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The Not-So-Great Defector Bake Off Once Again Contends With Cake Week

The beautiful raspberry-topped cakes of the show's contestants.
Screenshot via Netflix

Welcome back to The Not-So-Great Defector Bake Off, a series 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.

The first episode of Series 14 of the good and hugely popular show The Great British Bake Off aired last week, first on broadcast television in England and then on Netflix here in the United States. The show asks a group of amateur bakers to compete in a set of baking challenges, to be evaluated by merciless steely-eyed judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith. Each episode is divided into three challenges: the Signature Bake, which asks each baker to produce their best take on a standard baked good; the Technical Bake, which requires that each baker recreate a specific baked good to absurd accuracy while using a limited set of instructions; and the Showstopper Bake, which asks each baker to produce a huge spectacular centerpiece from their own ingenuity and creativity. At the end of each episode, a baker is eliminated from the competition.

The Signature Bake functions as a way to weed out interlopers. If you are a True Baker, goes the logic, you naturally will have your own take on, say, focaccia, or Florentines, which you have honed over time and which you would be proud to present in a baking competition. The Showstopper Bake determines which of the amateur bakers is capable of genuine greatness in baking. The Technical Bake, smushed there in the middle of the episode, is an unforgiving crucible of a timed trial, which exists to test the baseline skills and accumulated knowledge of the contestants. Sure, you might be great at flavor combinations or delicate decorative icing, but can you scratch crème anglaise from memory? Can you feel your way to the proper gluten structure of a strudel dough? Can you intuit the purpose of sour cream among the ingredients for a chocolate cake? In the Technical Bake, you will not be able to explain away the peculiarities in your bake as matters of personal preference. Your bake will be judged solely on how closely it matches the reference. You either have the juice for it or you're left to sit there and watch Paul Hollywood break down your miserable, sagging soufflé.

These Technical Bakes are the challenges that we, your brave and heroic Defector Idiots, have accepted as ultimate tests of our baking chops.

Last season, we learned that we are capable of kicking supreme ass at these technical challenges. But more often we learned that we are capable of making excruciating, howling mockeries of the very notion of combining constituent ingredients into a coherent foodstuff. Strapping on an apron and facing down these brutally unforgiving tests can be as exhilarating as, I don't know, possibly riding a 100-foot wave. It can also be as humiliating and soul-crushing as being rudely dunked on by an 11-year-old, in front of an arena audience, while on national television. We chase the high, but we face the possibility of despair and devastation—of complete and utter baking failure.

The first episode of every season of The Great British Bake Off is Cake Week. The challenge this time was to make Paul Hollywood's famous Chocolate Fudge Cake, the deceptively simple-looking raspberry-topped confection showcased during the show's opening sequence. To fail at this bake would be to announce one's haplessness as a baker, a fate far worse than death.

Chris Thompson: Well, well, well. What have we here? If it isn’t our old nemesis, the oven. Today we renew the ancient rivalry between humankind and, uhh, temperatures. 

Kelsey McKinney: We meet again, in this weird and very hot tent. How was your time between seasons, Chris? 

CT: It was a time of troubled aimlessness, of fog and sadness. All I could think about was returning to the tent and flinging ingredients all over the place, the thrill of battle and all that. Every day I held the purple apron up to my nose and wept like a mother at her child's funeral. You?

KM: I too was adrift at sea. Without the guidance of an obscene time limit, I lost myself. Once, a few months ago, I chose to bake something (I cannot even remember what), and found myself darting around with the speed and mayhem of Chaos Mode, weeping at the memory of past good and ill times. 

CT: I baked a truly horrendous blueberry pie a few weeks ago, and that is when I knew that I was ready for this challenge. 

KM: One thing I think we should mention up top is that we are world-shakers and -movers. Because of our immense amount of bitching about the challenges of last year, the Great British Bake Off announced during the off-season that instead of making us create fucking spring rolls and “vertical pastries," the show would return to regular-ass classic baking challenges. How did you feel about this? 

CT: Really excited! As much fun as I had last year—and it really was a great time, for all of our endless moaning—I did feel bummed that we didn’t really get to bake bread in Bread Week, or pastries in Pastry Week, or uhh anything at all in the abominable Mexican Week. I imagine the other contestants felt this same disappointment. Learning that we would get to do some classic bakes, and also that the dreaded Matt Lucas had been jettisoned from the show, was really thrilling. I became very pumped for the new season.

