The Breadmaster's Challenge: Part Five
"Oh, no!" Aventia cried out in frustration, frantically stirring a pot of dark, gooey liquid. "It's burnt!" she growled, with an angry glare at the cameras that were fixated on her, as if it was their fault. "I'm going to have to start again. There's no way I'm going to be able to save this!" she muttered to herself.
She wished the cameramen would film someone else; she didn't want her failure broadcast to all of Neopia, but it didn't look like they'd be backing off anytime soon. A baking failure was, after all the most excitement they'd seen all afternoon, and that made for good Neovision, apparently.
After Arnold had left there'd been a fifteen minute tea break, for the contestants to sit down, relax and have something to eat and drink and then it was straight back into the competition. The next challenge had been a breeze, at least for Aventia. The showstopper challenge had involved cakes; to make an extraordinary cake with more than one tier; the only directive was that it had to look and more importantly taste fantastic.
Aventia had decided on a chocolate orange mousse cake – something she had made many times before and she knew, without a shadow of a doubt that she could pull off. She'd taken enough risks today; she didn't need to take anymore.
The judges had loved her cake, which had been two-tiered, layered with white chocolate buttercream and covered with chocolate orange mousse, topped with swirls of orange flavoured meringue and a twist of orange peel.
To her delight, she had been named the challenge winner, with the honour of top baker for that round. Embarrassingly, she had squealed with glee and Diana had given her a withering stare.
The bottom two had been Achmet and Kriever, who's white chocolate and raspberry cake had been pronounced "too dry", but who once again very narrowly missed being sent home thanks to Achmet's disappointing lime and thistleberry cake, which had caved in as he took it to the judges table.
Then after lunch, it was time for the challenge that everyone had been dreading: The Breadmaster's Challenge. Aventia was shaking with nerves as they walked back into the tent. Not knowing what the Breadmaster would ask them to bake was worse than anything, especially since they'd only be given a list of ingredients and not the recipe. If the contestants had never made anything like it before, then they wouldn't know what to do with the ingredients.
This was a challenge where experience would play a huge part and this scared Aventia immensely, as she only had the experience of home baking; she hadn't worked for the Grundo chef like Marshall, nor had she apprenticed in Faerie Food like Diana claimed. If she didn't know how to bake what the Kacheek asked, then she knew that she would be out of the competition for sure.
Upon entering the tent again, the remaining six contestants went back to their workstations, which had been covered with various ingredients in their absence. They were greeted by the Breadmaster, who told them that a good baker could make anything and if they wanted to take his place as Breadmaster, they would have to know how to make some of the most popular items that restocked at the Bakery. Today he was giving them a difficult task – to make his famous popcorn bread pudding.
Aventia had never made bread pudding before, but she vaguely knew what the recipe entailed and fortunately, she had eaten the Breadmaster's popcorn bread pudding herself, so she knew what it was supposed to look like.
Some of the other contestants however, were looking at the list of ingredients in confusion or distress, clearly never having made it before either. At least she had some idea of what to do, which filled her with a little more confidence.
When they were told to start baking, Aventia went straight to it, but not without noticing a couple of the contestants look around the room uncertainly.
The ingredients list told the contestants how much of each ingredient to use, which at least, was something, so Aventia started by weighing out the ingredients she would need. Then she took the bread and tore it up into pieces, adding mixed dried fruit and spices to the bowl and pouring milk over the top. Scrunching and mixing the bread with her fingers, she looked around the room. A few of the contestants, Marshall included, seemed to know what they were doing but the rest seemed completely unsure. Even Mithras, who Aventia had pegged as a great baker was having a hard time with it. She wished that she could give them some pointers, but she didn't want to get disqualified for helping them – this was a competition after all.
Once everything was completely mixed up and the bread thoroughly broken up, she added eggs and self-raising flour, poured in the sugar and used a wooden spoon to give it a good stir. She set aside the mixture, and buttered a tray, which she poured the mixture into a few minutes later. She put the tray into the oven to bake for ninety minutes, realising that she would only just have time to add the finishing touches to it, once it was out of the oven.
