Tuesday, 26 August 2014


I've sort of given up on the idea of actually finishing A Century of Books in 2014 - when I started, Shiny New Books was just a twinkle in Annabel and Victoria's eyes, and it has taken me away from my checklist of years - but I will still finish it, even if it takes a bit longer than planned. And, you never know, publishers might considerately start reprinting precisely the years I need to fill.

It's become clear, from the list I've read and the books I want to read, that the biggest gap is the 1990s. Unsurprisingly the interwar years are nearly completed - either in black ink (finished) or pencil (planned) - but I have only read two books from the 1990s (A.A. Milne: His Life and The Blue Room), with three more vaguely planned (Summer in February, Silence in October, and Old Books; Rare Friends). That leaves 1991, '92, '93, '94, and '96 without even the glimmer of a suggestion.

So... over to you for guidance. What do you think I should read for those years? Extra points if the books are in any way zeitgeisty... because I'll probably end up just reading 1990s biographies of people from the 1930s, won't I?

Monday, 25 August 2014

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley

Over at Vulpes Libris we've started another Shelf of Shame week - where the book foxes dig out the books they've been intending to read for ages, or feel vaguely ashamed that they haven't read. As I seem to be less well-read then all the others, I choose authors I've not read (let alone individual books). Last time I chose Christopher Isherwood; this time I chose Aldous Huxley. It seems that there are all sorts of men of the interwar period whom I haven't read. And I haven't even turned my attention to the Macho Men of American Literature (Hemingway, Bellow, Roth, etc.) who remain a barren land to me.

Like Isherwood, Huxley completely surprised me - not at all what I was expecting. But this time around, it came as rather a wonderful surprise. The novel is Crome Yellow (1921), and the review can be found over at Vulpes Libris. It's one that I think a lot of SIAB readers will like, and that may come as a surprise to you too...

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Great British Bake Off: Series Five: Episode Three

Guys, it's happened. Only two episodes in, and a bunch of the GBBO bakers have started reading the recaps... hello to anybody reading from the tent! I'm very fond of you all. I hope that's obvious!

Before we get onto the episode, there are a few things I need to clear up. Firstly, I was told off by my friend Hannah for not liking Richard, and I realised that it might well have come across that way. I actually love Richard, but... not the pencil. Hate the sin, love the sinner, and all that. (I should also mention how delightfully long it took Hannah to learn which was Mel and which was Sue - "Mel; Sue" she'd say, pointing left to right. When told this was wrong: "Sue; Mel?", pointing right to left. We got there in the end.)

Secondly, I'm now officially cheering on Luis, as I drew his name in the office sweepstake that somebody suggested we do. That somebody was me.

Thirdly, my friend Meg pointed out that last week Mary did her usual pirate-eating... of a biscuit pirate. How did I miss this?

Fourthly, my friend Rachel lent me Mezza Bezza's autobiography today. Excited.

Right, ready for bread (bready, if you will)? On with the show...

Things kick off with our usual shot of the bakers processing along the lawn, which this week seems like a mix of the animals marching into Noah's Ark and the schoolgirls of Madeleine walking in a crocodile (which, incidentally, meant nothing to me as a child, and always seemed curiously macabre). The cameraman also seems to have hidden in the undergrowth to film this shot.

Mel and Sue make a curiously laboured joke about the word 'rise' - in the world of potential bread puns, this is the one they keep returning to - and then make several references to the 'tropical heat', which (one must presume, given their enormous parkas) is in ironic reference to the coldness of the day. I'm not sure topical jokes about the temperature work well on a programme shown months later.

Blazer watch: they're all back in 'em, except Paul. The colours seem to have run on Mary's, though.

They're making... rye buns! "Above all else, they must be identical," says Mel, in a phrase calculated to bring an inferiority complex to a non-identical twin like myself.

There are some great Reaction Faces from the baker this week, and it kicks off with Norman's stony-faced boredom.

"All this talkin' is suspiciously... fancy."

Mel voiceovers that rye is difficult to work with. Kate tells us that rye is difficult to work with. Paul adds, helpfully, that rye is difficult to work with. Mary - rebel that she is - takes a different tack and says that the bakers will probably be adding black treacle, honey, or "even cocoa" to their mixture. I'm not sure that 'cocoa' required the word 'even'.


"The real danger is when they glaze it," says Mary, in the voice of one who has laughed danger in the face. And, again, she's pulling Roger Moore face:

Mary for first female James Bond, anyone?

