The Great British Baking Show

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Ever so sorry for having been out of touch this long, but I’ve been off binge-watching

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The show runs on PBS, and Netflix also currently carries the four seasons of 10-episodes each. When I reached Season Three, I rationed out my viewing as a person would ration the out-of-the-oven speckled meringue cookies to their fellow householders before the party. I was enjoying the episodes too much to gobble them up quickly, and now I am looking out over the prospect of just one more season left to watch, and that prospect is a sprawling English country estate with a great manor house set among verdant lawns (or ‘the park,’ as I believe the Brits would say). On the great green lawn or park is pitched ‘The Tent.’ It is in The Tent where the action of the reality drama takes place – it is a baking Big Top, and it is fascinating.

I have generally avoided reality shows and have never viewed cooking programs on the Food Network, but a coworker recommended The Great British Baking Show to me and she was right in thinking that I would find the contest among Britain’s best amateur bakers charming and delightful. It’s also edifying. You can’t help but learn a few things about technique and the process for making some very complex cakes and pastries, including how to remove a cake from a spring form pan: sit it on top of a coffee can or other cylindrical object, or the trickiness of timing when trying to make sure a bake has cooled down enough to take icing; or knowing that you have neither over-proved or under-proved your doughs. Some of these recipes are so difficult and laborious that viewing their creations as a spectator sport only seems appropriate. Bakers at this level have to be cracking project managers to succeed.

My three main takeaways from the show so far are:

1. British people really speak a whole ‘nother language

2. Brits have, on the whole, embraced civilization far more than their American cousins. They are a heck of a lot more cordial to one another.

3. It’s all about the piping.

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British Bake Speak

It really is a whole ‘nother language over there in the UK. We Americans have very few words – like Danish and coffee ring – to cover whole Bavarian villages worth of variations, each of which apparently has a specific name in the baking world. At one point during the second season, when the bakers are in the midst of a technical challenge to make something called an apricot couronne – a variation of a morning pastry that none of the bakers had ever heard of – one contestant turns to the other and says, knowingly, after she’s put hers in the oven, “It’s a Chelsea Bun by any other name.” Huh?

It wasn’t until I saw it come out of the oven that I recognized it as a breakfast pastry ring sort of thing that would call be sold in a grocery store as a ‘breakfast pastry ring’ with perhaps a descriptive adjective in front of it, like apricot or walnut. And nothing over the three seasons has been, so far, classified as coffee cake, our generic term for the myriad shneckens, babkas, kanelangd and stollen that seem to roll through a European’s repertory.

There were other baking assignments and challenges that sent me running to our copy of the Food Lover’s Companion to look up terms: entremets, pontrefact and frangipane flavorings, tuilles, and choux pastry. Others I’d maybe heard of, like millefeuille, genoise and bavarois, because I like sweets and have lingered at Schubert’s Bakery, the only European style bakery for miles, trying to remember the names of certain varieties of European cake I might want to eat again if I knew what to call it. While I realize many of these are new words to me because they are arcane baking terms, other idioms of English English were fun to pick up. What we would call bars, like brownies and lemon bars, they call tray bakes. The cute and generally self-deprecating humor the amateur bakers exhibit when they make comments directly to the camera – either as they toil mid-bake or afterwards when they’ve been judged in a challenge – charms me because it’s enjoyable to hear the accents and various colloquialisms that are so different from American English and also segues nicely to my next point:

These British People are so much nicer than we are!

I’m not sure Americans even know how to be as civil and considerate to one another in the heat of competition as the contestants I’ve seen on the show. Sure, it’s wrong to generalize, and if you looked long and hard you would certainly find there are some incredibly civilized Americans out there who would be appalled at displaying any overt signs of zero-sum-game competitiveness, but that doesn’t seem to be the type of persona to whom American television producers want to give air time, does it? They want the driven, indignant, ‘I’m-not-here-to-make-friends’ variety of sociopath to deliver the private camera rant so that we viewers will watch with horrified fascination as these raw talents claw their way to the top of the eclair tower.

Tamal's tower

Tamal presenting his ‘Religieuse a l’ancienne’ eclair tower (Season 3). This recipe, available on BBC.co.uk, has 25 separate steps and calls for 6 disposable piping bags.

By contrast, The Great British Bake Off supplicants, who must first pass through a highly competitive application process, would make any mother or elementary school teacher proud – here in the States or across the pond. They have lovely manners, play nice, they want to win honorably without tearing anyone else down, and are chagrined and mortified when they inadvertently hurt another contestant’s project – as accidentally happened in Season 2 when someone pulled another person’s dough out of the fridge and used it for their bake. But in this world, you can also count on the two well known pro baker judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, to hear about the mishap and do their part to take the mishap into account. As judges, they are not exactly good cop bad cop. They can be Tough and Tougher, but their criticisms are delivered respectfully and with directness that the bakers appreciate, even when they may be devastated by the bad news that they made a bad flavor choice or the dough of their savory pie is still raw.

These bakers are not playing for some big cash prize, by the way. They compete only for the title of baking champion for the season, the glass cake plate trophy and a big bouquet of flowers. One of the most coveted rewards of all may be the elusive Paul Hollywood handshake, delivered as spontaneous praise for an exceptionally good bake. From the little bit that I do know about reality show parameters, I’m not sure Americans would line up for the opportunity to play for less than double digit prize money and a set of fancy knives or a panoply of silicon spatulas or something.  In their soliloquies with the camera, the GBBS contestants seem to be abashed by their admission that they really do want to win, and yet finalists will encourage one another and go for a sportsmanlike group hug before they face judgement for the final challenge.

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Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. Nice work if you can get it…

Proud Piping

Before watching this show, I certainly underestimated the importance of piping. It is an indicator of style and confidence. Good, skilled piping separates the wheat from the chaff. The baker who wields the pastry bag with a steady hand and aplomb in the piping department usually gets a big leg up over those whose piping is tentative and wobbly.

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Though I am enamored of this show, I am not likely to spend four hours on a quiet weekend afternoon putting together a Charlotte Russe or a 3D biscuit sculpture in the shape of Notre Dame Cathedral just to prove that I can. It’s fun to watch other people do it. When it was my turn to host my book group last month, I did pipe the creme fraiche onto the butternut squash soup rather than blob it on top of each person’s serving with a spoon – using a ziploc bag with a corner cut off. Much classier! It felt like a small acquisition of skill and prowess, but I’ll take it as a positive influence of this entertaining confection. As a gluten free person, following the contest through a season of episodes is also a fun way to have my cake, especially since I can’t eat it, too. I highly recommend that you check it out. And if you’re already a fan, do let me know!

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