Telegraph Great British Bake Off: semi-final, French week

Date:18-10-2013 07:58:25 read:2

Telegraph Great British Bake Off: semi-final, French week

For this week's Gallic-themed Bake Off, our intrepid Marta Cooper and Sarah Rainey attempt opera cake and canapés. Ooh la la...

Marta Cooper with her opera cake: 'The trick, I found, was in the art of divide and conquer' Photo: Rii Schroer

Marta Cooper: Ruby's chocolate, almond praline and saffron opera cake

Having too many things on the go when I’m baking or cooking usually ends in tears, so why I chose to create a French opera cake for this week’s Telegraph Bake Off seemed a bit of an odd choice. It was, however, the lesser of three evils: the Charlotte Royale looked like an exposed brain (no thanks), while pastry gives me something of a nervous breakdown, which meant no to canapés.

An opera cake comprises several layers: a tempered chocolate base followed by a light and thin almond sponge, coffee syrup (or in my case, espresso with a few generous tablespoons of Amaretto), French buttercream and a chocolate ganache in the centre, followed by more layers and topped with buttercream and tempered chocolate. Phew.

In Tuesday night’s semi-final Ruby spiced hers up with a praline buttercream and a saffron-infused ganache. Having grown up in a household where under no circumstances was anyone to tamper with a classic recipe, I omitted the saffron. But I stuck with the praline filling: the crunch of toasted nuts and caramel mixed into a smooth French buttercream seemed like too good a texture to discard.

The trick, I found, was in the art of divide and conquer. Trusty scraps of paper flew around the kitchen, listing the ingredients for each different layer and the order in which they needed to be prepared. First, the almond sponge: egg whites whisked stiffly and folded into more eggs, ground almonds, icing sugar, flour and melted butter. These needed smoothing out thinly on trays before being baked for about eight minutes.

While these were cooling I tackled the praline, caramel sizzling on one hob ring and almonds toasting a little too quickly on another before being mixed together.

This block of diabetes cooled on some parchment before being blitzed in the food processor. Meanwhile the second batch of sugar syrup bubbled in the pan for the French buttercream – a filling so light and smooth you almost forget there’s 300g of butter in there.

An equal amount of dark chocolate to extra thick cream melted in a pan for the ganache. Though I learned it’s better to stick to standard double cream – the fats separated too quickly so the ganache didn’t have the gorgeous glossy shine that it should have. Finally, I melted some chocolate for the bottom and top layers and stirred the chilled, blitzed praline into the buttercream.

The assembling required some delicacy (not really my forte) but a few deep breaths and a palette knife helped to smooth out the layers and my nerves.

If I were in full domestic goddess mode I would have piped ‘Opera’ in elegant lettering on to the cake’s surface. However, Waitrose’s bronze sprinkles sufficed.

Delicate work: the assembled opera cake (RII SCHROER)

In short: A labour of love that requires organisational skill, but completely worth it.

Would I do it again: Yes – the flavours and textures are decadent.

Sarah Rainey: Ruby's spinach, gruyère and quails' egg tartlets

From an episode in which the bakes included a cake with 32 ingredients, a technical challenge that looked like a brain from the set of a horror film and an entire vegetable garden crafted out of choux buns, making a simple pastry tart seemed like a lucky escape.

I chose to bake spinach, gruyère and quails' egg tartlets because, (a) I could actually find all the ingredients in a normal supermarket, (b) it was Ruby's recipe, therefore destined to succeed (with much angsty pouting along the way), and (c) if I'd attempted any of the others from the semi final, aka French week, it would have been un désastre.

Sarah creates her spinach, cheese and nutmeg mix

The ingredients were all straightforward; the only thing I hadn't bought before were quails' eggs, which were so small I worried I might crush them on the way home. Undeterred, I started with the shortcrust pastry - simple enough, with the addition with some smoky paprika, which smelled great but gave the dough a curious marbled orange look. The ratio of flour to butter (slightly more floury than usual) gave a springy, kneadable texture, and I left it in the fridge for longer than instructed for good measure.

Getting all the liquid out of the cooked spinach was the next challenge. I drained it, sieved it, chopped it into tiny pieces, and even resorted to squeezing it in my (just washed) hands. Still, it oozed lurid green water, which I ended up mopping up with the grated gruyère and a couple of extra teaspoons of nutmeg (you never can have too much nutmeg).

Blind baking the cases was fiddly, as was filling them: out of my 12 quails' yolks, I broke four, and I don't know how Ruby managed to get them to sit so prettily in the centre - mine were wonky, lopsided and overflowing. Probably something to do with the pastry, which I'd smothered up the insides of the tartlet tin like a dodgy plasterer.

Though they didn't look perfect, when they emerged from the oven 10 minutes later, cheese bubbling and pastry golden, the kitchen was filled with a delicious aroma. Twice the size of a normal canapé, my monster bakes were more fist food than finger food - but when something tastes this scrummy, more is better.

'Heaven': the finished tartlets

Crispy and crumbly on the outside, soft gooey cheese on the inside, with a kick of spicy paprika on top, I only wished I'd had someone to share them with - then I wouldn't have had to scoff all 12 myself.

In short: Teeny, tiny, tasty bites of heaven. With recipes like this, Ruby really could win.

Would I do it again? Definitely. The perfect prelude to a fancy dinner party.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013