KM: To be clear, Bake Off has not promised to not do racism. So that is still TBD. But you’re right, we had quite a lot of victories during the off-season. Our enemies (Matt Lucas and things that aren’t baking) were vanquished. When you told me that we were gonna make a cake this week, I could have wept with joy. I was so happy. All I wanted was to make a nice cake. 

CT: Yeah! Although, to be fair, you and I did make dog’s breakfasts out of our cake challenge last time around. As I recall, your sponges looked like liver pâté, and my miserable cake looked like it had melted under a hot July sun.

KM: All my haters are going to cry this year, because I have vowed to obtain all of the ingredients for each of the bakes, instead of doing what I did last year during cake week and, uh, subbing in Campari and cherries for red food coloring.

The beginning of all things carried with it an unbridled and unearned confidence, and this year was no different. When you sent over the ingredient list last week for chocolate fudge cake, there was no doubt in my mind that we would both be awarded star baker for it. 

CT: I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but when I found out it was Paul Hollywood’s Chocolate Fudge Cake—THE Chocolate Fudge Cake, featured in the show’s opening credits—I was almost disappointed? I immediately felt that this baking challenge was beneath me and my towering skills.

KM: Chris! You have been traumatized by the bakes of yore. The first week’s bake is usually easy, so I felt like this was a reasonable challenge. It has some annoying pacing things and little time to decorate, but is, for the most part, hard to fuck up. I was mostly excited because this is a dessert that people want to eat (unlike whatever those ice cream cones we made last year were). I figured, worst case, I would end up with a mediocre cake that my friends and family would be happy to eat anyway.

CT: Yes, that’s definitely true about the chocolate fudge cake being a reasonable challenge. Once I looked at the ingredients and notes, I felt the old thrill. This is no ordinary sponge, topped with ordinary buttercream icing. The sponge has like a three-step mixing process, which you absolutely can get wrong. And there are two separate places where you have to carefully melt chocolate, which is something that has caused me big trouble in the past. And then there is the making of ganache. All challenging! This wound up being a worthy baking test, I think.

KM: Yes! I think there is also a lot of room in this “recipe” for different methods, so I’m excited to hear what you did! Shall we get into it? 

CT: Let's go!

Ingredients and Shopping

KM: A personal victory for me is that I bought some cake tins that aren’t 11 inches. Did you have any changes to your arsenal? 

CT: No, not for this one. It was fun to hunt around in my pantry and discover that I now have ample stores of self-rising flour and caster sugar.

KM: Have you seen that hoisin sauce video? 

CT: I have not!

KM: Here. Watch it. This is me with the self-rising flour. 

CT: Ha! That’s me with pickles. I have six jars of pickles in my refrigerator. I need a second refrigerator just for my pickles.

KM: That’s the right number of pickles to have. I wish I had one of those garage fridges like some people have for beer, just filled with pickles. 

CT: Were there any ingredients in here that were challenging for you? 

KM: I had caster sugar because someone mailed me some last year. It is now gone, so no one get your hopes up about me behaving this whole season. I had two true challenges with ingredients. The first was, surprisingly, vanilla extract. I always have like six bottles of vanilla extract, so I didn’t buy any at the store. But then I got home and there were none? Where did they go? I’m still uncertain! The other issue I had is how expensive these damn raspberries are. Did you have this experience? 

CT: Hmm, this is where I will have to admit that I never notice the price of any item. I only ever notice how outrageous the final total is on the receipt. I think I spent approximately one jillion American dollars on these ingredients.

I did have trouble finding the right chocolate for this recipe. Apparently in England you can just walk up to your grocer and state a cocoa percentage and they will custom-mix your chocolate for you. This recipe calls for 54-percent dark chocolate, which I could not find, nor anything particularly close.

KM: Sorry to Jasper and our colleagues, but this was an expensive cake! I have literally never heard of 54 percent chocolate in my life! I refused to try and find it. I bought the kind of chocolate I felt in my soul was correct—what was in stock at the grocery store—and I think it was 62 percent or something like that. 

CT: I had an unopened bag of 70 percent chocolate in my pantry, and I purchased a bag of 60 percent chocolate at the grocery store. I considered going semi-sweet mode but it turns out semi-sweet can mean anything all the way down to 35 percent, and I was concerned that this would eventually somehow screw up the chemistry of my bake. Interesting that it did not occur to me that veering in the opposite direction might also screw up the chemistry of my bake. This is a kind of cognitive bias known as the Supremacy of Dark Chocolate Fallacy.

