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.
The human ego is an incredibly resilient foe. It ignores all evidence. It does not listen to reason. It exists entirely separately from the mind, because the mind knows things and the ego only believes. The mind, for example, knows that almost every technical challenge has resulted in chaos for both of us. The mind remembers the way the body felt darting to and fro, sweat dripping down the forehead, legs pivoting back and forth like a frantic metronome ticking between recipe and stove. The mind is aware that in each week of this competition, the ego has been wrong. And yet the mind cannot stop it. The ego persists in confidence regardless of evidence. Like a person who innately forgets the pain of childbirth because they would like to have another child, the ego erases last week’s difficulty and strain and misery. The ego believes that the future is merciful and bright. The ego looks at a recipe for spring rolls, crosses its arms, and says, “Yeah, no problem.”
You can know that the ego is wrong, even repeat that fact to yourself, and still not believe it. Each week there is a new recipe, a new method, a new opportunity to convince yourself that this week will be your week. At the end of the bake, of course, you feel silly. When hope fades, you feel dumb for having it in the first place.
Each week, we bitch about the recipe, we complain about the method, we rag on Paul and Prue, but in our hearts, we think we can do it because before the bake begins, perfection is still a possibility. That’s the worst moment in all of this, when that opportunity disappears. Because sometimes the door to perfection remains open until the very end, when it slams shut in your face, and sometimes you have to fight like hell for a full two hours, long after it has closed.
There is no reward here. Only the satisfaction of having tried, and the ever-relevant excuse that without being in the tent we must be at a disadvantage. The mind may point out our immense failures, but the ego believes our ingredients are different, and our ovens fickle, and our dishes distracting. We could have done it, maybe.
This week was pastry week on The Great British Bake Off. The technical challenge was to make Prue Leith’s Spring Rolls. Surely, the ego says, this will go perfectly.
Chris Thompson: Kelsey, would you say that you in general think of spring rolls as pastries?
Kelsey McKinney: Thank you for asking. Would you think of a bicycle as a steel rod? Would you think of a trash can as a wheel? Would you think of a book as a receipt? Please answer these equally relevant and good questions.
CT: In a curious twist, I actually do use trashcans as wheels on my car. It’s a long story.
KM: Wow. Well it’s not my fault that you happen to do that. I still do not think of spring rolls as pastries and you cannot make me.
CT: I also do not think of spring rolls as pastries. More importantly, they are not baked. I am super bummed about this because we are quickly running out of opportunities to bake things in this series of baking challenges.
KM: I’m also bummed about this because I would like to talk about baking, and yet every week we are not given the opportunity to do so. I do feel, more and more, like this season is a prolonged prank. I think we are not as good as the bakers in the tent, but I don’t know how we could possibly know that since it seems that we are never baking! This is more like a test of reading instructions every week than baking.
CT: Yes! And I feel like I am pretty good at reading instructions, and also am better at, like, using a skillet and deep-frying in hot oil than I am at baking. And while I genuinely do feel that my baking skills have leapt forward significantly over the course of this project, I really sincerely wish we could just, like, bake more. In the baking contest. It’s fun to bake, and it’s fun to learn more about baking, and it’s fun to get better at baking.
KM: So I was watching Guy’s Grocery Games last night (stay with me), and one of the guys on the show was trying to make instant mashed potatoes because of some budgetary restriction. He started reading the box for what to do, got frustrated, and then said essentially, “Fuck it. I know how to cook. I’ll just cook it!” And then he did. I feel like that is what a cooking or baking competition should be, a test of your knowledge of the skill and your ability to improvise and figure it out. Of all the bakes we have done, only the lemon meringue pie felt like this to me. I also would have liked to learn more about baking.
CT: We did see a silver lining in the fact that we would finish this challenge with eight spring rolls to munch on. So that was nice.
KM: Yeah, that’s true! I like spring rolls and I like fried things, so theoretically this was much better than some of the other challenges. I’m looking at you, steak tacos.
CT: Something that was not better than some of the other challenges was the time limit. 80 minutes, start to finish, in a recipe with 29 ingredients, is absolutely fucking mind-shatteringly terrifying, to me.
