Welcome to the summer's most exciting hour of television! Yes, The Great British Baking Show has finally started anew. If you're not familiar, you may be asking yourself some questions: What, precisely, is so compelling about a dozen ordinary people? Why are they baking in a tent? And what kind of a name is Hollywood? Worry not, friends. You'll understand it all soon enough.
First things first: The ground rules, as brought to you by me, the proxy for our gregarious, double-entendre loving hosts, Mel and Sue. There are 12 amateur bakers, gathered in a tent somewhere bucolic. There are three challenges — the Signature Bake, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper — each ostensibly designed to test the bakers' ability while they make charmingly self-deprecating comments about themselves. There are two judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, who walk around the tent, ask probing questions of the bakers, and cut into every proffered piece of cake with a heady combination of disdain and curiosity. By the episode's end, one contestant wins Star Baker and someone else goes home.
With that basic understanding in place, let's meet the dozen bakers!
Alvin is a nurse with two children who honestly looks so thrilled to be there, in that tent, cooking shoulder-to-shoulder with his countrymen.
Ugne's twin passions are baking British cakes and bodybuilding. Those two things seem diametrically opposed, but it appears to be working out for her.
Stu is a musician, baker, and wearer of one very bad trilby.
Dorret has been baking for 40 years and feels a little more nervous than she should be, since she's been baking for the lifespan of a middle-aged person.
Flora is the young one. According to her B-roll, she lives in an unused set from the Harry Potter franchise where children ride unicycles in the kitchen.
Paul looks a little bit like Paul Hollywood, except he runs a prison and has a "penchant for sugar work." Think Sam Healy from Orange Is the New Black, but with a hobby that's actually useful.
Tamal is hot. He's also studying to be an anesthesiologist. And he's hot.
Nadiya has the most expressive face I've seen on a reality television contestant, second only to that girl from last season of The Bachelor who couldn't close her mouth. Nadiya is much, much better than that girl.
Ian is a travel photographer. I'm pretty sure I'll confuse him with Mat, who is a firefighter. Both are rangy white men who fly under the radar.
Marie's daughter entered her in the show and now here she is, doing great and doing fine.
Sandy is a real firecracker who describes herself as "A bit random with a trendy twist." Me too, girl. Me too.
Remember these names. In the coming weeks, you will grow to love these people more than some members of your own family.
This week's signature challenge is a Madeira cake which, according to this very official recipe, seems like a pound cake with citrus. Easy enough. Even I can make a pound cake, and I've messed up confetti cake straight out of the box, so this should be a breeze for 12 home bakers who routinely make layer cakes from scratch in their homes.
I'd think the strategy here would be to do precisely what the judges ask for, but really, really well. Dorret, Flora and Marie take a gander at the culinary stylings of their competitors and realize that their best bet is to take the classic recipe and blow it out of the water — to make the best Madeira cake Paul Hollywood has ever had the privilege of tasting. Flora uses blood orange as her citrus; Marie's cake is "zingy"; Dorret just wants to make a cake as best she can and call it a night. As per her B-roll, she's been working on this recipe for 40 years, so if that's the case, this should be the best cake in the entire world.
The other approach, of course, is to go rogue. Ugne's cake has crystallized thyme and lemon, which sounds soapy but is probably delicious. Mat gets crazy with it and makes a gin-and-tonic Madeira. Ian's is, for some reason, Carribbean inspired. None of these are as worrisome as our friend Stu. Stu's cake is a chocolate-and-lime concoction that he's calling a "Marley" madeira cake. Although he didn't confirm this, something about Stu leads me to believe that he called it a "Marley" because like the cake, Bob Marley was both black and white. Stu! If that was your intention, I don't know if you're long for this competition.
