Ah. Dessert week.
As long as I’ve been following Bake Off (2013-), the technicals for this have always been something fiendishly complex, usually French and meringue based. Think Floating Islands or Spanische Wintertorte. And Mary Berry, the usual recipe issuer for dessert week, continued this theme this year.
Hideously complicated and time consuming? CHECK.
This time, the remaining bakers were asked to make something known as a marjolaine, which from research, tells me is the doyenne of French dessert patisserie. It is an oblong, layered gateau but doesn’t have any sponge cake (though some recipes call for a single layer of whisked génoise), instead made up of meringue, chocolate ganache and buttercream flavoured with praline. Nut allergy sufferers, look away now.
Just reading the recipe on the BBC website made me question my own sanity and just what on EARTH I had let myself in for. Watching the bakers make it was challenging enough. But I am never one to back away from a challenge. The whole point of this scheme of baking EVERY technical was to push my own skills to the limit and see how competent a baker I actually am.
Never made a dacquoise before.
Never made caramel before, let alone praline.
Soft ball stage sugar? French butter cream?! Nope.
This was either going to be a triumph. Or a mess. I was thinking mess.
Firstly though, I was also trying to keep to a reasonable budget – I did not go out and buy 2 swiss roll tins, instead opting for my 2 faithful baking trays, which measured the same dimensions and were deep enough to cook the meringue in. My food processor had died a few months ago, and I wasn;t going to rush and buy a replacement just yet. I had a hand blender, cling film, a jug and a rolling pin. I could manage. I also couldn’t get hold of slivered pistachios in time for the topping, instead I chose to buy shelled ones and chop them. Won’t be as violently jade to look at, but add enough contrast for visual impact. Cop out? Lazy? Maybe. But I’m a home cook and can count on one hand the amount of times I’d need a swiss roll tin. I don’t make them, or roulades.
Anyway, back to the 4 hours of hell (The bakers had 3…I tried to do it in 3 but it didn’t happen) on a Sunday afternoon in early October.
First step was blitz up hazelnuts and blanched almonds and roast. The hand blender in a jug did a reasonable job, but they weren’t, shall we say even. And also, I felt the oven didn’t roast them enough so I bunged them in a dry pan. And overdid them. Great. Screwed up the first step whilst trying to multitask (I was separating eggs into the Kenwood whilst the nuts toasted). Thankfully they were salvageable and I didn’t have to start again. Besides, I told myself, meringue is stupidly sweet anyway. A hint of bitterness might be desirable as I like some complexity in my sweet treats, not just one-note diabetic relentlessness. I’m not 10 years old anymore.
Nuts mixed with sugar (a 2kg bag of the stuff was bought for this just in case!) and cornflour and left aside, I started on the meringue. Fairly straightforward, whisk until stiff (I once tried to whip egg whites years ago when my hand whisk broke and the balloon whisk had gone walkies. A fork doesn’t do the same job. It was pain on another level and taught me a valuable lesson about planning and procrastination) peaks form, and then ass the sugar spoonful by spoonful until once more stiff and glossy. Hold over head to check for doneness. Nuts folded through, I took a sneaky taste of the raw meringue (which is actually up there with condensed milk as one of those things you shouldn’t eat but you do in clandestine rapaciousness) and there was no undesirable burnt bitterness detected. YES. I could hide my previous cock up. I spread the manilla-toned, nut-speckled mix onto the parchment-lined trays and set in the low oven to bake for 45 to 60 minutes. Perfect time to get on with the other stages.
Time to lose my caramel virginity. I’ve done caramel sauces with butter and cream before, but never the proper stuff with just sugar and water. I knew that leaving the pan even for a microsecond was a no-no, so off I went. I stood by the pan like a sentry, and my first observation was….man this takes forever. Slowly the syrup began to turn the palest of golds….then darker and darker….as soon as my partner’s stepdad, who was casually observing, said it ‘looked and smelled like caramel’ I whipped it off the head and bunged in my toasted almonds (done with shaky optimism whilst panwatching), spreading it on a sheet of parchment and sighing with relief that potential burnt sugar hot mess had been averted.
When it came to blitzing the praline, I decided to go for the primeval bag and rolling pin method and luckily it broke into uneven chunks fairly easily. But I knew I had to get the blender out once more, so yet more eye-watering sounds, pieces flying across the countertop followed. But I had a mostly fine powder with a few bigger chunks. But I was happy with that….would add texture.
Chocolate ganache? Easy peasy, I thought, but I made a fatal mistake here which was to bite me on the arse later on. The recipe called for 360g plain chocolate (I had a mix of cheap value plain stuff and 85% gourmet stuff), and I got so engrossed in the serene repeition of snapping dark brown squares into a bowl that I inadvertently threw in the entire 400g…and I wondered why the warmed cream didn’t melt it all and why there were a few chunks of partially melted chocolate sitting gloatingly within the shining pond of ganache. More on that later. Blissfully unaware of my second mess-up, I threw the ganache gaily into the fridge and moved onto the next stage, the daunting French buttercream.
