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15 Real Tips We Learned From The Great British Bake Off

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Quick game of trivia: In the past two years, what was the most-watched television program in the U.K.?

Homemade Crumpets
Homemade Crumpets

If you said the World Cup final, which aired in July 2014 and drew 20 million viewers, you would be correct.

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But in second place came a television event that's a bit less athletic but no less competitive: the October 2015 finale of The Great British Bake Off, with a peak of 14.5 million viewers.

And even for the regular episodes, those not as riveting as the finale, "10 million Britons switch on their TV sets each Wednesday evening," The Guardian reported. And that's "to watch a baking contest filmed in a tent in the countryside."

It was as if everyone living in New York City—and then another 1.5 million people—put their lives on hold for an hour each week to watch their neighbors and friends bake sponge cakes.

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Walnut Sponge Cake
Walnut Sponge Cake

G.B.B.O. has plenty of fans at Food52, as well. As Marketing Coordinator Catherine O'Donnell put it:

The Brits take all the competition and cutthroat nature of American baking shows and flush it down the loo! This is the happiest, most feel-good show out there. At the end of every episode, everyone hugs each other... I wish I could be in that group hug.

Welsh Cakes
Welsh Cakes

And while the show warms our hearts and makes us want to be better people (it's true!), it also offers important, kitchen-applicable lessons about baking. "I am NOT a great baker," said Director of Events Francesca Andreani, "and watching this show has actually taught me a ton. They don't forgo the technical talk and advice for more drama, like so many other reality programs do."

And so, the tips the bakers and non-bakers at Food52 have learned (so far).

1) How to pronounce (and make... well, kind of) kouign-amann.

When the contestants in the 2014 season were assigned to bake kouign-amann for their technical challenge, not one person had even tasted one.

With bated breath, we, the doting audience, learned alongside the bake-testants: how to pronounce the name of this Breton pastry (queen-ah-mohn); how to laminate the dough; and how to incorporate the sugar (only on the top-most layer! Otherwise, it melts into and weighs down the pastry, making it more compact than flakey).

How to Make Kouign Amann
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How to Make Kouign Amann

Since the airing of the 2014 epiosde, kouign-amann has made an appearance at so many New York bakeries that Serious Eats published a ranking of the best in the city.

So would we try making kouign-amann at home? Only with the help of Yossy Arefi.

2) The easiest way to remove the sides of a cake or tart pan with removable sides.

In removing a finished tart from its pan, do you often find yourself wearing the outer perimeter as an awkward oversized bangle? There's an easier way: Just put a large can underneath the pan and nudge the removable sides downwards, onto your work surface. Your creation will rest on the can and cool beautifully, just like that.

But how will we remove the tart from its pan?
But how will we remove the tart from its pan? Photo by Mark Weinberg

3) These oven mitts are actually used by real people.

Merchandising Manager Hannah Wilken bought a pair after watching the show, and Creative Director Kristen Miglore has already professed her love for them.

Shop Staff Picks: For Your Protection

Shop Staff Picks: For Your Protection by Food52

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Double Oven Mitt

Double Oven Mitt

$42

4) Proofing your yeasted dough quickly, appealing as it may be, carries great risk.

With near-impossible time constraints (just five hours to make laminated doughs and viennoiseries that typically take multiple days from start to finish), the bakers are often tempted to use proofing drawers (or even microwaves) to speed up the rising time.

But when the rising process is artificially accelerated, heat is forced into the dough, which can damage the proteins and negatively affect the shape and structure of the final product. The butter in croissant dough, for example, will flood out before the pastries bake, resulting in a doughy, buttery roll rather than something with beautiful layers and flakes.

The key: Be patient. And wait 'til everyone else is shaping their dough before starting on your own.

Individual Baked Alaskas with Honeycomb Ice Cream & Brown Sugar Pound Cake
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Individual Baked Alaskas with Honeycomb Ice Cream & Brown Sugar Pound Cake

5) Almost everything in baking needs to be cooled down fully before you start decorating.

Otherwise, you're looking at a sloppy mess. This is never more true than when you're dealing with a Baked Alaska.

And if that Baked Alaska does end up more soup-like than cake-like, do not, under any circumstances, throw the whole thing in the trash. The judges—we mean, your friends—want to taste it anyway.

