It all started with my friend’s fascination with The Great British Baking Show. Amateur bakers compete making cakes, breads, pastries…and they do it in an iconic white tent in the middle of a rolling English countryside. Kinda weird, right?
Watching the show is entertaining but it can also be a nail-biting experience waiting to see if Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood (I swear I didn’t make those names up) find the results of the contestant’s intense labors acceptable or not. It doesn’t take long to realize that a soggy bottom (an undercooked pastry pie base) is a dreaded condition to be avoided at all costs.
I’m pretty bad at baking. That’s a hard thing to admit since I’m a firm believer that if you practice something…anything…you can excel at it. Unless, in my case, it involves yeast…or baking soda.
When my friend wanted to try the recipes from the show, I balked. These recipes are not for the casual cook. We negotiated. The first time, I made French onion soup (don’t bother looking it up, it’s not from the show) and she made a technically challenging dessert. The second time, I made homemade pretzels (which is from the show and actually quite fun to make) and she picked another technically challenging dessert.
The truth was, I wasn’t working nearly as hard as my friend was. It’s intimidating. True bakers have to take every thing into consideration…the room temperature, the humidity, good ventilation, quality ingredients. I was just there to have fun.
Until my son-in- law suggested that we have a British Baking Show Christmas.
That’s when it got serious.
Within moments of discovering the goal for this year’s Christmas, my friend emailed me at least a dozen possible recipes she’d researched from five seasons of shows. I pulled each one up and examined it critically…well, I looked at the pictures. I picked Ruby’s ‘Fit for a Queen’ Pie because it was clearly the prettiest. Yes, I know, I should have put more thought in my selection.
My friend and I planned a trial run. Frozen pizza is my typical emergency back up but the stakes were high—this was Christmas dinner (Ruby's pie is a savory pie not a sweet pie) A trial baking session was in order.
I almost panicked out when I actually read the instructions:
Hands-on time: 1 hour 45 mins
Baking time: 1 hour 30 mins
Skill level: needs skill.
I was at the starting line for a marathon and I’d only practiced jogging around the block. I had lots of questions…like why was I doing this? We laid out the ingredients and came up with a plan… I would take on the curry chicken filling.
Fortunately, we had Google…
How to convert grams to cups.
How to remove husks from cardamom pods.
What is tomato purée? Is that the same as tomato paste?
The recipe called for all types of interesting spices like cumin, cardamon, coriander and cinnamon. And star anise. Which I didn’t know existed and wins the coolest spice award. Not only does it look exactly like a star but it holds the vital ingredient for the flu-fighting drug—Tamiflu.
I was instructed to put the spices into a mini food processor and ‘blitz’ them together. I had a miniature food processor once…it looked like something that belonged in my daughter’s doll house. And when you turned it on…the machine emitted an angry high-pitched whine that sounded like a swarm of angry hornets. I got rid of it pretty fast.
I used a mortar and pestle instead. It’s quite satisfying to grind spices together, to crush them into an aromatic powder. The scent wafts up, hits your nose, and you get a sense of belonging in the kitchen. I was in my element. I added onions and chicken to a pan simmering with my homemade curry.
My friend made the turmeric pie crust (also the technically challenging part of the recipe). That’s all I know. I was busy making the meat filling. Looking back, I should have made the crust so I would learn something from the experience. I didn’t even pay attention to what she was doing until she was ready to roll it out.
The instructions required a 30cm circle that was 2.5mm thick. I wasn’t used to such precision but she managed to make it happen. And then she rolled another circle to create the top and attached the two pieces together. We popped it into the oven and chatted about the odds that this would turn out.
All together, it took us four hours. For those of you quick in math, that’s 45 minutes longer than the estimate. But not bad for someone who came to the table without skill.
The curry flavored chicken was great, the dough baked to a lovely golden color and ….no soggy bottom!
I was flying high and anticipating success for Christmas.
