The Great British Baking Show
Once, not so long ago, the world was alight with possibility, and now all the doors are closed. By the end of this week’s episode of The Great British Bake Off, we have our finalists for the year. They are fine. They are British. They are Bakers. One of them is now on the cusp of Great British victory, when they will be handsomely rewarded with a picnic and a cake stand. Which one of them? Who knows? Who cares! The only thing that matters now — and I am sorry to be the one to tell you this if you have not yet watched the episode, but in a way it is also your fault because this is a “recap” — is that Hermine is gone.
It is not that Hermine was obviously the best of the remaining bakers at baking, although perhaps she was. It is that Hermine, pathologically endearing and refreshingly un-media-trained, was good at being on TV. She was fun. It was fun to root for Hermine, from the get-go, and especially once they got rid of all the other options. She approached every new challenge with a spirit of light-hearted dread. She kept you guessing, that was the best thing about Hermine. She would tell you, with jovial anxiety, that whatever she was doing was about to be a total disaster, and sometimes it really was, and other times she’d go on to make an exquisite jelly cake, and once she made the fondant-covered bust of Lupita Nyong’o. You had no way of knowing what she’d make, based on how she talked about it. That is compelling television!
The producers of this program, though, do not seem to think so, as evidenced by the fact that she is gone and Peter, Dave, and Laura are still here. Perhaps this is the finale we deserve, over-proofed and under-spiced. We have spent so many seasons cooing over the soothingness of Bake Off that we have put ourselves to sleep.
Here is how it happens. It is Pâtisserie Week. Hermine is a trained French baker, and France is where “pâtisserie” comes from. The stakes are very high. Peter, by contrast, is a badminton enthusiast from Edinburgh. Laura is a woman with a pizza oven. Dave enjoys walking his dog.
The Signature challenge is to bake 12 tiny savarins, which you do by baking yeasted, enriched dough in tiny molds and then soaking the resulting cakes in syrup. “Hermine, this should be your day,” chirps Prue, ominously. “This is such a classic French thing.” Hermine is making an apricot-glazed rum baba, or crème et abricot baba au rhum, as they call it dans la pâtisserie. They are beautiful; they are also under-proofed. It is an inauspicious start for a classically trained French baker, especially because everybody else’s yeast cakes are variations on perfection.
Dave’s tequila-drenched savarin in mango curd is so light you can hardly pin it down with a fork before it floats away. Peter’s boozeless strawberry-and-elderflower babas have such a perfect crumb that Prue is reduced to giggles and Paul has no choice but to shake a hand. Even Laura’s tropics-themed rum baba — slightly messy, too heavy on the cinnamon — has a lovely sponge. This illustrates the problem with setting expectations, which is that then people expect things of you.
Hermine redeems herself briefly, sort of, in the Technical, which is something called a “Danish cornucopia,” or, overflødighedshorn, presumably chosen because they have run out of pastries. It is, I now know, a horn-shaped tower of almond-flour biscuits (in the British sense), crispy on the outside and chewy in the middle, held together with caramel, decorated with royal icing, and topped with tempered chocolate swirls. Nobody has heard of one or seen one; in this way, they are the babka of Denmark. “I just don’t have a logical brain!” Laura weeps, staring at the diagrams for horn construction.
Laura’s is the worst, because it is crumbling and misshapen and also raw. Dave is in third, for being overbaked and chocolate-less, and Hermine, who has the unique honor of creating the only cornucopia-shaped cornucopia, comes in second, leaving little Peter first. “Peter deserves it,” agrees Hermine. “He’s really good with detail, which I’m not, particularly. You can’t take that away from him!” (I never would.)
All the bakers have their charms, obviously. This is the Great British Bake Off, and there are no monsters here, only gentle British amateurs. I like that Dave enjoys his girlfriend and also mangos. I appreciate that Laura is teetering on the edge of perpetual disaster, because it reminds me of my own life. And on top of that, she is in possession of a pizza oven! Of course I am delighted by tiny Peter, who is plucky and precocious, like Harry Potter but with a happy and supportive childhood. I would be thrilled to be seated next to any one of them on an airplane. But they do not have the texture, the specificity, the je ne sais quoi of Hermine.
I would like to say what happens next is a miscarriage of justice, but I cannot. All legal votes were counted. It is, instead, a miscarriage of entertainment.
For the Showstopper, everyone is supposed to make a “cube cake,” which is a big cake-shaped arrangement made up of smaller cake cubes. “This is right up your street,” Noel tells Hermine. “If you can’t pull yourself into the victor’s spot today, there’s something wrong.” But if we have learned anything this year, it is this: There is something wrong.
Today, one thing that is wrong is that Hermine’s test cubes didn’t work, so she is making a cake she has never practiced. Another thing that is wrong is that it is, yet again, a Hot Week; anything could melt at any time. “It’s not going too well, is it?” sighs Hermine, whose coffee-praline cubes have taken on a weirdly jiggly quality. Her raspberry mousse cubes have not set. The only comfort is that Laura’s mirror glaze is dripping off her miniature Black Forest cakes, which is unappealing as pastry but quite effective as a metaphor for global warming. Dave and Peter, meanwhile, are cheerfully duking it out for the title of whose cube cake is more perfect: Peter’s “gorgeous” chocolate, raspberry, and pistachio number, or Dave’s triumphant chocolate cubes with chocolate.
Sometimes, Hermine braces for catastrophe when there isn’t one. This is not one of those times. Her cherry-chocolate cubes are melting. Her coffee-praline cubes are unsettlingly bouncy. Also, the cake is ugly. “By your standards, it’s a failure,” Prue assures her. Laura’s cubes are messy, of course they are, but this is no longer news. They are saved by their deliciousness. Hermine is saved by nothing.
For Hermine, it is a disappointment, but we are the real victims here. Peter wins star baker and deserves it, but as we trundle toward the final, the show is left without a star. There is no frontrunner and no underdog, only a flat sea of pleasant greige. Where is the narrative excitement? Where is the delight? Perhaps this is the Bake Off that we asked for, but this is not the Bake Off that we really want.