Do Not Be Scared of This Caramel Cake
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Do Not Be Scared of This Caramel Cake

6) Don't touch the caramel while it's cooking. Leave it alone, seriously—don't stir it.

"I tested this one; it's true," said Francesca. But sadly, it isn't always true. As Erin McDowell explains, the question of to stir or not to stir is answered by the specific recipe:

Recipes for soft caramel or caramel sauce that include large quantities of invert sugar or high levels of milk (including evaporated or sweetened condensed milk), butter, or cream can and should be stirred throughout cooking to prevent burning or sticking. Recipes that say never to stir during cooking will often have instructions to "stir in butter" at the end. In short: Always refer to specific recipes for instructions about stirring.

So, moral of the story: Don't go rogue when you're a beginner caramel maker.

How to Make Real Caramel Sauce at Home
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How to Make Real Caramel Sauce at Home

7) Pudding in the British sense is not the same as pudding in the American sense.

While pudding may mean one thing to us Americans—chocolate pudding, butterscotch pudding, other sweet and silky milk-based desserts—it means a whole lot more to Brits.

Puddings can be both savory and sweet, and the term can even be used to refer to the dessert course as a whole. "Pudding" also includes dishes, like treacle sponge and Christmas pudding, that we would normally refer to as steamed cakes.

8) Same goes for fondant.

Fondant in American baking typically refers to fondant icing, a confection used to decorate and sculpt elaborate cakes (think Cake Boss and The Ace of Cakes). But when British bakers make "chocolate fondant," they're talking about individual molten lava cakes (think Valentine's Day).

More: British-style pudding a.k.a. fondant vs. American-pudding.

Melting Chocolate Cake

Melting Chocolate Cake by Food52

Alice's Chocolate Pudding

Alice's Chocolate Pudding by Alice Medrich

9) Mary Berry is a BOSS.

"I had never heard of her before," said Catherine, "but quickly learned of her masterful tiramisu-making ways."

Eighty-year-old Mary Berry has published over 70 cookbooks and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2012 by the Queen. Her favorite cake to make is a ginger treacle tray bake.

Lazy Mary's Lemon Tart
Lazy Mary's Lemon Tart

10) No one likes pastry that's too thick.

Especially if that person's name is Mary Berry. And especially if you're making a lemon tart. A thin crust is not just a matter of optimizing the eating experience, but the dessert's appearance, too.

This is because looks are just as important as taste: For cakes, your glaze better be even, your layers better be uniform (use a scale for this), and you must have a consistent amount of filling between each one. For yeasted breads, the crumb structure must be consistent all the way through. And for devilish entremets, every single one must be exactly the same.

11) We should describe baked goods as having a "good bake" more often.

How do you describe a dessert or savory baked good that's masterfully done in every way? That is neither under- or over-baked, with the correct texture and crumb, a perfect level of moisture, and a great flavor profile? You only need 4 words: "That's a good bake."

Gluten-Free Sponge Cake
Gluten-Free Sponge Cake

12) There are several types of sponges.

Victoria sponge, chiffon, biscuit, hot milk sponge... but Genoise is most definitely the hardest to execute.

13) There are three types of meringues—French, Swiss, and Italian—and Italian is the way to go, but it's also tricky.

  • French meringue is fairly simple to make (beat eggs, add sugar, whip more), but produces the least stable substance of the three.
  • Swiss meringue—the smooth, somewhat dense basis of Swiss buttercream—is prepared by gently beating egg whites and sugar in a double boiler until the mixture reaches between 120 and 130° F, then taking the bowl off the heat and beating vigorously.
  • And then there's Italian meringue, the preferred meringue of G.B.B.O. bakers. It's made by drizzling 240° F sugar syrup (yikes!) into egg whites that have been whipped to hold firm peaks and produces a satiny and stiff mixture that can be used to frost cakes, top pies, or lighten ice creams and mousses.

14) We've been pronouncing "scone" incorrectly for all these years.

We say "scone" with a hard "oh" sound in the middle, but the Brits have a softer, gentler way: skahn.

Currant Rosemary Scones
Currant Rosemary Scones

15) "Tiered pies" exist.

And they look like this. "I still don't really get them..." said Catherine.

Which judge do you prefer, Paul or Mary, and how excited are you for the next season? Tell us in the comments!


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Tags: great british bake off, baking, british