Friday, 23 August 2013

The Great British Bake Off

Hurray! As I said on my other blog (The Book Trunk) on Wednesday, The Great British Bake Off is back, and promises to be every bit as good as the previous three series. The lovely Mary Berry is still there, every bit as nice as ever, even when she’s being nasty, and the gorgeous Paul Hollywood is still there, every bit as nasty as ever, even when he’s being nice (how does he manage to sound and look surprised when he likes something?). Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc are still there, every bit as funny as ever, and every bit as supportive as ever to the contestants who are also still there (obviously – without them there would be no show) and are every bit as innovative and emotional as ever. The only person missing so far is the Bake Off Squirrel, but he made a token appearance inside a cake (a replica sculpted from chocolate and nuts you understand, not the real thing – that would be silly, and cruel).
The Great British Bake-Off: Judges, presenters and contestants
line up ready for action.
It’s hard to explain to explain the allure of TGBBO to anyone has never watched it. It’s real edge-of-seat viewing, but it’s the reaction of these amateur cooks to their triumphs and disasters which makes for such gripping TV. And the comments of the judges, and their facial expressions, are just as wonderful. There’s no shouting, swearing or bitchiness. Laughter and tears are the order of the day, and everyone remains friendly and helpful. These are ordinary people who love cooking and are not seeking fame. They all want to win, but they’re philosophic about their chances: they know they can only do their best, and believe that what will be will be. It’s all very warm and gentle, and very understated in a very English kind of way, and I just adore it. I watch it, then watch it again… and again…
A cake fit for angels: Some contestants struggled with
Mary Berry's recipe for Angel Food Cake.
 Perhaps it’s a nostalgia thing. I grew up surrounded by people like this. My mother, and my aunt, and their friends, would cook and bake, and make jams and preserves, and try new recipes with new ingredients alongside the old family favourites – and there were always ‘special’ cakes for birthdays and other occasions. And they all belonged to gardening clubs and allotment associations, and if there were only a handful of entries in the cookery section they would dash home and whip up a quick batch of tarts or biscuits ‘to make a better showing’ for the public, even if ‘entries’ were added to the tables after judging was complete.

As far as GBBO goes, at the beginning of each series it always takes me a while to sort out who’s who and match the names to faces. Sometimes it takes a few weeks for the various ‘characters’ to develop and for my own favourites to emerge. This year I’m slightly more confused than usual because there are 13 competitors instead of 12, so there will be one week when two people must leave the tent. Actually, a Baker’s Dozen seems such an apt number for a programme about baking that I can’t understand why no-one has thought of it before.

Anyway, I’ll have no problem remembering Deborah the Dentist, because she is shorter than everyone else (like me!), and I feel a show of solidarity is required, but this may be tricky because I hate the way she pulls faces, especially when she doesn’t like what the judges say about her food. And I won’t forget Christine, because she has my name, or Howard, because he is a fellow migraine sufferer who can’t eat chocolate, which was unfortunate really, given that this week’s Showstopper was a decorated chocolate cake.  Actually, he turned out to be surprisingly adventurous and produced a gluten-free passion fruit and coconut sponge using rice flour and xanthan gum which, amazingly, won approval from Paul and Mary. 
Mary Berry: Nice, even when she's nasty!
Then there’s Frances, who designs children’s clothes and is obviously very creative. Her Victoria sandwich was – a sandwich! Served up in a paper bag made from moulded icing! I thought it was absolutely brilliant, and such a simple idea. And there’s Rob the Spaceman, who designs space satellites in Hertfordshire and approaches cookery as if it were an engineering project. He is incredibly scientific – thanks to him I now know about the crystalline structure of chocolate.

This week, as you may have gathered, was all about sponge cakes. For their signature bake contestants had to produce a classic Victoria Sandwich, with a novel twist of their own. Next up was the technical challenge: Angel Food Cake. Basically, this is a fatless sponge, and therein lie the problems. Do you grease the tin? And should the egg whites be beaten to stiff peaks or left soft? Finally, it was time for the Showstopper. A decorated chocolate sponge using at least two types of chocolate. Cocoa loco as Sue Perkins described it.   As ever, there was much gazing into ovens, and timers bleeped away in the background. There were injuries aplenty, and by the end everyone seemed to have acquired at least one blue plaster. There were tears of despair when things went wrong and smiles of delight when things went right. Items were dropped, lost, over-baked, under-baked and unfinished. But there were moments of sheer perfection when everything worked out exactly as it should.

As always, I found myself wondering if some contestants had actually watched the old programmes, let alone taken note of them. Why put yourself through the heartache of producing something which has already proved to be a Bad Idea? Take heed bakers, things involving strawberries or rhubarb have a tendency to fall into this category because the fruit leaks moisture into the cake. And Paul doesn’t like strong flavours, especially rose. And anything that smacks of the seventies is a bit of a no-no (remember Brendan last year). 
Paul Hollwood: Nasty, even when he's nice!
Odd recipes included a grapefruit sponge (which got a thumbs-up from Paul, who didn’t expect to like it) and a thyme infused chocolate cake. Odd equipment included balloons (for Rob’s choccie baskets), while Mark, a kitchen fitter, called for Selloptape to stick a chocolate wrap around the edge of his cake! Hopefully, he wasn’t serious, but you never know with GBBO. He was also memorable for telling us he planned to carve his Victoria sponge so it would look like a lemon ‘if all goes well’. Naturally, it didn’t, and it didn’t, if you see what I mean. It’s tempting fate to make statements like that.

If you’re planning to catch-up at a later date, and don’t want to know who was Star Baker, stop reading now – there are SPOILERS ahead! The accolade was awarded to… long pause to heighten the suspense… Spaceman Rob, whose cakes looked much too beautiful to eat, but apparently tasted absolutely delicious and that, after all, is the whole point of any cake.

First to go (don’t forget SPOILER alert is still active!) was Toby, a dishevelled young man with an engaging smile and a puzzled expression, who lost his ‘thingy’ at the start and never really found it. His Victoria sandwich was OK, but his technical bake was more devilish than angelic, since he used salt instead of sugar (John, who made a similar mistake last year, went on to win, but Toby’s days in the tent were numbered). By the end of the programme he had cut both thumbs, making it awkward to work but, as Paul pointed out, that doesn’t affect how long you leave something in the oven. No sympathy vote there then!  Gazing upon Toby’s chocolate disaster Paul, never one to mince his words, gave his verdict: “It’s a mess.” It must have tasted pretty horrid as well because Mary, anxious to say something positive, thought very hard, gave her kindly smile, and announced in happy tones: “It’s three layers are exactly matching.” 

Star quality! Spaceman Rob was the first Star Baker of the
new series.
However, even she found it impossible to say anything nice about Ali’s effort. Her remarks are always well tempered (unlike some of the chocolate adorning this week’s masterpieces) but she told him his Showstopper looked ‘a little bit childish’, which was pretty tough for her. Then, obviously feeling remorse, she sweetened the pill by adding: “You’re sad about this, and we are too.” That’s part of the charm of GBBO. Mary and Paul love cooking, and they want us to take pleasure in it too, and when things go wrong they don’t tell people off – they are sad! All pictures from The Great British Bake Off website at 


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