Speaking of dangerous glazing (the name of a fairly unprofitable windows company), the inspection starts off with Martha, who is making date and walnut rye rolls (which sounds delicious) and is going to use an egg wash. If she'd said she was going to bake them by blindfolding herself, spinning around three times, and pointing a blow-torch in the direction she thought the dough might be, Paul couldn't have reacted more strongly. "That's very daring," he says. Is it, though, Paul?

"And... do you have life insurance?"

Norman has drawn the consistent-criticism card this year, but it's the opposite of the 'don't-overdo-it' that Frances was told robotically every week in '13. Instead, he will get the 'don't-oversimplify' every week until he leaves. "I'm a traditional baker more than anything," he confides to the camera. "I'm no Heston Blumenthal," he adds, lest anybody had made that mistake. What's nice is that, while poor Frances seemed quite upset by the constant barrage of unwonted criticisms, our Norm doesn't give a fig. Nor would he have anything as fancy as a fig in any of his bakes, thankyouverymuch. I hope he and Diana continue to have a Great British Beige Off, until they are reduced to presenting nothing but piles of flour for the judges.

"Self-raising flour? Fancy."

Luis, I love you, your dragon was amazing, and I'm relying on you to bring in fifteen pounds sterling for me in the office sweepstake, but we need to have words.

1.) There's always someone who starts giving their bakes names, and these are staunchly ignored by Mary and Paul. Watch out for that. "This is my supercalifragilisticexpialidocious surprise!" they'll say, and Mary will flintily comment on their "Vanilla tart".

2.) Parsnips? Parsnips? PARSNIPS? Parsnips are the food of darkness and evil. Life is cruel enough without putting parsnips in bread.

Bread week is always an excuse for people to make jokes about flinging dough about being a way to get rid of stress or anger. Cockney barrowgirl Nancy adds 'instead of on the dog!' in a cheerful aside that should ring alarm bells with the RSPCA.

"And then I threw the cat on the fire!"

We get plenty of close-ups of bakers kneading dough - and, in case we've forgotten in the past three minutes, Jordan tells us that rye is difficult to work with. I only have one question: is, or is not, rye dough difficult to work with?

Alex Kingston (aka Kate - and I never credited my friend Andrea on noting the similarities to Alex K, sorry Andrea!) is pitied by Mary for being too small to work dough properly - Mary being the six foot mountain of muscle that she is - and Alex/Kate responds by getting her guns out. It's all a bit frat house.

"The body of Ryan Gosling!" cries Sue. "Who? Sounds fancy," says Norman.

Jordan is making lemon and poppyseed rolls. "Very much a muffin flavouring," says Sue, showing how keenly she has acquired baking knowledge over the past five years. Richard the Builder, meanwhile, gets in trouble with Paul for referring to an American Pumpernickel. "There is only one Pumpernickel, and that comes from Germany," barks Herr Paul.

Moving on... "There's something called the window pane test," says Martha. "If you can see through your dough, then it's ready." Call me a cynic, but this looks a lot like cheating.

Yep, I can see through that.

("Window pane test? Fancy." - Norman.)

Over to Diana. She seems to be getting quite disheartened by the whole process, bless her. As with Norm, of course, she's getting the too-simple critique. And this time the cheese she's adding to the dough might slow the proving or the baking or something. Paul, who seems to manhandle Mary every week now, pulls her away before she reveals too much. It's a little intimate.

"We'll always have Paris."
Diana is rightly baffled by the whole thing. "I have not made much bread at all," she says.

Then we get lots of shots of people waiting while their bread proves (in the 'proving drawers' - does anybody in the real world have these?) The bakers lean their heads on their hands, roll their eyes, shift from foot to foot, and generally make violently overacted mime stances of waiting. Norman wanders off to inspect the crockery.

"Handles? Fancy."

Chetna seems a bit despondent too, although her pine nut rolls sound delish. It only takes a quick word from Paul and she's back to her laughing self. I adore her moments of merriment.

And then, a vision of the queue for the Marks & Spencer cafe every Seniors' Tuesday.

Perhaps the strangest comment from Paul comes when talking to Nancy: "The idea of the crust on top is nice." Where else would one have a crust?

Nancy and Martha have a heart-to-heart about egg washes ("I'm going to do it anyway," says Martha, apparently never having seen the show before) and... what is that cake doing in the background? Where did that come from? Did Series Two Holly sneak in and make it?

