Here’s an expanded version of an Adventures in Food column I wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, featuring more notes, quotes and anecdotes …
Early in the pandemic, many turned to baking as a way of whiling away the time spent at home. Sourdough starters suddenly became a thing, and there were yeast and flour shortages.
Meanwhile, others chose to binge-watch TV shows like “Tiger King,” “Schitt’s Creek” and “The Mandalorian.”
The show is a competition to find “Britain’s best home baker,” and the bakes are judged (frequently rather harshly) by celebrity chef Paul Hollywood. In the early years, he was joined by Mary Berry, known in the U.K. as the “queen of cakes” and prone to declaring dishes “scrummy” (scrumptious) and saying she likes them “cram-jam full” of filling. Since the show flipped from the BBC to Britain’s Channel 4 (and, in the U.S., from PBS to Netflix) in 2017, Hollywood’s fellow judge has been Prue Leith, a South African restaurateur and TV personality with an upper-crust accent that provides a nice contrast to Merseyside native Hollywood’s Scouse pronunciations.
Hollywood is known for his menacing stares and long pauses before rendering his verdict (the expressions on the bakers’ faces are a study in terror), while Berry and Leith are kinder, though no less exacting in their standards. In one episode, Leith said of Hollywood: “You do realize that when he says ‘not bad,’ he means they’re quite good.”
He also likes to lurk while bakers are working (which 2012 contestant Cathryn Dresser called “really unnerving”). Said 2019 baker Henry Bird of Hollywood: “It’s the eyes. Like a shark. Only even less mercy.”
Hollywood has been known to declare some bakers’ efforts tasteless or inedible. He told one contestant: “You’re great with your flavors — a lot of the time. But when you fail, you catastrophically fail.”
On the other hand, when he really likes something, he awards the contestant one of his much-prized handshakes, and their faces light up like a child on Christmas morning.
Sometimes, though, it’s the bakers who are their own worst enemy. In a 2013 episode, the brief for a showstopper was to make an elaborately decorated loaf of bread in four hours. Some of the bakers came up with plaited and highly decorated loaves approximating a wreath, a peacock and even an octopus. But, despite warnings from both Berry and host Sue Perkins that her plan for a tomato-shaped loaf of tomato-flavored bread with several tomatoes sitting on top of it, was too simple, and not going to be much to show for four hours, contestant Lucy Bellamy insisted on sticking with her “elegant” plan. Predictably, she was the baker sent home that week.
Another time, a baker was asked whether he was making his own fondant for his bake, and he said no, apparently not noticing Berry’s glare. He also ended up being the one eliminated that week.
Hollywood isn’t always churlish in his evaluations. While he did tell one baker in a fruit pie challenge in the 2013 season that “One of my pet hates in pies is a soggy bottom. You managed to get a soggy top,” he told another baker in the same challenge that the pie she’d made was “quite frankly, delicious and one of the nicest pies” he’d ever had. Another time, he kept a baker waiting for an agonizing time for his verdict and then cracked a grin and said, “That’s one of the best things I’ve had to eat for a long time.”
The bakers generally take it pretty well when they’re eliminated, though tears aren’t uncommon. Even though they’re going home, they are proud to have been in the competition in the first place. Said Cathryn, after getting the axe: “I’m not surprised … little bit heartbroken … but it’s the best thing ever.”
An evolving cast of cheeky but charming comic duos host the show, describing what’s going on (amid jibes about Hollywood’s moussed hair and spray tan) and acting as timekeepers and cheerleaders/confessors for the frequently harried bakers, who are known on the show only by their first name. More than 10,000 apply each season for one of the 12 or 13 spots on the show, and those selected are a pretty diverse lot with widely varying ages.
(Olivia’s least favorite season was 2019, when seven of the contestants were in their 20s, and only two were over 40. She likes more of a mix, with both older “family” bakers as well as the younger ones. She also thought the challenges that season included too many dishes that no one would want to try to duplicate at home. Thankfully, “Baking Show” got mostly back on track in the 2020 season.)
Watching the various seasons, you get invested in pulling for your favorites. Mine have included a pair of winners — Candice Brown, a spunky P.E. teacher known for wearing a different shade of lipstick every day, and Rahul Mandal, a milk-drinking Indian immigrant who triumphed despite a total lack of self-confidence — as well as adorable quarterfinalist Martha Collison, the youngest ever contestant at age 17. (The oldest winner so far was the unflappable 60-year-old Nancy Birtwhistle.)
