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The Not-So-Great Defector Bake Off Grapples With Cake Week

a row of red velvet cakes made according to Paul Hollywood's recipe
Screenshot: Netflix

Welcome to a new series called The Not-So-Great Defector Bake Off, where Kelsey and Chris attempt to complete the technical challenges from the newest season of The Great British Bake Off in their own home kitchens, with the same time parameters as the semi-professional bakers competing on the show. 

The first episode of Series 13 of the long-running and extremely good and popular show The Great British Bake Off aired last week, on Tuesday via network television in England, and then on Friday via Netflix for everyone else in the world. For those who are not familiar with this program, 12 amateur bakers are brought to a large tent in scenic rural England, to compete in three baking challenges designed and judged by the ruthless Paul Hollywood and the comparatively ruthful Prue Leith. Each week a winner is chosen (the Star Baker), and each week a baker is eliminated and sent home, until finally there are three remaining bakers, who compete in a tense finale, where a champion is chosen. It's a very good and engaging show that features exactly zero of the maddening interpersonal drama that juices up most reality programming. Inside that tent and under Paul's all-seeing icy-blue eyes, it's all about the baking.

Each week of the show is themed to a kind of baking (bread, biscuits, tarts, cakes, etc.). The first phase of a given episode asks the competing bakers to produce their signature version of a particular baked good: Their best take on a soda bread, for example, or the muffin recipe that was passed down from their great-great-grandfather, or whatever. The third phase, and the one that seems to most heavily influence the outcome of the competition each week, is the Showstopper challenge, which asks the bakers to produce a spectacular centerpiece cake, or an eye-popping spread of delicate desserts, or a dramatic bread sculpture. This final challenge is as much about form and creativity as it is about baking fundamentals.

We feel that naturally we would whip major ass at these two stages of the competition, as we are creative people who for the most part usually have flour and sugar in our pantries, and anyway how hard can it be? It's safe to assume that we would automatically advance out of each round based on these and other obvious qualities. But the middle challenge of each episode is the one that most often drives the amateur bakers to tears. This is called the Technical challenge, and it asks the bakers to reproduce exactly a very specific bake, based only upon a written description and using a recipe that is often written very obscurely, in order to test the contestants' baking knowledge. Worse, the bakers have a very strict time limit, and may not help each other in any way.

The idea of the technical challenge is that it is striving for a more objective measure of a baker's skills. Because it has very clear parameters, it offers home bakers a chance to measure themselves against the show's extremely talented contestants, and against the punishingly high baking standards of Prue and Paul. We at Defector are of course known for accepting all challenges and emerging in completely legitimate triumph, so of course it was only fitting that we should take on these technical challenges and prove our baking skills once and for all. The technical challenge of the first episode is Paul Hollywood's Red Velvet Cake.

Kelsey: Before we begin, Chris, can you tell the people why we are doing this?

Chris: Well, Kelsey, at first I thought that it was a good idea because we are two people who enjoy cooking, and because I am fascinated by baking and you are a very capable baker.

KM: See, that’s part of why I agreed to do this. Frankly, I thought I was going to be elected to the Great American Bake Off tent after doing this challenge. But mostly, I agreed to do it because it sounded funny, and for at least a year now I’ve been trying to do more things in my life that I just think are funny. 

CT: Yes, I also thought that the high degree of difficulty of the bakes and especially the time limits would make it chaotic, in a way that I expected to be fun and exhilarating, and not terrifying. I now have to face the fact that in all my thinking about this I never really considered the possibility that the cooking itself would totally overwhelm me. I expected to be challenged and flustered. I did not think I would be exposed to crushing failure and humiliation.

KM: I want to be clear that just as I am a great arm-chair football coach, I am also an incredible arm-chair GBBO critic. I assumed that everyone was just being a little baby and letting the stress of the tent get to them and that I was simply built different. This turned out to be wrong just like it was for you, but we will get to that in a second. Is there anything else you think the readers should know before we dissect our Week One experience? 

CT: I didn’t know going in that the first technical challenge would be red velvet cake, but had I known I would’ve been even more confident, I think, because red velvet cake is … it’s just a cake, with cocoa and red food coloring. Piece of cake!

