The Not-So-Great Defector Bake Off Rises Beautifully For Pastry Week
1:55 PM EDT on November 1, 2023
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.
Many weeks of The Great British Bake Off, the ridiculously popular and long-running British baking competition, require contestants to do tedious, difficult, and precise tasks. These weeks are hard. Like chocolate week's cheesecakes, they require many precise tools and a very delicate touch. If you complete them correctly, the beauty will stun your friends, loved ones, and the judges. If you fail, they will look like small lumps of sadness. This week was not one of those weeks.
Pastry week is one of the best weeks in Bake Off because it requires immense technical skill and an understanding of time that could rival a quantum physicist's. Similar to bread week, pastry week asks bakers to measure time and tests their ability to fit the number of rises (or in this week's case, folds) into a fixed duration. Unfortunately, those durations somehow are both extremely long and not long enough at all.
This week's technical challenge presented a time limit—just two hours and 45 minutes—that would daunt even the most seasoned of bakers, as well as a name just as complicated as the bake itself. The creator of this terrible challenge was the Horrible Devil Paul Hollywood. May he never cross paths with either of us.
The recipe was for Paul Hollywood's Dauphinoise Potato and Carmelized Onion Pithivier. If you are reading those words with a strange glaze over your eyes that signals a lack of understanding, then you are right on track. This is pastry in the same way a bird is an aircraft. It is what handcuffs are to bracelets. It is an interpretation of a beautiful kind of food designed to put the competitors through hell with a stopwatch. The competitors, as always, are the demented Defector Idiots bloggers, who decided to challenge the devil's potato pie and ... maybe they won?
Kelsey McKinney: Hello, Chris. How are you doing on this spookiest of days?
Chris Thompson: I’m so happy it’s Halloween! I can’t wait for trick-or-treating! You?
KM: Likewise! I had a very spooky experience with this bake! I did it at night. There was accidental blood. And I considered doing a hex on Paul Hollywood. A very good precursor to Halloween, if I do say so myself.
CT: Kelsey, what did you first think when you heard that our challenge this week was to bake something called a “dauphinoise pithivier?”
KM: I thought, That is not a pastry, that is a Regency Era girl who is in hot demand this courting season! What did you think?
CT: I’m like 70 percent sure I saw Dauphinoise Pithivier in a bleak French New Wave movie in a film history class in 2002.
KM: Oh yeah! She had on thick coal eyeliner, right?
CT: That’s her!
KM: Wow it was nice of her to lend her name to this frankly deranged bake.
CT: I suppose we should explain what a dauphinoise pithivier is. Care to do the honors? What actually is a pithivier?
KM: I have refused to Google it since performing the bake. What I think it is, based on my experience, is a puff pastry dome filled with potatoes and onions. Is that correct?
CT: Yes, although I am going to be SUPER EXTREMELY A NERD for a moment. You and I both recently made Kenji Lopez-Alt's killer Hasselback Potato Gratín recipe so I have this information very fresh in my brain. A dauphinoise is a kind of gratín potato dish. Specifically what makes it a dauphinoise is that the potatoes are sliced and assembled raw, and then baked, and all of their softening happens during the bake. But this week's recipe calls for the potatoes to be simmered in milk and cream until soft, and then stacked up in a mound inside the pithivier, and then baked. It's not a dauphinoise!
This is Paul Hollywood just being a pretentious jackass. It’s just gratín potatoes in a pastry shell. Which is a fine thing to be, but let's not misuse culinary terms to make our dish sound cool.
KM: Wow! Destroy him! Bonk him in the head with a raw potato! I must admit that my feelings for Paul Hollywood have always been mild hate (worse posh version of Guy Fieri with no joy). But last night, my mild hate grew. Now it is on sight. If I see him, I will be forced to punch.
CT: I also went through a very intense period of feeling super angry at Paul during this bake. But before the bake started I was actually really excited about it! What was your confidence level headed into your spooky night-bake?
KM: Unfortunately, as always, my confidence was at an all time high. I love bread-y things! I genuinely like baking when it is not a bunch of finicky stupid stuff! I was excited for my spooky-night bake! How did you feel?
CT: I wouldn’t say that I was very confident by the time I launched into it, but I was excited. A pastry shell filled with creamy potatoes is extremely my shit.
KM: It’s also one of the first things we’ve made that is an actual food. We both live in houses with not a lot of people so having a whole cake is a lot of cake. But having a whole pastry of potatoes? That’s dinner!
Ingredients and Shopping
CT: The ingredients for this bake were also very straightforward and normal, which helped to put my mind at ease. Flour and butter, cream, milk, potatoes, onions. Nutmeg? Nothing too fancy in here.
