Matt Preston stood back and surveyed his kitchen with a sense of pride and anticipation. The benches were cleared of all non-essential equipment and other domestic detritus, which was temporarily taking up residence on the dining table instead. Generous quantities of all his ingredients were neatly lined up along one bench, including the eggs, milk and butter all coming to room temperature. (It wasn't strictly necessary, but using room-temperature eggs had made a world of difference to his ginger fluff sponge, so it was worth a try.) And most importantly, the kids were gone for the afternoon. He was all set, apart from two last components, and that sounded like them at the front door now.
"Welcome!" Matt said, as he ushered Gary and George inside. "But, er, what's with the beer? And isn't that rather a lot of it?"
"For drinking, obviously," said George. He showed himself to Matt's fridge and started rearranging the bottom shelf. "We understood we might be here for a while."
"I'm all for drinking while you cook, but I thought you professionals were against it."
"We're not cooking." Gary broke two stubbies out of the cardboard frame before George stowed them in the fridge and twisted the tops of. "We're spectators, and we're going to drink like it. You probably want to abstain from drinking, though, at least until you've finished burning your fingers on toffee."
"Oh, wait." George snapped his fingers as he swung the fridge door shut. "Doesn't the burning-your-fingers-on-toffee part last right up until the end?"
"Oh, that's right it, it does! What a shame." Gary and George each pulled up a stool to the outside of the kitchen bench, clinked their beers together and looked expectantly at Matt.
"Beer is a terrible match for croquembouche." Matt shook his head. "I can't believe you both run successful restaurants."
"We'll crack into your fortified wines when its serving time," said Gary, confidently. "Now get cooking."
Matt took one last look at his neat, sparkling clean kitchen. He knew it wasn't going to look like that again for a long time.
Matt's croquembouche effort started off well. The pastry cream was basically custard, and Matt hadn't gotten as far as he had on the Country Women's Association competitive baking circuit without learning to make a good custard. Soon enough he had the finished cream spread out in his prepared baking tray to cool, and it was probably the best custard he'd ever made.
Gary didn't interrupt until Matt went to the cupboard for some biscuits. "Matt, you're going to finish this dessert a lot faster if you stop eating it as you go."
"Nonsense. The key to all my best cooking is tasting as you go," Matt dismissed him, dipping a piece of shortbread in the custard and popping it in his mouth.
"Tasting is one thing. Everyone tastes as they go," said George. "We don't all stop for fifteen minutes after the first step to eat half the custard."
"And that's why I have absolutely no desire to be anything but an amateur cook." Matt went for another piece of shortbread.
George frowned. "We're timing you, you know."
"What for? So you can send me home if I'm not finished in time? I don't know if you've noticed, but I am home."
"You'll run out of pastry cream at this rate."
"Oh, didn't you notice?" Matt grinned at George and licked a dollop of it off his fingers. "I made double the normal amount. Come on, we've put them through this challenge at least three times on the show. I know I need extra to cover the cock-ups."
"And the snacks, apparently."
"Can we have some?"
George didn't look pleased.
"But you can have some shortbread. With my raspberry jam, if you like." Matt plonked the biscuit tin and the jar on the bench in front of them. "It's won awards, you know."
Matt eventually moved on to step two when George made another trip to the fridge and said ominously that if Matt took five hours to finish the bloody croquembouche then George was going to be very, very drunk by the end of it. But he and Gary had to admit that the raspberry jam was very good.
Matt knew the profiteroles were going to be the tricky part. Oh, yes, when they did this challenge on the show, the drama was always around the burns tally from dipping the things in hot toffee, but Matt had suffered enough sugar-related burns in his lifetime that the prospect didn't really faze him. On the other hand, when his third batch of pastries came out of the oven looking flat and lifeless, he began to despair of ever producing a decent batch.
"So, Matt, tell us what you're feeling right now," said George, in his best TV voice.
"Fuck off," said Matt, and immediately felt better. He grinned at them both. "You know, every time you go over and force a contestant to talk while they're doing something difficult, I keep hoping they'll tell you that."
"Seriously, though," Gary said, over George's spluttering. "What are you going to do about that?"
"Keep baking them, I suppose." Matt looked folornly at his pastry mixture and piping bag. "We could be here for a while."