KM: I liked it. What this challenge taught me, actually, is that I would probably be better on a speed show. I am not very good at finessing or being very careful, but I can go CHAOS MODE and lock in and not look up until I’m done. I also liked that at an 80-minute time limit, this challenge did not eat up a whole evening. That was good to me.
CT: Right. Like whatever happened, however bad it got, at the end it would be just an hour and 20 minutes of your life. You could still very easily salvage your afternoon or evening or whatever.
KM: Exactly! And unlike the ice cream, spring rolls are a good snack. There are more opportunities to eat them throughout the day! That’s a nice upside. Look at us, being positive.
CT: Uh oh, is this another personal development? ABORT!
Ingredients and Shopping
CT: Kelsey, were you able to get all your ingredients for this, uh, bake?
KM: Hmm. I would like to plead the fifth. Can you do that in a blog?
CT: What do I look like, a blog lawyer?
KM: Well, you are wearing that big black robe, so you look more like a blog judge. What is that little hammer for if not to make rulings, your honor?
CT: We do not discuss the robe and hammer.
KM: Fine. I will answer. I had most of the ingredients. What I did not have were enough carrots (I accidentally ate too many before cook time) and the bean sprouts, which i somehow brought home from the store moldy. Did you have all the ingredients?
CT: I did some substituting. I used napa cabbage instead of “Chinese cabbage,” and I used caster sugar instead of palm sugar. Palm sugar is nice but I have to drive literally into a different county in order to buy any, and I simply was not up for that.
KM: Oh I also didn’t have palm sugar, but that’s because I’m stupid and on first glance thought it meant like a palm full of sugar. I just used brown sugar because I like the way it tastes with soy sauce.
CT: For a recipe with lots and lots of ingredients, the shopping wasn’t too painful, I thought. I also do not have a deep-fat fryer, but I’m comfortable using just a deep saucepan and a digital thermometer.
KM: What’s funny is I did have a deep-fat fryer. I spent about 30 minutes trying to find it before I realized that I left it in the lobby of the apartment I moved out of eight months ago. At no point before yesterday did I realize that I had done that. I also left behind a plant. I did not realize either were gone, so I guess that’s fine! But I too ended up using a saucepan.
CT: No! Were you at one point a pretty regular fryer? I guess you haven’t done much frying over the past eight months.
KM: I don’t actually. But a few years ago, my friend Kate decided the fryer would have a better home with me, and gave it to me. Every Thanksgiving I make these donuts that Dayna Evans wrote in her newsletter about a few years ago called scuppelles. They have raisins in them and are deep fried, and they are a little afternoon treat for everyone to help make and snack on. I used the fryer for this.
CT: Yum! And now the poor fryer is an orphan. Sad.
KM: I’m sure someone adopted it! I hope it has a nice life.
Stage One: Measuring and Mixing
KM: Since the time limit for this was so short, what was your strategy from the get-go?
CT: Kelsey, I was so nervous about the time limit. I don’t think I’ve been as jittery at the start of one of these bakes since the very first one. I knew that I needed to get the dough made as quickly as possible. I had a lot of [misplaced] faith in my ability to whip together the stir-fried filling but I had very little faith that I could intuit my way through the dough. I was just very, very nervous. I kept thinking I was mentally and emotionally prepared to start the bake, and then I would feel a huge surge of anxiety, and I would back off and procrastinate, and then 30 minutes later this process would repeat.
KM: I do have to admit that I planned to do this bake on Sunday, but then I knew that my adrenaline would get really high with such a short time frame, which meant it would also crash hard afterwards, so I postponed until Monday afternoon.
CT: Something that fucked me up right away in the recipe was the beaten egg. The ingredients call for one beaten egg, but they do not say whether the beaten egg goes into the dough or is used later to seal the rolls. I sort of like this, in the sense that it’s fascinating to be put on the spot right at the very beginning of the challenge, but in the moment I felt just completely powerless to make this call.
KM: OK, I think I know the answer to this question, but we can get into how later. I’m 99-percent positive that it is used to seal the dough.
CT: OK, that is also how I ultimately interpreted the ingredients. So as soon as the timer started I just mixed up the flour, the cornstarch, the salt, and the two oils, plus some water, in a big mixing bowl, and then jammed it into the fridge.
