The Great British Baking Show
All happy families are alike, Tolstoy once wrote, referring to the cast of the Great British Baking Show. The particular faces in the tent are different every season, but they are all cut from the same Great British cloth. There is a fan-favorite young woman with great eyeliner and a free-spirited retiree. There is a Harry Potter stand-in. There is an extremely heterosexual man who has no other discernible characteristics. They are public servants, unless they are accountants; many of them enjoy picnics with their partners and long walks with their dogs.
And yet, within this soothingly dull framework, there are so many variations! Everybody is fundamentally the same — the core lesson of the show seems to be that people are basically well-meaning — but no two bakers are ever identical. It is just like Bakewell tarts: Yes, they are all mostly indistinguishable on the surface, but if you really pay attention, one is a bit dry and one has a soggy bottom. The show in general is an argument for the power of small differences. There are so many different kinds of accountants, and if you watch any one of them for long enough — through a Pudding Week, a Caramel Week, a Roaring Twenties Week — you start to get attached.
This week, it’s Biscuit Week. The bakers must first prepare 36 chocolate Florentines for the Signature Challenge. The Technical Challenge is a plate of mixed macaroons (six chocolate-filled, six with mango curd). And the Showstopper is a three-dimensional diorama of a personally meaningful table setting made exclusively from biscuits.
If last week’s premiere was all about rapid-fire introductions — here is our new tent, here is our British comedian Matt Lucas, here is Lupita Nyong’o as a cake — this week’s second episode is a time to slow down and really get to know our new Great British bakers. And so, it is only appropriate that we seize this moment to survey this new crop of contestants and see who has emerged as the biggest early fan favorite while also handicapping their chances of ongoing success. After all, what else is going on in the news?
Yes, it is only the second week of the season — and we, like all viewers, are rooting for everyone, because that is the generous spirit of the Bake-o-verse — so this might all change in the coming weeks, but then, that is the humbling delight of guessing prematurely.
In the spirit of a Technical Challenge, let’s start at the bottom and work our way up:
This one is not subjective because Mak gets sent home this week.
It wasn’t even a bad week for Laura! Obviously she should have used dark chocolate for her Florentines, and yes, her gingerbread and brandysnap tea set was a little unambitious, but doesn’t it all basically taste good? Middle-of-the-packers are always wild cards: She may not leave next week, or even the week after, and if she can avoid being the worst, she’ll stick around.
Linda is another person who is probably not going to win the show, but beyond that, who can say? The trouble for Linda is consistency. Her Battenberg cake ambulance last week was itself a minor emergency, but then, this week, she goes and makes an exquisite-looking Amsterdam-inspired rosewater shortbread tea set. Her Florentines were very removed from the ideal of Florentines — were they even Florentines at all? — but then she went and came in fourth on macaroons. She’ll need to steady the ship a bit if she’s going to stand out going forward.
In my heart, I have total faith in Hermine, a future accountant (obviously) who is also trained in French pastry, but she has yet to have a breakout moment. Then again, there has yet been no French pastry. Time may be running out, though! Hermine’s mango-coconut Florentine was too chewy, and her macaroons, in fifth place, were exactly average. Her Japanese tea set biscuit diorama Showstopper also did not taste good. “See, it’s got to taste good, as well as look good,” Paul offers, helpfully. Things could still turn around!
Now we come to the two Marc/ks. Marc with a C has struggled in the technicals, but offers a showstopper that is a coffee and toast breakfast plate for one. It is a whimsical delight. It is also very well sculpted, probably on account of how Marc is a professional sculptor.
Really, the order of the Marc/ks is, at this point, arbitrary, but K Mark had a slightly better week. His all-biscuit Ethiopian coffee ceremony was indeed show stopping (“very African,” according to Prue), and his macaroons came in second. He also has strong James Cordon vibes — they are great for TV; just ask James Cordon! — and an ebullient giggle, and so for now, in the battle of comparative Marc/ks, the smart money is on him.
Rowan is an early breakout not because of his baking — mostly, so far, a series of disasters — but because there is just so much Rowan. Rowan’s biggest obstacle is Rowan, and the question now is whether he can overcome the hurdle of himself. He has elaborate dreams that he cannot possibly achieve within the time constraints and in this way, he is a metaphor for the human condition. Last week, he could not construct the Temple of Enlightenment out of Battenberg cake, and this week, he can’t finish dressing his Florentines in tiny chocolate waistcoats. Then, he runs out of time on his seaside-inspired table setting, which features a hot chocolate pot that is also a working lighthouse. “Simplify!” everyone keeps telling him, and while he nods, he does not hear them. He is constitutionally incapable of winning this competition, yet there remains a glint of hope that, someday, he may be able to fully realize one of his operatic visions.
Peter is a nice Scottish boy who is studying accounting. So far, I have very little sense of him as a human being — he likes badminton; he has blue eyes — but his baking is startlingly consistent and consistently creative. “I’ve never had anything like it,” Paul says, tasting Peter’s sticky toffee pudding Florentine. “You’re very good with your ideas.” Really, there is no higher praise. His “Biscuit Burns Supper,” which revolves around a biscuit haggis stuffed with cranachan — an uncomfortably meaty-looking oatmeal-whisky-honey-raspberry-cream melange — is inspired and apparently delicious. So what if he underbakes his technical macaroons — who among us hasn’t? He could even win, I think, although it is dangerous to pin too many hopes on youth.
Lottie has a real sense of artistry, as demonstrated by her disarmingly accurate Louis Theroux face cake, and, this week, her rough-but-ambitious molded biscuit Viking table setting, featuring a Viking chalice and a literally smoking Viking ship. But it is her sour cherry-studded Florentines topped with a splattering of Pollock-style chocolate that get her the year’s first Paul Hollywood handshake. She is very nervous — endearing! — and so far, has displayed no self-sabotaging tendencies. Initially, I was concerned that the Viking fascination was going to be grating, but I was wrong: It is delightful, unlike actual Vikings, who seem like a bit much.
Like many men before him, Dave is mostly unremarkable — but there was a moment this week when he won me over. It was time to put the macaroons in the oven and nobody was sure for how long. Based on the amount of time they had been given, Dave reasoned, it must be a long, slow bake. That, my friends, is the logic of a winner! Literally, because then he won. He won the macaroon-off, and he won Star Baker, thanks in large part to his “very believable” Mexican table setting, which is deemed “so Mexican” (Prue) and “actually delicious” (Paul). He is exactly the sort of unassuming Blink-182 enthusiast who could, under the right circumstances, sneak up to win both the competition and the hearts of Britons everywhere.
Sura has been this season’s primary star from the very beginning, ever since she accidentally threw Dave’s pineapple upside-down cakes on the floor, and this week, that status does not change. Her Iranian-inspired Florentine is deemed “beautiful,” “delicious,” and “gorgeous,” even if it doesn’t snap, and the biggest problem with her speculaas “Ramadan tea time” setup is that the piping looks rushed. Anyone who has seen reality television before will tell you that the contestant who gets the “star” edit this early in the season will probably not go on to win the whole thing, but so what? If and when Noel is given the traumatic job of sending Sura home, it will be the season’s most heartbreaking elimination — and on a show like this, that’s the real power move.
And that is where we stand! But October has already delivered no shortage of surprises, and we are only on the second day. Who knows what next week will bring? Assuming time and space continue to exist until then, we will be here to find out.