Snap, Crack(le). . . Bake!
The poet Carl Sandburg’s Good Morning, America begins with 38 definitions of poetry. His memorable line, “poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits,” is as scrumptious to speak as the 62 snappy crackers, stout tea cakes, and sturdy gingerbread structures submitted to our Great Wisconsin Baking Challenge: Biscuits Week (and by “week” we mean 20 days — thanks for your patience and support of the WPT August pledge drive, bakers)!
Biscuits — or crackers and cookies to Americans — took center stage in Paul and Mary’s tent, along with our five remaining British bakers this week. Cathryn, Brendan, James, Danny and John faced the quarterfinals with three demanding challenges testing their skills of precision, dough handling and even their architectural acumen.
In the spirit of The Great British Baking Show, The Great Wisconsin Baking Challenge asked participants to select just one of the three Biscuit challenges. Let’s get cracking with our review!
Before we start: If you have not watched this episode yet, SPOILER ALERT!
And don’t forget to read to the bottom to find out who our six featured Wisconsin bakers are!
ON THE TELLY | ROUND 1: 48 Crackers
The Signature bake asked contestants to get snappy by making 48 savory crisp breads or crackers, leavened or unleavened. A test of the quarterfinalists’ consistency and attention to detail, every single cracker had to be the same size and thickness (read: thin!), and pass the “Hollywood crack” test with the perfect snap. As always, the expectation of taste bud-popping flavor and an even bake stood as key success measures.
The Disaster: Ever-apologetic Cathryn disappointed. Her attempt at envisioning a classic English Ploughman’s Lunch with her Cheese and Pickle Cracker broke apart. Inconsistency clouded her bake with crackers both think and thin, firm and bendy, with variation in color throughout. To make things worse, she only delivered 46 of the 48 crackers required! Ouch.
The Highlights: “I bring precision to everything I do,” sang Brendan. And, indeed, he brought it with his Multi-Seed Savoury Crackers containing both sesame and aniseed. His crisp breads generated the coveted Mary Berry “scrummy” designation with a perfect bake and beautiful consistency. When asked how he conquered the cracker with such ease, Brendan replied: “It’s all about knowledge and technique, and I’ve been around the track a bit longer than most of them.”
The Takeaway: To ensure a crisp cracker every time, the baking temperature must be constant. When one has multiple batches, this requires using the same oven shelf for every batch because the temp differs slightly from shelf to shelf. James was a case study this week in what befalls a batch of crisp breads spanning multiple positions in the oven. Eeeps!
HOW OUR LOCAL BAKERS DID | 48 Crackers!
Wisconsinites are keen on an elaborate meat n’ cheese spread but rarely do any of us go the extra mile to make our own crackers from scratch. We’re so impressed by the fearlessness, skill and creativity our bakers displayed this week taking a hearty crack at homemade crackers! Move over Cheez-Its!
Bren from Green Bay offers up her Pumpkin and Spice Crackers to cajole us into the spirit of (impending) autumn! Her crackers come complete with a lovely companion story about her inheritance and reseeding of an heirloom variety Boston Marrow Squash that suffuses these scrumptious crackers.
Sunny Wisconsin Inspiration Crackers come to us from Team Dettweiler in 5 different varieties, all inspired by ingredients local to the state: cheese, ginseng and sunflower seeds. The Dettweiler family flanks the cracker spread with an equally sunny art print — “Surrounded by Sunflowers” by California artist Lowell Herrero — found in a Door County gift shop.
Seeds, indeed, abound in Rebecca’s Sourdough Seeded Crackers offering a visual confetti-like collage of sesame, poppy and flax. It’s like a seed carnival on a cracker! Janice from Eau Claire shows us the sweet side of crispbread with a beautiful bounty of Belgian Spice crackers loaded with sugar and cinnamon.
And Kara from Oregon submitted a homemade version of Potter’s crackers— beloved by her wife, Jenni — with caramelized onion. Says Kara, charmingly: “My wife, Jenni, loves Potter’s crackers, but we don’t make enough scratch to buy them frequently, so we decided to use this challenge to make them from scratch.” We applaud you, Kara for being so thrifty and deeply thoughtful to your Sweetie!