Tracking down the technical challenge without watching the episode (which would've given me a huge advantage over the other contestants) was somewhat more complicated than I expected—I hoped that the GBBO website would have all this stuff posted in an orderly way and hopefully before the airing of the episode. That turned out not to be the case. So I had to wait for the first episode to air in the U.K., and then for people to post online about it. When that did not produce a recipe, I was left to wait for the recipe to show up on the website, which it did, sometime before 6:55 a.m. Thursday morning.

Hmm, actually, that’s not complicated at all. But it felt like a challenge, and in an ominous sign of things to come, just this period of waiting and googling caused me to feel very stressed out.

KM: Yeah, I have to admit that when you told me the first recipe was red velvet cake, I was ready to give myself that fuckin' cake plate [Ed. note: the trophy for winning the season]. I’ve MADE red velvet cake before! I’ve even made layered red velvet cake before. 

I also want to be clear that despite all those challenges, you had found the recipe by Thursday morning and we both did this challenge on Friday. The only reason this blog is running Tuesday is we were both so goddamn tired after completing it that we could not blog. But Paul’s recipe that you found is … well … let’s just get into it. 

Ingredients and Shopping

CT: At first glance there's not much in the recipe that jumps out as super weird or uncommon, except perhaps golden caster sugar and food coloring paste, neither of which can be found in any of my local grocery stores. But I have a large percentage of this stuff already in my kitchen: Eggs, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, white vinegar, confectioner's sugar, and so forth. The shopping part of this project if anything increased my confidence even further out of proportion to my actual baking skills.

KM: OK I need to confess to the readers up top that I did a terrible job shopping. I waited until the last possible minute to go to the grocery store, naively assuming that all of these ingredients would be waiting at the ready for me to use them. This did not happen. That means I gave myself several severe problems immediately. How did you react to the recipe itself?

CT: I was still feeling very, very confident, even cocky. I’ve used self-rising flour before! I have seen caster sugar! I know where to find baking soda and buttermilk! The things that worried me in the recipe—but in hindsight not nearly enough—were, for example, that I have never successfully used a stand mixer before in my life. I made J. Kenji López-Alt’s insanely good buttermilk pancakes over the summer and was so flummoxed by the stand mixer that I wound up beating the egg whites to stiff peaks by hand, at 7:30 in the morning, absolutely pouring sweat. In hindsight, this lack of familiarity with the single most important piece of non-oven kitchen equipment of modern baking should’ve been a bit of a red flag.

KM: It is actually surprising to me that we both had stand mixers given how many other things we didn’t have. On first read of this recipe, I was fucked up. This Paul Hollywood recipe makes you create your own cake rising agent by mixing vinegar and baking soda together in a little bowl! I hated this. Not because (like many British people) I hate vinegar. I love vinegar. I just didn’t like having to use another bowl. 

CT: OK, yes, when it came time to stage all of the bowls and sifters and measuring cups and spoons and pans and whisks and spatulas and ingredients, I became terrified. It struck me all at once that I would need to wrangle all of this shit in an orderly and efficient way, with the clock running, and I very nearly had a panic attack. This was the first time that I had the sense that I'd made an awful mistake.

What in God's name have I gotten myself into?
What in God's name have I gotten myself into?Chris Thompson/Defector

KM: I do think there is a huge advantage the bakers on the show have in that all their dishes and ingredients are stacked up for them. Whereas we both, for example, did not have six-inch cake pans. We only had eight-inch ones. And while the recipe called for having three cake pans, we both only had two. Really, it’s not our fault that things ended up how they did.

CT: Were you able to find most ingredients? I could not find the golden caster sugar or the food coloring paste, but everything else was OK. I just used regular caster sugar and food coloring gel, which I think didn’t fuck me up too badly. But then again, my finished cake was, ah, not what I was hoping for.

KM: Here are the ingredients I did not have: self-rising flour, golden caster sugar, buttermilk, any red food coloring at all, and heavy whipping cream. The heavy whipping cream was entirely my fault because I just forgot I needed to buy it. This would, as you can imagine, come back to haunt me.