I don't feel I have much to say about people cutting dough. And I don't feel equipped to talk about Iain's pet sourdough. Does everyone have pet dough? Am I missing out on a national craze? Is this the new loom bands?

Norman - you make my job hobby waste of time easy. He's recording Mel's temperature with some sort of stun gun. And then she does his. He says his temperature is going up because of Mel's presence. It's adorable. Unless he meant it and she's shot him down. Awks.

Nancy's props must have been too violent to show this week.

In musical news, someone in the soundtrack department has found a xylophone.

Alex/Kate shoe-horns in a reference to a marathon she's done. "It's just like a marathon," she says about putting her bread in the oven, in a clear lie - unless her understanding of 'marathon' is vastly different from every accepted definition of it.  I imagine she gets this into every conversation.  "Would size shoe do you take?" says the shoe salesman. "Oh, this is just like a marathon," says she. "Could you direct me to the post office?" / "This is just like a marathon." "Hi, I'm Tom." / "Funny story: marathon."

"I've only done one." #Humblebrag
Sue, referring to Paul, says it'l soon be time "to unleash The Mahogany Tiger", to which I have nothing to add, we get the much-previewed clip of Alex/Kate dropping a roll on the floor (anticlimactically, she just picks it up and carries on - it is, we must remember, in every way exactly like a marathon), and the judges return.

Basically all the rolls look amazing. I love bread above any other foodstuff, so I'm salivating here. Let's whip through the judging, as nobody does particularly badly. Except that all the warnings about egg-wash and so forth come to fruition. Apparently Martha's glaze "falsely accuses the roll of being ready", according to Paul, who obviously has a deep-seated desire to be Judge Judy. "OBJECTION!" he shrieks, at Diana's flowerpot-shaped rolls.

Norman, of course, is told that his rolls are too simple. Mary uses the word 'scrumptious' again; I forget whose rolls she's eating. And gives the critique "I like that!" to my boy Luis' rolls. That's why they hire the experts.

Have you ever wondered about the history of bread? No? Well, of course you haven't.

Cake: A Secret History may be back, but where are the home videos? Where are families awkwardly gathered together to look at a baker wandering in and out of a room holding a french stick? More importantly: how am I to know what Richard does for a living?

And we're on to the 'nerve-inducing techncial'. Cue lots of bakers looking impressively nervous. We get Jordan biting his lip, Kate blinking a lot, these two...

...and then Iain, not bothered, who doesn't seem to know where he is.

Paul 'The Voice of Bread' Hollywood gives them one instruction: 'Be Patient'. It is delivered with the solemnity of a prophet or Disney wizard.

What are they baking? Ciabatta. Diana seems genuinely never to heard of them, going by her expression.

"Did you say... pastry triangles?"

Warning - this is the last time you will hear the word 'ciabatta' pronounced as three syllables. After this it is always chee-a-batt-ah, to the consternation of my half-Italian friend Andrea.

In case you're wondering what a ciabatta is, fear not, Alex/Kate is on hand to give you a full and precise definition: 'kind of long, oblong... bread'.

The most exciting divide in this ciabattle (thankyouverymuch) is whether or not to use the proving drawer for proving. "It's called a proving drawer, so you'd think it was for proving," says Martha, with an incisive logic that is hard to dispute. You wouldn't have thought that this quandary could be eked out to five minutes of screentime, interrupted only, briefly, by this image of a rainy horse.

That is, you wouldn't think that unless you've ever seen bread week before.

"I'm going to stick to my guns," says Alex/Kate, forever and always obsessed with her biceps.

I hear the words 'proving drawer' so often that I've started to believe it's a thing. And then there's a waiting game while they all try to pay heed to Paul's advice to be 'patient'. Mel narrates it, basically documenting people standing around. It's like Russian Roulette, only with no stakes, and nothing happening. "Chetna's flouring!" screams Mel.

And then lots of this:

"It's alive!"

Doughs are shaped, cut, and generally prepared. There is some anxiety about whether to get oil involved, but it's small fry after proving-gate. The only highlight is Iain somehow saying 'I don't even know how to pick it up' as one syllable.

Finally, the ciabatta are cooked and presented to the judges, with some impressive Italian from Mel along the way. Kate blows on hers, which can't possibly be hygienic.

Diana still isn't sure what a ciabatta is.

Paul, as always in bread week, is keen to disparage anybody who was ever made bread before, except him, and laboursomely goes through them all (one of them has, bizarrely, been 'forced into heat' - put in the oven?), while Mary looks oddly disgusted.

