As America grapples with the nature of democracy, The Great British Bake Off grapples with the nature of “a theme.” In the Bakeoverse, every week is a theme week, of course. And a “theme,” as far as this show is concerned, can be anything. “Bread” is a theme. “Pudding” is a theme. “Chocolate” is a theme, and so is “pâtisserie.” They are clear and concrete, like Paul Hollywood.
But 11 seasons in, GBBO is clearly getting restless, or maybe GBBO producers think we are getting restless. How many pudding weeks can you reasonably do? They must ask themselves. I would argue, endless pudding weeks. Consider: People celebrate Thanksgiving every single year, and manage to end up frantic and overwhelmed in new and different ways each time! Bake Off, though, seems worried that we will lose interest. So as the show has worn on, so, too, have its themes become a little more abstract.
Some of the show’s themes feel more like bat-mitzvah variations. Last season, for example, we had “Roaring Twenties,” a jazz-age extravaganza of beignets. And now, hot off last week’s rousing “Japanese Week,” we get this week’s “1980s Week.” It is a celebration of monetarism and quiche.
What is ’80s baking? Nothing, in particular! Unlike “Tarts,” which are tarts, or even “Italian,” which focuses on baked goods from the nation of Italy, “the ’80s” is neither a technique nor a style of baking. It is a vague conceptual bucket: things that used to be popular and are kind of still popular, but maybe somewhat less popular than they were under Thatcher. ’80s baking, it turns out, is very much like regular baking. I was hoping there was going to be an aspartame challenge; sadly, there was not. Prue doesn’t even mention cocaine, although she does wear a tasteful tie-dye-inflected shell.
Is this a problem? Do we need conceptual cohesion? Maybe not! Maybe it’s fine to go from breads and biscuits to the idea of the 1980s. Honestly, it’s a very fun episode, if you don’t think too much about it, much like the actual ’80s. “I was a teenager then,” reminisces Marc, wistfully. “Prune cocktail, gross,” offers Dave. Laura is enthusiastic because the ’80s was the theme of her 30th birthday party, arguably indicating that this is perhaps a meaningless theme for an episode of a baking competition.
The Signature Challenge is quiche, obviously — two different flavors, eight mini-quiches total — which is followed by a custard-and-jam finger doughnut Technical. (A finger doughnut is a regular doughnut, but shaped like an éclair and not a circle, which Prue says was considered posher.) For the showstopper, everyone is supposed to reimagine the ice-cream cake, because, as Noel’s disembodied voice reminds us, “the ’80s were synonymous with ice-cream cakes.” (I do appreciate the episode’s vigorous real-time defense of its own premise.)
These are all good, solid challenges, I think, although I wish we were not mired in yet another hot week, but perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of global warming: The bakers will struggle to keep their cakes from melting with increasing frequency, and eventually the world will end. Someone really should have done something about this problem in the 1980s!
Marc works up a tasty little smoked haddock Cornish number, and Hermine’s quiche-classics are “absolutely gorgeous,” if slightly undercooked. Laura’s pizza quiche is leaky, and Dave’s English breakfast scrambled egg quiche is overspiced.
Young Peter (b. 2000) has his first deep-frying experience with the finger doughnuts and yet still comes in second only to French pâtissier Hermine, while Dave burns his doughy, under-risen fingers, putting them below Lottie’s, which are only somewhat overfried. This is as the Bake Off should be: a show of gentle nuance, where the drama comes from whose pastry hits exactly the right shade of brown. Even the ice-cream cakes are a thoughtful exercise in ice-cream-cake technique, despite the fact that it is, again, very, very hot. It is so hot, in fact, that Laura forgets to set her ice-cream-maker to “cold,” so she wastes a lot of time mixing room-temperature custard soup. Meanwhile, Lottie gets to work on her experimental ice-cream-coated ice-cream cake, which has chocolate ice cream on the outside instead of sponge and is supposed to look like a mixtape. You might say she is engaged in “risky business.” “If it works, it’ll be wonderful,” Prue tells her, encouragingly. Paul says it will not work.
It does not work.
Though Dave’s quiche were bad and his doughnuts were worse, he pulls out a tiramisu-inspired cake that saves him, and Laura gets her cake just frozen enough to, indeed, be a cake, which means that Lottie and her chocolate puddle are banished back to West Sussex. Hermine, at long last, wins for her tropically elegant mango-and-shortbread cake, and now everyone has been star baker once and together we now stare into an uncertain future.
Which brings us back to the issue of the episode’s theme. This episode is evidence: It was, in all ways, fine! I enjoyed the part where they made quiche and the other part where Laura did not turn on her ice-cream-maker and I learned what a finger doughnut is. But I cannot shake the feeling that the show no longer trusts us to stay interested. It has lost its confidence. The steady stream of new excitement — the Instagram-bait challenges and kawaii cakes and decade-themed weeks — seems designed to prove the show’s still got it, even if this is not the “it” we wanted in the first place.
Can you really have too many tart weeks? Au contraire, as bakers from France like to say: The more I learn from Bake Off, the more marginally qualified I am to make pronouncements about how other people do it. I love knowing things! For example, an egg wash might give you the false impression that your bread is done when it isn’t — I know that now. This is the gift of repetition: You can really appreciate when other people mess up. If anything, offering the same themes every year would, I think, only enrich the experience. We’d all get better!
GBBO is best when it leans into what it actually is, which is a charming weekly hour about regular people proofing dough in a country tent. That is enough. It is, in fact, exactly what I want.