Now that she knew that she didn't have to check on her bake for a while, she made a start on the popcorn. Never having made popcorn from scratch before, she was a little at a loss, not knowing where to start. Corn kernels in hand, she looked around the room at the other contestants, trying to see if anyone had started their popcorn yet. No-one had, so Aventia just took the plunge and guessed. She thought that she'd remembered reading about popping kernels in a pan before, so she poured some oil into a deep pan, set it on the hob to heat up, before hesitantly adding one or two kernels to the oil (just to check that it would work) and covering with the lid.
Minutes later the room was filled with loud popping sounds, making Aventia jump slightly. She laughed it off and checked her pan, surprised at how easy it had been. She threw in the rest of the kernels, put the lid back on and waited for the rest of them to pop. By this point there were popping sounds coming from all over the room, the other contestants having caught up. Next to her, Mithras' kernels seemed to be popping at exactly the same time, whereas Aventia's had been popping randomly for the last few minutes, making her wonder if she'd done something wrong.
Once the last kernel had popped, she took it off the heat and spooned out the popcorn. Some of it had burnt, having popped too soon. There was nothing much she could do about that, but she didn't need too much for the bread pudding topping. She fished the blackened popcorn out with a spoon, dumping it into the bin, and sprinkled salt and a little melted butter over the rest.
The last thing she had left to do before the pudding came out of the oven was her salted caramel, but she didn't want to start it too soon, as it needed to be in it's liquid form to pour over the pudding and she knew, having worked with it before, that if allowed to cool too much, it became lumpy. So she waited before starting her caramel... which was why she was now in a fit of panic, having just burnt her first batch.
With an irritated sigh, she put aside the pan of burnt caramel and rushed to make more, pouring more sugar into a fresh pan and adding water. She was very short on time now and getting flustered. She couldn't believe she had burnt her caramel; she'd made it so many times before and each time it had gone perfectly. Why did today have to be the first time she messed it up?
She made sure to watch this batch like a hawk, shaking the pan gently as it started to brown and resisting the urge to stir until the whole thing had turned a warm gold in colour. She then added in a glob of butter, swirling it into the caramel, before doing the same with the cream.
A bead of sweat trailed down her forehead, as she stood over the heat from the hob, carefully swirling and shaking the pan. Only once the cream had been added did she stir the caramel slightly, before adding in some flaky salt. She sighed in relief when she took it off the heat and stirred it through; this time, her salted caramel was just right – and just in time too. She took her pudding out of the oven, poured the caramel over the top and managed to add the popcorn in the nick of time, just as the Breadmaster was calling out for everyone to stop baking.
Each contestant took their puddings up to the judges table, placing them side by side for the Breadmaster to taste. He moved up the line between each pudding, visually examining them all, before cutting through each with a spoon and bringing it to his mouth. He didn't say a word as he tried each pudding, which made Aventia squirm with anxiety. She needed to know what her pudding tasted like – whether it met his standards or not, especially after not only burning her popcorn, but her first batch of caramel as well.
Finally, after an excruciatingly long wait, he looked up at the hopeful contestants, ready to announce the winner of the challenge.
"You have alla done, pretty well. In firsta place, for thisa challenge, isa Marshall; youra pudding, was very well done. Second place, goes to Diana and third is Aventia – your pudding and caramel were very gooda, but the popcorna tasted a little burnt, you needed to takea it offa the heat earlier. Fourth place goes to Kriever – youra pudding needed to risea more, and the bottom two today, isa Lilith and Mithras. In lasta place, and the onea leaving the competition today isa... Mithras. I am sorry."
Mithras hung her head in sorrow, looking as though she might tear up at any moment. It must be very difficult to get so far and fall short so near the final, the Cybunny thought, watching her. Aventia was sad to see Mithras go. She was a good baker and more importantly, a good person. She flew over to her and put a hand on her shoulder in comfort, mumbling some words of consolation. The Krawk responded with a weak smile and whispered, "I'm rooting for you," before walking out of the tent sadly, with a brief wave at the other contestants.
The semi-final was to take place on Mystery Island, two days after the Breadmaster's challenge, so Aventia and her mother packed up their things and travelled by boat to the tropical shores of the island.
