The Great British Baking Show, as it is known on this side of the pond (in Great Britain it is The Great British Bake Off) stands high above the waves in a sea of cooking competition shows.
It’s not that I don’t adore shows like Top Chef and MasterChef. I look forward to them, especially to MasterChef Junior. As I’m writing this, the latest edition of Next Food Network Star is broadcasting, and I’m quite enjoying it. (Even though the last winner to actually GET a show on Food Network was about three seasons ago, the competition itself is very engrossing.)
There’s an American version of The Great British Baking Show, but like many American copies of British shows, it’s nowhere near as good as the original.
So what is it about this show that has made it a sensation in Great Britain and a cult hit here in the States?
First of all, it’s a baking competition. Baking is not the same as cooking. You can eyeball ingredients when making a savory dish. Things rarely have to be totally precise.
Baking is chemistry. Anything off by even a little bit will usually spell disaster for the outcome.
There was a pastry chef version of Top Chef for a couple of seasons, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as The Great British Baking Show because the competitors were professional pastry chefs. You expect pastry chefs to know how to bake difficult and elaborate cakes, pies, and other desserts.
The Great British Baking Show’s competitors are all home bakers. They vary in age (one past competitor was only 17 years old), ethnicity, and profession. Both men and women compete.
Sure, there have been pastry challenges on many other cooking competitions. As someone who has consistently been unable to bake a decent pie, I am always impressed by anyone who can make one I wouldn’t be embarrassed to put on my Thanksgiving table.
The difference here is the level of the challenges. They don’t just have to make pie. They have to make PIE. I just finished watching this year’s pastry challenge, and they had to make frangipane pie, flaounes, and vol-a-vents.
I had no frickin’ idea what any of those things are. I almost always have to look up what they ask the bakers to make. This isn’t a “make your granny’s lemon ice box cake” competition. You have to make the kind of items one would find in a fancy Parisian or Viennese pastry shop. Or, items we have never heard of here in the states, i.e. Madeira cake (which at first I thought was like rum cake, only soaked in Madeira wine—it’s not) or Chelsea buns.
They even have them make their own puff pastry. NO ONE MAKES THEIR OWN PUFF PASTRY. It’s an incredibly time consuming process and very easy to screw up. Even professional chefs buy puff pastry, it’s so hard to make.
Each episode is given a theme (i.e. cakes, pastry, bread, etc.) and divided into three challenges: signature bake, technical bake, and showstopper. In the first one the competitors have to make their version of a particular item set by the judges (i.e. the aforementioned Madeira cake or frangipane pie). They are free to make them any flavor or combination of flavors they like, as long as they are true to the basic elements of the designated item.
The technical bake is often the scariest of the three challenges. One of the judges picks something for the competitors to bake and they are given a recipe to follow—an incomplete recipe. Usually it’s the bake time or some vital instruction such as whether or not something needs to be kneaded that’s left out.
The item chosen by the judges is often some incredibly obscure cake, bread, pastry, whatever, that most of the bakers have never encountered or even seen before the competition. (For the other challenges, they are told ahead of time what they will have to bake and are given a chance to practice them at home.)
The cakes usually have a name comprising of at least twelve syllables ending with torte. They need like a million layers of varying flavors and some precise decoration that must be done exactly or the cake falls apart. The previously mentioned flaounes are a pastry made in Cyprus for the end of Lent. None of the competitors had heard of it before the challenge. One week they had to make a torte made entirely of two kinds of meringue. No cake layers—just meringue.
Have you ever tried to make meringue? It’s insanely difficult to make it correctly. I was astounded how many of the competitors made credible, even really good versions of the torte.
The showstopper is what it sounds like—the kind of thing you make when the Queen is coming for dinner and you need something spectacular for a centerpiece. A three-tiered cheesecake, or an edible box made of biscuits or a bread sculpture. Again, I’m constantly blown away by the impressive results by most of the contestants.
Of course, there are disasters, which make me want to burst into tears along with the bakers. This is another reason I love this show—the bakers are very supportive of each other. They help each other out and console each other when their bakes go horribly awry. This isn’t one of those “let’s see who I can stab in the back with my paring knife to give me an advantage” kind of competitions.
Hosted by comediennes Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, the judges are respected cookbook writer Mary Berry and professional baker Paul Hollywood. Mary is a darling English lady who knows her baking inside out, so you can’t get anything by her. Paul has what I like to call a “death stare” that he uses to try to get bakers to turn away from doing something disastrous.
Baker: I’m using fresh blackberries in my cake.
Paul: Blackberries? (Gives the death stare.) You know blackberries can bleed into the cake?
Baker: Yes, but they didn’t too much in my practice bake…
Paul: (Gives death stare.)
Baker: (Less certain now) I’m sure it will turn out all right? I’m hoping it will. (Starts to visibly sweat a little.)
Paul: O.K. (Gives one more death stare before he turns away.)
Of course, when they cut into the cake later, it’s invariably a massacre of bleeding blackberries.
Always pay attention to Paul’s death stare.
Again, everything is composed in such a way to give the bakers every chance to succeed. They are allotted sufficient amounts of time to accomplish their challenges. Not, “make pastry from scratch in 30 minutes!” set-ups on other cooking competitions. They are given encouragement and hints when things aren’t going right. Even Mel and Sue will point out if the pastry looks too light or if the cake hasn’t risen quite enough.
There’s something magical about this show. The biggest drama is if the crème brulee will set, or the mousse will ooze out of the cake, or the blackberries will bleed. But it is utterly compelling television, from start to finish.
The most recent season is currently broadcasting in the USA on PBS. PBS allows you to stream episodes on their web site. You can also watch previous seasons on Netflix and Youtube.
(P.S.: Sue Perkins also hosted a food-themed show called The Supersizers Go… with Giles Coren. It’s available on Hulu. Watch it. You WILL thank me.)