8 egg yolks were required for this, so in addition to the leftovers from the dacquoise, I separated 2 more eggs and got to work. It was time to get scientific and look up how to test for the ‘soft ball’ stage as I don’t have a candy thermometer. Simple enough, just drop a small amount of hot sugar into a bowl of ice cold water and see what it forms – if it makes a soft ball, as the name suggests, then it’s ready. So yet more sugar and water in a pan on the heat, off I went, anxiously watching and willing myself ‘Don’t fuck it up’ (my subconscious had taken on the form of RuPaul today it seemed). After a good few tentative tests, I had what I thought was a soft ball forming in the water so I took it off the heat rapidly and got the mixer going on the yolks. I was instructed to drizzle the warm syrup slowly into the beating egg yolks until thick and completely cool. 5-10 minutes. For God’s sake. When it looked and felt just that, it was time to add the eye-watering 350g of cubed, soft butter bit by bit, whisking all the while. Essentially I was making a very decadent, sweet mayonnaise or bearnaise, wasn’t I? Jesus wept. WHAT WAS WRONG WITH REGULAR BUTTERCREAM?! I raged internally. It is ten times easier to make, or is it too uncouth for this fine patisserie, Mary?! But eventually I had a bowl full of what looked to me like a cross between cake frosting and mayo, and it seemed to be enough to fill and coat the gateau. I gingerly folded in the crunchy, golden powdered praline and placed into a bowl to go in the fridge alongside the fucked-up (excuse my language but you need to get SOME idea of the stress I felt when assembling!) ganache.
I then got busy clearing up (I was adamant that clean-as-you-go would be imperative here and I was so glad I did!) and toasting flaked almonds as well as chopping more hazelnuts and pistachios somewhat haphazardly with my trusty mezzaluna (yes it is Nigella’s official cookware one FYI) to get ready for the grand assembly.
It was crunch time.
I got out a tape measure to mark where to cut the cooled meringue sheets and made a small indentation with my thumbnail. It was a little tight-rope-between-skyscrapers but I successfully managed to have 4 rectangles, albeit very fragile. And the only serving platter that would fit this monster of a gateau would be a chopping board. So I placed the first sheet of meringue and began to slather on about a quarter of the buttercream, using the nearby stepdad’s “builder’s eye” to check it was level.
First layer done.
Topped with another sheet of meringue, the next layer was ganache. WHY WAS IT SO HARD?! A quick microwave blast to loosen it slightly and I was just about managing to spread it. Good enough, I decided, and topped with the third sheet, before slathering on another rough quarter of the buttercream. It didn’t look like there would be enough to cover the cake….did I beat it enough? Was the sugar syrup not at the right stage? Who knew? Or was I being paranoid?
Final sheet placed atop, it was then time for the bit I hate when frosting cakes (a practice I do rarely because of this), the coating. Gingerly and shakily, I began to use a standard kitchen knife (I really should just buy an offset spatula or even a pallet knife..I’m such a culinary Scrooge) and just about managed to coat 3 of the 4 sides with this stuff I was already sick of the sight of. Sod it, I can slice off the messy-ass front for a ‘layers’ photo.
I slapped on handfuls of toasted flaked almonds much like a kid does with glitter and glue when making a nursery Christmas card, and managed to successfully coat the back and sides with them.
And it was then I realised my earlier cock up as the stiff ganache REFUSED to be piped, oozing through the stitching in my piping bag and all over my fingers. And then a chunk of excess unmelted chocolate jammed the nozzle. I had to run upstairs before I threw the wretched gateau at the wall. And it was time to go pick up my partner for work, the optimistic 3 hours extended by 45 minutes. In a blind stressed out rage, I heated the ganache in the microwave again and threw it in the fridge, veins throbbing in my temples. Everyone and everything was the devil incarnate. And I’d run out of cigarettes! Life was laughing at me and I HATE leaving jobs unfinished. Plus I’d also set myself the additional task of roasting a joint of beef once I’d done the gateau.
So once back home, my partner suggested try reheating the ganache (it had of course, solidified YET again) and just see what happens. So he took that job whilst I SEETHED, contemplating throwing the bloody unfinished thing in the bin and cursing Mary Berry’s name and the pointlessness of piping excessively. Ganache much softer, I dumped it in the piping bag and grudgingly set about finishing the now 4 plus hours of torture. Somewhat sloppily, a frame and 5 diagonal lines were piped, with a little help from a dessert spoon handle to join any gaps. Ridges weren’t that defined, but by this time I couldn’t have given two shits.
However, once the gaps were filled with contrasting shades of chopped hazelnuts and pistachios….the marjolaine was finished. And despite the obvious issues here and there visually, I thought, begrudgingly so (though everyone else at home, who of course had to be an audience, which I hate when taking on a cooking task I struggle with. thought it looked really good), didn’t look too bad, and even looked, dare I say it…impressive?
And as soon as it was finished, the fierce homicidal rage evaporated and relief swept through me. I had conquered the most challenging bake I had ever done, albeit with some mistakes. But sometimes “this will do” is enough. Life is too short sometimes.
But I can tell you that this vodka/cream soda with grenadine sunrise in my hand was MUCH needed.
There is no sadness in his eyes, just relief at finally making it through the wilderness.
As I write this up, I haven’t seen Tudor Week but I know the technical involves ornate biscuits. Nothing, I tell myself, nothing, can top this hideous nightmare. I’ll take anything.
But one thing I have taken from this experience, is that I want to try cooking meringue more. So this coming weekend, I will take on the 2013 dessert week technical, Iles Flottante (floating islands), which is poached meringue quenelles on a ‘sea’ of creme anglaise (vanilla custard). I may write it up as a special post as it sort-of fits the Bake Off technicals, just one from 3 years ago! And then, I will tackle the Tudor Week one!
See you next time!