KM: Yeah! Everyone will be proud of me because I went to the grocery store and got both the whole milk and the heavy cream that I needed for this bake instead of going sicko mode and cooking the potatoes in cream of mushroom soup or something like that. The only ingredient I didn’t have was tarragon, but that’s because I had some in my garden that was rudely eaten by one of the little mice. So instead I used sage, which the mice do not prefer for whatever reason.
CT: I was wondering whether you’d land some tarragon. It can be annoying to track down fresh herbs this time of year, except for the really hardy ones.
KM: Yeah! I find the grocery store herbs so depressing now that I am spoiled and have an herb garden that provides me with herbs that actually taste like something! Did you find the tarragon?
CT: I did! I have never grown tarragon and it’s an herb that my grocery store often will not stock, but this time they had a big bountiful bin full of it, so that was nice.
KM: Woah! Big bountiful bin! That’s a blessing for the bake.
CT: The equipment was also very normal—the list just notes that you need a lined baking sheet—but we did need some way to form two circles of different sizes, and this presented somewhat of a challenge for me.
KM: I do have to admit that right up until the moment before the bake, I assumed that this was going to be a pie. So I got out a pie pan, and only midway through did I realize it would not be a pie. I have a 10-inch cake plate, so I just traced that! This was my method.
CT: I really wasn’t sure what to do. I tried out a few plates and even disassembled a lamp to see if the lampshade would work.
I feel like using a lampshade to cut dough for a baking blog on a sports website is the kind of thing that winds up being presented persuasively down the line in a child custody hearing. Luckily I found two lids that were close enough to the dimensions required. I'm glad I got this done before the bake because this took a really stupid amount of time and involved converting centimeters to inches and the use of a tape measure.
KM: I will admit up top that I did not trace a second circle, but we will get to that eventually.
Stage One: Simmering Potatoes, Caramelizing Onions, Making Puff Pastry
CT: So this bake gave us a whopping two hours and 45 minutes on the timer. I find that the longer bakes are far more stressful than the short ones. Even if you fuck up a short one, it’s only like an hour or 90 minutes of your life.
KM: I completely agree. You lose (in my case) an entire evening at home you could have spent watching television or (in your case) an entire Sunday afternoon you could have spent playing with your adorable child, instead of just a blip in your day.
CT: I also was somewhat bothered to look at the instructions and see that we would be caramelizing onions and softening potatoes at the outset, when clearly the biggest technical hurdle in this bake would be nailing the lamination of the puff pastry. But caramelizing onions rather famously takes a long time!
What was your first move, after starting your timer?
KM: The first thing I did was take the batteries out of my kitchen scale and put them back in so that it would turn on. Then I put the bowl on the scale, and I removed the mandolin from the drawer. You may be thinking that this is where the blood will come, but you would be wrong. I have a very healthy respect and fear for the mandolin. So I used it with the little grippy thing it came with to protect my hand and sliced all my potatoes.
What was your first move?
CT: Almost as soon as I finished reading the instructions I decided that Paul had cruelly set us up to fail, and that it was my mission to spot his traps and to circumvent them. It occurred to me that the real challenge here—because two hours and 45 minutes is ample time to execute not just one but several puff pastries—was to cool everything down.
This irritated me and I was even slightly pissed at Paul, because the biggest challenge in here is logistical: Do you have enough space in your freezer to cool down hot potatoes and hot onions within this arbitrary time limit?
All of that is a long way of saying that the very first thing I did was french cut two onions and put them in a deep sauté pan with butter and oil to begin the long caramelization process.
KM: Wow! I should have done that. Immediately upon giving myself an elbow strain from mandolining so quickly, I realized I should have put the milk and cream on and heated the pan for the onions. So I did that second: made everything hot.
CT: Right, and my very next move was to put milk and cream in a saucepan and begin mandolin slicing my potatoes directly into the mixture. Also, instead of mincing garlic, I grated it on a microplane. I was hunting every possible second of advantage.
KM: While you were doing the potatoes, I was slicing the onions. Unfortunately for me the onions came from the farm box and were very fresh, so they made my eyes water. Do not tell me about the tricks, I have tried them all.
CT: Yeah there’s no time for onion tricks in the tent.
KM: While I was pressing the towel to my eyes going, “AHHHHH! SHIT,” I had a very visceral flash-memory into a place that doesn’t exist where I was actually in the tent and had put makeup on for tv, and instead was rubbing it all off into a towel. I became even more impressed that everyone looks nice on that show.
CT: Did you start on your puff pastry while the other stuff was cooking? Because I very much felt like a lunatic when I had three different sensitive cooking processes going at once.