Perhaps I was cocky but I decided to throw caution to the wind and bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies.
I’m not sure exactly what I did wrong.
I bought everything on the ingredient list, checked it twice and followed the very simple instructions on the chocolate chip cookies bag. Somehow the dough succumbed to what must’ve been a higher gravitational force in my oven. Despite baking for the correct temperature and suggested time, the dough spread out in the pan and formed a uni-cookie.
You know how dog vomit looks wet and chunky and has unidentified particles? Yeah…that’s what my cookie looked like. Yum. My husband took one look and offered to buy the desserts. (Ever since that day, in conversations with friends and family, he refers to the event as the “epic cookie fail”).
My confidence was gone.
I did a forensic analysis of the cookie failure. I’m pretty sure it was the flour. The label said ‘Enriched Unbleached Flour’ and under that it said ‘wheat flour’ (which I thought was redundant since flour is made by grinding wheat, right?)
I tried to break it down.
Enriched meant the added niacin and riboflavin. Extra vitamins… no harm there.
Unbleached. I was never sure why flour was bleached in the first place…do we really want all of our food to be white? It sounded a lot healthier to get unbleached. But that might have been a problem. One quote said “many consider bleached flour ideal for cakes and pie crusts…the reality is that the differences how these flours bake are quite subtle.” Hmm, I’m not sure that’s true.
Maybe it was the Wheat part. Was this flour a whole-wheat flour or not? I don’t know.
To be honest, I don’t remember having so many types of flour in the past. Cake, pastry, bread, self-rising, whole wheat, gluten free….
00 flour (which sounds like something a secret agent would know about) is used for pasta and thin crusted pizza. It’s the finest grade of flour, like baby powder in consistency. Fascinating, right?
There’s more…rye, spelt (which I thought was a fish), buckwheat, barley, oat, Amaranth (which I thought was a city from the Bible). Lastly… plain flour. That’s the one I was supposed to have for my recipe. Which, according to Google, is pretty close to all purpose flour.
My husband was not exactly supportive when I asked him to go to the store to buy more flour. He shuddered. “You’re not going to make cookies again are you?”
And then he tried pleading with me, “I told you I would take care of the desserts. You don’t need to do this.” It wasn’t until I told him that the flour was for the Ruby’s ‘Fit for a Queen’ pie that he agreed to buy the stuff.
The recipe was complicated, I thought it was smart to divide it into two days. On the first day, I made the meat filling. The house smell like curry and success.
On the second day, I was careful to follow the instructions for the dough and was ecstatic when I rolled out the bottom section into the required circle. It was as I was admiring the round shape that I remembered to pull out the meat filling I’d stored in the fridge.
Somehow, overnight, the meat that I’d cooked had developed a sauce. My curry chicken was bathed in a liquid and the instructions were quite clear on this point. It was supposed to be a dry filling.
You can guess what would happen if it was too wet…that’s right…a soggy bottom. I strained the meat mixture in a colander over the sink.
Don’t tell anyone.
Finally, I assembled the top crust, poked the appropriate holes and placed the whole, beautiful, egg-washed creation in the oven.
The pastry crust baked up to a golden color and then, too quickly, started to brown around the edges. After getting some advice via text, I covered the top with tin foil and said a little prayer that my bottom crust wasn’t too thin, that I didn’t overwork the dough (a cardinal sin), and most importantly, that the crust would not dry out too much…crack…and release the curry chicken contents like a belching volcano.
Against all odds, it worked.
There’s a lot of pressure to be happy around holidays. Expectations of being jolly, content, merry, blissfully happy…
But it’s not possible for everyone. Not every year.
If you’re one of those people, I hope that you realize that this is only one episode in your life and trust me…there will be others. Award-winning seasons where your crust is flaky, your frosting is like velvet and your muffins tops puff with pride.
I wish I could give you a hug. I wish I could give you a slice….
Ruby's 'Fit for a Queen' pie!