KM: What! There’s no way 35 percent is semi-sweet. What is this, semi-sweet for babies? No! I reject this knowledge. 

CT: The upshot here is that you and I both made much darker cakes than that foolish, blue-eyed redcoat, Paul Hollywood.

KM: Listen, I know the British have palates made of tissue paper, but we are built different. We can handle a little flavor, a little darker cake! One ingredient I found exciting when shopping was sour cream! 

CT: Yeah! I was curious about that. I was also a little bit intimidated by hot water as an ingredient alongside dark chocolate, because I have terrible memories of hot water accidentally coming into contact with chocolate during challenges last year and causing all kinds of terrifying chemical reactions.

KM: I want to admit up front that I did not use hot water. I had the same memory, so I said, “No, thank you. I shan’t.” 

CT: Wow! A renegade!


CT: So once we had all the stuff laid out on the counter, the first step is very brief instructions for making what winds up being a fairly complicated sponge. Shall we get to it?

Kelsey's ingredients, laid out on her countertop.
Ingredients!Photo by Kelsey McKinney

KM: On your mark, get set, bake! 

Stage One: Measuring and Mixing

CT: We should note here that this challenge gave us two hours to mix, bake, cool, and assemble a chocolate cake. This might seem like a long time. That's how they get you. I assure our readers that it is very much not a long time. Not at all.

KM: I set my timer, opened the very sparse instructions that your wife compiled for us, and immediately went into fight or flight mode. Immediately, I could tell that this was a timing challenge. The issue is that all of these things seem a little complicated to make, but they all absolutely needed to cool down to decorate. One warm sponge, or a still warm ganache, and your icing is gonna melt right off. So I flew into CHAOS MODE instantly. It was kind of nice. Like remembering how to ride a bike, but the bike is on fire. Also, you are screaming. 

CT: I had a similar experience, where once I started the timer my nerves immediately kerploded. I thought it would be good to line my pans first, but my hands were shaking terribly so it took me a really gruesome amount of time to just cut out some circles of parchment paper. 

The directions call for making a sponge that has 13 ingredients, which need to be combined into three different mixes, then joined together without over-mixing. How did you set about this task?

KM: Just so we are all on the same page, this is the only instruction we were given: 

1. Grease and base line 2 x 20cm sandwich tins with butter and baking parchment.2. Mix eggs, sour cream, oil, and vanilla; add both sugars. Melt chocolate with butter and water, whisk together with egg mixture. Sift in dry ingredients, mix, divide into prepared tins, and bake.3. Make a chocolate ganache.4. Ice the cake with ganache and top with raspberries.This is The Great British Bake Off Cake, the raspberry-topped chocolate cake from the opening credits of the series.
"Make a chocolate ganache." Oh God.

I lined my pans first, too, but only because it was the first thing on the list, and my hands were also shaking. It felt safest to have my shaking hands cut parchment paper, so I started there. Actually, that’s not true. The first thing I did was preheat my oven. I decided, for basically no reason, to set my oven to 375 degrees. My reasoning was that this is hot, but not 400 degrees, which is very hot. What temperature did you set on your oven? 

CT: Oh wow, I went with 350, but only because whenever I am unsure about temperatures, I settle on 350. It’s the universal Cannot Fuck Up Too Badly temperature.

KM: That’s so interesting to me. I lived in an apartment for almost a decade with an oven that basically only had two temperatures: scalding and kind of hot. That experience led me to believe that it doesn’t much matter what you do. I think my oven now (which has a digital readout and theoretically is more precise) runs a little cold. 

CT: Interestingly, my oven runs hot, because it has a busted thermostat. It’s a real piece of crap, and replacing it is a long-term goal.

KM: So probably both of us set our ovens to 362.5. That’s a safe bet. 

CT: I was deeply afraid of the step that requires melting the chocolate—to be clear, this is the very first step of the actual bake—and so I started the mixing by combining the eggs and sour cream and so forth in the stand mixer. This is obviously a tactical error because the chocolate would eventually need to cool and therefore should be melted first, but I was so afraid of that entire process.