KM: Yes. I felt insane. I was using the tongs to move the potatoes, and the wooden spoon to stir the onions, and I was crumbling butter into the flour and salt. I actually felt very alive. I was very alert. At this point, I felt crazy but in a fun way.
CT: Yeah, this was an exhilarating experience. Dough all over my fingers, running over to the stove to give the onions a stir, checking the potatoes for softening. When I left my flour to check the potatoes mid-rub-in I stuck the flour bowl into the fridge so that the butter would be maximally cool.
KM: OH! That’s interesting! What ended up happening to me is that I added my ice water to the dough and it came together, and then I put it in the freezer for 10 minutes while I finished up the potatoes. I had put my customary frozen baking sheet into the freezer, so when the potatoes were tender, I took them out and put them on the cold sheet, and then put that into the fridge. This worked well except that we were supposed to have liquid left, and my potatoes sopped up all the liquid!
CT: That’s surprising! My potatoes did not soak up all the liquid. I had probably two or three cups of very starchy and garlicky dairy left after the simmer.
KM: I think maybe I sliced them too thin. They were coated in the liquid, which had reduced a bit. I decided this was not a problem, and just poured some more milk and cream into the pot and scraped up the potato bits left in there, and let that cook for 10 minutes and then strained it. This was definitely not right.
CT: But it worked and was ingenious!
I did eventually add ice water to my dough, and I think I even added a little bit too much, so I kind of over-floured my work surface to dry the dough a little. I expected there to be a rest here for the dough to chill but the instructions were so curt, they said basically to launch right into what I’d considered the next phase. That freaked me out a little bit.
KM: Well, technically the instructions said, “Make the rough puff pastry.”
CT: Super helpful!
KM: Very! What was your method here?
CT: I’ve done rough puff before once or twice and I remember it’s grated frozen butter onto flattened dough, and then you fold it up like an envelope. When I came back from the store Sunday morning I just hucked a block of unsalted butter directly into the freezer, in preparation for this step.
KM: Yes! We did this last year, if I remember correctly! What I did was measure the butter block and huck it into the freezer, so almost identical. It was waiting there for me.
CT: My first roll-out of the dough was very sloppy but I didn’t feel like I had time to try again so I just grated butter on it and folded it up. I only wound up doing two more folds, so I think my pastry dough wasn’t quite as layered as it could’ve been.
KM: That’s exactly what I did. I decided that rolling out the butter was a cause for someone who has stronger arms than me, so I big microplaned it.
CT: Oh wow, microplaning frozen butter sounds like hell! I used a big clunky box grater.
KM: I don’t have a box grater! Though I will be buying one. Unfortunately, my respect for the microplane is much less than my respect for the mandolin, and I did grate my thumb. This was not ideal. I yelled for Trey to bring me a bandaid and he said OH NO! And OH NO was right.
CT: Yikes! That’s super painful and also super gross.
KM: It was so gross. So then I had to throw out some of my microplaned butter and my thumb hurt. Luckily, I was almost done grating, so I just chopped what was left into tiny cubes, added a little more for the tossed section, and continued on my way.
CT: My memory and limited baking skills may have let me down here, a bit: I wasn’t sure whether you're supposed to add butter at each folding stage. I did wind up doing that. I’m looking at the recipe now and it seems the final fold can be dry, no grated butter.
KM: Wait, what recipe are you looking at? What I did was just add all the butter, but fold it twice on the first round, thwack it with the rolling pin, and throw it in the freezer with a timer for 15 minutes. At this point, my onions were also done, so I threw those into the fridge on a cold baking sheet, and then I was so hungry so I ate my dinner like a line cook standing up watching the clock.
CT: Oh wow, so we did this pretty differently! I added like a third of my butter to the flat dough, folded it like an envelope, and chilled it. Then I took it out and rolled it out and added more butter and re-folded, and chilled. Then I did a third one of these, rolling it out into a big rectangle and adding butter and folding, and then chilling. But I think this was wrong! Or anyway it was unnecessary.
KM: Wow! We did this totally differently. I added all my butter in one big grated layer. Did the envelope fold. Rolled out the dough again without chilling. Folded it again. Chilled for 15 minutes. And then did two more roll outs with single envelope folds and 15 minute chills at which point I was out of time for laminating.
CT: This is so cool to me, even though it means that I did unnecessary work. At some point in here my onions finished caramelizing, so I spread them out on a small baking pan and ran them down to my basement freezer, where they joined my potatoes, which by this time were quite cool.
For me there was now a short period of waiting, basically just so that everything would be maximally cool for building the pithivier.