KM: I did basically the same thing, and I did it very fast. I was really in CHAOS MODE early on because I also remembered to put my stainless steel pan onto the low heat so it would be hot and ready to go when I was done chopping.
CT: That was smart. My wife (who had already watched the episode) gently suggested to me that I might consider turning the heat on under the oil right at the beginning, but I declined to do this because heat control is a constant problem for me and I felt certain that I would look up and see smoking oil at some point. But I did remember to start my teapot to boil water to soak the rice vermicelli and the dried mushrooms.
KM: Oh I did start heating the oil. I was like, what’s the worst that happens, it’s too hot? Too hot seemed fine to me. I do not really have a thermometer in my kitchen, so I just put both on the heat immediately and then made my dough and then darted back over to the cutting board. I also put the teapot on to boil immediately. I had three of my four burners on within two minutes of beginning, and Trey came down to get coffee and I was like GET OUT CAN YOU NOT SEE I AM IN CHAOS MODE. And he was like, “Looking great! Love all this fire!”
CT: How did you feel about the dough? Prue’s instructions call for “a stiff dough,” which doesn’t necessarily mean much to me but which I took as permission to consider the dough finished basically the moment I could squeeze it together into a single blob.
KM: Sticky! I am curious if my choice of flour (the kind I had in my pantry was like a milled flour, not King Arthur) upset my chances. But I only ended up using three tablespoons of water to bring it together, which felt OK to me!
CT: That’s really interesting to me. I used the full five tablespoons, but I definitely felt in the moment that I could’ve stopped after three, and then after four. It’s really fascinating to me how much more confident you are in your sense of these things, in the moment. I find that very cool.
KM: I don’t know if it’s confidence or stupidity, to be honest. I just know that my ingredients are different from Prue’s and that ingredients are important! Well, unluckily for me, I think the correct answer was four because that’s what I did the second time lol.
CT: Wait! Second time??
KM: Mhm. Yes.
CT: No! Doing anything a second time with an 80-minute timer is just like maxing out the difficulty setting.
KM: We’ll get to it! Let’s talk about the filling first.
Stage Two: Slicing, Chopping, and Stir-Frying
KM: Did you measure yours? I did not measure mine. I just kind of chopped everything in spirit with my big cleaver and threw it into the pan from hardest to softest. So I think I went cabbage, carrots, sweet peas, then shroomies, then garlic and ginger, etc.
CT: Ugh, yes, I measured. I considered not measuring but the truth is I cannot come close to eyeballing 50 grams of cabbage. Like that could be a wheelbarrow’s worth of cabbage, for all I know. I measured and cut and prepped everything in little piles and ramekins and so forth. In retrospect I had waaaaay too much confidence in my knife skills. I’m a pretty capable chopper, but I do not have speed-slice-carrots-into-matchsticks-level knife skills. I lost a lot of time on this.
KM: Oh yeah I had too much filling, to be honest. I did measure the cabbage because it was easy to measure and then I just eyeballed it from there. It seemed like a LOT of work to measure it all and I did not want to do it. I wanted to just chop. I like chopping. Do you think that’s because you are a little bit of a perfectionist? I was just kinda vibing. I was listening to Jenny Lewis, just like chop-chop-chopping. I cut everything generally how they asked for it, but mostly I just followed my heart.
CT: Yes, I do think my tendency toward a certain kind of perfectionism (the bad kind) rears its ugly head in these moments. In retrospect, I should’ve just eyeballed and chopped, it would’ve saved me precious time in the end.
KM: This is honestly why I’m upset that we don’t get to bake more, because I think in more accurate baking show technicals, our disparity in skills would really shine! I am a terrible decorator because I just truly do not care, so in that sense I have been lucky with a lot of these challenges.
CT: The stir-frying itself was fine. I threw the soaked noodles into the wok along with the vegetables and various sauce ingredients. I forgot to add the bean sprouts, but since they should be a little crunchy I wasn’t too worried about this. While I was frying (later on) I just threw them into a hot wok with a splash of vegetable oil to heat them up a little. But for a few blissful minutes this was a reassuringly familiar cooking project.
KM: Yes! I did the same! I didn’t have bean sprouts, so I added a little bit of less-cooked very finely chopped cabbage to mine so it would have a crunch. I agree, though. The actual stir-frying I felt very confident about. I tasted as I went. I made decisions. I was feeling good. I transferred all my stuff to a bowl because I felt like it needed to be cooler to wrap, and also I needed my one non-cast iron pan for the wrappers and I had to rinse it.
