The Great British Baking Show
Years ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a report about the “extraordinary science of addictive junk food.” Writer Michael Moss reveals that what makes something like Doritos so enjoyable is that they “pique the taste buds enough to be alluring, but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.”
In a way, this season of The Great British Baking Show felt like eating ten Doritos: Each episode piqued my interest, sometimes even brought me immense pleasure, but after they were consumed, left me feeling unsatisfied. Episode after episode — chip after chip — I kept chasing the high of GBBS seasons past, but by the end just felt okay and wished I’d snacked on something a bit more substantive. Now, I’m not going to say that it’s time to give up on GBBS. Never. But statistically, it figures that after ten seasons, one would eventually be something of a dud. And season ten is that dud.
This year’s finale came down to David, Steph, and Alice, three bakers who truly only ever found themselves competing against one another, with the occasional disruption from Michael, Henry, and Rosie. Among those three, Steph was always the one to beat. Despite never pushing the flavor boundaries of the competition like David, her baking prowess was unmatched and secured her four Star Baker awards. Alice meanwhile got demonstrably better with each week and received Star Baker twice, including during the week leading up to the finale.
David was the only one of the three to never receive Star Baker and make it to the finale. Has that ever happened before? Actually, yes. In series two, Mary-Anne made it to the finale without ever securing Star Baker. (Series one had no Star Baker award.) So, those were the stakes going into the final episode of GBBS 2019 and as I said last week, it was Steph’s competition to lose and the other two’s chance to really step up and try to beat her. Well, what a finale this was.
For the competition’s final Signature Challenge, Paul and Prue ask the bakers to make the ultimate chocolate cake, which Sandi describes as “creative, impressive and beautifully decorated to a professional standard.” In his one-on-one interview, Paul says he really hopes no one uses only cocoa powder because a real chocolate cake should contain real chocolate. Apparently, Alice missed the memo because her Chocolate, Pear, Ginger, and Maple Cake is chocolateless, featuring a ginger-flavored chocolate sponge, wine-poached pears, maple-cream-cheese buttercream, hazelnut brittle, and a chocolate-ganache drip.
Then, it’s onto the parental/childhood trauma section of the episode and we get to meet Alice’s parents, who you may recall are both dentists and didn’t allow her to eat sweets. But apparently they didn’t care if she baked all the time. We also get a reason for Alice’s messiness: Her parents have always told her “with good management, you don’t need good luck,” so, of course, she conducts her baking in exactly the opposite manner and makes a huge mess along the way. All Disney princesses are a bit rebellious, after all.
But that slightly creepy adage is nothing compared to David’s sugarless, fatless upbringing, which was enforced by his mom. Sad! But there’s a silver lining: (1) David is well-aware that it will take fat and sugar to win this competition, and (2) he has a twin brother who uses national television to call their mom out. She laughs gamely, but probably cringes at the description of David’s cake: a chocolate, Armagnac, and prune cake with Armagnac cream, prune-dotted sponge, vanilla syrup, and a mirror glaze, David’s first of the competition. David hopes this cake will set him on the road toward beating “sparkly girls” Alice and Steph, which he says in a way that makes “sparkly” seem like a negative description?
Finally, Steph’s family get spotlighted and her mom lets the world know that she’s always lacked confidence. Typical mom, amirite?! But, she adds, Steph’s confidence has really grown these last nine weeks and all the women in Steph’s life are extremely proud of her. “You would think I would be capable of anything after this, wouldn’t you?” Steph rhapsodizes. That said, she wants to go safe with her chocolate cake and make a very classic Black Forest gateau with chocolate ganache, cherry jam, kirsch-spiked Chantilly cream, and gold-leaf-gilded cherries. Prue says it sounds very 1970s, though not in a bad way.