KM: I went chocolate mode first, but immediately encountered two major problems. The first was that my little scale was dead and needed new batteries. I sprinted up the stairs to where the batteries are so fast that Trey was like, “Is everything okay?” I had been baking for no more than two and half minutes. Then, when I put the batteries in the little scale one of the buttons was broken. Inconveniently, this was the button both to turn the scale on and off and to tare it. Famously, I cannot do elementary math, so who knows if any of my measurements were right. 

The second major problem I encountered was that I wanted to melt the chocolate and the butter together in a double boiler and then add warm water (instead of the hot water) because I was concerned about the time to cool. But the bowl that I normally use to set on top of my saucepan was sacrificed during the offseason in the incident I will call "the fixing of the exploded tile in my kitchen." That is another story, so I had to find a different bowl. All of this means I lost about five minutes to scavenging and could not measure anything well. 

CT: It’s interesting, I think I must’ve learned from last season never to assume that I’m making good time. In the Cake Week challenge from last year, I was constantly calculating how much time everything had taken, which indicates that I was using up little packets of seconds and minutes to track and report and develop feelings about how much time I'd spent on a given task, instead of filling every moment with the next task: measuring, mixing, organizing, cleaning. I was so much more aware of the mountain of work ahead of me this time, and was always thinking about that final sprint to get the cake assembled.

KM: We have grown. We have changed. We have evolved. Chris, when did the bug come into play? 

CT: The bug. Gross! I had finished combining the egg mixture, and I'd successfully incorporated the sugar. I finally took on the melting of the chocolate, which was far less stressful than I'd feared. I simply put cubed butter and dark chocolate chips into a mixing bowl, added some hot water straight from a simmering saucepan, and then dipped the mixing bowl into the simmering water while stirring vigorously, whereupon the chocolate and butter melted and combined with the water to make a smooth, luscious, beautifully glossy thick chocolate lava.

I was letting that cool on the counter when I heard a buzz and a small clunk, and observed a confused black beetle fall out of a plant on a shelf in my kitchen, boink off a window, and careen directly into my dry ingredients, instantly becoming coated in cocoa powder. I made a terrible noise.

KM: The chocolate lava both looked and tasted amazing. I didn’t want to pour it into the other ingredients, so I cannot imagine how devastating this was. If a beetle had plopped itself into my dry ingredients I would have declared the bake finished, and drank the chocolate lava instead. 

CT: I fished the beetle out with my fingers and took him out onto the porch to face whatever misadventures fate next had in store on his journey through this lifetime. And then, notably, I did not throw away the dry ingredients. I must confess here that the eaters of my eventual cake consumed some infinitesimally small quantity of beetle sweat. Sorry!

A metal mixing bowl of sifted flour and cocoa, from which a black beetle has recently been rescued.
A beetle was in here, and lived to talk about it.Photo by Chris Thompson

KM: That’s protein, baby. Gains! 

CT: So the next thing was to bring together the dry ingredients, the chocolate lava, and the egg mixture, into one thick dark cake batter. I did this in the stand mixer. How’d this go for you?

KM: This is where I began to feel very proud of myself. Because I used warm water in a double boiler and put the newfound bowl directly into the fridge once everything was melted, my chocolate lava was at room temperature by the time I was done doing my frantic (probably incorrect) addition with the rebellious scale. I wasn’t worried about the dreaded scrambled eggs situation, so I just plopped all the lava in there, mixed it up, and then sifted in the dry ingredients. This went well and the batter tasted great. It reminded me of Ghirardelli box brownie batter: a very good batter. 

CT: Yes, the batter tasted very much like brownie batter. Really fudgy and delicious. I could've stopped here and been happy.

KM: I like brownies! So fine by me! 

CT: Were you able to weigh the batter as you divided it into the two tins? Or did you remain in Kelsey Mode?

KM: Chris. Please be for real. Of course I didn’t do that. I just plopped what felt in my heart like half of the cake batter into one and then the rest into the other. One of my cakes did end up being slightly bigger than the other, but I will live. 

CT: Well [adjusts spectacles], for next time, the appropriate weight was 1,004 grams per tin.

KM: Chris, that’s assuming that I didn’t eat like six tablespoons of batter during my quality control checks. 

CT: Straight into the oven here?

KM: According to my messages to you, my cakes went straight into the oven a mere 32 minutes after I began. Bye girls! I put them on the middle rack and prayed for them. Do you know when yours went in? 

CT: This is pretty incredible! I’m counting backwards from my messages and it appears that my cakes went into the oven just about 33 minutes into my bake! Wow!