Being EXTREMELY COCKY, I made the self-rising flour myself by just adding fucking baking soda to it. I used regular sugar. Buttermilk I also made by mixing vinegar with some milk and letting it curdle on the counter while I darted back and forth. The red food coloring I tried to make by mixing together two red things I had in the kitchen (frozen cherries and Campari) and subbing this mixture in for the “hot water” the recipe called for. That part did not work at all. I completely forgot until just now that I also did not have self-rising flour so I had to make that myself in the heat of the moment.

But the real failure was not having the heavy whipping cream. 

CT: Kelsey, I cannot even tell you how badly I would’ve melted down if all I had to stand in for food coloring was cherries and Campari. Just total paralysis. I really admire that you were willing to improvise with just Red Things.

KM: I am kind of a frantic cook, so it was fine at first. Let’s get into it.

Stage One: Measuring and Mixing

CT: Right away I was at sea, because the first thing I did after starting my timer was I started cutting little rounds of parchment paper to line my baking pans. Because I am a lunatic perfectionist this took me approximately 18 minutes and involved several restarts, while the pile of ingredients just sat there on my counter. I lost roughly one-sixth of my total baking time just cutting parchment paper into two eight-inch circles. Needless to say, I was basically in a full-blown panic the entire rest of the way.

KM: Here is a screenshot of what you sent me before I had even begun. 

CT: It’s sort of appalling how I had not even started baking yet and already I was clawing at you for emotional support.

KM: We were emotionally supporting each other! It’s so funny reading your first step and realizing just how different our approaches were. I had (for example) forgotten until just now that I also did not have parchment paper. What I did was I read the first two bullets of the recipe, immediately set the oven to preheat, pulled out the two cake tins I had, buttered them, floured them, and set them on the counter while I began the dough. I didn’t even use parchment paper!

CT: My wife walked in the kitchen at one point, saw the ridiculous work I was putting into just cutting up parchment paper, and said something about just using flour. But a weird thing about me is whenever I cook someone else's recipe for the first time, I become Antonin Scalia, the very most devout, intractable textualist about every single step. If it calls for parchment paper and I am able to lay hands on parchment paper, then BY GOD I will use parchment paper, in precisely the manner described.

KM: This is truly like experiencing the world through another lens. To me, as is probably evidenced by my lack of any of the required ingredients, the recipe was like a kind of idea that Paul Hollywood gave me. I did my tins fast, and started the dough. While the stand mixer was beating up the sugar (wrong kind), butter and eggs, I was making the other four bowls of things Paul Hollywood required, plus my homemade buttermilk, weird red juice, and self-rising flour. At this point, I was feeling like a fucking god. I thought I was about to make the best cake in history as I poured all my bowls together into the stand mixer. 

CT: This reminds me that I also lost a bunch of time cutting up my butter into perfect cubes and then waiting for them to soften before adding them to my mixer bowl. And so while I was waiting for optimal softness I made the little bowl of cocoa, food coloring, vanilla, and hot water, and mixed it up. This fucked me up because the recipe says it will form a paste, but mine was nothing like a paste, it was like hot cocoa. This did not help my state of mind at all.

KM: Hahhahahha. Oh, I also fucked up that bowl of cocoa by forgetting to tare my little measuring thing so I had to guess. Mine also did not form a paste. Mine was water, with little pieces of cherry floating in it. I thought nothing of this, however; I assumed it would be fine and dumped it into the stand mixer. My cake batter, to be honest, tasted great. I think that’s why I was so optimistic about it. I was like, "Oh shit, this is good." It was, however, brown, making all of my red juice work a waste of time. 

CT: My batter was like a rosy pink at the end, and I was worried that it would never turn red and become red velvet cake. Also it did not taste or smell of cocoa at all, which I found disturbing. Also I had my mixer bowl aligned improperly in the mixer for approximately 94 percent of the mixing of ingredients.

a stand mixer mixing cake batter
I finally got the bowl in there the right way!Chris Thompson/Defector

KM: Just as proof of how different we are, I also did not realize that the cake tins we were working with were bigger than the ones the recipe called for. I just dumped 1/3 of my batter in each tin and shoved them in the oven. At this point maybe 25 minutes total had passed so I was feeling like I had just won the Olympics. I was, however, very sweaty. 

