The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show — as it’s known when it airs on PBS in America, where the original title of The Great British Bake Off would infringe on Pillsbury’s trademark on “Bake Off” — is pretty much perfect television. (Note: I’m still going to call it Bake Off, because recaps are international waters and only the Law of the Sea applies.) It’s both deeply soothing and hair-tearingly stressful, which is especially impressive given that the only prize the eventual winner takes home is a trophy and a bouquet.
If you haven’t watched Bake Off before, I’m so envious of the binge-watching that awaits you that I’d like to bury my face in a Victoria sponge and scream into its buttery oblivion. Here’s how this goes: Within a tent in a beautiful countryside setting, 12 gifted amateur bakers must complete three challenges each week: the signature challenge (practiced to their heart’s content at home), a surprise technical challenge, and a showstopper challenge (also devised in advance). In each episode, a new “Star Baker” is anointed and the worst-performing contestant eliminated.
Bake Off is presided over by judges Mary Berry, a celebrated cookbook writer, and Paul Hollywood, a professional baker. The contestants themselves are endearingly self-deprecating and gently eccentric. But the most considerable charm offense is from co-presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, the uncontested masters of improbable pastry-based sexual innuendo. This season, which aired in the U.K. last year, is the last with the original hosting dream team all together. Bake Off was too good for this world.
First up in our doubleheader season premiere is … Cake Week! On your marks, get set, bake.
The first signature challenge is a drizzle cake. “The key word for this challenge is — and it’s my favorite word — is moist,” says Mel, who I suspect may be in the minority there. Batter consistency is key: The sponge must be able to support the weight of the syrup while still being light enough to melt in one’s mouth.
The classic drizzle cake, Mary Berry tells us, is lemon. Unsurprisingly, citrus flavors are a popular choice. Val, a retired headmistress from Somerset — as well as a “keep-fit fanatic” and Ed Sheeran enthusiast — has opted for an orange and lemon drizzle cake, her mother’s recipe. “I listened to my cakes and they’re not ready,” says Val when she checks the oven, explaining that cakes sing.
Eddie Redmayne–esque aerospace engineer Andrew, from Northern Ireland, trots out a lemon and rosemary drizzle cake he first made at university.
Welsh hairstylist Louise produces an orange liqueur and lemonade drizzle cake that’s meant to resemble an orange, which it does, while at the same time putting one in mind of a decapitated Muppet. Rav wins my undying loyalty by becoming the first person this season to cut himself, within 30 seconds of the start.
Selasi is a Ghana-born businessman from London. He rides a motorcycle to his finance job, then rips off his leather jacket to reveal a natty suit beneath. Marvel: Please buy Selasi’s life rights. He goes bold with heated, grinded cardamom for his citrus and spice drizzle cake. Also, he may be the calmest person I’ve ever seen, utterly unbothered when he forgets the cinnamon. No problem, he just adds it to the drizzle instead!
Tom is a project manager and “fearless free climber,” but clearly, what he’s really fearless about is booze. He incorporates three (!) shots of gin into his gin and tonic drizzle cake. It is … a lot. “Cor,” exclaims Paul, and Sue observes that she can’t feel her face anymore.
Pastor Lee’s attractive St. Clements orange and lemon drizzle cake has a regrettable texture. Phys-ed teacher Candice’s gluten-free raspberry drizzle-bundt cake is more a pudding than a cake, really, but the flavor is great. Val’s cake, decorated with edible primroses, is much too dry.
Among the judge’s favorites are garden designer Jane’s lemon and poppy seed drizzle cake, London teaching assistant Benjamina’s pistachio and lemon drizzle cake, and Selasi’s spice cake.
The technical challenge requires bakers to produce 12 identical jaffa cakes. These popular British treats are whipped fatless sponges with orange jelly, slathered in chocolate. As is always the case for technical challenges, the bakers are equipped with identical ingredients and a vague, basic version (with instructions like “make a jelly”) of Mary’s own recipe.
