to give it a beautiful finish. (Read on…)
Its name means “nun” in French, and this popular pastry is found in patisseries and boulangeries all over France. Made of pâte à choux and filled with pastry cream, two buns, like little cream puffs, are stacked on top of each other and decorated to look like nuns dressed in their habits. (Read on…)
Tuile is the French word for tile, and these thin, delicate cookies are often curved in the shape of a French roof tile. They can be either sweet or savory and are usually served as a garnish, or tuiles can be molded into serving dishes for ice cream or other desserts. (Read on…)
From the time custard was invented, this magical, golden concoction of eggs, milk and sugar has been intimately tied to pastry, as the name is derived from the French crouste (for “crust”) and the Anglo-Norman crustarde, meaning “tart or pie with a crust.” These custard tarts feature a simple, sweet short-crust pastry, with the addition of a small amount of ground almonds for a nutty flavor and added crunch. Done right, the custard should come out smooth and creamy, and the crust should be nicely browned (no soggy bottoms!). (Read on…)
Îles flottante, eggs in snow, floating islands … a rose by any other name … would still be a dessert consisting of poached meringues floating on a sea of crème anglaise, a vanilla-scented custard thin enough to pour (also called pouring custard). (Read on…)
While English muffins are fairly simple to make, they do take time. The key to a good flavor and lots of little holes inside is a long, slow rise. Unlike most yeast breads, English muffins are “baked” on the stove, usually on a hot griddle or cast iron frying pan. This makes them nice and toasty on each side, but still slightly squidgy in the middle. (Read on…)
Once you’ve had homemade angel food cake, you realize there really is no comparison with the kind that comes from a box. What sets angel food cake apart from other sponge cakes — and what makes it a suitable food for angels, apparently — is the fact that it contains no egg yolks and no fat. The only leavening in the cake comes from beating air into the egg whites until they form a meringue-like consistency. This creates a high-rising cake with a light, airy texture that would probably float on a cloud (making it easier for angels to eat it, no doubt)! (Read on…)
Fondant fancies are little cakes, often layered with jam or marzipan, covered with a thin coating of fondant and usually adorned with icing or sugar paste flowers or other intricate decorations. Watching The Great British Bake Off bakers making their fondant fancies was quite entertaining, until I had to do it myself. Trying to create 25 identically sized, uniformly coated miniature cakes can be extremely frustrating, not to mention messy! (Read on…)
The fraisier gets its name from the French word for strawberry, la fraise. Visually stunning, the fraisier is distinctive because of the layer of strawberry halves arranged so that the cut sides line the outside of the cake. The result is an elegant confectionary creation that would make an exquisite ending to a festive dinner party or a stunning addition to a dessert table at any large celebration. (Read on…)
It’s biscuit week in the Great White Tent, and Paul Hollywood’s technical challenge is a chocolate tea cake, whose only connection to biscuits is a thin, wafer-like cookie at the base of a meringue-filled chocolate dome, the whole effect of which seems more like a candy bar than a biscuit. (Read on…)
“A naughty treat that’s unbeatable when eaten warm and covered in sugar.” That’s the description for Paul Hollywood’s jam doughnuts on the BBC website. And it’s true. (Read on…)
For such a noble name, the queen of puddings is a rather humble combination of custard fortified with breadcrumbs, topped with a layer of jam and crowned with peaks of meringue (another theory on the origins of its name). (Read on…)
Hand-raised pies use a hot water crust pastry, which is made with boiling water and lard. As for the fillings, this recipe uses chicken, bacon and dried apricots seasoned with fresh thyme. They are hearty and sturdy, as long as you can get the pastry to cooperate. (Read on…)
What’s the difference between crème caramel and flan? Apparently nothing, when you’re talking about the dessert baked with a golden caramel sauce that tops a creamy, light yellow custard base when it’s turned upside down and popped out of its ramekin. But this technical challenge is for crème caramel, and since I have pledged to tackle every challenge set before the bakers in the Great White Tent, I will do my best to create the best crème caramel I possibly can. (Read on…)
Harry Potter loves treacle tart so much that he smells it when he is in the presence of the love potion Amortentia. Treacle tart is also so quintessentially British that its main ingredient, golden syrup, originated in the U.K. and is still sold under the original brand name—Tate & Lyle. When I opened the bottle it smelled a lot like pancake syrup, but when I tasted it…Mmmmm! It had a sweet buttery flavor unlike anything I’d ever tried before. I can see why British expats pine for it here in the U.S. (Read on…)
This technical challenge proved difficult (See what I did there?) for many of the contestants on The Great British Baking Show. But it was the plaiting that had them tied up in knots. Outside of that, it’s a pretty basic dough, and if you understand the pattern, you should be able to create a decent loaf. (Read more…)
Rum babas, or baba aux rhum as the French call them (I always feel like I should roll my Rs when I say it), are of Polish descent but have been claimed by the French, as well as the Italians. Traditionally, the rum baba is made in the shape of an over-sized champagne cork. If it’s made in a circular mold with a hole in the middle it’s known as a savarin. (But who am I to correct Paul Hollywood, whose rum baba recipe calls for just this type of mold!) (Read on…)