CT: Yes, so another indicator of just how different our approaches were is you had your sponges in the oven within 30 minutes, whereas I did not get my sponges into the oven until a full hour had passed. Also I measured them to the last gram so that they would be perfectly even, and they came out at a very ominous 666 grams apiece.

a food scale showing 666 grams of cake batter
The red velvet cake of The Beast.Chris Thompson/Defector

KM: You know how on the show, there is always one girl trying to do division on her paper and absolutely fucking it up? That’s me. I can’t be expected to do math because I am both bad at it and overconfident. I knew if I measured I would do it very wrong, be certain it was right, and then cry. So I just eye-balled it, which turned out fine. 

CT: Did it?

KM: Honestly, yeah! All my cakes were the same size!

Stage Two: The Bake

KM: As soon as my cakes went in the oven, I made a cup of coffee because my adrenaline was beginning to crash and this I could not have. I needed more energy to continue and make my icing and whatever. I did turn the light on my oven so I could watch them rise, something I have never done in my life.

CT: I have this stupid electric oven with like extremely imprecise temperature controls, which tends to overheat toward the top of the space. So when a recipe tells me to bake something in the middle of the oven I almost always have to go to the bottom. But in this case I did not feel that I had time to move the oven rack (which I forgot to do at the outset) so I just jammed the pans in there, turned the light on, and backed away, drenched in sweat and coated in flour and yet somehow feeling a return of confidence.

cake batter in pans ready for baking
Here goes.Chris Thompson/Defector

KM: Oh I moved the oven rack, in that I removed the top one and set it on the floor and left it there until I was done with the whole cake. Such was my state of mind. I had no time for reason. I only had time for cake.

CT: I know so little about baking—it all seems very alchemical to me, I have never been able to wrap my head around the concepts of rising and proofing and so forth—so there was almost no point in watching the sponges once they went into the oven. I truly have no idea what I’m supposed to be looking for. I simply cannot believe I ever thought this would be a good idea.

KM: Oh, me neither, to be clear. I also did not look at the cakes for very long because I was busy cleaning a bunch of bowls so that I would have enough bowls to do the icing. One thing that really would have improved my ability to do this challenge would be having another stand mixer bowl. But I did not. 

CT: Yeah, same. Cleaning out the mixer bowl in order to make the icing was a huge ordeal, because by this time I had made an absolutely incredible mess of my kitchen and my sink. I had no choice but to do a full cleaning of the kitchen. In the end I don’t think this cost me too much time, but I do think that Matt and Noel would be giving me a huge amount of shit in the tent about the mess I’d created.

KM: The minute my cake went into the oven, I remembered that Noel exists. The visceral, extreme off-putting reaction my body had in that moment surprised me. I like Noel and Matt and find them VERY funny. But the idea of one of them coming up and saying even one word to me at this point in the bake made me want to put my head into the oven with the cake. 

CT: Yes, just very coolly turning toward Noel and plunging a whisk into his eye-socket and then immediately turning back to my work station as he screams and staggers around.

KM: Exactly, yes. In fact, Trey came downstairs to the kitchen at about this time and asked a very innocuous question: “How’s it going?” My mouth made a kind of groan-scream that was very loud and he just laughed and left me there. I am not made for the TV tent.

CT: I did use this pocket of time to put together the icing, which was both delightfully straightforward and also delicious. Cream cheese, heavy cream, vanilla extract, icing sugar, and mascarpone, whisked together to form stiff peaks. Yum!

KM: See, this is where our experiences heavily diverge. On account of me having forgotten the heavy cream, which was a crucial ingredient, my icing did not whip. It went inside the stand mixer where it was whisked for a VERY long time, almost as long as my first two sponges were in the oven, and got no thicker. At this point, I improvised and poured approximately 3 more cups of powdered sugar into the stand mixer. This did not help. 

CT: Haha! This is another point where I would’ve simply dropped dead. I cannot overstate how threadbare my psyche was by this time. I was riding a deranged high but could not weather a single misstep. It’s worth noting that I had approximately 40 minutes left, total, at the point where I began making my icing.