KM: Yeah, I really wondered if they were going to cool, but they all cooled fine! In this section of time where I was doing my folds every 15 minutes there were maybe 40 minutes of total downtime, so I ate my dinner, unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher, and then replaced my Band-Aid with a new dry Band-Aid.
Stage Three: Building A Pithivier
CT: So how did you cut your circle? You used a baking pan?
KM: No, I used a cake tin! I rolled out my dough so that it just fit, and then trimmed the outside and moved my circle to the cold baking sheet using the fish spatula. You used your lids?
CT: Yes. I had two lids, one that was just over 10 inches, and one that was just over 11 inches. I cut the circles using a little blue paring knife.
This worked so well that I kind of crazily began layering potatoes and onions onto the first circle without remembering to move it onto the baking sheet, so I then had to quickly disassemble it and carefully move the circle off of my countertop.
KM: Wow! I’m glad you caught that before you pressed it all together! I also had a problem here, which is that I knew time was very limited, and the instructions were clear that “chilling” was involved. So I rapidly stacked the potatoes onto the circle in a pile only to realize I had forgotten the onions! So then I picked up the potatoes in handfuls and shoved some onions in there. I did not, however, realize that I had forgotten the nutmeg/salt/pepper blend I was supposed to add. Luckily, I had been salting the whole time because I don’t respect the British, but I was still mad.
CT: Yeah it’s a bummer to have left out the nutmeg. I remembered the nutmeg but I forgot the salt and pepper. One swerve that I did permit myself was to add grated gruyere to my filling, because I just thought it would be very delicious to have some cheese in there.
I'm curious: Did you use all of your filling?
KM: Wow, I love that choice to add gruyere. It was really painful for me not to add a green in there. The whole thing was so beige in such a boring way. I was desperate for a little color! But I held back. I did use all my filling. It made a beautiful huge mound on the circle. Then unlike you, I did not cut out a second circle. I simply rolled out the rest of my rough puff, and laid it on top of the mound and then cut it to fit the bottom circle.
CT: Ha! That’s so obviously the right way to do it, I am now becoming steamed that the instructions didn’t say that.
KM: That to me was the tricky part. He was trying to convince us to cut out two circles, thus fucking you over if your filling wasn’t tall enough or was too tall, but you can just ignore him. He doesn’t know.
CT: Man! You’re so right! That was a Paul Hollywood tripwire, and I just strutted right into it. I did not use all my filling, in part because I was worried that my second circle wouldn't fit over it.
KM: Oh no! Did it end up fitting?
CT: Oh yeah, it fit alright. As we shall see, it fit a little too comfortably.
What followed from here was lots of egg-washing and then some decorative cutting. And so much chilling! I was chewing my fingernails off at all the chilling.
KM: God. There was so much egg washing. I kept my pie in the freezer for the egg washes. I just egg washed it in there! I was very stressed at this point because it was 9:00 p.m. and I had devoted two hours of my life to this bake. If it turned out poorly I was gonna have a breakdown. Also, there wasn’t a ton to do at this point, which was stressful in its own way.
CT: Yes. Downtime at the end is very stressful. And I wasn’t sure how long to chill or how long the thing would eventually need to bake. I think I messaged you at one point that I had 50 minutes or some shit left on the clock and nothing to do but to chill my pithivier and wash it with eggs, which seemed to indicate a very long bake time.
KM: That is almost exactly where I ended up as well. I had almost an hour left, and only egg washing to do and baking to do. I had enough downtime for my fury over Paul Hollywood to increase, because I believe I could have started the rough puff before the potatoes and been much less stressed. He got me right at the outset!
Stage Four: Baking the Pithivier and Making Sauce
CT: How much time did you have left when your pithivier went into the oven?
KM: I put my pithivier in with 38 minutes left on the clock. I preheated the oven to 400, but immediately upon opening the oven, the vibes felt too cool, so I upped it to 425. I think if I had put my pithivier in with 45 minutes left, it would have ended up perfect, but also it needed another half hour to freeze, so there was nothing I could have done.
CT: We’re so funny. I started my oven at 425 but dropped it all the way down to 375 when I put the pithivier in there, because the freakin’ vibes were off! My oven runs hot and it’s impossible for me to believe that anything that goes in there at 425 degrees for more than 20 minutes will not be made into charcoal.
KM: Lol! I love that we both tried to course-correct against our biases with the preheating, only to ignore it. In the tent it's important to trust your instincts.
CT: Here is where I have to finally admit that my pithivier did not go into the oven until I had just 31 minutes left on the clock. I thought this would be plenty of time.