KM: Wow! So we are forced to assume that that’s the fastest anyone can do it. Good to know! 

Stage Two: Making Ganache and Baking Sponges

CT: Once my sponges went into the oven, I froze up in terror at the worthless instructions about making ganache. All we were told is “make chocolate ganache.” Fuck!

KM: I did not read beyond the second instruction before the cakes went in. So when I read “make ganache,” my stomach plummeted into the ground. Because I already had the saucepan out, I decided my method would be to put the chocolate and the butter in a bowl, make the cream hot in the sauce pan, and pour it onto the butter/chocolate mixture. Is that what you did? 

CT: Thankfully, the ingredients for the ganache were very straightforward. There’s only so much you can do with cream, chocolate, and butter. 

I took a slightly different route. I had the sense that the most correct thing to do would be to slowly melt the chocolate in a gently simmering double-boiler, which I absolutely fucking dread. I was not willing to attempt this. So what I did instead was I warmed my cream to a simmer—and it is incredibly difficult to maintain an even simmer with something as fat-rich as heavy cream, let me tell you—and then dumped the chocolate and butter into it and began stirring like mad.

KM: I could not double-boil again on account of my one (newfound) bowl being filled with chocolate lava remnants that I wanted to keep spooning into my mouth. Did you take it off the heat to dump the chocolate and butter in? Or did it stay hot? Your method seems a bit smarter to be honest. 

CT: I actually think your method was smarter! I kept the cream hot, but not for very long, only because (as you can imagine) chocolate and butter melt VERY quickly in simmering cream. I think in the end it would’ve been better to remove the cream from the saucepan (as you did) and take it off the heat, because the biggest challenge of all in Cake Week was getting everything back to room temperature in time for assembly. Those precious seconds where my cream was being actively heated beyond the minimum level necessary to melt butter and chocolate wound up mattering quite a lot, in the end.

KM: I can imagine that, because I just poured a lot of hot cream on top of mine and whisked it. This worked fine, but then the little glass bowl was so hot, and that seemed concerning. I knew the ganache needed to become cool because it was so runny when melted! My cooling method was putting the ganache bowl inside a bowl filled with ice water. I didn’t put the ice bowl in the fridge. In retrospect, I have no idea why I did not do this. I guess I wanted to keep an eye on it. 

A glass bowl filled nearly to the brim with warm ganache, inside a larger glass bowl filled with ice water.
Ganache enjoying a nice ice bath.Photo by Kelsey McKinney

CT: I also wound up ice-bathing my ganache, because I figured out pretty early on there was no chance whatsoever of my ganache thickening and setting on its own at ambient room temperature, or even in the fridge. I was also worried about warming my fridge and imperiling my many pickles. So within a few minutes of pulling the ganache off the heat, I made a big bowl of salty ice water and began furiously stirring my molten ganache.

KM: Oh! Why did you put salt in it? Should I have done that? 

CT: Ah ha! WELL! Salt, you see, lowers the freezing point of water, which means that the water in your ice bath can be much much colder! A good trick for cooling your beers in your cooler on a hot day is to dump a bunch of salt into the ice. 

KM: WOW! Okay, scientist! I did not know this. What I did was just put the bowl into the other bowl of cold ice water, and then ignore it. I didn’t stir it really at all for a little while because I realized that the cakes were still in the oven, and the ganache was done, so this was a perfect time to do some dishes and save my future self from misery. 

CT: I stirred because the thing that I was worried about—which I think may have been something I encountered last season—was the ganache around the outside of the mixing bowl becoming cold too quickly and forming clumps inside the warm ganache. So I stirred it to keep it moving, and when it was reasonably cooled, I put cling wrap over the top and put it into the fridge for a while.

KM: Oh god! That’s a horror story! I am glad to have learned this after, to be honest. I was just whisking my ganache whenever I felt led. But at one point, I set the whisk aside somewhat precariously and it clattered to the ground. Ganache everywhere! So after that I was convinced minimal whisking was ideal. 

CT: I think I have learned now what exactly a chocolate ganache is, such that I will not need to learn it again. But the finer points of getting a stable ganache suitable for icing is the next level, and is not really something you want to be improvising under the pressure of a stopwatch. 

Meanwhile I had my sponges in my entirely unreliable oven. I expected this bake to take something like 20 to 25 minutes, because I don’t really know enough about baking. It was at this point that I learned that the contestants had their bake timers preset for 35 minutes. This was frightening to me, because 35 minutes is a LONG time for sponges to heat, at least inside my hellish oven.

