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 professional-grade bakers competing on the show.
When I am feeling very down and bad about the state of the world and the people in it, I always try to think about or obtain some samosas. This is partly because sometimes sadness and badness inside can be lessened with food, partly because samosas are delicious, and mostly because eating a samosa always reminds me how big the world is.
Lots of people, around the world, invented—either independently or inspired by one another—a food with the same premise. Here is some warm dough filled with something delicious inside. South America has empanadas. The British have pasties. Eastern Europe has coulibiacs. China has shaobing. We all have a bread with some stuffing in it.
It’s beautiful that humans love bread. It is a universally shared experience to have found some kind of grain, smushed it all up with a rock, added some water to it, and watched with wonder as the air made it rise. We know now, because of some scientists I assume, that the fermenting yeast of the air can rise a dough, that bread can be born of almost nothing at all. Almost every culture, in every part of the world has some kind of bread. It is one of the beautiful, exciting things that unites us as people.
This should be the spirit that the Great British Bake Off brings to its country theme weeks. There should be a spirit of wonder, of excitement. There should be a reminder that we are all people trying to survive together by making some very warm delicious bread snacks. Historically, The Great British Bake Off has chosen instead to spend their international theme weeks deploying as many outdated, racist stereotypes as can be shoved into the 10 total minutes that the hosts on the show get to talk.
The fourth week of The Great British Bake Off aired last week. It was Mexican Week, which should send a chill down your spine. What kind of terrifying pastry would we be burdened with this week? How many hours of our lives would be spent frantically? Would we get to make delicious marranitos? Or colorful conchas? Or the crusty buns of magdalenas? Maybe we’d make borrachos!
The technical challenge was yet again chosen by Paul Hollywood. He chose … I’m sorry, this can’t be right … steak tacos? What the hell?
Chris Thompson: Kelsey, I’ve been sitting here at my desk thinking about how to describe my level of disappointment upon finding out that this week’s technical challenge was steak tacos, and it turns out I simply do not have the words for it.
Kelsey McKinney: We were actually together when we discussed this, and so there is very little Slack evidence of the conversation that we had. But I was so excited when I found out it was Mexican week last week, because I LOVE Mexican pastries. The idea of making a delicious long and twisty broca filled my stupid heart with joy. But I forgot that Paul Hollywood hates joy.
CT: I am less familiar with Mexican pastries than you are, but two things I’m aware of are conchas and pastel de elote, the insanely delicious corn cake. I wouldn’t say I was quite as excited for Mexican Week as I was for Bread Week, but I was very much looking forward to, you know, actually baking something, especially given our recent success.
KM: Wow, I would have LOVED to make a pastel de elote. I love corn! I love cake! I was pretty confident we would crush this. We did so well last week that I was feeling very cocky in the way I imagine Usain Bolt feels: a confidence based on actual talent and not bravado. I was also hopeful that our bakes would be delicious, since every Mexican pastry I’ve ever had has been delicious. To be confronted with a recipe for steak tacos felt like a slap across the face.
CT: On top of just not showing any particular awareness of Mexican food or baking, it does not call upon the contestants to bake anything. Super annoying!
KM: Also, to be honest, I make steak tacos all the time! Like probably once a month at least. It’s not that fucking hard! Reading this recipe reminded me of those like 30-Minute Dinner recipes, except that it also made me sad.
CT: Thinking back on this—and becoming angry all over again—another thing that annoys me is this recipe obligates me to have Paul Hollywood’s Spicy Steak Tacos for dinner. Unlike a cake or bread, which can be eaten as a nice treat after or around a meal, this bake is telling me what I will feed my family for dinner. For this reason, it felt burdensome in a way that other bakes have not.
KM: Also, Paul Hollywood has no expertise here! As annoying as last week’s recipe was, I do know that Paul Hollywood is a celebrated and beloved baker in his own right. He is not known for being a great cook. I have seen no evidence, really, that he can cook. I would also not be excited to make something like Bobby Flay’s croissants, for example. I just … don’t trust him on this!
CT: That wound up being a pretty valid skepticism, as we looked over the recipe. What a dumb and annoying pain in the ass this turned out to be.
KM: I just don’t think any recipe for tacos that specifies that you can use queso fresco OR feta should be trusted. That, to me, is a big ol’ red flag.
CT: Another red flag? Learning that Paul Hollywood does not know how to pronounce “pico de gallo.” The nerve of this guy.
KM: I have steam coming out of my ears. This is so stupid.
Ingredients and Shopping
KM: Do you want to talk about the first item on the list of ingredients and recipe that your wife sent over to us?
CT: Yes. And here I guess I will go ahead and spoil the ending of this blog: This was the moment—reading this part of the recipe—when I experienced my first serious doubts about whether we would actually attempt this “bake.”
KM: Can you say a little more about why specifically this imbued you with doubt? For me, my doubt was immediate. I was mad at Paul Hollywood, and mad at all of the images from the show that were popping up in my feed, but it wasn’t until I read the recipe that I was actively uninterested in doing this.