ON THE TELLY | ROUND 2: Six Chocolate Tea Cakes
For the Technical, a British iconic Tea Cake — a marshmallow-blanketed biscuit covered in a glimmering dome of chocolate — took center stage. Given only an oven temperature and minimal instructions, the quarterfinalists had to decode an elusive baker’s alchemy required to achieve firm marshmallow, a shiny, glossy chocolate and a clean cut through the cookie. And to top it off, an unusual heat wave hit the Tent, making tempering chocolate. . . errrm. . . a temperamental enterprise!
The Disaster: Despite a crisp biscuit and good marshmallow, Cathryn’s domes were too thin and fell apart for not chilling her chocolate in the fridge. . . until a desperate dash at the end. Two strikes, Cathryn!
The Highlight: James worried about the heat throughout the Technical: “We don’t have a room temperature, here, we have. . . hot!” Still, his Tea Cakes were the only of the quarterfinalists’ that “checked all the boxes,” according to Mary and Paul. He had a good, firm marshmallow, a clean cut, and an impressive biscuit base, to which we say, Bravo!
The Takeaway: The domed rubber mold used to shape the biscuit proves pesky! The chocolate must be precisely the right consistency to coat it: if too thin, the tea cake will crack when pulled away.
HOW OUR LOCAL BAKERS DID | Chocolate Tea Cakes
Christine from Madison brought us the final days of summer camping with a S’more envisioned as a tea cake. She writes: “As a girl, we always went camping in the summer. Wisconsin has great parks — state or county. I can’t remember a camping trip that didn’t include delicious S’mores. So, for this challenge, I decided to make a graham cracker base, toasted the marshmallow to give it that campfire taste, and topped it with a mix of milk and bittersweet chocolate.” All we need, now, is a scary ghost story, Christine!
Wisconsin meets the UK with Katie’s tea cakes where she combines Wisconsin maple syrup with British golden syrup. Delicious to the letter, Katie. Moving to our neighbors to the North, Wausau’s Nicole achieves a perfectly clean cut through her Whippets — named so because Nicole’s sister “claims [their] French Canadian ancestors invented the whippets — which are very similar to these Tea Cakes —at their bakery in Canada.”
Proving mothers are unstoppable, Vanessa managed taking care of her toddler while tempering chocolate with her Toddler Tea Cakes. Reports Vanessa: “I gave them that name for various reasons. First, I did most of the creation while my toddler was napping. But also, they had a temper (of chocolate of course) and I must have measured the salt incorrectly because they were a bit salty. But despite all that, and the fact that they weren’t perfect because I made them in a muffin pan instead of a round, they were still incredibly sweet and nice. Kind of like my toddler 😉 .”
ON THE TELLY | ROUND 3: Gingerbread Structure
As Talking Heads’ David Byrne said in 1980, “And you may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful [gingerbread] house!” Rather, this is your gingerbread Tower of London! Okay, maybe David Bryne didn’t bring gingerbread into it but Paul and Mary sure did as they commanded the bakers to take their architectural genius to the next level and build a flavorful and delicious Showstopping gingerbread structure – anything more elaborate than a simple house. Think Hansel & Gretl at the Taj Mahal!
The Disaster: This challenge produced no definitive “disaster.” Instead, we were surprised that the meticulous construction and sweet presentation of Brendan’s Fantasy Gingerbread House left the judges wanting. It was “a bit too much” for Paul in its preciousness. The judges deemed it structurally unambitious and found it tasted a bit too spicy. They always keep us guessing, Brendan!
The Highlight: James transformed perceived failure into triumph! The initial plans for his Gingerbread Barn took a major aesthetic turn that Paul and Mary. . . adored! “This looks amazing,” cried Mary, “everything that you eat about this you want to eat until the last crumb.” Phew, James. . . and Happy Birthday!
The Takeaway: To achieve build quality with gingerbread, baking time is crucial. Any variation in the bake or thickness of the bread could weaken the structure considerably.