KM: Thirty-five minutes is a long time for sponges! You told me the bakers had their timers preset to 35 minutes, so I knew that going in. But at the 30 minute mark, I felt nervous, and I removed my sponges from the oven and tested them with a kabob stick, and it came out clean from both of them, so I declared them done. I decided to let them cool for 10 minutes inside their pans before removing them. Mostly this was because I wanted to finish doing the dishes, and I was scared of them being too hot and breaking. 

CT: Yeah, I kept imagining that I was smelling char, which maybe was not my imagination and might’ve just been that my oven is a grody mess on the inside. But I think in the end my sponges did not spend the full 35 minutes in the oven. When I took them out I placed them in their tins on cooling racks on the counter and then waved at them furiously with a heavy bamboo placemat for five minutes. This was as much time as I was willing to give them to cool at room temperature. 

KM: Whoa. That sounds very hospitable of you. So much waving. I was busy doing dishes, so when the timer went off at 10 minutes I kind of frantically ran the offset spatula around their edges, and flipped them out onto the drying rack and then shoved the drying rack into the fridge. At this point, it was clear that one of my cakes was slightly taller than the other. Had I been in the actual tent, I might have tried to trim the taller one. But I did not want to waste the cake, so I deemed it fine. 

I set the timer for 15 minutes. A lot of decisions that I made here do not make sense to me now. Why didn’t I put them in the freezer? I had to do that later. 

CT: I used a skewer where you used the offset spatula, and flipped my sponges onto the cooling racks. I was so pumped when they turned out clean and geometrically sound. At this point I was supremely confident.

Two very dark chocolate sponges, lined on the bottom with parchment paper, resting on cooling racks.
Look at these beauties.Photo by Chris Thompson

I also did not put my sponges into the freezer. I think I was so confident that it did not occur to me to take emergency action. My ganache was in the fridge, my sponges were clean, my kitchen was not a catastrophe. Clearly I was WINNING BIGLY. I put my sponges into the fridge and began to wash dishes.

KM: See, my ganache was still not in the fridge. It was just in an ice bowl on the counter, which I kept having to add ice cubes to. My fridge doesn’t make ice, so all of these were cocktail cubes that I was having to smash on the ground inside a towel. I could not put the ganache and the cakes into the fridge on account of needing room for pickles and other things like “duck ham,” so I just left it on the counter the whole time. I was pretty proud of myself at this point too. My dishes were done. My cakes were in the fridge. My ganache was done. I was so far ahead that I decided to wash the raspberries and remove the ugly ones. I was beaming. I was so pleased with myself. 

Kelsey sorts and cleans her raspberries.
When you've got it all under control.Photo by Kelsey McKinney

CT: It was at this stage that you said to me, “I’m feeling really good,” and “I love making something that doesn’t suck.” Famous last words? A harbinger of doom?

kelsey: "uh oh, i'm feeling really good, my cakes smell great, i love making something that doesn't suck lol"
You'd think we would know better than to do this!Screenshot from Slack

KM: You know what, I thought about that as I typed it. But, at that point, you were done with your cake, and if you'd had some kind of disaster nightmare, you hadn’t shared it with me. I figured if your cake turned out well, then probably my cake would be fine too. I am sure at some point this season, this will destroy me. But that day is not today. 

CT: I did begin to have doubts during this phase of my bake. I knew that the ganache, when it finally thickened, would thicken quickly, but only at a certain precise, mysterious temperature, and that if the ganache got too cool it would become hard and unspreadable. So I was checking it probably every three minutes or so, popping a hand into the fridge to give the mixing bowl a quick swirl. And the ganache just was not thickening at all. It was a very smooth and beautiful substance, but not one that could be spread with any real intention onto a cake. Time was becoming a factor. I knew that I would need at least 15 minutes—realistically more like 20 minutes—to assemble and decorate my cake, and the clock was starting to cause some alarm.

KM: It was kind of incredible how long it didn’t thicken. I kept checking on it and it was runny, runny, runny for like 45 minutes and then it started thickening. It was like magic. Like I messaged you that my ganache was not ganache yet, and then 15 minutes later, I was assembling and it was like the kind of icing you buy in the canister at the grocery store: thick and fluffy and perfect. How did it do that? I will never know. 