CT: Thankfully, I did not need to use my wok after the stir-frying (except to heat up the sprouts). I also moved my filling to a mixing bowl, and was feeling very good at this point. I’m checking the Slack record and I don’t have a sense of how much time had passed—this really was a feverish blur, the whole thing—but I remember that the next step of this challenge was the part where I was sure it would all go to shit.
KM: I know how much time had passed for me. I entered CHAOS MODE according to the record at 2:15 p.m. At 3:00 p.m. everything had gone to shit for me. So it took me about 35 minutes to get through the stir-fry and making dough sections. Not awful!
CT: Not bad at all, I think! But the next step of this was just completely bewildering.
Stage Three: Rolling, Par-Cooking, Filling, and Frying
CT: Kelsey, I would like to talk to you about this parcooking and peeling phase, because to me it is the most insane thing we have yet attempted.
KM: Thinking about it makes me want to cry. It is the stupidest shit we have been asked to do and also I failed at it, so I feel bad.
CT: So the instructions asked us to divide our dough into eight equal parts, and then to roll out two of those parts into three-inch circles, and then to dust one of them and stack them together, and then to roll them out together into one roughly eight-inch disc. ONE disc.
KM: The rolling into little circles was fun. I liked doing that, and I understood theoretically why we would roll them out together: to get them really really thin. The problem is that a rolling pin can only get something so thin without breaking it, so I think the theory was that by rolling them together both discs would come out thinner. Is this what happened for you because it is not what happened for me!?
CT: I think generally yes, in the sense that at the end of this challenge I had eight “spring rolls,” more or less. Like I can’t dispute the method too fiercely because it did produce spring rolls.
But the next part of this process, after rolling out the two pieces into one very thin disc, was to cook them, together, on a dry non-stick pan, and then to peel them apart with your fingers before they have a chance to cool and harden. I don’t know if I have ever been as flummoxed by a stage of a cooking project in my life. I burned the hell out of my fingers, I tore my wrappers to shit, and I felt like something had for sure gone incredibly wrong.
KM: What happened to me is this: I put one of them in the pan while I rolled the second one out. I flipped the first one. No more than two minutes after I put the first one in, I pulled it out and it … did not separate at all. I could SORT OF see a seam between them, but not really. It had what looked like a very thin pita that tasted kind of bad. Immediately I began to panic and messaged you:
I did not respond to your message for 30 minutes because I went into absolute CHAOS MODE and at this point decided to make the dough again.
CT: I cannot BELIEVE that you made the dough a second time. That is absolutely incredible to me. I truly did not have enough time in this challenge to make one single complete attempt. If I’d had to redo any step, I would have finished the challenge with a pile of stir-fried vegetables and nothing else.
KM: Well, see, the first time I made the dough, I had the same debate you had and decided to put the egg into the dough. So when they stuck together, I thought, “Well, maybe this is because I put the egg into the dough. Maybe this was a fluke. But if two of them won’t come apart I won’t have enough wrappers, so I might as well make another batch.” While that dough was resting, I tried two more of the first dough. These also did not pull apart. So I cooked the last two balls separately as their own little guys and that worked OK, but it didn’t feel thin enough.
CT: Oh wow! I had no idea you went egg mode on the dough. I feel super lucky that I made the choice that I made, to treat the egg as a sealer.
KM: The thing is, upsettingly, it was not the egg. So by the time I had let the dough rest for 10 minutes, what I had was three chunky wrappers that did not separate, two not-thin-enough but at least separate wrappers, and a whole second dough. So I decided to try the correct method once more, since I had the room in the numbers. Yet again, it did not pull apart. I had another thick dough with no sign of separation! So at that point I parbaked all of the wrappers individually and just had to try really hard to get them thin. I think perhaps the flour was the problem, but I’m still not sure.
CT: Jesus! I did a lot of muttering and cursing and so forth while executing Prue’s difficult peel-apart method, but it would appear I had a vastly easier time of it than you did! I’m so sorry, Kelsey! That’s a nightmare!