She isn't, though. She tears into the bread with such vigour that I fear for her teeth. Most of the bakers do pretty well, although a couple ciabatta are too flat. No disastrous egg washes. Jordan comes last (apparently oil and flour don't perform the same function; who knew?) while the top three are Martha, Luis, and Alex/Kate. She describes her baking as some sort of metaphysical experience.

The final challenge is a bread centrepiece. Obviously that's not a thing and never has been, but let's go with it. And they are to make filled loaves.

Diana drips water into a jug, amazed by the contrivances of modernity. I firmly believe that she has hitherto only used wells.

Everyone is making a savoury filled loaf except for Jordan, who is making a 'strawberry and raspberry cheesecake brioche'. Obviously there's no such thing as a cheesecake brioche, and that is one of the main reasons I am glad to be alive, so he's onto a losing hand. "I like to take the best parts of different foods and put them together," he says. Jord, if that were true, I'd eat nothing but chocolate cake in Yorkshire puddings with cheese. (Actually...)

This shouldn't go in bread. I mean, obviously.

"Tell us all about your loaf," says Mary to Diana, in the tones of one asking after somebody's favourite grandchild. She's making lots of pinwheels, and still sounds curiously unhappy about the whole thing. Take heart, Diana, be bold!

Norman, bless his wonderful heart, is making a loaf with chicken, rosemary-infused olive oil, and pesto. He seems to believe that pesto is at the very forefront of modern invention, and just the sort of daredevil risk calculated to win over the judges. Oh, Norm. Never change.

WAIT. Richard is using pesto too! Word has spread! (His loaf also sounds like the nicest, with walnuts and whatnot too.)

Martha is baking an entire cheese into her loaf. An epoisse cheese, which is apparently so smelly that it's banned on public transport in France. Sure, why not?

As usual, too many bakers to talk about them all at this stage. I do like, however, that the graphics-pencils person has drawn Chetna's loaf in the slightly misshapen way it emerged, rather than the (I presume) even shape she intended.

Also, 'rolled and filled' is surely part of the challenge anyway?

And then we come to Nancy. Oh, Nancy. She's essentially just doing a fry-up. While Luis is carefully slicing olives, she's flinging pork bangers into a pan, along with bacon, mushrooms, and so forth. She couldn't be more Eastenders-extra if she tried. Oh, wait, she's using quails' eggs. Now, that is fancy.

It does reinforce the fact that a 'filled loaf' is basically a sandwich.

We head over to Richard - who mentions in passing that he is a builder - and then... oh, the horror, the horror. Jordan's cheesecake brioche. Oh no, no, no.

So might a cat play with its kill.

On the other side of the tent: "I'm going for the posh rustic look," says Norman. "If it's homemade, it should look homemade." Seriously, has he ever seen this show before? Everybody else is performing complex twists and plaits, and I'm super-impressed by how none of the dough is falling apart, which is definitely what would happen if I tried any of this stuff. Martha has a mini-crisis of mixing up fig and apricot dough - we've all been there - Luis sprays his dough with insecticide (or something), and our friend the proving drawer rears its head again.

Jordan says that in the past he has struggled to make his showstopper look 'showstoppery' "every single week". Lest we forget, there have been a total of two weeks to date. He's glazing some strawberries, but I imagine that won't be enough to salvage a cheesecake brioche.

Everybody puts their loaves in the ovens (which is perhaps not very surprising), and then they sit on the floor and stare at their ovens. Chetna is becoming the go-to person for repeating the basics of the challenge as though they were philosophical insights.

"It's filled inside!"
She's adorable.

Also adorable, in a different way, is Diana - who uses the abbreviation 'under scrute'. I love me some abbrevs. And Norman, again: "For me this is very exotic - PESTO."

Martha and Mel have a listen to a loaf. They actually do.

"Burn the tent, you say?"

Those of you who bake - you know how you have to just do those annoying fiddly final bits before presenting your bake, like piping icing, sprinkling sugar, gilding the olives... wait, what? Luis, what's happening? Are you trying to make this the most expensive item of food per square inch, with saffron, gold, and a crunchy diamond in the middle for one lucky young scamp?

The judging begins. These showstoppers inevitably don't wow in the way that 3D biscuit models did, but they still look extremely delicious. There were only a couple that I really liked the look of:

He gives an extreme range of cheery facial expressions. He's fab.