The judgement comes at the end of the challenge and it is swift and exacting. Flora's cake has an excellent bake and good flavors. Nadiya's orange-and-green cardamom cake isn't overwhelmingly cardamom-y and the candied citrus shatters when Mary drops it on a plate — a very good thing. Ian's cake is "like chewing on wallpaper paste" according to Paul, because Ian made the deadly error of adding dried coconut to his batter, which made the whole thing heavy. Tamal's pistachio and rosewater cake makes Paul Hollywood smile. Stu's cake, on the other hand, has a glaze that turned to caramel and the flavors, as per Paul, aren't "quite there." Hmm. Really makes you think!
For the technical challenge, each baker is tasked with making one of Mary Berry's recipes. This time, it's a walnut cake. They must achieve this task using the same ingredients, in the same conditions, using the same shadily-written recipe that's absent many crucial details. (How long to bake the cake? How many cups of whatever go in the icing? Who knows!) On any other show, the revelation of this unfinished Mad Libs recipe would be scored with dramatic music and lightning bolts and pyrotechnics. Here, the contestants fling back the gingham cloth concealing the ingredients and get to it.
All of the cakes look … fine, though Nadiya's is a bit minimal in decoration and Stu's only has one walnut on top instead of a ring of walnuts. Everyone's frosting is grainy, but Ugne's attendant sugar work is enough to take first place.
Whew! Onward and upward to the showstopper challenge. Each baker is tasked with presenting their rendition of a Black Forest cake. All cakes must be creative and beautiful and technically challenging. This is where the contestants usually go off the rails. Once again, the instinct seems to be to take the traditional and flip it on its head, as evidenced by Flora's use of cherry powder to make some of her layers pink. Ian wants to build his cake on a chocolate macaron base, which seems ridiculous to me. Sandy's making a shortbread base for hers. Why, oh why, would you go so incredibly HAM when you could just plop some chocolate flowers on top of a beautiful cake that's both traditional and contemporary without sacrificing quality or structure? This is why I'm not on The Great British Baking Show and they are.
Most of the bakers do pretty okay. Alvin's cake is covered in gold leaf and shards of chocolate. It's a sexy cake. Ugne's doing something crazy with balloons and tempered chocolate, making little cups for her cherries to spill out of. Sandy's got a loose hand with the Kirsch. Stu, bless him, is doing too much. Rather than stick to the recipe (as per my gentle suggestion), he's making a "purple" forest cake with beetroot in the layers. Paul warns him that this will make the cake too moist, but does Stu listen? Of course not.
We have to talk about Dorret. After an incident involving a sponge cake that didn't bake properly, Dorret's entire game was thrown. Her cake is in the freezer in an attempt to get the mousse to set in time for the final reveal. This cake gave me stress hives. When she takes the ring mold off, the mousse layers ooze out the sides, like a soft-serve machine gone rogue. Instead of sobbing hysterically and throwing the cake in the trash like I would have done, Dorret does her best to compose herself, take cleansing breaths, and assemble something presentable with what she has left.
"This doesn't mean you're going to go home," Sue, the host, whispers to her. And you know what? She's right.
Judgement time! Flora's cake is gorgeous. Ugne's cake is theatrical but the sponge is disappointing. Marie's cake is basically perfect. Alvin's cake has "good flavors." Nadiya's cake is shiny and beautiful and Mary loves it! Dorret's cake is … a bit of a mess, which is the politest thing anyone could say about it.
Let's set aside the good and discuss the slightly tragic. Oh, Stu. All the fake grass in the world can't hide the fact that this is not really what the judges wanted. As predicted, the beetroot was a terrible idea. When Paul Hollywood slices into that cake, the whole thing just looks … loose. "Beetroot brings moisture to a sponge," Paul intones with the gravity of a doctor delivering some terrible prognosis.
Time for the best of the show! Marie snags Star Baker, and she seems honestly gobsmacked about it. With the best part, however, also comes the saddest: Stu is going home. Everyone saw this coming, even Stu and his little hat. "Stu never got started," Mary says. She's not wrong, but damn, Mary! Way harsh.
Tune in next week for more stress and complex carbs. It's Biscuits Week, dudes! I can't wait.