I’ve recently fallen under the spell of The Great British Baking Show. It’s an hour-long indulgence in my great weaknesses: cakes, pies, and tarts or other manifestations of flour, sugar and butter. I’ve been viewing week to week on PBS, but I just found out I can binge watch on Netflix.
It’s a reality show: a contest of baking ability where the less skilled are winnowed out until there’s only one baker standing. But it’s not anything like the war-room atmosphere of American cooking shows. Instead, amatur bakers apply their skills and wits to meet the baking challenges posed by the hosts of the show.
Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood look and sound right out of central casting. If you were asked to imagine hosts for a British baking show, it would be these two. With her gleaming, perfectly-coiffed hair and sparkling blue eyes, Mary meets out praise and criticism fairly, professionally, and with perfect English decorum.
A doyenne of British baking, she has a background in magazine publishing, decades of baking experience, and multiple cookbooks to her credit. It’s clear exactly what she expects from the bakers.
Paul, barrel chested, with stylish salt and pepper hair and a dashing beard, is a veteran of commercial kitchens and professional baking. A genial manner overlays tough professionalism earned by decades in the trenches. His comments are technical and on point but fair and encouraging. I’ll bet he’s a demanding boss, but you’d learn a lot in his kitchen.
They work as a team, but each brings a slightly different point of view. Mary once asked Paul if he had ever made a gingerbread house. His negative answer earned him a slightly condescending glance, until he clarified that he had made a gingerbread cathedral, not a house.
They judge on appearance, texture, moisture, technical accuracy, and, of course, flavor. They can wax poetic over the successes or be succinctly dismissive of the failures. A poorly decorated cake might be described as a mess or more obliquely – higgly piggly. A perfectly executed example is showered with superlatives.
The contestants are as diverse as Britain. They are grandparents and teenagers, engineers and construction managers, business executives and builders. Ethnic backgrounds remind you of the scope of the Empire in its heyday. All enthusiastic amateur bakers, there are no ringers here.
What separates this show from the more Darwinian cooking contests is the genuine camaraderie among the contestants. They’re happy to share tips and help with explanations of unfamiliar cakes. Some of the challenges are obviously practiced, while others are surprise recipes with very sketchy directions. Each contestant has their own method and approach, but they’re glad to help fellow competitors when asked.
There are cakes that don’t rise, custards that don’t set, and icings that slide – all the usual disasters that can befall bakers anywhere. On the show, they’re met with the even-handed aplomb and stiff upper lip that has kept Britain going for centuries.
The cooking is done in a well-equipped tent on the grounds of a country estate. The weather is a wild card in the proceedings – sometimes too rainy and wet, too hot, or too cold. With the wrong weather, meringues won’t set, cakes won’t cool, and whipped cream turns soft – complicating the proceedings.
The estates, though, provide enchanting backgrounds for contestant interviews, host asides, and artistic camera work. Beautiful grounds, landscaped gardens, decorative iron work, and the manor house all make appearances along with the occasional bleating lamb and strutting peacock.
The list of confections reads like poetry: Victoria sponge, Swiss roll, lemon drizzle, and traybakes along with cherry, battenburg, and seed cakes, As I watch, I’m looking up the meaning of these unfamiliar terms.
Ingredients are familiar yet foreign too. In Mary Berry’s Baking Bible she describes six kinds of sugar: caster, granulated, icing, muscovado, demerara, and nibbed, all with American counterparts if you look them up.
At the end of the season, Paul and Mary give master classes where they bake the technical challenge desserts. These challenges, often unfamiliar to the contestants, have a high degree of difficulty, complicated methods, and assume in-depth experience.
The master class goes off without a hitch. Paul and Mary’s skills are so proficient that they don’t even wear aprons. Watching Paul measure out flour and sugar then knead the dough without sullying his pristine black shirt is amazing. The resulting sweets are stunning.
It’s notable that both the hosts and contestants are generally pretty trim. I wonder how they do it.