This is surprisingly tricky. All of the contestants know what a jaffa cake looks like, but just how well do they know? Some come out upside-down, some have been clumsily trimmed down to size post-bake, others have a depressingly dull finish. Meanwhile, Candice is wearing a very dark lipstick, which I’d love in another context, but here I find myself imagining that it’s leftover chocolate.
When the bakers’ work is blind-rank, Selasi claims first place in the technical, followed by Tom. In last place is Andrew, followed by Lee and Val.
For their showstopper challenge, the bakers must produce a super-shiny mirror-glazed cake, a confection Mary likens to a “polished posh car.” The bakers must first make a genoise, a temperamental sponge that can overbake in a “matter of a seconds.” As for the exterior, the smoother the ganache, the shinier the glaze. Jane takes on a chocolate orange mirror-glaze cake — effectively a massive jaffa cake. Rav’s Colombian mocha mirror-glaze cake with coffee buttercream is the one I’d most like to eat, based on description alone. Nineteen-year-old economics student Michael, the season’s youngest baker, bakes a matcha-tea chocolate mirror-glaze cake that sounds awfully good, but Mary seems disturbed by the smell.
A few contestants have to start their bakes over when their genoises rebel. Candice’s first sponge comes out “like rubber,” so she tosses it away like a Frisbee. Benjamina gets a little teary, and Sue comforts her: “Every second spent crying is a second less to show how good you are at baking.” This advice is not super-relevant to my life, but I nevertheless feeling like stitching it on an embroidery hoop and mounting it on my wall.
Kate’s One Swallow Does Not Make a Summer Cake is made with gooseberries from her family farm and decorated with chocolate swallows. Kate herself is wearing a swallow dress and earrings, because this a woman who knows how to commit to a bit.
Tom’s black-forest broken-mirror-glaze cake has him reaching for booze again. After his disastrous G&T incident, he opts to add just 15 ml of the cherry-liqueur kirsch, as opposed to the 200 ml he’d planned on using. (Ironically, it’ll turn out that he should have used a lot more.)
Kate’s bright blue cake is a little disturbing. This not a color that food should be, with the possible exception of Berry Blue Blast Go-Gurt, if that is indeed scientifically classified as food. Paul also notes that the swallow decorations look like penguins. Meanwhile, Selasi’s raspberry, sloe, and white-chocolate mirror-glaze cake is a glamorous bright red that may lack shine, but I do not care. I wish to marry this cake. Benjamina’s simple, beautifully executed white-chocolate and salted-praline mirror-glaze cake gets a “that’s lovely” from Paul.
Candice serves her cake on a mirror as a platter, having taken this assignment very literally. What appear to be two chocolate testicles rest on top. The cake’s flavor is good, but the texture of her second genoise is still terrible. Andrew redeems himself from his poor performance in the technical with his ultimate indulgence orange mirror-glaze cake, elaborately decorated with caramelized hazelnuts. Mary Bell calls it “stunning.”
Among the best mirror glazes are Jane, Selasi, and Benjamina. Candice, Lee (whose cream-less strawberry-surprise mirror-glaze cake was hopelessly dry), and Val (whose use of caster sugar didn’t work out) are on the bottom.
Our first Star Baker is Jane. Lee, alas, is going home. But we must move on, because now it is time for Biscuit Week! (Also known as Cookie Week. God bless America.) Unfortunately, Sue is away this episode, but that just means there’s more room in our hearts for Mel.
For the signature challenge, the contestants must bake 24 identical iced biscuits. Don’t be too ambitious, advises Mary — that’s a lot of biscuits to get exactly right.
Louise chooses to make Baa Bara Brith Rich Tea Biscuits: Bara brith is a traditional Welsh fruit bread, and the “baa” is because these particular biscuits will be shaped like sheep. Kate’s “A Biscuit for the Broads” is flavored with lavender and bergamot. “Slightly skincare,” observes Mel of the odor. At home, Tom baked 300 chai frappelatteccino biscuits to practice. He rolls them out next to a pound coin for size reference. All this effort pays off when Tom gets the first Paul Hollywood handshake of the season, to his obvious delight.
