Did you know? The Great British Baking Show is the only internationally beloved baking-based reality competition that doubles as a prescription-strength anti-anxiety medication. (As always, please consult your doctor before starting a new season.) Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry and presenters slash pastry imps Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins have lured a baker’s dozen of amateur bakers — actually, no, just a regular dozen — to a tent in the countryside where over the next ten weeks they’ll compete to see who’s Britain’s best. We’re diving right into the moist, delicate sponge that is Cake Week. On your marks, get set, bake!
For the signature challenge, bakers must produce an upside-down cake, a sponge topped with the fruit of their choice (though typically baked with those layers in the opposite order, then flipped). Motorway service station employee Cathryn is plainly petrified by the prospect of having a conversation with Paul as she describes her apple, hazelnut and Calvados upside-down cake, which he deems “busy” with the steeliness of Miranda Priestley eying an over-accessorized outfit. Meanwhile, cocky P.E. teacher Stuart’s confidence backfires when he puts his tomato upside-down cake in the oven having forgotten to add his all-important tomato jam. He haphazardly spreads it on top.
Manisha, who works as a nursery nurse (having done a Google, I’m pretty sure that’s British for preschool teacher), is horrified when the fruit sticks messily to the pan beneath her vanilla, peach and raspberry cake. Luckily, she’s able to scoop it out and on top without the judges noticing her misstep. Great work, Manisha. Cathryn’s cake earns high marks, particularly her dipped hazelnut decorations, which Paul chews on so loudly it’s like there’s been some kind of nano-microphone surgically embedded in his jaw.
Bewbush vicar’s wife (“Bewbush vicar’s wife” is my new “cellar door”) Sarah-Jane’s pear cake delivers on pear flavor, and Windsor sales manager Peter’s pear, muscat and chocolate creation (with elegantly fanned slices of fruit and delicate purple flowers) is stunning to behold, but the unequivocal pear MVP is charity CEO Victoria. Her pear and pecan upside-down cake is applauded for both appearance and taste. This season’s baby is 21-year-old medical student James, who gets freaky with a pretty upside-down cake that prominently features parsnip. Too bad Mary can hardly taste it. “It’s a real Phillip, as one might say,” Sue says, which is British for — I genuinely have no idea, short of a long-con prank on the American audiences she knew one day would be watching this.
Stuart’s tomato cake, I am sorry to say, looks exactly like an Uno’s deep-dish pizza, if they forgot to put on any cheese, or any other toppings, and then also burned the pie on top of that. “Looks can be deceiving,” he optimistically reminds the judges, but in this case, sadly, they are not.
For the blind-judged technical challenge, bakers must produce (from the same pared-down recipe and set of ingredients) four rum babas with chantilly cream and sliced fruit. This syrup-drenched yeasted cake has a temperamentally sticky batter. Lucky for James, he happens to have made a big, well, whiskey baba (he’s Scottish, you see) just last week. Brendan, a semi-retired recruiting consultant, has also made the popular ‘70s dessert, but it’s been awhile. “Were you a bit of a groovester?” Mel asks him. “I like Gloria Gaynor. I was very good for my dips at the discos,” he replies. At her request, he demonstrates a “little wiggle.” It’s settled: I would kill for Brendan.
Victoria calls herself “completely stupid” for dusting her tins with butter and flour rather than butter and sugar, only to be outdone by John, who realizes he used salt instead of sugar for the same purpose. By the way, this 22-year-old law student has my favorite intro package of the year, in which he opines: “I think that baking is the biggest fashion there is at the minute. I still go out to clubs and stuff, but I can come home and make a cake. What’s wrong with that?” Nothing, you cake-loving boy with a beautiful soul. Absolutely nothing.
The recipe only stipulated a “hot oven,” so Tamworth midwife Natasha took a gamble and baked her babas in a hot water bath. This was a mistake. They come out pale, limp, and stuck to the tin. Peter uses his leftover time before judging to make an extracurricular “caramel cage” over the top of the babas, a ploy that backfires. “Someone’s decided that my recipe wasn’t quite good enough,” Paul chides him, just before the camera cuts away and, one imagines, Mel and Sue drag a by-now-screaming Peter away to serve out his punishment in a human-sized caramel cage. Sarah-Jane takes first place in the technical, followed by James, Peter, and Victoria. Natasha and her sad babas (baby wawas?) are in last.