KM: At this point, I felt fine, because I was working so fast. I did not have enough time to do everything separately so I created a little assembly station for the parbaked wrappers, wrapped two, and dropped them into the oil while I did another wrapper. My first two from the first batch of dough worked perfectly, if a little thick, so I felt fine at that point. I did make the mistake of fishing them out with a plastic pasta spoon. It melted.
CT: Oh dear God. Here is another instance where I did not sense that the method was expecting us to overlap stages of the bake, so I did not start filling and rolling and frying until I had finished parcooking and peeling and stacking all eight wrappers. And then my first attempt to fill and roll one of the wrappers was a big gruesome mess.
KM: Well, here is a question: When did you begin heating your oil? And what do you mean by big gruesome mess?
CT: So, OK. I wrongly assumed that I would have plenty of chances during the bake to start heating my oil, but the time was so condensed that I actually did not. I think I did not start heating my oil until close to an hour had passed, and I did not start doing any frying until there were about 15 minutes left. You can see why this might have been a problem.
My first attempt to fill and roll a wrapper ended with a gross misshapen blob of wrapper and filling. But this of course was not the real issue. The real issue was when I dropped the first two spring rolls into the oil and it became apparent immediately that my oil was nowhere near hot enough.
KM: Oh god! I know my first two went into the fryer with 20 minutes left because I had set the kitchen twist timer to alert me at that point, so I wouldn’t forget during my second dough adventure. Wait, but what did you do with the gross wrapper? Like how did you solve that problem?
CT: I just manipulated it into something vaguely log-shaped and let it rip. I wouldn’t say I “solved” the problem. I had not a moment to spare by this time.
KM: Wow that’s incredible to me. See, if that had happened, I probably would have cried. Something about the assembly process made me very aware of how vulnerable I was feeling. I knew that if it didn’t work, I would abandon it whole hog. I am more like that man who dumped his Baked Alaska in the trash than I ever wanted to believe.
CT: Oh man. Poor Ian. My heart was with Ian, but I don’t think I could ever go out like that. But I was deeply freaked by the discovery that my oil wasn’t hot enough. My plan had been to fry the spring rolls two at a time—and in fact I chose a smaller vessel based upon this plan—but when it had been four minutes and my first two weren’t even close to done, I knew that I would have to blast the heat and just fucking go for it. The rest of this was true chaos.
KM: Did you end up using your thermometer?
CT: No. I intended to but once again the full-on sprint of this challenge caught me off-guard. I really cannot overstate how pressurized this challenge was, especially coming off of a couple of bakes that involved a lot of waiting. There were no spare moments in this challenge, for me. I was in frantic motion for every second of the bake.
KM: I don’t think I even have a thermometer, because my memory is bad. A thermometer is useless if you can’t remember how hot something needs to be. I knew my oil was super hot, so I was just like, “WHATEVER THIS IS FINE.”
Another complicating factor for me in this challenge is that on Sunday I deep cleaned my kitchen because the chaos of all the other challenges had reached a breaking point where I needed to for my own sanity. I cannot explain how upset I was at how messy this challenge was because of the sprint nature. At the end, I was literally out of breath and the kitchen was covered in a fine mist of oil.
CT: Oh Kelsey, it was so messy. And oily, too. Not like a flour mess, but a gross oily mess. Disgusting and upsetting. But it sounds like the frying part of your bake went reasonably well?
KM: At first it did. I was going really fast: using egg to seal, dropping a spring roll into the fryer, then flipping something that was parbaking, rolling another wrapper, taking the spring roll out, moving the parbaked one over to assembly, trimming and filing, repeat. This all went really well, surprisingly, for seven spring rolls.
CT: God. Parcooking, filling, rolling, and frying all simultaneously is just too much. It’s an incredible feat that you made it work for seven of eight spring rolls.
KM: I still don’t know what happened to the eighth one. I had two minutes left, so I made the sauce while the seventh one was in the oil and the eighth one was parcooking. The sauce I liked making because it was easy and I got to taste test as I went. But when I dropped the eighth one into the oil, it just exploded. Because it exploded, it released smoke because the little pieces were burning, so then the fire alarm went off and I just called it. There were 60 seconds left. I had no other option. So I just plated the seven with the sauce, hit the fire alarm button, and sat down. I was not feeling good!
CT: No! No!!