CT: My ganache did not thicken until mid-assembly, and at the precise moment of the biggest near-catastrophe of my entire bake. Shall we move into assembly?

KM: Great foreshadowing. Let’s do it. 

Stage Three: Assembly

CT: My timer read 19:46 when I finally said "Screw it," and pulled everything out of the refrigerator for assembly. My ganache was like Hershey’s chocolate sauce. My sponges were still warm in the middle. I figured I was simply screwed.

KM: At about the 25-minute mark, I did move my cakes to the freezer because they were still warm to the touch. So I wanted to give them as much time as possible to become cold. I waited until the 18-minute mark, which was almost a dire mistake, but I had no choice. 

CT: I ran into a minor problem when I removed the circle of parchment paper from the bottom of my first sponge. The parchment paper lifted and tore off a little crescent of sponge from the edge of the circle.

KM: Oh! I removed the parchment paper as soon as my cakes came out of their tins because I didn’t like how it looked. That is a nightmare. Did you scream? I would have screamed.

CT: I shouted something unintelligible, which frightened my small child. It was a regrettable moment.

KM: Oh no. Luckily, soon there would be a cake to bribe her with.

CT: Right! I’m sure that’s exactly what she will one day tell her therapist. “It was fine when my dad traumatized me, because soon after he gave me cake.”

KM: Yeah that sounds right. No need to concern yourself further. What did you do with the crescent? 

CT: I kind of crammed the crumbling crescent back into place. It looked janky but at least in theory this would eventually be hidden behind a layer of ganache.

I knew at this point that the only next step would be to begin spreading ganache onto this thing. I could stall no longer. But my ganache was still straight-up pourable liquid. I had no choice but to make a second ice bath, which was the first time that I allowed myself to confront the possibility that the project might suffer a complete, unrecoverable disaster. 

Liquid ganache in a mixing bowl, resting inside of a larger mixing bowl half-filled with salted ice-water.
This is fine.Photo by Chris Thompson

KM: Based on the texture of this cake (very dense), I assume the replacement of the crescent worked fine? I wasted a long period of time staring at the two cakes, trying to determine if they should be stacked with a thick layer of ganache in the middle so that the layers were very separate, or if the ganache layer should be thin so that they became one giant cake in appearance. I decided to go with the second method mainly because I was concerned that there would not be enough ganache to cover the whole cake if I put too much in the middle. 

CT: That seems like the right calculation, to me. I also went with a thin middle layer, but primarily because I utterly lost faith that my ganache would ever thicken, and instead found myself just pouring liquid ganache onto my bottom sponge, and then kind of wiping it around stupidly with a rubber spatula. I think I was cackling here.

Liquid ganache pools on top of a warm sponge as Chris's bake teeters on the edge of catastrophe.
This doesn't look right.Photo by Chris Thompson

KM: Oh my god. This is so stressful. I was so calm during the icing because everything was cold, which has never happened to me in my life. I was able to apply the ganache in a swiping motion from the bottom up. My speaker (which had long been on shuffle) began playing Lady Gaga’s Joanne album, and I felt like I was the queen of the tent. If Noel had come over at this point to chat, I think I could have managed it. 

CT: If Matt had appeared over my shoulder at this moment I would've karate-chopped his head off in one smooth motion. While you were experiencing domestic goddesshood, I was fully losing my mind about my soupy ganache. 

KM: At what point in the spreading did it become ganache? 

CT: Well. While I had this wet lake of chocolate sauce soaking into my bottom sponge, I slowly and gently removed the parchment paper from my second, top sponge. I was being very careful here. As it would turn out, I was being a little bit too careful.

KM: You were scared! Also truly, I don’t know how anyone would know. The sponges, I repeat again, are ... so dense. 

CT: I spent so much time slowly lowering the top sponge down onto the bottom sponge that it sagged in the warm middle and fractured into two clean pieces about one inch above the bottom sponge. So now I had to find a way to keep the two pieces of sponge pressed together on top of the bottom sponge, while icing them with runny chocolate sauce.

A top sponge broken cleanly into two pieces rests atop a wet layer of ganache, which rests atop a bottom sponge.
Welp.Photo by Chris Thompson

I used my left hand to sort of grip the top sponge pieces with my thumb and pinky finger, but I was shaking a lot and using too much pressure and so I was pushing the sponge pieces off the far side of the cake. I came very close to sobbing here.

KM: No! No!!! 