George reached over and picked up two of the sad-looking profiteroles. "You could stick them together. Didn't we have a contestant who tried that last year?" He demonstrated, holding the bottoms of the two pastries together to form something more like a ball. "And you put the cream in between to hold it."
"Maybe," Matt said, dubiously. "But this isn't just about looking pretty. I like my pastries big and fluffy. And won't they be harder to coat in toffee?"
"I thought you weren't afraid of toffee burns?"
"I don't see any reason to up the difficulty level."
"Well, it's your call," said Gary, draining the last of the beer. "Ooh, I haven't had a chance to say that in a while. I love the way it makes some of them freak out."
Matt shot him a dirty look at that one, but when his fourth batch of profiteroles went in the oven, he reluctantly filled the second piping bag with cream and started sticking his pancake-y failed pastries together.
Eventually, for some reason, the pastries started turning out alright. ("Must have just needed some resting time," said George, airily. "Probably something to do with the way you beat in the eggs.") By the time they did, though, Matt had already made enough patched-together pastries for the base of the cone, and for all that he wanted to do this well, he was really bloody sick of piping choux pastry onto his baking tray over and over. This, then, would have to be good enough.
Which meant, of course, it was time for the toffee.
He was bent over the stove with his back to Gary and George, but the hissing and whooping when he pulled his hand sharply out of the saucepan told him that there was no hiding from them.
"We have a burn!" George announced, though not too gleefully. "You okay there, Matt? Need us to do anything?"
"A mere flesh wound," Matt said, running his hand under cold water only after he'd carefully placed that last pastry in the cone mould they'd 'borrowed' from the Masterchef store room.
"You sure you don't want us to put anything on that?" Gary leaned over the bench, trying to get a good look at his hand. "We know how to treat burns."
"And what happens when you don't treat burns," George added.
"Really, it's fine," Matt said, as he dried off his hand and returned to the task at hand. "This is nothing. You should have seen what happened the time I cooked mango jam in the nude."
Matt was very committed to pulling off this croquembouche caper perfectly, but not quite committed enough to keep from putting down his tools and looking over his shoulder at their reactions.
"We're learning so much about you today," said Gary, flatly. "George, could you get me another beer?"
By the time he got to the final step, Matt had to admit he was starting to get a bit sick of the whole thing. He didn't give a damn about spun sugar, he thought, grumpily, reheating the toffee. There was enough sugar in the damn thing already. But when he upended the purloined cone onto the caramel base and lifted it off, even he was a little taken aback by how damn good it looked.
"So, how do you feel about the challenge now, Matt?" Gary asked, sounding self-deprecating and proud all at once.
"Like I've done a damn good job." Matt wiped his hands on his shirt, grasped the forks and started flicking hot toffee at the tower, turning it with his other hand as he went.
"Even though you're running an hour over the limit?"
"That's your problem, not mine. Come on, you'd whinge a lot more if I cut corners. Gentlemen, I am done." Matt dropped the forks, put the toffee pan in the sink and finally picked up the finished croquembouche, carrying it out of the kitchen and over to the dining table Gary and George's rapturous applause.
"So, is it time to taste?" asked George, brightly.
Matt looked down at his shirt, spattered with custard, caramel and more than one mysterious burn mark. "Not just yet. I need a clean shirt. And before we smash up the glorious fruits of my afternoon of sweat and toil, I desperately need a cravat."
The three of them sat around the table, staring at the monstrous tower of confectionery before them. Matt had banished his loudly protesting spectators to the kitchen to do the washing up while Matt got himself cleaned up, and now he was, at last, back in one of his cravats. He'd decided not to risk wearing cravats in the kitchen even when he was entertaining for guests after the barbeque disaster of 2008, but he missed them, especially when he had an audience.
Now that the three of them were sitting before his creation, though, they all seemed slightly daunted. Though in the case of Gary and George, that might have just been all the beer they'd imbibed. But no matter how many of these towers they'd judged in the past, a full-sized croquembouche never ceased to be impressive.
"It's not the prettiest we've ever seen," George said, as he passed around the forks.
"Far from the worst, though," Gary added. "Even if you did take an hour longer than we usually give them."
"I don't make pretty food, I eat it. And then I judge it," Matt said, raising the knife to crack the toffee. "But I make delicious food - if you let me do it my way, at least. Now let's stop analysing it, for once, and dig in."