And then there's the damp raw mess of the cheesecake brioche... oh dear, Jordan.

If it's any consolation, my Cheesy Yorkshire Chocolate Cake was a mess too.
And the amazingly hammed-up (no pun intended) moment when Kate's prosciutto bread gets the comment from Paul: "There's no gap between the layers... because it's raw." Somebody (Sue? Maybe even Mary?) gasps 'WHAT?' in horrified tones. It's glorious. Kate rises to the occasion wonderfully, gurning all over the place. (It is a shame, though, as the loaf looked wonderful from the outside.)

Incidentally, nobody has ever eaten a strawberry this menacingly before.

Paul and Mary follow their usual practice of repeating all their critiques again to Mel and Sue around the wooden table, for anybody who popped to the kitchen to make a cuppa during the judging. Sue announces that either Norman or Jordan had to go, which didn't really seem to be the direction the show was going, but sure.

The star baker is:

This looked like a smile until I freeze-framed it.
Make me some money, Luis! (Alex/Kate gives a fist pump 'yesss!')

Going home is...

Mary gives a lovely farewell tribute to Jordan. Importantly, Norman lives to fight another day! As do I - so I'll see you next week for Desserts Week. Hope you've enjoyed the recap, especially if you were one of the people from the tent... love you all, honest!

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Mrs Harris MP - Paul Gallico

Is it a bird? Is it a 'plane? No, it's actually a book review on Stuck-in-a-Book! Sorry that it's been so long since my last one. Especially since I'm going to talk about a book I finished over six weeks ago...

When I went to the Lake District a while ago, I took a range of books - some that benefited from a long, uninterrupted read on a train, and some that would fill gaps between dashing off on multiple buses to get to a wedding, get on a train, etc. And I turned to Mrs Harris MP (1965) by Paul Gallico when I was tired from the long journey and sitting on a bench waiting for a lift (that eventually didn't come... but that's another story).

Anybody familiar with Mrs Harris Goes to Paris (also published as Flowers for Mrs Harris) and Mrs Harris Goes to New York will doubtless already know and love the redoubtable Mrs Harris. A London char, she is a wonderful mix of no-nonsense and fairy tale. Her greatest dream, in the first book, was to own a Paris couture dress; in the second she heads off to New York on a quest, and in the third she wishes - as you may have guessed from the title - to become an MP.

The novel opens with Mrs Harris and John Bayswater the chauffeur disagreeing over a political broadcast. She thinks it's all two-face hogwash, and that she could do better herself... which isn't long off happening. 'Live and Let Live' is her political mantra, and it is tangled up with an argument about giving working people a chance, not being teddy boys, and above all not lying. She makes, still - perhaps more than ever, quite an appealing prospect in the world of politics. She is not interested in spin and self-promotion; she wants to stand for the little people. And Mrs Harris is so full of vim and character that the bland, careful politicians don't stand a chance.

Except things are a little more complicated than that. In all his novels, to some extent or other, Gallico seems to offer a sting in his fairy tale. Sometimes that sting is extremely dark (as in the very brilliant Love of Seven Dolls), sometimes it's fey (Jennie), but it's always there. In Mrs Harris MP it appears in the machinations of her supposed political ally... and appears perhaps more subtly in the after-effects of Mrs. Harris' political campaign.

Like the other novels in this series, Mrs Harris MP is light and frothy and completely enjoyable. All of which means that it was probably very difficult to write. Mrs Harris is a wonderful creation - and perhaps equally wonderful, in my eyes, is her timid but loving friend Mrs Butterfield. It's all quite silly, with (in this one perhaps more than the others) a note of the serious - and if you are sick of deceitful or boring politicians, or of a government that sidelines the poor, then this might provide some much-needed respite.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Shiny New Books: Issue 2a

Those of you who receive the Shiny New Books newsletter will know that the 'inbetweeny' issue is now live - that is, the update between issues, which includes anything published just after or just before Issue 2 went live that we were keen to incorporate. Go and explore!

In my case, it also involves a novel that I hadn't heard of - Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee - that I was so intrigued by and had to read. Luckily it turned out to be very good. You can read my review of it here, and (even better) a piece that Maggie Gee wrote for us, answering my questions, here.

I'm determined to set aside some time this week to writing SIAB reviews, as the pile is looming, and there are plenty of treats to come. At least this way they will get posted after the summer lull, when blog views and comments crash down!

