Prue, proofs and #PizzaGate: Bread week comes to "Bake Off"

No Hollywood handshakes this week, but Prue did offer a very special piece of praise

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published October 14, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Prue Leith (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Prue Leith (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

It’s Bread Week in the Tent, and we open on co-presenters Alison Hammond and Noel Fielding trading some quick-fire back-and-forth questions, which is really mostly so that Alison can ask Noel, “Do you still find a soggy bottom funny?” 

“Of course I do. I’m not an idiot,” he replies, then moves on without missing a beat as we continue to move briskly through what has (blessedly) been a pretty “business as usual season.” 

It’s time for the ten remaining contestants to move into this week’s signature challenge. Judges Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood want the bakers to make a classic cottage loaf: a multi-level bread that is essentially made by topping one round, yeasted loaf with another slightly smaller round, yeasted loaf. It is light, but hearty enough that bakers can make it their own by incorporating add-ins like spices, herbs, dried fruits, cheese and nuts. 

Remember how last week’s sculpted biscuit challenge turned into a battle of charcuterie? Well, it quickly becomes apparent that the flavor of the week this go-around is roasted garlic and rosemary. Reigning Star Baker Tasha is making a roast garlic and rosemary malted cottage loaf; Dan is creating a version that incorporates a foraged pesto; Abbi’s loaf will include smoked garlic; and Nicky is relying on a Scottish sea salt paste to set her garlic and rosemary loaf apart from the crowd. 

In terms of other flavor combinations that sound intriguing, I’d be most interested in trying Saku’s cinnamon and orange cottage loaf, which is inspired by her kids’ love of cinnamon toast and orange juice for breakfast; in a round that’s otherwise veering pretty savory, perhaps going for sweet and spice-forward will be enough to catapult Saku to the top after a thus-far middle of the pack performance. 

It wouldn’t be “Bake Off” with a little baking-themed innuendo, this week coming in the form of a conversation between baker Matty and Paul Hollywood. Paul prompts Matty to discuss his (dough) ball size and, predictably, tittering laughter ensues. Relatedly, in his corner of the tent, college student Rowan has created a gigantic cottage loaf that seems to get bigger by the second as it proves, Flubber-style. Will bigger actually be better in this case? 

It’s no Hollywood handshake, but I think that’s pretty high praise.

Noel interrupts the bakers’ scoring and oven-watching to announce that they only have a few more moments until “Paul Hollywood comes in with his mahogany fists and smashes [their] dreams.” When Paul, who is known within the tent as The King of Bread, does arrive, he’s pretty metered in terms of his praise and his criticism. 

Abbi’s bland cottage loaf, which she has begun to refer to as “Flat Janice” because of how misformed it became during the baking process, is probably this week’s biggest disappointment. Tasha’s rosemary and garlic loaf led the pack. Paul declared it to be “90-odd percent there” in terms of perfection, however Prue lingered over her slice for a moment before declaring that she wished she had made it. 

It’s no Hollywood handshake, but I think that’s pretty high praise. 

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Moving into this week’s technical challenge — a “mystery shrouded in gingham,” as Alison put it — the bakers are instructed to make eight identical Devonshire splits: soft, light and rich dough buns that are split and then filled with homemade strawberry jam and whipped cream. Per baker Dana, it’s a bit like a doughnut

According to Paul, who devised this week’s challenge, it’s really all down to the proving. The buns themselves are only baked for about 15 minutes, so the bakers need to allot most of their time to letting the gluten develop through the kneading and rising process. The instructions are, per usual, incredibly vague. Step one? Make the dough. It’s early in the challenge, but Abbi makes an ultimately prescient prediction: “There’s going to be a lot of underproved buns today.” 

Noel, of course, whips through the kitchen with a few wrinkly ball jokes, but the mood in the tent is otherwise pretty tense. This dish has a lot of components — the bread, the jam, the whipped cream, sliced strawberries and a dusting of baker’s sugar — which, combined with the mandate that the buns be identical, resulted in the first technical challenge where I felt genuinely stressed watching the bakers cross the finish line. 

As Abbi predicted, after surveying the lot, Paul Hollywood declares that all of the buns are slightly underproved. In a reversal of weeks prior, Dan, Rowan and Abbi lead up the rear in the technical, while Tasha is the runner-up to Saku. 

After flubbing both the signature and the technical, Abbi has to pull it out for the showstopper.

Before announcing the showstopper challenge, the judges briefly discuss who is in danger of elimination this week — and they’re in agreement. After flubbing both the signature and the technical, Abbi has to pull it out for the showstopper. However, neither Rowan nor Dan are in the clear. 

This week, the bakers are instructed to make a plaited bread centerpiece. These can be sweet or savory, but they must have two different types of flour and show off their braiding skills. 

Quickly, I’m most concerned about Rowan. Despite already making the mistake of going a bit too big in the signature, he has a really ambitious piece planned. It’s a “Bread Tree" made up of three distinctly flavored loaves — bacon-parm, marzipan and garam marsala — that are arranged into a vertical structure. While the pay-off could be huge if the Bread Tree is successful, it also just seems like there’s a lot that could go wrong. For what it’s worth, Abbi is also making a braided tree, one that is perhaps more sensibly going to be arranged horizontally. 

I’m excited to see Nicky’s Highland cow, whose face and horns will be rendered from tiny intersecting little braids, as well as Tasha’s Medusa, featuring braided “snakes” for her hair. 

I have to rewind because I think I hear Dan say that he is going to be making pizza-flavored bread in the shape of the word pizza. Surely he means that is going to create a sculpted “pizza” out of his braided bread? 

But nope. Dan is literally going to be spelling out PIZZA in twisted breadsticks and calling it a day. I’m now officially more concerned for him than I am Rowan, especially after he runs out of dough and has to pull his bake from the oven early. It turns out not to be a good week for either of them as Paul declares Dan’s bread undercooked and Rowan’s flavors to be nearly inedible. Surprisingly, Abbi also finds herself at the bottom again as Paul is unimpressed by her underproved and under-flavored bread from hand-foraged ingredients. 

Meanwhile, Tasha comes out on top for the second week in a row, narrowly beating out Josh and his braided tiger (which he and Alison had christened Paul). 

But who is set to go home? I’m thinking that surely it’s going to have to be Dan with his incomplete PIZZA display and am then mildly enraged when the judges announce that actually Abbi is leaving the competition (I’m not the only one; the hashtag #PizzaGate has apparently started to trend among “Bake Off” watchers who disagree with Prue and Paul’s decision). 

Unlike baseball, there is crying in the tents and Abbi breaks down as she prepares to leave. “It’s given me such a massive confidence boost and I’ve had such amazing feedback,” she said. “I’m going to remember it every day for the rest of my life. I am looking forward to getting back to my vegetables.”

Next week: Chocolate.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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