As the two hours they’ve been given start to tick away, the bakers piece together their cakes: David reveals that he has no plans to pull back on the Armagnac (a kind of brandy for those watching at home), a move Prue has already cosigned. As Alice takes her three cakes out of the oven and pops them into the freezer to cool, she realizes that one of them hasn’t baked completely, so she puts it back in the oven. Once it’s baked she puts it in the freezer, desperately hoping it will be cool in time. Steph, meanwhile, is just flying through all her tasks and ends up finishing early, but doesn’t offer any additional help to the other bakers. (Or at least not according to the final edit.) David finishes next (literally flopping his finished cake onto the presenting platter!), and it’s Alice who rushes through decoration. Apparently that last cake wasn’t cool enough, because her cake has taken on a decidedly Pisan lean. “Hopefully it tastes good,” she says.
Paul and Prue decide to visit David’s station first and they’re instantly taken with the mirror glaze and gold-leaf work. Prue can hardly contain her excitement, saying, “Give us a bite!” The Armagnac comes wafting out of the cake, but as it turns out, David has used too much, even for Prue. But the texture of the cake works and the prunes are doing their best. Alice is up next and there’s no denying that lean, but Prue echoes her hope that the cake will at least taste great. While both she and Paul find the texture to be light and delicate, they diverge completely on the taste. Prue doesn’t mind that she didn’t use real chocolate because it tastes great. But Paul is disappointed, saying, it’s a “great cake, but it’s not a great chocolate cake.” Steph is up last and Prue says she really likes the cake’s old-school look. Inside the cake is dangerously neat with distinct, even layers. Paul says there’s a good balance of flavors and the chocolate is there, but it appears that Steph has overbaked her cake slightly, giving it a crumbly rather than scrumptious texture. Steph winces, but powers through.
It’s time for the Technical and Paul has set the challenge this week. The bakers must make six identical twice-baked Stilton soufflés that are delicate and fluffy and served with lavash crackers. They have 70 minutes to pull this off, which as Steph will later point out is an exceedingly cruel amount of time to give anyone to bake, well, anything except, like, chocolate-chip cookies. As usual, Alice has no idea what’s going on, but David does! In his final audition for his own cooking show, he explains what a roux is, as well as the importance of whipping the egg whites properly since soufflés have no raising agent in them. Steph thinks she’s over-whipped her egg whites, but that’s the least of her problems. She can’t decide whether to fill the bain-marie for the first baking stage with cold water or hot water. David and Lookie-loo Alice opt for hot water, Steph goes cold.
While the soufflés are baking, they get to work on their lavash crackers. David rolls his small amount of dough paper thin and starts cutting out the 12 triangles he’ll need. Steph, who you may recall described herself as bad at “maths” in episode one, doesn’t roll hers thinly enough and, instead, makes chunky, tiny equilateral triangles instead of the isosceles the recipe calls for. (I, for the record, am good at math.) This misstep starts to send Steph over the edge, and that’s only exacerbated when all six of her soufflés come out as melted messes while Alice’s and David’s are unmolding little, eggy puffs. Having struggled mightily in a Technical just a few weeks ago, Steph takes this failure a little better, but it still smarts.
The judges come out and their faces say it all: No one did a terribly great job. Alice is up first and while she has soufflés, they’re exceedingly pale and underbaked, though they taste fine. Steph is next and Prue and Paul can’t decide whether they’re looking at pancakes or soup. It’s a soup that Prue would enjoy eating though. Finally, David’s soufflés are judged and they’re the closest to perfection with a nice shape, great lavash crackers, and great taste, even if they’re a bit misshapen. The placements are dead obvious: David in first, Alice in second, and Steph in last.
It’s Showstopper time and it’s now on Steph to turn all of yesterday around. The bakers have been asked to fashion an edible picnic basket using nougatine and filled with a cake, enriched dough, and biscuits that are designed to look nothing like cakes, enriched doughs, or biscuits. If this sounds familiar it’s because (1) the finalists were asked to make a picnic spread fit for the queen at the end of series seven, and (2) series nine runner-up Ruby famously made a gorgeous picnic-basket pie in last year’s finale. The bakers are given four and a half hours to complete their Showstoppers.