Motorbike enthusiast Selasi flavors his wheelie hot iced biscuits with blended Scotch bonnets. Michael bakes malt, chocolate, and orange-iced “beer biscuits,” because college.
Val’s Sunday treat iced ice-cream-cone biscuits are adorable but sloppy. To make matters worse, she falls short of the full 24, having dropped a few of them. With only half an hour to go, everyone is counting and recounting and re-recounting their cookies.
Jane, who hadn’t tried out a timed batch of her intricately decorated flowerpot iced biscuits at home, finds herself in a bind: She has to choose between getting some of her cookies done fully, or all of them done partially. She decides to go for the latter option because consistency is queen.
Andrew’s hexagonal beehive biscuits, made with honey and ground almonds, are really cute, but the biscuits are soft to the point of seeming stale. Benjamina’s delicately iced bouquet biscuits are a hit, and Jane’s half-iced flowerpots still make the grade.
Candice’s salted-caramel chocolate iced shiny hearts — little sandwiches, for which she had to bake top and and bottom halves — have a face for radio, but all is not lost. “They look hideous, but they taste amazing,” says Paul. Rav’s Union Jack bunting biscuits are messy to the point of possible treason, but their coconut and lime flavor is good.
The technical challenge requires a dozen Viennese whirls, butter cookies piped into a distinctive whirled shape that are sandwiched with buttercream and jam. The biscuit’s delicate texture proves near-impossible to re-create. Many of the bakers find themselves cursed with flat, crumbly, or even broken cookies.
On the top are Kate, Jane, and Benjamina. Selasi’s biscuits are ranked worst, followed by Louise and Michael.
The incredibly ambitious showstopper is an elaborate 3D gingerbread scene, which must 1) stand 30 cm-high, a.k.a. just under 12 inches, 2) feature eight characters or objects, and 3) reflect something meaningful about the baker. They’ll have four hours to mix, roll, cut, bake, cool, build, and ice.
Louise celebrates her impending nuptials with a gingerbread wedding, though I’m a little confused as to why she felt the need to set the romantic mood by re-creating the gravestones outside the church. Selasi pays tribute to his childhood church with a honey-sweetened dough and melted boiled sweets for the stained-glass windows. Candice’s gingerbread pub — modeled after the one her family ran — is ingenious, with a pool table made of lime-green jelly and a sticky ginger-cake carpet (because of course the carpet was always sticky).
Andrew has a schematic drawing of 37 elements and quite a long checklist to build Punting in Cambridge, an adorable scene with a boat, a bridge, and swans. (Mel rudely mistakes his gingerbread bicycle for a platypus, which, to be fair, is an error we’ve all made.) Some of the trees that comprise Rav’s Gingerbread Christmas Fairground burn in the oven, but he wisely dusts them with forgiving confectioner’s sugar.
Val is running behind on finishing her scene, From Holland to New York via Yorkshire, but nevertheless tries valiantly to punch the right number of windows and floors into her gingerbread Empire State Building. Knowing this was filmed a year ago, thousands of miles away, I still find myself holding my breath as increasingly frantic bakers attempt to glue their pieces together with caramel and royal icing.
With ten minutes left, just about everyone is experiencing an architectural crisis. Michael’s roof won’t stay on. Louise’s church dramatically falls apart just before Mel calls time, which hopefully isn’t a bad omen for her wedding. Val’s gingerbread collapses too, with her toppled-over Statue of Liberty looking like an homage to Planet of the Apes.
Overachiever Kate has whipped up three flavors of gingerbread for her scene, “I Promise I Will Do My Best” (that’s the Girl Guide promise), which features her daughters on a Brownie trip, watched over by an owl. The finished product is pretty unbelievable. As Michael puts it, his Trip to See Santa in Lapland turned out more like “Santa’s workshop from hell.” The good news is that his gingerbread tastes “gorgeous.”
Lo and behold, our second Star Baker is Candice! Sadly, Louise is eliminated. “Full marks for carrying it off with a big mile,” Mary says.