I knew by the time my first batch of spring rolls came out of the oil that I would not have time to properly cook all the rest of them. The first two were an unpleasant pale color because they’d been in not-hot-enough oil for too long, and the insides of one of them were burnt from direct exposure to oil for a long time. I gave the oil like one minute of full heat on my most powerful burner in order to get up to temperature, then threw three spring rolls in there. The second batch was fine. But the third batch I had to pull from the heat early, because the timer was about to go off and I didn’t want to plate five spring rolls. I can’t even describe how bitter and angry and defeated I felt in this moment. Just a powerful wave of frustration and self-loathing. It’s really something to encounter failure in a cooking project that you know you could ace under slightly different circumstances.
KM: Wow! That was really smart to heat the oil for a second before putting more in. How did you know to do this? I think this is the first challenge that I have fully understood that feeling that you have had after so many. I just felt like I could have done better, and felt very disappointed in myself.
CT: I’ve had enough frying misadventures over the years to know that it’s a good idea to give the oil a few seconds to come up to temperature between batches. I considered not doing it, but I was so disgusted by the first batch that I was not willing to risk having eight soggy spring rolls. I figured I could at least do the middle batch correctly.
The third batch was undercooked, but because we do not have to go through the whole presentation phase, I just snapped a couple photos of my poor undercooked spring rolls and then threw the last batch back into the oil so that I could finish frying them properly. I can’t just be wasting food around here! I’m working on a blogger’s salary!
KM: I did put mine on a plate! They looked kind of nice on the plate, so I felt pretty good about that, but then I went away from them as soon as possible. Later, when I felt a little less bad I tried one, and it tasted pretty good! Definitely worse than every spring roll I’ve ever ordered, though, so in that sense, it was a waste of time.
The Finished Product
CT: So you were not particularly impressed with your finished spring rolls?
KM: Not really. They look fine, but there were only seven of them, and they didn’t look great by any means:
CT: Aw, yeah, that top one is a little dark. But they at least look hot and crunchy, and you have a very nice plate there.
KM: Yes, sadly that was the third one I cooked. I thought it would take the same amount of time as the ones without egg in the dough but it cooked faster! Show your egg rolls?
CT: Mine also did not look great. Several of them were noticeably oil-soaked, and a couple were very poorly wrapped. If I were served these in a restaurant I would be alarmed:
KM: Yours look more like spring rolls than mine! But I see the two you mean which had too much time in the oil. Did you eat any? Did they taste good?
CT: Ugh. So, I did my bake on Sunday. My sister-in-law and her friend were coming over (they’re in town from Florida) and my wife had made the terrible mistake of telling them that there would be fresh homemade spring rolls to enjoy. So not only did I have to endure the shame of having made these ugly things, I then had to watch two innocent people pretend to enjoy them. It was terrible.
KM: Oh NO! This is a nightmare!
CT: I had to pull the overcooked ones off of the plate so that no one else would have to eat them, and so I was only able to eat a soggy, overcooked spring roll with a burned interior. But the very nice and generous people who ate the other ones told me they were fine, and possibly good.
KM: I would have cried if an audience had to eat my spring rolls. This is how I know I am not built for the tent. Seeing Noel’s sad eyes as Paul cringed taking a bite would annihilate me.
CT: I honestly cannot say how I would respond to Prue recoiling from my spring rolls after giving us 80 minutes to attempt a cooking method that is so far outside of what is considered a foundational technique of baking. I might just start throwing spring rolls at her like artillery fire.
KM: That seems entirely fair and justified to me, personally. I think it would be very satisfying to catapult one of my burnt spring rolls at Prue.
CT: Kelsey, do you know what next week is?
KM: Oh no. Is it a week Paul chooses the recipe? What is it?
CT: It is, at last, the week of Patisserie. We have reached the semifinal. How does it feel to know you are now officially one of the best bakers in, uh, England?
KM: Wow. I feel like we have really earned it. We are certainly two of the commonwealth’s best bakers.
CT: I am personally looking forward to this ultimate baking challenge. I look forward to making Paul Hollywood’s grilled hot dogs or some shit.
KM: Unfortunately, I know it will not be hot dogs, because that’s something I love to make and eat. Probably it will be making our own potato chips or some shit. Can’t wait!