Hope you're all very well, and reading lovely books. I'm currently indulging in Marilynne Robinson's Home (finally, Susan!) in preparation for reading Lila for Shiny New Books Issue 3.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Great British Bake Off: Series 5: Episode 2

For those of you who read SIAB normally, and not just for Bake Off recaps, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to disappear again, and this won't become just a recap blog - life has been surprisingly hectic of late, as well as being knocked for six (or at least by three or four) by some powerful antibiotics. (Also why I haven't replied to comments - I will, honest!) But nothing will stand in the way of me recapping episode 2 - especially since it is the ever-exciting Biscuit Week, second only to bread week in its unconvincing attempts to make something fairly mundane into something 'showstoppery'.

First of all - fans of the bridge (and which of us is not?) from last year have to put up with these rather paltry steps. They're barely trying. They are not showstoppers.

This scene also makes it look like they've come from the house.
Clearly they are allowed nowhere near the house.

Then there is an inexplicable fortune cookie scene with Mel and Sue, the less said about the better. And speaking of comedic misfires, Mel starts singing about 'savoury biscuits' in the line-up, in what doesn't appear to be a pun of any variety (possible musical puns: Sav[oury biscuits] all your love for me? There's no business like [savoury]bis[cuits]ness? It could never really have worked.)

Followers of fashion for the elderly, take note. Mary has exchanged her floral jackets for a side-zipping white bomber jacket (or something like that) while Paul has dispensed with his jacket altogether. Has the era of the blazer ended?

And Sue was such a trail BLAZER.
I'll see myself out.

They're making savoury biscuits that have to go with cheese. This stipulation becomes increasingly irrelevant, as quite a few bakers just plonk their biscuits on a cheese board and have done with it, but the intentions were good.

"These are big sunflower seeds!" says Enwezor, in what the editors were obviously hoping would sound like an innuendo to anybody not paying close attention.

"It's one thing making three or four biscuits for a dinner party," says Paul, before going on to say that this challenge was a thousand times more difficult, but - Paul - I have to stop you there. Who makes three biscuits for a dinner party? How much mixture would you have to throw away? Or would you go through all the effort with one tablespoon of each ingredient? This makes no sense. Your dinner parties are a MESS, Paul.

It's just dawned on me that this is how a Ken doll would age.

Mary witters on about snap, crackle, and pop, and it's all very endearing, if mostly filler.

Love the scarf, though.

I've decided to be kind about Jordan this week, which means not mentioning him in any way.
(He brought in Yorick the Yeast.) (He calls him a friend.) (He uses the word 'passionate'.) Mary Berry Reaction Shot time:

Oh, I SEE. You're mad.

Onto lovely Nancy. Despite the fact that she's from Lincolnshire, I remain convinced that she is a Cockney barrowgirl, and a fantastic one at that. She also has the largest family in the world, and feeds them on the set of a budget remake of The Forsyte Saga.

I love how wonderfully unbothered Nancy is by the process, cheerfully confessing in front of Mezza Bezza that she cooks with out-of-date fennel at home. Mary, who leaps at the opportunity to be pally and adorable wherever possible, does so again. Paul notes it in his Black Book.

I had forgotten how much hair Iain had.

I'm starting to think that he's like one of those images
that makes a picture of a face whichever way you turn it.

I'm not entirely sure that he isn't hungover. He's using fig and something that sounds like zanzibar, but probably isn't. He says it should bend and snap - as my friend Debs pointed out, this sounds very Legally Blonde.

This week's get-to-know-the-bakers home videos are the usual incisive three seconds, and the theme is 'the bakers like baking'. Truth be told, it might be more revealing if we panned to Luis in his kitchen saying "To be honest, I hate baking. Just don't fancy it."

But it does mean we get this adorable shot of Enwezor.

Mary gives Luis quite a warning look about him using olives in brine, rather than oil, but I'm not sure why. It is never mentioned again, in a move that uses more subtlety than usual. Usually Mary's warning looks are the framework to hang the show on.

And then we turn to Diana. She's the one who made a plain Swiss roll in Week One, flung it on the counter, and essentially said "Enough with your fripperies; this is what a Swiss roll should look like." I admire her for it. This week, she's apparently decided she's not that bothered about biscuits, thankyouverymuch, and is making pastry instead. "Because it's something I make."

I'd love it if she staunchly refused to engage with any of the challenges, and just dumped a Victoria sponge on the table every week. "What's good enough for Queen Victoria is good enough for you," she'd say, tartly.