KM: Oh NO! But your oven was very hot! So maybe it’s not all bad?
CT: Oh no, it’s all bad. But before we get there, I still thought everything was going swimmingly, so I very calmly made my blue cheese sauce. The recipe calls for roquefort but roquefort is kinda mild and I wanted a punchier sauce so I added some really funky gorgonzola.
KM: I’m scared. This is the second week in a row that these damn judges have made it so that the minute you complete the hard part and feel proud of yourself, you must pivot to doing an annoying thing. I also felt that way about the roquefort. I bought it because I was trying to make the readers proud of me, but I also added a funky blue cheese from the fridge to my sauce because I like flavors!
CT: To me this is a good variation, one that even the judges would approve of. If they weren’t fusty British types, that is.
KM: I do wonder if we did this shit in the tent if they would know, or if they would just think ours tasted better than the rest. Then again the white British palate is so weak that they would probably gag at a real flavor.
CT: So I assume you pulled your pithivier out of the oven at the last possible second?
KM: Yes. I pulled it with 26 seconds left and rapidly shifted it onto a plate. When did you pull yours?
CT: Well, there were about three minutes left on the clock when I looked into my oven and realized beyond any doubt that my pithivier would not finish cooking in time. It was still very pale and a long way from done.
I had to make a choice, here. I had spent two hours and 42 minutes making this thing, and had assured my wife that the effort would go toward the feeding of my family. I could pull it out at 2:45 and have an inedible flying saucer of trash, or I could accept that I would fail this challenge and shoot past the timer and have some food to show for it.
KM: Omg! So you left it in?
CT: I did. But not without snapping a photo of the empty platter that I would be presenting to Prue and Paul and a television audience of millions.
KM: Wow. I’m proud of you. That was the right choice. TV isn’t everything. Family is more important.
CT: My pithivier wound up coming out of the oven about nine minutes after the timer went off, by which time it appeared to be appropriately cooked.
KM: Oh so you were really, really close! I ended up reheating my pithivier for lunch today and let it go in the oven for 10 more minutes, and that also made mine a perfect bronzed color. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out where the 10 minutes were supposed to have come from? Should we have done one less fold?
CT: That’s a really good question. I really did feel throughout that I was saving time, rather than wasting it, and my chilling sessions down the stretch felt, if anything, too short to be of any real use. So I’m not sure where that time was supposed to come from? Maybe just schlepping up and down the basement stairs cost me a few minutes?
KM: Yeah! I feel like I needed more chilling time and more baking time. Maybe I lost ten minutes in my microplane incident? But that feels like a lot of time for that?
CT: I mean I’m sure I lost seconds by being an inefficient roller of dough and so forth, but it’s very hard to imagine that adding up to nine damn minutes! I think we were robbed!
KM: I agree!
The Finished Product
CT: Kelsey, would you like to show us your pithivier?
KM: I would. Here is my pithivier and sauce:
It looks better from above:
CT: That’s a really neat and lovely pithivier! I also like how mounded it is, it has a very delightful shape. I can tell you used all your filling in there!
KM: Thank you! I felt really proud of myself at the end of this bake! It was so hard and so long, but at the end, I felt like the thing I made was at least going to be a good lunch.
Show your pithivier?
CT: OK, yes. It feels like cheating to present this, since I didn’t finish it in time, but here it is:
KM: Wow! It’s so beautiful and gold. You were right to leave it in. Did your family appreciate your efforts?
CT: Yeah! I’m pleased with how glazed it is and the color is nice. And it was good to eat! We took it over to my mom’s house Sunday afternoon—she is a big potato enthusiast—and she went crazy on it.
Here is a look at a slice of pithivier:
KM: Wow hell yeah! It’s gorgeous!
CT: You can see how comparatively flat my pithivier is. Should’ve used all that filling!
KM: This damn Paul Hollywood and his games! He tricked us!
CT: Did you enjoy eating your pithivier?
KM: I did, though I did wish it had a little more diversity of color and flavor. But I love potato and I love bread! Trey told me I was the star baker of our house, which is a huge honor and I am thrilled to have achieved it!
CT: Unfortunately I was very nearly eliminated from the competition for this bake, but I survived due to another baker savagely attacking Noel Fielding with a spatula.
KM: Whew! Thank god your Signature and Showstopper were so good!
CT: Yeah! Do we know anything about next week?
KM: We kind of do but I’m not sure you’re gonna like this.
KM: The Great British Bake Off Twitter account said that next week is… Botanicals week?
CT: Hmm, well I do enjoy gin, so I’m sure this will be fine.
KM: Wow. You’re right! I hope we get to make gin and tonics. Delicious!