KM: See, I think that’s why I was so calm. My two sponges came out of the oven. The icing was still trying to whip into anything resembling an icing. I let them cool, flipped them out, shoved them in the fridge, rinsed one tin, buttered and floured it, and put the last sponge in. At this point I still had 50 minutes or something absurd.

CT: Kelsey. Oh man. I did not realize until this very moment that you went back and made the third sponge. I did not! I just did two sponges and then cut them horizontally!

KM: Oh my god! I cannot believe this! I was so confused as to how you had done them so fast and cut them into five slices instead of six! Yeah, I made three! There was a whole like 20 minutes where I would have killed for Noel to come talk to me because my icing was (runny) in the fridge, my sponges were cooled and cut, and my last sponge was just in the oven cooking. I was terrified my adrenaline was going to dive bomb and I wouldn’t be able to finish, so I was just like pacing back and forth.

CT: It somehow never occurred to me that reusing a baking tin was even an option. Honestly, thank God. I never, NEVER would’ve made it, timing-wise. It took me a full hour to get two sponges into the oven, I would’ve had mere moments to get the third sponge out of the oven, cooled, and sliced. No chance.

KM: My third sponge came out with I think 24 minutes left, which was not enough time. 

CT: No, definitely not. I pulled my sponges out of the oven with 39 minutes left, and that was not nearly enough time. They were still hot and crumbly when I later tried to slice them and assemble the cake.

KM: I got my third sponge out of its little tin and into the freezer, while I brought my other already cut sponges out to the counter. Incredibly, despite all that you’ve read, I STILL thought I was going to win the technical challenge at this point. I was feeling proud of myself. 

Stage Three: Assembling, Icing, and Finishing

CT: This was a really shocking part of my scroll-back through our messages from this bake. It's like an episode of Seconds From Disaster. As much trouble as I already sensed I was in, I had no idea how much trouble I was actually in:

putting the cakes into the fridge to cool with just 22 minutes left

KM: What kind of knife did you use to slice? I used a bread knife, because it said "large serrated knife" and that was the only one I had. 

CT: Same. I have a pretty good reliable bread knife and it was up to the job. The problem was, my sponges were extremely not. They were very hot and very dense and crumbly, and the exteriors were sort of, ah, crusty? So they did not cut very cleanly at the pace that I needed to work.

KM: My problem was that because we were using eight-inch pans instead of six-inch or whatever the recipe called for, the cakes were too thin. In the middle of the process I thought this was because my cakes did not rise, but they did rise. There just wasn’t enough batter for the tins. So when I cut my two cool sponges, the layers were VERY thin. I did not really have the option to even the tops out so they would stack flat because there simply wasn’t enough cake.

CT: I put some effort into evening the tops, but really only so that I could have the necessary crumbs for decorations. It’s fucking hysterical in retrospect that I even bothered with such a step.

KM: At this point, I removed my icing from the fridge. I don’t have a cake stand (another problem), so I was trying to stack my cakes on a little cutting board that at least didn’t have a rim around the outside of it like the plates. But my icing was so, so watery. Just not stiff at all. It was dripping everywhere. At this point, my brain did a truly GBBO thing and went, We have to redo the icing. I looked at the clock. There were 17 minutes left. Theoretically, I think I could have done it, but this was my house and not the tent so I didn’t have extra ingredients and I still did not have the heavy whipping cream so I just started stacking them.  

CT: Oof, yeah, I think in the end the lack of whipping cream was fatal. No overcoming that. It's the kind of thing that will cause Paul to give one of those withering looks and describe the cake as "inedible" or some shit.

I thought I had a cake stand, but it turned out I do not. So I used a dinner plate. This made icing the cake very difficult, as you will see. But my icing was in good shape, structure wise. Very poofy and stiff. I think this is the only thing I actually got right, in the end.

KM: When my third sponge came out of the fridge, I knew I was in trouble because it was still very warm, which is a classic tent problem. It did not slice well. I ended up trimming that third sponge to use as the required decorative crumbs, which was a truly ridiculous goal. I don’t know why I bothered. I managed to slice that layer but when I lifted the top half of it off, it just fell apart in my hands. The clock was ticking down. I was panicking. I just put the pieces onto the cake and poured some of my liquid icing onto it. 