Bring on the food coloring. The season’s first showstopper is all about hidden design cakes, which harbor a secret pattern buried beneath their surface. What’s particularly nerve-wracking about this challenge is that the bakers won’t know what the interiors of the cakes look like themselves until the judges slice into them.
Natasha’s Mother’s Day layered rose cake will conceal a pink gradient across four different sponges soaked in rose syrups under piped icing roses. Victoria is on some Inception shit, with her nursery rhyme-inspired blackbird pie cake, which is not just a cake that resembles a pie, but will also appear to contain a bird’s head, a beak, and a maid’s nose (um, Mother Goose is darker than I remember).
Both Stuart and Peter have elected to create cakes with hidden Union Jack designs, churning out blue, white, and red sponges. But Stuart’s lemon and pistachio bake sunk more than expected. Now he’s forced to cobble as many of its crusty blue chunks that he can into a flag. After pacing endlessly by the fridge waiting for the Italian meringue mousse in his hidden flower bed cake to set, Bristol photographer Ryan sprints outside to douse the whole thing with (edible, presumably) spray paint, leaving a big, bright, delightful mess behind.
Even cuter than the cupcake image hidden inside Cathryn’s three-berry-flavored cake are the cherry and red-ribbon rockabilly vibes on the outside. The judges love the artistry of Victoria’s pie-cake. Unfortunately for Stuart, Peter’s elegantly rendered Union Jack is a tough act to follow. He treasonously suggests the judges cut right through the neck on the image of the queen he’s piped onto his cake. Inside is something that looks like the work of an easily distracted elementary schooler, and yet is also a recognizable Union Jack — I consider this a win, so congrats, Stuart! Natasha’s cake looks positively lovely from the outside, but slicing into the bake reveals that she soaked her sponge layers too long. Alas, they’re raw, the three-letter word that, in the world of Bake Off, is more offensive than any four-letter word.
Queen Victoria is coronated as our first Star Baker. Natasha is sent home. I’m sorry to see her go. She definitely had potential — much weaker competitors have been eliminated week one. But we haven’t got much time to mourn, because we’re on to week two and bread, glorious bread!
The signature challenge: six flatbreads with yeast, six flatbreads without. Paul advises that the dough should be spongy and it shouldn’t be too thick; flatbreads should tear, not snap. They must be baked quickly and at high temperatures in order to steam out the moisture within.
Some of us are more bread-inclined than others. “For the past two years I’ve been pursuing a project of making breads of the world,” Brendan explains. “So far I’ve achieved about 90 of them. Couple of hundred more to go.” (I’m going to need a Brendan cookbook and also a biopic, like, yesterday.) He’s baking his Middle Eastern taboon bread on hot rocks he’s lined the bottom of the oven with. Fellow bread enthusiast James is using his own wild yeast — he presents the eight-year-old starter to Paul, who basically snorts it right out of the jar — for his tomato, garlic, and parmesan flatbreads.
Mel leans on a towel and unknowingly squishes some of Cathryn’s lime, coriander and chili tortillas resting beneath it. “They need to be flat,” Cathryn consoles her. “You’re helping the process.” A framed photo of Mel and Sue enjoys pride of place in Peter’s workstation. “There’s a very fine line here between love and literally stalking,” Sue says. Ryan finishes his garlic and coriander naan with a blow torch, which looks extremely fun.
Star baker Victoria is off to a rockier start in week two, hearing from the judges that both her coriander and lemon naan and garlic and parsnip chapatis are on the bland side. Peter, meanwhile, is dismayed to learn that his flatbreads are salty. In Mary Berry’s exact words, they are “really, really salty.”
The judges dig John’s garlic, pomegranate molasses, and potato-topped pitas (which are here, adorably, pronounced “pittas”) and especially his super-spicy coriander and chili rotis. Intensive care consultant Danny’s lime, coriander and coconut tortillas are ruled “fantastic,” if slightly overbaked. Manisha’s cumin and garlic Indian flatbreads, a recipe swiped from her mother, are also a success.