Each season runs 10 episodes, with one contestant named “star baker” each week, and another eliminated, until the three finalists face off. And, fortunes can turn on a dime, with contestants talking of “the curse of star baker.”
The bakers, who must be U.K. residents, have included doctors, scientists, photographers, college students, engineers, a soldier-turned-stuntwoman, artists, a truck driver, teachers, a psychologist and stay-at-home parents. Said Hollywood to builder Richard Burr, who was named star baker five times, “You’re in the wrong job, mate.”
Each episode consists of three time-limited challenges (“On your marks, get set, bake!”), two of which they have practiced for at home. However, the middle “technical challenge” is one where they have no idea what they’re going to be asked to bake. These can range from relatively straightforward cakes, breads, pies and “biscuits” (what Americans call cookies) to obscure foreign dishes, or even a dish from the Tudor era that none of the bakers ever has heard of before. For the technical challenges, which are blind-judged, the bakers are provided with a pared-down recipe that omits key details (such as baking time).
The episodes end with “showstoppers” that range from elaborately decorated multi-tiered cakes to massive gingerbread constructions, or even bread sculptures. One showstopper challenge was to make a picnic fit for the queen, featuring 49 elements, including a chocolate celebration cake, 12 puff pastry sausage rolls, 12 savory scones, 12 mini quiches and 12 custard and fruit tarts — all baked in one oven, in 5 hours.
The showstoppers have produced some of the show’s most memorable bakes, including a steam train constructed from cookies, a regal lion’s head made entirely out of bread, and an abandoned Chinese fishing village made of fruit cake, caramel, sticky toffee pudding and spun sugar.
The competition takes place in a large marquee tent in the middle of an idyllic pasture on a British estate, though the 2020 season was shot on the grounds of a manor house-turned-hotel, so everyone involved could be kept quarantined for the duration inside a “bubble.” (My daughter and I noticed that the pandemic season’s group of bakers seemed a bit sassier and teased each other a bit more, perhaps a result of having been quarantined together.)
The temperature inside the tent sometimes tops 100 degrees, making concoctions involving freezing, chocolate or caramel especially tricky. Emotions frequently can run high inside the tent, too, with contestants of both sexes breaking down in tears mid-bake. The dramatic string music used to score the series also builds the tension, as the bakers scramble to beat the clock. Sometimes, there are accidents, too, with one baker having to leave the tent after slicing off the tip of his finger and other incidents involving a broken oven door, a glass jar exploding and numerous ingredients (and even finished bakes) falling accidentally on the floor.
Said 2013 contestant Sarah Jane Willis: “It’s like the craziest roller coaster you’ve ever been on. In a marquee in the middle of a field! It’s mental.”
The contestants’ thick regional accents might be tough for some American ears to decipher; Olivia likes to keep closed-captioning on when she watches the show.
Still, “Baking Show” somehow manages to be both quintessentially British and universal. (In the U.K., it’s known as “The Great British Bake Off,” but the name is changed in the U.S., where Pilsbury owns the rights to “Bake Off.”)
My millennial daughter, son and daughter-in-law all started watching it before me. I’ve now seen all the series at least once, and a few of them several times. They hold up well to repeated viewings. (Olivia once watched three complete series — 30 hourlong episodes — in three days!)
There also are some one-off “Masterclass” specials, in which Hollywood and Berry show the proper way to make some of the dishes featured in the show, and, in recent years, there have been holiday specials featuring past-contestants coming back for a one-episode contest.
Having begun in 2010 (the first two seasons aren’t available in the U.S.), the show has been around long enough that its most recent winner, 20-year-old Peter Sawkins, started watching it at age 12. “I know 12-year-old Peter would be in awe,” he said after his win.
The order in which you view the various series doesn’t matter, which is a good thing, since the British producers, PBS and Netflix all number them differently. Olivia and I generally refer to seasons in terms of the winner, or a favorite baker, as in “that’s the Candice season” or the “Frances-Ruby season.” (There have been two different bakers in different seasons named Ruby, both favorites of ours, and we refer to them as “Ruby 1” and “Ruby 2.”)
In Britain, the show is a really big deal, with lots of media coverage. For each episode, there’s a companion “Extra Slice” program featuring outtakes and interviews with the latest baker to leave. And, the London tabloids predictably delve into the contestants’ private lives.