They were greeted by a very friendly Island Quiggle, who after finding out that Aventia was a contestant in the bake-off, excitedly asked for her autograph.
"I collect them!" he told them animatedly, pulling out a cloud notebook with signatures from some of Neopia's famous people, including the Techo Master, Queen Fyora and, most surprisingly, Dr Sloth himself.
After scribbling her name on an empty page in his notebook, the grateful Quiggle directed them to the village nearby where they could find a place to stay for the night.
The day of the competition, Aventia woke up extremely early, jittery with nerves again. You would think by now that she would be a lot more confident, having made it through to the semi-final, but the closer it got to the final, the more nervous she felt, especially as two of the contestants would be leaving the competition that day, greatly narrowing the odds of her reaching the final.
They'd been completely left in the dark as to what the challenges would be, so Aventia couldn't even practice her bake before the competition.
The challenge was held in the Mystery Island kitchen; the underwater chef let them use it for a day, with the promise that any leftovers would be given to his somewhat gluttonous employer, Mumbo Pango.
The set up of the kitchen was so professional, it felt like being in a real bakery. It was a lot smaller than the Brightvale tent and was just roomy enough for the five remaining contestants, but with the cameras and the cameramen included, it was a bit of a tight squeeze.
Aventia didn't care though, she was just happy to be there. She never would have dreamed that she would make it this far when she first started the competition; she was sure that she would be the first to go and now she was one challenge away from the final. It was all a little surreal.
The space outside the kitchen was packed with the contestants' family and friends, who had all come to watch and cheer them on, as well as many of the Island residents (as this was the most exciting thing to happen on their sleepy Island since the kidnapping of the Tiki Tack man).
Applause from the enthusiastic crowd outside, signalled the judges arrival and in walked a smiling Kerry, a very smart looking Saul (who was dressed in a blue pinstripe suit), and the Breadmaster in his trademark chef's hat.
Getting straight to business, Saul gave a curt greeting before launching into the day's agenda.
"Welcome, everyone. Today is the semi-final and we're doing something a bit different today. As we're in Mystery Island, we've made a very special challenge for you. As you can see, there are various tropical fruits laid out on the judges table. For today's challenge, you must bake two different items that are specific to the Bakery, that include one or more of these tropical fruit. You have four hours, to complete this challenge. Any questions? No? Then, bake!"
Aventia couldn't believe her luck. The challenge for the semi-final was something she had already done very recently. On the judges table was Acnefruit and Honeyplume; two of the fruits she had used in the baked goods she had made for her grandmother's birthday party. Everyone had loved the Honeyplume Pie she had made; she had received many neomails from her grandmother's friends about it, and the Acnefruit scones she had made had been, if not quite suited to her taste, very good all the same.
She started by making the pastry for her pie, which she knew from experience would take the longest. Once the flour, sugar, butter and eggs were thoroughly mixed in, she let it chill for fifteen minutes, before rolling it out onto a flour-sprinkled counter-top and into a pie tin. She put it into the oven to blind bake and meanwhile, started peeling the Honeyplume's and scooping out their insides, ready for her filling. She simmered the Honeyplume in water until they had softened and added sugar and a little bit of butter.
Once the pastry had finished baking, she added the Honeyplume filling to the pie and put it back in the oven to bake, before starting on her scone mixture.
Scones were one of Aventia's favourite things to bake; not only were they quick and easy to make, they were really tasty too and there was nothing more relaxing, in Aventia's opinion, than kneading dough. At home she liked to eat some of the scone dough, as she was baking, but she knew that she couldn't do that here, not after the lecture Kriever got from eating his cookies.
Once the scone dough was ready, she shaped it with her paws into a circle about an inch thick in height, before using a round dough cutter to make even circles of dough. She brushed the tops with beaten egg, and placed onto a baking tray, popping it into the oven with her pie. The scones would only need about fifteen minutes in the oven, meaning that they would be ready around the same time as her pie.
The cream for her pie topping and scones would be done last, since it was the quickest thing to do, so that only left her with the making of her Acnefruit jam.