“Yeeees. Get in there,” Paul says of Cathryn’s spicy mango naan, so it’s safe to say he didn’t exactly hate it. Sarah-Jane’s unassuming ale-flavored oatcakes are apparently delicious, as is the pint of beer served alongside them, which Paul helps himself to liberally.
The technical challenge calls for an eight-stranded plaited loaf, the elaborate cheerleading competition French braid of breads. “The results could vary dramatically,” Mel says, but at first I mishear that as “traumatically,” which is also not inaccurate.
Paul wants to see an equal plait and a “lovely crisp.” A long knead is required to ensure the dough will rise in spite of the strong flour and elaborate braiding. Mid-knead, Stuart accidentally knocks his dough onto the floor and, with a shrug of his shoulders, starts from scratch. (There is no world in which I would not have flicked the dog fur and/or crumbs off that prodigal dough and considered it good as new, except possibly any worlds in which I, too, am on camera for a popular television show.) On the bright side, his botched batch gives him something to practice plaiting with.
Novice breadbaker Sarah-Jane is baffled by the incomprehensible series of letters and numbers that constitute the plaiting “pattern” meant to help the bakers along by indicating which strands go over, or under, the others. This is a job for Bletchley Park. Whereas Brendan is confident that each of his uniform dough strands weighs 106 grams, Cathryn decided she could get away with eyeballing hers. The results are strange and lumpy. “Look at the state of my tentacles. Poor tentacles,” she laments.
“I just did a bit of guesswork more than following the instructions,” Peter says, which is exactly what his gravestone might as well read. “I’m just hoping that taste, texture will overcome the shortcomings in presentation,” Peter also says, which is what the second, smaller gravestone behind his main one will read.
Top slots go to John, James, and Danny, who I would like to point out just minutes earlier said, “There is nothing good about this loaf. He’s going to hate it.” Peter, whose dough is raw in the middle, takes last place, with Sarah-Jane — who managed to accidentally dig a hole in the bottom of her loaf while removing it from the rack — right behind him.
The showstopper challenge requires two dozen bagels, 12 sweet and 12 savory. I am legally required to acknowledge that as a resident of New York, the land of great bagels, and a native of New Jersey, the land of excellent bagels (fight me), the very premise of this challenge is offensive to me, but I am prepared to forever hold my peace.
James is trying out both of his recipes for the first time right now. We get to see, in real time, him realize what a bad idea that was. Even more daringly, he’s making sourdough bagels, despite the fact that they can take an extra-long time to rise. Ryan, too, has his worries. He soaked the dates for his cinnamon bagels too long, and now the dough itself is wet and sticky.
Brendan knits his chocolate and vanilla bagels into what look like discolored (but cute!) candy-cane wreaths. James goes for what is apparently the traditional, “rustic” method of knotting his dough pieces together. In pursuit of perfectly evenness, John opts for a fussier technique he calls the “spin and squeeze” (the joke was right there, Mel and Sue) for his fig, walnut and Gruyère bagels and white chocolate-drizzled blueberry bagels.
Bagels must be poached before going into the oven, to create their distinctive chewy texture. Sue comes upon Sarah-Jane whisper-counting down the seconds to herself as each bagel takes its turn in the hot water, having failed to realize she could use a timer. Later, Sarah-Jane, making a strong play for my favorite contestant (watch your back, Brendan), tries to jam the back end of a spatula into her bagels’ barely there holes in an ill-fated attempt to widen them. And there’s Peter’s assessment of his own performance: “Oh dear, oh dear. Disaster!”
Most of the showstopper judging consists of Paul informing people that they have failed to produce bagels, but instead have presented him with bread rolls or bread rings or other lower carb-based lifeforms. “It’s a new bread you’ve invented,” Paul tells Ryan of his suspiciously flat creations. “A flagel.” (I’ve got bad news for you guys.) That said, John wins praise for the lovely crunch on his savory submission. Mary blesses James’ sourdough bagels with an “interesting,” and after an excruciating long chewing pause, Paul says, “Yeah, well done.”
John is crowned our second Star Baker — and it’s worth noting that those who do well on notoriously tricky Bread Week genuinely do well throughout the entire competition. Sadly, Peter is going home. Good-bye, Peter! We’ll gladly take that Mel and Sue photo if you’re no longer in need of it.