Young Martha told the London Sun that, being on the show, you become a national treasure, “just by doing it, because everyone in Britain loves the ‘Bake Off’ so much.” In America, there’s a cult fandom on social media. Fans have their favorite winners, favorite contestants and even favorite episodes. (For those of you who follow the series, my own favorite bakers are: Candice, Martha, Flora, Ruby 1, Ruby 2, Andrew, Selasi, Lottie, Nadiya, James, Richard, Cathryn, Chetna, Luis, Kimberley, Ian, Steven, Manon, Rahul and Alice.)
“Baking Show” combines the best of a competition and an instructional cooking show. Mainly, though, it’s just fun viewing, with lots of wry humor, awful foodie puns and the occasional adult double-entendre. (In recent seasons, you hear the occasional f-bomb, but in the BBC seasons you were more likely to get such quaint British oaths as “Oh, my giddy aunt!”)
Also, unlike American competition shows, there’s none of the backstabbing and cheesy manufactured melodrama. The contestants actually will pitch in and help one another.
Perhaps the biggest difference between “Baking Show” and U.S. competitions is that the bakers who participate are competing … for a crystal cake stand. That’s it! No big bundles of money, just the honor of being declared Britain’s best amateur baker.
In times like these, watching “The Great British Baking Show” is good for the soul. The show has been described as the “friendliest competition series on TV,” and “one of the happiest TV series ever made,” and that’s definitely part of its appeal. Olivia started bingeing it while house- and pet-sitting for friends. “When I don’t have access to cable or satellite,” she said, “I always watch ‘Baking Show,’ because it makes me happy.”
Not that there aren’t moments that tug at the heartstrings. Teenager Martha generally had an irrepressible smile, but after one particularly negative judging, you could see her in the background, her face crumpling in tears. That was tough to watch.
(She bounced back quickly, winning a technical challenge and laughingly dismissing her earlier reaction as “weepy Martha with her rubbish custard tart.”)
Also, senior citizen Terry Hartill talking about how much he missed his deceased wife, and how baking helped fill the void in his life, is guaranteed to moisten the eyes.
It also was somewhat bittersweet recently rewatching the 2014 season, featuring finalist Luis Troyano, a big, loveable bear of a man. Luis died this past fall at age 48, and the most recent season ends with a dedication to him.
The winners’ reactions also can get to you. When 2015 contestant Nadiya Hussain completed her journey from unsure baker to overall winner by baking the wedding cake she and her husband never had in Bangladesh, even Berry choked up. Declared Nadiya tearfully, “I’m never ever going to put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say maybe. I’m never going to say I don’t think I can. I can, and I will.”
Nadiya, in fact, has been the most successful of the bakers, post-show, hosting three of her own TV series. She also was asked to bake Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday cake.
Nadiya also provided one of my favorite “Baking Show” moments. Hollywood, looking over her shoulder as she worked on a bake, asked, “Happy, Nadiya?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she replied.
He remained there, staring at her, but the spunky contestant had a great riposte: “Happy, Paul?”
One of our favorite finals is the one where Nadiya bested Tamal Ray and Ian Cumming, with all three showstoppers drawing raves from the judges. Another favorite is the 2016 final, won by Candice over Andrew Smyth and Jane Beedle.
Probably the least satisfying final was 2019. David Atherton barely scraped into the final, and he is the only winner never to be named star baker. His series win mainly was a result of favorite Steph Blackwell’s emotional implosion during the final showstopper, which even prompted Hollywood to give her a hug.)
Overall, the Mary Berry years are our favorites, with the two judges providing a nice contrast. In one show, Hollywood, who hails from the north of England, was dipping his jaffa cake in his tea and Berry looked at him disapprovingly. “We don’t do that in the south,” she said.
While there isn’t any prize money involved in the show, quite a few other contestants besides Nadiya have had cookbooks published and have gone on to make appearances on British TV. A couple of the contestants have opened their own bakeries, and young Martha is now a food columnist.
As much as we enjoy just watching the bakers do their thing, you actually do learn while watching the show. I’m not a baker, but I now know the difference between rough puff and puff pastry, and how to avoid the dreaded “soggy bottom” on a pie. (Before watching this show I never realized there were so many different types of pastry!)
Olivia, who does bake, has picked up quite a few tips from the show. She learned how to use a piping bag, and she now has a collection of baking tools and “Baking Show”-related cookbooks.
A while back, after my daughter had baked another batch of her grandmother’s whole-wheat tea bread, I asked her, “What do you think Paul would say?”
Olivia smiled. “He’d say it’s underproved and underbaked,” she said.
“Maybe,” I answered, “but Mary would say, never mind, it’s still delicious.”
— Bill King