In a world that’s literally on fire, there is... a tent. A tent where civility reigns and kindness is still a virtue. Within its hallowed polyvinyl chloride-coated polyester mesh fabric walls is, perhaps, our last shred of hope for humanity: a reminder that with a little bit of sugar, a sprinkle of compassion, and a whole lotta love, we can have a better, more buttery Hunger Games. Welcome to the world of The Great British Baking Show.
Since we last saw Paul Hollywood and friends the world has gone cuckoo bananas, and the producers went to extreme lengths to deliver a ray of sunshine in our darkest hour while also making millions of dollars. This season was produced not only in a tent, but in a bubble, forcing cast, crew, and contestants into a tightly controlled environment to keep them coronavirus-free, and to give us, the perturbed public, the illusion that everything is fine. There is no need to social distance in this pastoral utopia. Help is offered, hugs are given, and—though we didn’t see it in episode one—Paul Hollywood Handshakes (patent pending) can still exist. This season brings us another major change: co-host Sandi Toksvig announced that she would be leaving the show back in January, and though my prayers of her being replaced by Julian Barratt were not answered, I cannot find a single fault with her replacement, comedian and international treasure Matt Lucas, who opens season with a spot-on impression of British Prime Minister and filthy piece of toerag Boris Johnson.
Signature Bake: Battenberg Cake
The first challenge of the season is where we get to learn a bit about our new crop of contestants, and I get to decide which ones I’m going to write mildly unsettling fan fiction about. It’s going to be an exceptionally difficult choice this year, as this season’s stars are 12 of the most delightful folks British telly has ever given us, ostensibly as an apology for Piers Morgan. Kudos to the casting department, who realized that this year we do not need a tent full of young, talented sexy people—we need to be nurtured by mothers and grannies and a dapper older gentleman who will soothe our souls in one-hour increments. There’s but one young’un in this year’s competition, 20-year-old Peter, who is living a wild, hedonistic youth full of gluten-free baking and badminton.
Running down the list of other contestants, there’s Loreia, an NHS radiographer with a smile as bright as the sun, making an electric-blue bubble-gum-and-cream-soda Battenberg cake, and good-natured mother Hermine, who, for her chocolate orange cake, brilliantly replaces the eggs in her marzipan with fresh marmalade. Laura, a Samaritans volunteer, goes in a far less artificial direction with her raspberry ripple cake, as does dad-to-be Dave with his espresso-martini-inspired confection. This season has gone all-in on hope and optimism, casting a cavalcade of exceptional humans who alternate between making the world a better place and making it a sweeter one. Like Marc, a single dad and caregiver to a young man with special needs, and Mark, a project manager for public health, and Mak, the beekeeper who taught himself how to bake as a means to support his aging mother, and Linda, baker of vanilla-raspberry Battenbergs and tireless worker for housing the underprivileged. Normally I’d give Marc, Mark, and Mak each a stupid nickname to tell them apart, but I just can’t bring myself to do it! These humans are just too damn good, and we haven’t even gotten to my favorites contestants yet!
The closest thing we have to an “edgy” baker this year is Lottie, a a Viking metal–loving pantomime producer whose Battenberg cake is an extremely un-metal combo of custard and rhubarb. She’s jumps right out of the gate by making a huge mistake, forgetting to soften her butter, tossing her lumpy batter straight into the bin, and giving us our first dramatic moment of the season. She glowers like a teenager, her eyes surrounded by thick black streaks of impeccably applied liner, but pushes through the setback and wows the judges with a delicious (albeit messy) cake that Prue and Matt deem irresistible. I hope she stays with us for a good long while, and that the demons of Valhalla inspire her to give us at least one showstopper bake that involves raven meat and human blood.
Music teacher Rowan is irrepressibly handsome, dashingly dignified, and probably smells like old books and soft leather. I am so smitten by this Rowan that I cannot adequately describe his magnificence, so instead, I shall defer to his official biography:
Entirely self-taught, Rowan calls his baking style ostentatious but, he hopes, tasteful. French pâtisserie is his absolute passion; he loves the subtlety of flavour and the style and sophistication of French baking, and he is drawn to fine, complex, layered cakes. His love of the Georgian era encourages him to reinvent 18th century recipes whenever he can. He enjoys decorating his bakes with flowers, preferably edible ones, using what is in bloom in his garden. A fitness enthusiast, Rowan swims a mile most mornings and is a keen cyclist and occasional horse-rider. He lives in Worcestershire with his partner, who shares his passion for music, the arts and theatre, and he can often be found in the British Library researching all things 1700s.
That’s right: Rowan can bake, play the flute, and occasionally ride a horse. He is bringing hardcore anachronistic energy to the tent with a Battenberg inspired by Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte featuring a marzipan coating colored like the night sky, cloaking colorful strips of lemon and rose-flavored cake assembled to look like “the Temple of Enlightenment.” It’s a ludicrously aspirational cake that he tackles with aplomb, but alas, he flubs it, scrapping his original design after underbaking his cake and serving the judges something that’s a bit too dense for their liking. Was für eine Schande.
In ordinary times Rowan would be the apotheosis of the show, but these are unprecedented times, and that means we are blessed with Sura.