It took her the best part of five minutes to crack open the hard, leathery shell of the fruit. Once the shell was removed, Aventia mashed the Acnefruit into a puree and combined it with sugar in a pan, mixing well before turning the hob on. She brought her jam to the boil, stirring continuously, before adding a knob of butter. A few minutes later she took the jam off the heat and poured it into a jar, which she quickly put in the fridge to cool.
She whipped some double cream and put half of it aside for the scones, adding sugar to the other half and whipping together to form soft peaks. Once the pie and scones were baked through, Aventia took them out of the oven and poured the whipped cream topping onto the pie and put it into the fridge to chill, whilst she slathered the scones with the Acnefruit jam and the thick double cream.
Wit time to spare, Aventia watched the other work. Some had set themselves too much to do and were now rushing to finish on time; she could see Kriever trying to do two things at once, which was not going well for him – she could smell something burning and he clumsily knocked a bowl of what looked like tetraberry icing, off the counter and onto the floor. It seemed like a case of more haste, less speed for him, as whenever he tried to do something a little faster, he'd always end up messing up and having to take twice as long to clean it up.
Diana looked to be finished as well, as she was sitting smugly on her stool, reading a magazine, next to a plate of what looked like... Acnefruit scones. The judges hadn't said anything about not making the same thing as other contestants, but Aventia wasn't too happy about it, either way.
Half an hour later, Aventia took her pie out of the fridge and onto a plate as the judges were calling for everyone to 'plate up' and bring them over to the judges table.
All three judges were more exacting this time, picking up on even the slightest of errors and criticising every little fault they found with the bake. Lilith's Islandberry pudding was slated for the slight dip in the middle, meaning it was taken out of the oven too soon, both of Kriever's bakes were written off as "disastrous," and even Marshall's Munuberry Hot Cross Buns were criticised for not having as much Munuberry filling as they would have liked.
Only Diana came away unscathed; the judges had nothing but praise for her Acnefruit scones and Harfell Mince Pie. If she didn't have a big enough head before, she definitely did after the judges words. Aventia was last to be judged again and wasn't feeling too confident after hearing everyone else's comments.
"These scones are beautiful!" Kerry claimed, after she had bitten into one. "They're lighter than Diana's in texture, and the jam is slightly sweeter. Absolutely perfect. Two brilliant batches of scones today!"
Saul and the Breadmaster also approved of her scones, but Saul thought her pie crust could have been a bit thinner. "It's also a bit bland... it could have done with a bit more flavouring, maybe some ginger or lemon juice, just to give it a bit more taste."
Kerry disagreed and the two had a little bit of an argument over it, until the Breadmaster cleared his throat, cutting off the bickering judges. "We willa nowa make our decision," he told them in his thick accent, as he motioned for the other judges to follow him into a back room where they could discuss who they'd be sending home.
It took them a lot longer to decide this time, than it had in any of the other challenges; they were gone for almost half an hour before they entered the room again.
"We have made our decision on the contestants that will be leaving the competition today," Saul announced, almost as soon as they'd walked back in. "It was a very tough decision, because you are all champion bakers and I'm sure we'll be seeing great things out of each of you. Unfortunately there are only three spaces in the final. The first of these spaces will go to a baker who did extremely well today, and is awarded the honour of top baker for this challenge: Diana!"
A manic smile broke out onto her face and she rushed forward to hug the judges, falsely telling them how much she appreciated it, even doing a pretentious little curtsey. She then turned back to the rest of the contestants and with her head held high, gave them a conceited look that seemed to say, 'I told you I'd be in the final!"
"The next finalist is a confident baker who has been doing very well right through the competition; it's Marshall!"
Marshall squeaked in surprise, an elated smile on his face, as he made all the utensils around him dance in the air.
Aventia was happy for Marshall, he deserved it, but she couldn't help feeling that this was the end of the road for her. There was only one spot left, and three bakers. Her odds weren't great, especially since she was up against Lilith who was an extremely competent baker and had won the very first challenge.
"And now, we will announce the contestant who has won the last remaining spot in the final. The third finalist is...."
To be continued...