CT: Yes. So, the first ingredient in the recipe is 100 grams of yellow field corn. Field corn is just corn, like on a cob, the kind of corn that is grown in fields all across North America. But right away it indicated that Paul wanted us to engage in a very long and stupid process in order to make corn tortillas, instead of just using masa harina, which is what any normal home cook would use to make corn tortillas.
KM: There is absolutely no reason to do this. This is the kind of finicky thing that you see in a fancy, poorly reviewed restaurant where they are bragging about how they make their tortillas from whole corn kernels and then the tortillas come out and they are crumbly and terrible. There is truly no reason to reinvent this wheel. There is a LOT of good masa harina in the world.
CT: Right. And the second ingredient—and this is where I threw my hands up and said “fuck this”—is calcium hydroxide, which is a white powder that comes in like a medicine bottle, and which would not be a part of any normal person’s experience of making goddamn tortillas, for tacos.
KM: Yeah. It became clear when I read the step about calcium hydroxide that instead of just picking a Mexican pastry that was finicky, Paul Hollywood chose the most common Mexican food and then just made it unnecessarily finicky. Frankly, I won’t even buy golden caster sugar because it is expensive and I don’t want to. There was no way in hell I was buying calcium hydroxide. What am I, a scientist? No way.
CT: The contestants on the show were given a bowl of corn that had been soaked in calcium hydroxide overnight. The method given to home bakers asks us to soak our corn kernels in calcium hydroxide for at least eight hours. Which, listen: I am a damn blogger and a parent and a normal person, and I absolutely do not have time in my life to soak corn in calcium hydroxide for eight hours in order to cook some goddamn motherfucking steak tacos.
We faced a choice between doing this challenge in the absurdly complicated way it was presented to the contestants, or doing it with masa harina—which would’ve made it a totally different challenge and thus irrelevant—or not doing it at all.
KM: Can I admit something to you?
KM: I was planning all along to completely ignore this recipe and also whatever timetable Paul Hollywood gave to us. It is against every personal value I hold to make a bad steak taco. I was never going to follow the instructions anyway. I was going to marinate my meat, and also I was going to make the pico de gallo ahead of time so it could sit in the lime for longer. It would never have been a true challenge. I’m sorry.
CT: Ha! Honestly, I would’ve been fine with it. We were absolutely never going to do this the same way the contestants were forced to do it. When we talked about doing this, ah, “bake,” we talked about just using masa instead of the full corn method. Also, I once again just deeply resent the idea of a technical bake being judged by the quality of one’s refried beans. And I doubly resent a technical bake being judged by one’s faithful rendition of a wimpy, under-salted pico de gallo recipe written by a guy who cannot or will not properly pronounce “pico de gallo.”
KM: I resent the idea of trying to make a taco Paul Hollywood would like in general. This man hates spice! Anyway, I would apologize to the readers for our decision to ignore this challenge, except the person who needs to apologize to them is Paul Hollywood.
CT: Here I would like to take a moment to mock Paul’s cowardly use of salt and spice in his cooking. This man has us making batches of pico de gallo but using only one half of one teaspoon of salt. Truly, the British hate delicious food. If you are going to make pico de gallo, make it the right way, dammit.
KM: I didn’t even get that far in the recipe. The idea of using what I calculated to be 1.5 tablespoons of spice on two whole bavette steaks is an offense against god and man alike. One teaspoon ancho chili powder for two whole steaks? All of the peppers de-seeded? No, thank you! Also, I’m sorry, but refried beans should not be made with black beans! They are made with pinto beans!
CT: So the cat is now out of the bag: We did not make Paul Hollywood’s Spicy Beef Tacos. Several times over the weekend I tried to talk myself into trudging to the store for ingredients, and each time I just felt a huge crushing wave of annoyance and frustration. I was so very much looking forward to baking something, and I could not summon the motivation to pivot to making tortillas in a skillet for 30 minutes and spending the entire rest of the challenge making damn refried beans.
KM: Yesterday, I went to the meat store, and looked at the steaks. They looked very good but the skirt steaks were on sale, and I love skirt steak. While I was standing in line trying to decide how many chicken thighs to buy, I saw your message.
CT: Did you do any good or interesting cooking or baking over the weekend, with the time you saved by not making Paul Hollywood’s Spicy Beef Tacos?
KM: No! But tonight, I am going to make marranitos for myself. I deserve some little pig cookies to dunk into my coffee after this whole experience. Did you?
CT: I made an enormous batch of chicken soup, with acini di pepe. It’s real damn good. Kelsey, I would say it’s a very good thing we did so well on the signature and showstopper portions of this week’s competition, otherwise our principled stand against Paul Hollywood’s Spicy Beef Tacos would’ve had us eliminated!
KM: You’re so right! It was a close one, but we are lucky that we are so talented and that even our refusal to make these dumb tacos could not place us at the bottom of the chart.
CT: I’m told that next week will be Dessert Week, which, THANK GOD. Presumably this means we will be given an opportunity to actually bake something.
KM: If we don’t get to bake something, I am going to be forced to fly on a plane to England, find out where that tent is, commute there by driving on the opposite side of the road, and yell at Paul Hollywood face-to-face, baker-to-baker. I’ve had enough of this nonsense!