The Great British Baking Show
How are we halfway through this season already? Has it really gone that fast? No matter; we must enjoy a gift like The Great British Baking Show as it is given.
It is “Alternative Ingredients” week, which means the bakers must make desserts without the help of gluten, dairy, or sugar. This is basically porn for wellness enthusiasts, so call up your Aunt Carol who eschews bread and uses stevia in her coffee. It’s time for her to tune in.
Alternative ingredients are exciting to watch only because there is so much room for failure. On a show where the viewer finds themselves actively rooting for the contestants to succeed, tricky episodes like this one, where they are seemingly set up to fail, makes it all the more worthwhile. There’s no villain on this show, not even the Male Judge who is brusque but kind — so when the ingredients conspire to work against the bakers, that is where the dramatic tension lies. Also, lest you forget, Ian has been Star Baker for three weeks in a row. Three. Weeks. Will this end? Let’s see.
The signature bake seems like a softball: a cake without sugar. And, as per Flora, “They’re looking for something as close to regular cake as possible.” She gets it. Cake without sugar is not really cake at all, but every single contestant is going to try.
A word about Ian: He is the Martha Stewart/Gwyneth Paltrow of this competition. Everything is fresh! Everything is sourced from his garden! Everything is foraged and local and very “oh, I just wandered into my garden and the gnomes gave me this jar of local honey that they harvested from the bees!” He’s not annoying about it — probably because this program is visual Xanax — but nonetheless, this is worthy of notice. Anyway, he makes a honey cake with pear and ginger, using what appears to be a metric ton of honey.
Mat decides to make a carrot cake with dates and honey: wholesome, hearty, and (hopefully) not too heavy. Other Paul also makes a carrot cake, but sweetened with agave. Tamal’s polenta cake with grapefruit zest and injected grapefruit syrup sounds sensible and hearty and good, like something you’d find wrapped in plastic next to the fruit leather in a health-food store. “A good polenta cake is worth having” is something that Mary says, and it is also my new life motto. Carrying on: Alvin’s pineapple upside-down cake with agave is easy, breezy, and beautiful. He feels good about making it, which I find a relief! Alvin doesn’t look like he’s felt good about anything in this entire competition, so if this pineapple upside-down cake blows his whistle, good for him.
Ugne blatantly flouts convention at every turn, and it is for that reason alone that I love her. Since she’s a competitive bodybuilder, I’d expect that this challenge would be right up her alley. I’m not disappointed: She goes big with a sugar-free, gluten-free cake that’s made of quinoa, almond, and hazelnut flour, coated in some sort of purple frosting and decorated with truffles. Flora’s apple, pistachio, and cardamom cake sounds very good, but seems like it would be way better with real sugar. Just saying.
The judgment for this signature bake is pretty unremarkable. Ugne’s cake is a goopy purple mess — like Barney, but melty and sad. The taste is a bit off, too. Tamal’s cake is a success! Mat’s hearty-ass carrot cake has too much heart for its own good. A lot of people, including Nadiya, suffer from a dry sponge. Flora’s cake, on the other hand, is tragically too damp. It seems Alvin made the right choice with his pineapple upside-down cake: By nature, that cake is supposed to be a bit moist and overly sweet. Like, your teeth should hurt after you eat one. The judges love it, and the relief on Alvin’s face is both adorable and a teensy bit heartbreaking.
Ooh, this week’s Technical Challenge is a doozy: gluten-free pita bread. The bakers have to make 12 identical, edible, gluten-free pita breads. This is Paul’s recipe, so naturally, he takes a very specific diabolical pleasure in making sure it is as hard as humanly possible. The bakers get packets of psyllium powder, which must be mixed with water to form a brown sludge roughly the color of late-season curb snow. The instructions are spare; the dough is sticky. Proofing and consternation abound. Shaping is another concern. Apparently, only half of these bakers have seen pita in the flesh. The shapes they make are unlike any pita I’ve ever seen.
At the gingham altar, these pita breads are a pity. Sorry. By virtue of science, magic, and chemical reactions, each pita should have an envelope inside … and some of these sort of do. Most are doughy, gray, and flat. Upon assessing Other Paul’s pita, Mary titters, “Gosh, there’s room for all sorts of things in there!” I will avoid the obvious joke.
At the end of this sad round, Alvin, Tamal, Ugne, and Ian lurk near the bottom. Mat, Flora, and Other Paul do pretty well. And Nadiya is the winner! She looks so happy! This is her first technical win, and it came in a challenge that made no sense and looked very hard. Way to go, Nadiya.
Ian’s fall from grace begins now. Remember this moment.
For the showstopper, the contestants have to make a dairy-free ice-cream roll, covered in jam with a sponge wrapped around it. Nothing about this sounds as bad as the other challenges, so you’d think this would be a piece of cake. Dairy-free ice cream is delicious in certain situations. I would much rather enjoy something that resembles ice cream, without the digestive issues, than dig into a giant banana split with little more than a Lactaid and a prayer, but that’s just me. Anyway, everyone’s going with coconut milk. Let’s see if it’s enough to create the magic that the Male Judge requires in the tent.
Mat must be in hog heaven because coconut is his favorite ingredient, but everyone else seems to have the same idea. Alvin’s ice cream is bright green and flavored with buko pandan, a Filipino ingredient that pairs very nicely with coconut. Ian and Other Paul both go with a tropical theme, but Other Paul takes it to the next level by crafting a sunbathing woman out of fondant. It is endearing, yet horrifying. I do wish everyone would stop making things out of fondant. Remember Ugne’s baby? Never forget Ugne’s baby. Speaking of Ugne, she’s thinking outside the box: Her showstopper is peanut-butter ice cream with a grape-jelly center, covered in a chocolate sponge. That’s a lot of look, but hey, do you. Flora also takes a risk and essentially makes an inside-out bûche de Noël. The sponge is inside the ice cream, which might be a bad idea. Ian has brought yet another bespoke mold, this time so that he can make two perfect ice-cream halves to house his mango-sauce core, which he squeezes into the halves with a little tube that looks lewd.
A lot of the bakers are inlaying their designs! That means they squeeze their designs out onto wax paper, then roll the cake over it, sort of like you would a temporary tattoo. Nadiya’s henna-patterned sponge is filled with a chocolate ice cream and a lime-strawberry-mousse situation. It looks very pretty. Somehow, watching Other Paul tenderly craft little breasts out of fondant is not creepy. He also accidentally gives the bikini woman a penis while trying to create a gusset for the crotch of her bathing suit, but that’s neither here nor there.
Judgment time! Ugne’s peanut-butter-and-jelly thing tastes good, but looks like a mess. Poor Alvin’s ice cream tastes delicious, but the mango bit gets lost. Tamal’s cake had a crack in it, but other than that, it’s all good; Mary loves the bunting that he made by hand on the train ride. Like the sadist he is, the Male Judge almost cuts Other Paul’s bikini lady in half when he tries the cake, but preserves her dignity by placing her to the side. Flora is hanging on by a thread. Nadiya’s face always looks as if the world might end at any moment, but she gets the coveted role of Star Baker! I am so happy that I almost cry. Flora’s definitely crying because she thinks she’s going home, but nope, it’s Ugne. Aww, Ugne. I will miss her. I will also miss her creations, her eye makeup, and her kookiness. Good-bye, Ugne! See you at the finale.