CT: But! This is when a miracle happened. I reached a point where I could use my pointer, middle, and ring fingers to gently press down on the top of the sponge pieces and stabilize the structure, and with my right hand I was able to grab my rubber spatula. At this point I suddenly became aware that in a flash, and at the last possible moment, my ganache had set and become this incredible, fluffy, beautiful icing. This was the cosmos reaching down and benevolently saving me from my own incompetence. And my ganache was thick enough that by applying it a little more liberally on top I could glue together the pieces of sponge.

KM: WOW!! What timing!!!! The baking angel (Mary Berry?) visited and blessed you. 

CT: Yeah! I felt the presence. 

I am not very good at icing cakes, but the ganache was so fluffy and accommodating that I was able to give my cake a pretty even, and dare I say, pleasantly rustic coating, while using my left hand to keep the top sponge of the cake from falling apart.

A reasonably well-iced two-tier cake sits on a glass cake stand, very nearly finished.
Photo by Chris Thompson

KM: I considered making the ganache really smooth, but it felt wrong to me. I thought it should have a little character! The raspberries are a little rustic! 

CT: Yeah! To me this cake should have some textures, and I’m not just saying that because I am shockingly poor at decorating cakes.

KM: I finished adjusting my raspberries on the top, looked at the clock, and had five seconds left. A fortuitous beginning to this season indeed.

CT: I finished with 47 seconds to spare. I said “Ha HA!” and did a little fist pump. My cake, to my eye, looked great! I was super proud of myself!

The Finished Product

KM: I want to explain the level of hell wreaked on my psyche and family by the last season. When I finished, I was so proud of myself. I called Trey down and was like, “Do you want to see my bake?” I was laughing maniacally because I was so relieved and happy. And he looks genuinely terrified to come down into the kitchen. Such was his fear that when he saw the frankly gorgeous cake I was motioning to he went, “Oh! OH!!” 

CT: I think the only challenge last season that I finished with this level of, like, Wow I really did the shit was when we made lemon meringue pies. I feel very strongly that Paul Hollywood would not recoil in horror from my Chocolate Fudge Cake. In fact he would barely notice it at all among the other cakes on the table, and that’s a real accomplishment for me.

KM: I feel pretty confident that both of us would be safe in the technical this week. Maybe we would even rank highly! This never happens! Show cake? 

CT: Cake!

The finished cake, with a neat layer of raspberries covering the entire top.
Photo by Chris Thompson

I am super proud of this cake. How about your cake?

KM: Here she is!

Kelsey's finished cake, with remarkably straight sides, glossy icing, and plump raspberries.
Photo by Kelsey McKinney

It’s kind of embarrassing how proud I am of both of us. We did a really good job. 

CT: Yeah! And we might’ve even done better without the strict time limit! We’re not so bad at this! Your cake is gorgeous! Was it also good to eat?

KM: One of the worst parts of this whole series to me, is that I am not a dessert person. Why would I fill up my stomach with cake, when I could eat more savory food? It’s a character flaw! Anyway, I had one half of a slice of cake and it was very rich and rather dense, but it was delicious! Was your cake good to eat? 

CT: I took my cake to a family get-together Saturday, and the people who ate it were very nice about it, possibly because they are polite and well-mannered and could sense that my psyche was hanging in the balance. I thought the cake was a little bit dense (possibly over-mixed?) and was very rich. Also that middle layer of ganache, which for me was liquid when it was applied, had mostly melted into the cake, so there wasn't that delicious filling of smooth ganache.

I found that I wanted the cake to be lighter, both in texture and flavor. I will admit that I probably would’ve liked it more if I’d been able to find 54 percent dark chocolate. Damn you, Paul Hollywood. Damn you to hell!

KM: I will admit that I probably would have liked it more if it had a big ol' layer of ganache in the middle. Something about the six inches of straight fudge cake was a little unpleasant to me. But that’s not our fault! That’s Paul’s fault!! Damn you straight to hell, Paul!!! 

CT: They say that this coming week will be Biscuit Week. How are you feeling about this development, Kelsey?

KM: Wow! Well. Last year we were forced to make those delicious but annoying Ghiribaldi Prince Snacks, or whatever those were. So I would say I feel mildly pessimistic about it. How are you feeling? 

CT: I am feeling that Paul Hollywood is scum! Damn you to hell, Paul!

KM: Yeah! Some things never change.

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