CT: I had this same problem of a sponge completely crumbling in my hands, which was not helped at all by my wife laughing so hard that she spit kombucha all over the kitchen floor. Also it turns out I am insanely bad at icing a cake, so where the recipe calls for using crumbs to decorate the exterior of the iced cake, my icing already was loaded down with crumbs because I was quite literally shredding the sponges as I tried to ice them, with just a few minutes of time on the clock. I really do not have words to describe the waves of shame I was experiencing at this stage.

a very ugly cake being iced
My God, why have you forsaken me?Chris Thompson/Defector

KM: I also got my cake stacked with three minutes left by some grace of god. I had crumbs literally in my hair, but did not know this at that point. I was covered in icing because it was running everywhere and I was so sticky like a little baby. I tried to do a crumb coat, this failed miserably and resulted in a puddle of icing around my cake. At this point I gave up and just dumped the whole bowl of icing on top of my layers. 

CT: I had just enough time at the end to attempt the piping, which I have never done before. The recipe calls for eight rosettes, but as I do not in fact know what a rosette is, I simply put some blobs around the top and then a, uh, a smiley face.

KM: I had no chance at the blobs. I was scooping icing from the puddle onto the top of my cake and screaming. At this point the buzzer on my phone went off. 

The Finished Product

CT: So how was your cake?

kelsey's poor wet cake
Kelsey's poor wet cake.Kelsey McKinney/Defector

KM: This is a truly laughable question. My cake was brown, first off, so absolutely not red velvet. It was humped in the middle from not being able to trim it. And all of the icing almost had run out of the sides. It is one of the worst cakes I have ever made. I think if my icing had been alright, it would have looked much better and I would not be riddled with shame.

How was your cake?

CT: Kelsey, it was awful. I would look at it and laugh hysterically, and then I would think about serving it to my niece for her birthday and I would become sad, and then I would remember that this cake was supposed to be presented for judgment by Prue and Paul and I would feel just the most intense, agonizing shame, and a very strong desire to throw the cake out into the yard and run to my bedroom and sob into a pillow. Then I would start laughing again. Just a very intense flow of emotions.

a finished cake with a smiley face
Go to hell, cake.Chris Thompson/Defector

KM: I am also a little mad at you, because you told me your cake was ugly and bad but then it turned out to look approximately 500 percent better than mine. I would have been the color my cake should have been had I been forced to watch Paul and Prue blind-taste this cake. I can just imagine Paul poking my stupid icing-less cake with his fork and raising his eyebrow. What a nightmare. I was truly laughing so hard when I showed it to Trey. To be clear, to show it to him I had to open the freezer, where I had to shove it to stop it from dripping.

slices of Kelsey's wet cake
The only thing you can say is: Yum!Kelsey McKinney/Defector

CT: Poor ugly cake, hiding in the freezer, oozing into a disgusting brown puddle. I could not bring myself to look at my cake or to taste it for several hours. I was in such a rotten mood, disheveled and unsatisfied and just totally fucking defeated. 

KM: Overall, I would call this an absolute failure. It didn’t even taste that good. I would blame Paul Hollywood, but I didn’t do a great job, so it’s hard to know whose fault it is. 

CT: I can’t blame Paul for the fact that it took me an hour to get two sponges into the oven. I also can’t blame him for my lack of appropriate cake pans or a cake stand. But I very much can blame Paul for the fact that this damn cake doesn’t even taste good! I may lack the technical skills to make it look pretty or have the appropriate texture, but it’s the damn ingredients that give it the flavor and unless the “golden” part of golden caster sugar is doing a lot more work than anticipated, the recipe simply does not produce a delicious cake. It produces a blandly sweet cake that requires mountains of icing in order to be remotely interesting. Not my fault! So there!

To me, this goes back to the British having a preference for food that tastes lousy.

Luckily, Kelsey and Chris performed very well in the signature and showstopper bakes. They advanced to Week 2.

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