PUN KLAXON. Paul makes a thyme/time pun. He's slowly cottoning on to the raison d'être of the show. Or should that be RAISIN d'EATre. No, sorry, I was right the first time. Or should that be THYME, &c. &c.

Bless Norman. He's decided ("bravely," Mel says) to make biscuits without any flavour at all. He and Diana are fighting it out for the "in my day all food was beige" award. And then he teaches Sue semaphore, because of course he does.

Hands up if you're adorable.

"Martha is just 17" says Sue, and a lifetime living with Beatles fans makes me, reluctantly, mumble "you know what I mean" to myself. Horrifying. What is not horrifying is the recipe Martha is using, which sounds delicious, even if it looks like frothy custard creams:

When I said earlier that the bakers all get home videos about baking, there is one exception, of course. It's Richard the Builder. He gets a video of Being a Builder. He will always get that video. And I'm sick of that ridiculous pencil behind his ear. He'll turn up with a hod next week.

Look at him, dunking a biscuit, like a BUILDER.

Nancy has got her husband to make a utensil for her again.

My friends and I were a bit worried about the props that Nancy's husband has been making for her. They definitely fall on the macabre side of things. First a guillotine, and now a torture device. What next - will she hang her croissants from a decorative noose? Will her petit-fours be neatly arranged in an electric chair?

Fans of counting get to hear lots of bakers murmur '36' to themselves, and then the challenge is over. Everyone seems to have done very well, except for Jordan who gets a "My issue is - it's burnt" from Paul. Otherwise, Mary and Paul try and fail to find anything interesting to say about crackers. They don't even address the fact that Diana hasn't made crackers at all (a fact that leads the caption-maker, unwilling to perjure him- or herself, to describe them as 'triangles').

Norman is assured, by Sue, "You could sell those tomorrow!" Because who doesn't want to buy day-old biscuits?

Tangentially, I have high hopes for a Norman/Martha best-friendship. Think of the adventures they'd have!

"Onwards and upwards!" says Diana, leading me to hope that she'll take the John Whaite crown for platitudes this year.

The cake equivalent of Who Do You Think You Are?, but with fewer tears and more costumes and/or puns - is back. As my friend Lloyd says, it's a good opportunity to make a cup of tea. This week it's about ice cream cones, which is marvellously tenuous. But it's fun to watch how long it takes the gentleman in the white coat explain that a twist cone was twisted.

Someone has stolen Anastasia's ice creams...

He, like every person in all of these segments for five series, does his best to ignore everything Sue says. And we're onto the technical challenge - florentines!  Which apparently makes the tent shriek with laughter. Norman asserts that he's never made them "I don't make much fancy stuff. Mostly bread and pies." He's basically writing my blog post for me.

Paul and Mary sit tête-à-tête, and the conversation reveals what this week's arbitrary marker of distinction will be. Have you noticed that they're always on the hunt for something pretty precise, and seemingly irrelevant (the example par excellence was the pie that, for some reason, had to have distinct layers when cooked)? This week: zig-zags on the bottom. Sure, why not?

I do admire the set design department for their
delightfully whole-hearted commitment to twee.
"They give you basic instructions, but they don't give you exactly [what to do]," says Iain, for anybody who has missed the previous four series of technical challenges.

Chetna is a sweetie, but I don't understand her sense of humour. "I've never made a caramel with golden syrup", she says, which she apparently finds hilarious. Oh, Chetna. A comedienne you ain't.

"Caramel? More like CAN'Tamel!"

This challenge sounded quite tricky to me - always difficult to tell with the Everything Is Impossible theme of the voiceovers; "BAKERS NEED TO BE REALLY VIGILANT" - but everyone does pretty well. We do get a lengthy montage of people not knowing how long florentines need to be in the oven. This is repeated about eight times by different bakers, while a thunderous kettle drum is played in the background, interspersed with Psycho-esque stabbing sounds. But, truth be told, there isn't much to say in this challenge. How to make a zig-zag is, of course, repeated ad nauseam, with Mel taking on a conspiratorial tone with lovely Martha.

"Don't tell anyone!" - genuine thing Mel said.

Mary and Paul use the word 'lacy' a lot, without ever really explaining what they're talking about, and debate the 'classic zig-zagging' until you wonder if the bakers could have just scribbled on a bit of paper to win the challenge.  There is so much crunchy-crunchy noise in the background, seemingly unrelated to any moments of actual eating, that it sounds a lot like a sound-effect. Which perhaps it is.

Mel and Sue say not a word.