HOW OUR LOCAL BAKERS DID | Showstopping Gingerbread Structure
“What could be more of a Wisconsin twist than highlighting farm life?” asks Maureen from Arkdale. Beholding your masterpiece, Maureen, that’s a hard question to answer! Maybe the Wisconsin Twist isn’t a competition, rather, every Wisconsin twist is unique. . . like a fingerprint!
And what about Dottie’s magical Fairyland Ginger Spice Hut celebrating the fairy village under the pine trees near her pond in Eagle River?
Or Kevin from Viroqua’s build of the Allen Bradley Clock Gingerbread Tower?
. . . or Nicole’s Dudley Tower (Wausau)?
. . . or Alice’s unflagging effort to bring us a gingerbread Lambeau Field?
Do you see the (royal icing) bind we’re in, Maureen?
Star Baker: James received a very Happy Birthday gift, indeed, with the Star Baker designation for his consistency in technical ability and flavor throughout the three challenges. James — so accomplished at only 21 years old!
Kicked Out of the Tent: Spawning heartbreak for contestants and judges alike, it was Cathryn who left the Tent this week. Despite seven weeks of magnificent performance, Mary summed it up simply and best: “Sometimes things just don’t go right.” All we can say is that we agree with the whole cast in exclaiming, “we’re going to miss you so much, it’s ludicrous,” Cathryn.
OUR SIX FEATURED WISCONSIN BAKERS!
Tammy and Maddy pay beautiful [gingerbread] tribute to the Wisconsin family farm, an economic livelihood strategy and cultural way of life they lament has been difficult to sustain. Tammy shares: “This week’s bake is in honor and memory of all the small family farms that used to be all over rural Wisconsin, including my own family’s farm that was in the town of Eaton in Brown County. It’s a great/hard-working way of life that is sadly disappearing.”
That the editors love blue cheese isn’t the only reason we also love Kristin’s Smokey Blue Cheese and Wild Ramp Crackers. We love their delicate yet punchy simplicity. We love that Kristin adapted the recipe from a book she checked out at the Eau Claire Public Library — yay for library Food & Cooking sections! And, as with so many of our bakers this week, we love that Kristin attempted making crackers for the very first time. . . and made them so delicious!
Assuming Frank Lloyd Wright had a sweet tooth, we’re certain he’d be stunned by Jen’s reconstruction of the Monona Terrace, one of Madison’s architectural treasures inspired by Wright’s vision of a “dream civic center” for the city. “I love the view of the Terrace and skyline from across the lake,” says Jen. Made of molasses and spice, her “giant” — four feet wide — rendering uses blue raspberry tootsie rolls for the windows. Bravo, Jen!
Jodi from De Pere, WI
Jodi’s biscuits sure are a hoot! Her “Hootenanny” chocolate tea cake owls forego the simple, rubber dome to celebrate our wise, nocturnal friends. Jodi’s bake also honors the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay. “They care for thousands of orphaned and injured animals each year, including owls and other birds of prey,” writes Jodi. What a sweet tribute to the crucial work of protecting our bird and animal companions.
We loved Sarah’s substitution of blackcurrant filling for golden syrup in her Overly Fiddly Teacakes. And we greatly appreciate Sarah seeking out a new tool — a silicone mold for the chocolate dome — in service to learning something new. She perfected the digestive biscuit — go Sarah! — and picked the currants in Bayfield. Moreover, her late chicken, Old Red, provided the eggs, a reminder of the gifts animals bestow on our food traditions, everyday. Rest in peace, Old Red.
“Once upon a time, a little girl named Laura lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin in a little house made of [gingerbread] logs.” Or at least that’s how Amber interprets the iconic literary cabin of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Made with gingerbread walls, royal icing, and covered with pretzel logs, behold Amber’s elaborate, painstaking candy detail and embellishment as she delivers a gingerbread bake tied to Wisconsin’s literary landscape.
While we sure do love your biscuits, now we want to see them dressed up in a French bateau neckline for Patisserie Week. . . up next! On your marks, get set. . . bake! If you need inspiration, you can watch the upcoming episode of The Great British Baking Show online now.