Sura’s face is an emotional symphony. She has the expressiveness of a silent movie star, and she has no fucks to give. This is a woman whose first ten seconds of screen time are dedicated to low-key shaming the pour soul who delivered her Battenberg pan three weeks late, punctuated by a side eye so brutal that I’ve shuddered each time I’ve watched it. She freely admits to Matt Lucas that she’s sick of cake and never wants to eat it again, and then obliterates his taste buds by making him eat a whole clove. Sura walks around the streets of London with a cat on a leash, and if you think just anyone can command that sort of respect from a cat, you’re out of your goddamn mind. She is here to be judged, but she does not care what you think. And she can apparently make a mean citrus Battenberg cake, too, but you didn’t need me to tell you that.
Technical Challenge: Individual Pineapple Upside Down Cakes
The technical challenge, though I appreciate its purpose, has always been the most boring part of the show. But remember that these are unprecedented times, so we get a technical challenge that’s the most dramatic thing to happen on this show since #Bingate! Quelle surprise!
Though the Great British Baking Show tent is exponentially nicer than my house, it is still a tent, and since that tent is full of sugar, it has the tendency to attract flies that are hungry and want to be on television. One such unwelcome visitor became infatuated with Sura’s picture-perfect pineapple upside-down cakes, and as she swatted that bugger away, she also swatted Dave’s cakes all across the floor. Sura’s face has the range to elevate this moment from reality show drama to high art: we do not simply watch her heart break, we feel it. I audibly gasped. I clutched my chest. Oh, dear Sura, I weep for thee!
Enough of Dave’s cake survived that Paul and Prue were able to anonymously judge this technical challenge fairly; in a final flourish of ironic cruelty, the winning cake is revealed to be Sura’s. She should be ecstatic over her first win, and yet her face says that there is no joy in Sura’s purest of hearts. For a dose of giddiness, we need to turn to our second place finisher, Peter, who celebrates his victory like any 20-year-old lad would.
Showstopper Challenge: Cakes that look like your favorite celebrity’s head
A few years ago I got to bake some cupcakes for Trent Reznor, and while he was thanking me for them, I couldn’t help but think about how much I would like to eat his face. This is part of what makes cakes so magical: with a little bit of creativity and a whole lotta frosting, you can eat anybody’s face! You could eat your mom’s face, you could eat the Pope’s face, you could eat your own face... you can even live the dream and eat the face of your favorite celebrity. God bless whichever producer on The Great British Baking Show came up with the idea for this challenge, and god bless all the celebrities who got to watch Paul Hollywood plunge a giant knife into their moist, cakey skulls.
Rowan, a man who may or may not be a time traveler, manages to pull off something shockingly appropriate for 2020, and one of the more subversive acts of political resistance I’ve ever seen on a baking competition show: a life-sized chocolate cherry bust of Marie “let them eat cake” Antoinette. The rich look so decadent and delicious, and as Paul and Prue rave about Rowan’s socialist masterpiece, I considered just how much I’d like to eat the rich with a tall glass of ice-cold milk. To be honest, there’s a good chance I’d do anything Rowan told me to do, because I can be very easily manipulated by sophisticated British flutists that can pull off a vest. He’s also the only baker in the tent capable of making a cake that doesn’t look like something from David Lynch’s night terrors.
As an American viewer, I’m not familiar with many British celebrities; the only thing I know about Louis Theroux, Bill Bryson, and Sir Chris Hoy are these cakes (above). I’m extremely familiar with Sir David Attenborough’s voice, but since I’ve only seen his face a handful of times, my brain has replaced any images of him with ones of this cake. Which of these cakes is which? I’ll allow you to guess. Don’t worry if it’s too hard, because you’ll definitely have no problem identifying these next celebrities, who are far more famous this side of the pond:
The culinary feats I’ve seen on past seasons of The Great British Baking Show have been so awe-inspiring, it made me worry that some of these amateurs were spending a bit too much of their lives baking. Thankfully that doesn’t seem to be the case with this year’s crop of bakers, who use this challenge to prove they have well-rounded lives and absolutely no artistic talent. Honestly, it’s refreshing! Does it matter who made these cakes or how good they tasted? No, it doesn’t, because I have watched this portion of the show two dozen times, and it somehow manages to keep getting funnier. This entire episode seems tailor-made to make the world feel like a not-so-awful place, so I see no need to nitpick the specifics. Just take it all in and love every damn second of this fondant-swaddled shitshow. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?
Sadly, this is still a competition show, and somebody has to go home. After one episode, we say goodbye to the girl with the sunshine smile, Loreia. Her bubble-gum-and-cream-soda Battenberg cake was terribly dry, and tasted like bubble gum and cream soda. Her pineapple upside down cakes were pale and underbaked. Her edible homage to Jamaican poet Louise “Miss Lou” Bennett-Coverley, sculpted from chocolate-chili cake, was spicy enough to make Paul Hollywood’s crystal clear baby blues start to water, and bore a passing resemblance to E.T. The good news is that before this episode I had never heard of Miss Lou before, and now thanks to Loreia, I have read a good amount of her exquisite poetry. Thank you, Loreia! Even though you made some mistakes you were a hell of a good time, and a damn good baker. And now, the good news: The first star baker of season 11 is darling, badminton-mad Peter!
Guys, I could not love Peter more if I tried, and I doubt I could love this show more, either. I’ve never been so grateful to be back in the tent, and I’m glad you’re joining me for what might be the most important season The Great British Baking Show has ever produced. If the remaining episodes make me even half as happy as Cake Week did, I might be able to get out of 2020 in one piece.
The Takeout will be publishing Great British Baking Show recaps every Monday morning this season. Join us on this journey of sugary sweet escapism!