Iain comes last. Oh, Iain. And Richard the Builder comes first. Apparently his florentines were 'the proper size', which feels quite arbitrary - but Mary Knows Best.

And now the final challenge of the day, after we've seen many shots of lakes and lawns, this green and pleasant land, and so forth. Paul asserts that "these bakers are bakers in their hearts", and we get on with the show before having time to think what on earth that could possibly mean.

The showstopper challenge: a 3D biscuit scene! It's my belief that this challenge was chosen entirely in order to make references to Richard being A Builder. But it is exciting nonetheless.

Early in the day, signs aren't looking good for Enwezor. Mary asserts that she doesn't want to see anything non-homemade, and almost immediately we are informed that he is using shop-bought fondant. We get a couple of exceptional Mary Berry Reaction Faces.

If this isn't the cover of a book soon, I want to know why not.

Also, he isn't making a structure so much as... a pile of biscuits. Does he not remember Christine from last year? (She's still at it, by the way.)

Martha is making a ski resort out of biscuits, which is further insight into the life she leads (that 'supermarket' she works in is Fortnum & Mason, isn't it?) She's also made her structure before at home, which shows greater preparation than that demonstrated by 80% of previous contestants, who cheerfully say that they hadn't dreamt of giving it a go beforehand, following the 'practising is cheating' mantra of Flanders & Swann.

Many of the bakers are making different types of biscuits, including brandy snaps, tuiles, and other extremely difficult things. As I said last week, they're very impressive bakers this year. And there's a wide range of ideas - from Wild West scenes to dragons to 'Zulu Boats at Dawn', of all things. And the guy with the virtual crayons has fun with this one:

At what point do you think they gave up trying to make it look like food?

Chetna is making a fairground and beach scene - you might remember that I have a fondness for merry-go-round imagery - and my favourite moment is when Mary asks what the central pillar will be made of: "biscuits!" says Chetna, as though talking to a confused child.

I can't escape from an editing eye, and noticing that 'tuile' has been misspelled in this image...


"This is going to go in the oven," Chetna helpfully says of her biscuits.
"Bakers must keep a CONSTANT EYE on the clock," says Voice of Doom Mel, in a piece of advice that, if followed, would mean the bakers achieved nothing at all.

First baking disaster is Jordan's biscuits, which won't come off the tin.

This is very similar to what happened with the gluten-free almond/ginger cake I made for my Bake Off party. But, since I was not set a structural challenge by Paul and Mary, I chopped up what I could rescue, and mixed it with raspberries and Greek yoghurt, in a new spin on Eton mess. (I'd have been walked out that tent faster then I could throw away burnt pieces of backing parchment.)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fondant that Enwezor DID NOT MAKE HIMSELF.


In quite a poignant moment, Diana realises that she isn't using flavours as exotic as her fellow bakers. She describes the rest of the tent as "young people", which - presumably - includes folk like Norman. Well, everything's relative.

"Once I drew a dinosaur for my daughter," shares Enwezor. "It was so bad that she cried." Touching. His fondant is not the only luminous thing in the tent, however. Despite the sanction against anything non-homemade, everyone has suspiciously-matching day-glo icing bags.

The world's least menacing mugging.

Mel finds her comments falling on death ears when the Pride of Belfast ignores everything she has to say, grunting 'uh-huh' every now and then in an effort to make her go away. I love that they decide to leave that in.

We get the usual montage of people saying that time is running out (it's like 2003 Muse, amirite) and the challenge is over.  And, it's fair to say, there are some pretty astonishingly good creations. Here are some of my favourites, although there are a lot of highlights.

Where's Wally?

It's a bit heartbreaking that they're snapping apart these fantastic structures. A few criticisms here and there - 'a bit lopsided'; 'overdone' - but generally an exceptional standard. A bit of debating (including the excellent neologism 'Iain has phoenixed himself') later, and they've decided the winner...


...and the loser, yet again the second person the camera shows after they pause...

My friends and I gave a bit of a cheer at this point. Not because we disliked Enwezor - he seemed nice - but because the idea of a life without Norman was too bleak to contemplate. I do agree that he wasn't on top form, though; it's a bit of a stretch to call it a 'biscuit structure' when they're just piled in a row. For my money, Luis should have won, but I'll cope with it going to Richard the Builder, especially given the self-control M & P showed in not mentioning his profession as much as I'd expected.

Hope you've enjoyed this - let me know who your money is on, and I'll see you next week!