For his bake, David will make saffron, orange, and apricot bread that looks like peaches, fig rolls that look like sausage rolls, and lemon pound cake that looks like cheese. Alice’s end-of-the-school-year-celebration bake will feature raspberry macarons that look like strawberries, orange and cardamom buns that look like ice cream, and carrot cake that looks like chicken drumsticks and Scotch eggs. Steph will make hot cross buns that look like apples, almond macarons that look like strawberries, and a lemon-and-poppy-seed cake that resembles a chicken burger.
Now, we could go into all the little missteps that happen along the way — overbaked buns, scrapped macarons, messy nougatine baskets — but Steph has the worst finale experience hands down, with everything that could go wrong going wrong. Her macarons taste bad, her burger cake loses its top and gets overbaked, and her buns are overbaked. The fact that she isn’t going to win this seems to hit Steph when she looks over her shoulder and sees David’s expertly constructed nougatine basket just sitting there in all its glory. The man is unflappable, like some kind of ripped, baking robot. Alice, too, makes her mistakes: She has to remake her macarons, which she ultimately fails to turn into strawberries, and her ice-cream breads are a bit messy, but she’s still in the competition. Steph sees her prospects drop off and then disappear.
Judging begins, and it’s edited in alphabetical order with Alice going first. As previously stated, her ice-cream-looking breads don’t exactly trick the eye, as they say, but her carrot-cake Scotch egg is unbelievably convincing, with a curd designed to look like a runny yolk. And though her macarons aren’t strawberries, they still taste exceptionally like fresh strawberries. David brings his basket up next and the first words out of the judges mouths are “amazing” and “stunning.” The “cheese” cakes look like real cheese down to the blue mold, and for once, David gets points for his daring flavors (saffron, orange, and apricot breads) after a season of misses, even though Prue finds them a bit chewy. Finally, the fig rolls/sausage rolls are on point thanks to the relative ease of making them.
Next, Steph carries her bakes to the front like a school science project gone terribly awry. Paul points out that there “have obviously been some issues,” and for a moment, I swear, Steph looks like she’s on MasterChef Junior and not GBBS. It’s actually heartbreaking. But the heartbreak doesn’t end there: Her hot cross buns are good, but a bit underproved; the strawberry macarons aren’t round enough and there’s too much cherry liqueur in the filling; and her lemon poppy-seed cake is low on flavor and overbaked. It’s such a devastating round of judging that everyone now knows that there’s no way Steph is winning. Paul even follows Steph back to her bench to give her a comforting hug, telling her “it doesn’t matter.” “It” could be the competition itself, or how this horrible week compares to how wonderful she did in the competition overall. Either way, it’s a dreadful thing to witness, especially when the affected person was never cocky or overconfident, just an exceptionally anxious and brilliant baker.
In the judging room, Paul says what we all know aloud, the finale is now just down to Alice and David. David had a flawless day, but he’s never been Star Baker. And Alice made Star Baker twice, including the week before, but wasn’t completely on top of her game.
The bakers stumble outside, carrying their bakes, and join their families. They also get to hug and greet all the eliminated bakers, which raises the question: How awkward is it to come to the finale when you were one of the first, second, or third people kicked off? Looking at you Jamie, Dan, and Amelia. It seems awkward. And Jamie and Amelia make it seem awkward, too. At least the only thing they missed out on was a bouquet, an engraved cake platter, and the pride of having won. No biggie!
Sandi is given the job of announcing the winner and while David and Alice walk over expectantly, Steph joins them reluctantly. And the winner is … David. David, David, David! Paul and Prue describe how despite never coming out on top, David continued to kick ass on a near-weekly basis and that he was kind of an “underdog.” I think we need a new definition for underdog, however, because not once did I personally consider David an underdog. More like a misunderstood genius/sculptor/artist? Ever the unflappable one, David seems happy but the cameras also catch him staring off into the middle distance at one point, like, Where do I go from here? Probably to your own cooking program, David, mark my words.