Have we ever needed a food-based competition show the way we need The Great British Baking Show? To spend an hour a week remembering that patches of civility can still exist in a world that is metaphorically and, as I type this, literally on fire? An almost mythical land where woodland creatures frolic to the music of gently bubbling brooks, where our greatest troubles are soggy bottoms. After yet another summer pockmarked by bad news, Labor Day needed to be spent into the sweet televised embrace of Paul Hollywood and three other people who are not Mary Berry. And added bonus: I get to crack wise about the British for 12 whole weeks, something I’m absolutely allowed to do because some of my best friends are British.
Even though this is the kindest show on the telly, (new episodes Fridays on Netflix in the States, three days after airing in the U.K. on Channel 4) season 10 attempts to kick itself off with high drama, and by high drama I mean clips of adorable people having extended panic attacks over suspenseful music—frantic cellos, quivering basses, the dramatic buh-bums of a timpani! (Those things take at least two people to move and cost a half year of mortgage, so if a show’s composer demands that a timpani be brought into the room, it is a declaration that we’re going to be getting into some very, very serious shit.) Clips of previous winners are played out in slow motion, reminding us that becoming Baking Show Champion is on the same level as winning a Nobel Prize in Physics or being retweeted by Chrissy Teigen.
This isn’t just a season: it’s the 10th season, which is just like seasons one through nine except better, somehow. These 13 genial Brits who enjoy baking for fun will be soon be expected to execute things that I, a person who baked professionally for over a decade, have never once thought to make for either myself or my loved ones. If my kids want me to make them a bundt cake with a marzipan ribbon, rum glaze and hand glaceéd fruits, they can either save their allowance and pay me or make it their damn selves.
Speaking of bundt cake with a marzipan ribbon, rum glaze and hand glaceéd fruits... It’s cake week, motherforkers! Oi then let’s get on with it pip pip!
The first round is about taking a well-known classic and executing it perfectly. Bakers use their own recipe for this—they’re given the challenge ahead of time, which allows them to practice during the week—and this is the all-important round bakers use to set a good impression for the rest of the episode. As this is truly a show about unrealistic expectations, they will all go so overboard with these “casual” personal touches that everyone watching at home will feel like lazy and incompetent garbage. This is also the part of the show where we learn more about the contestants, as well as the point where I begin doling out cheeky nicknames since it’s hard for me to tell white guys with boring names apart— like Man-Bun Dan, whose shirt is unbuttoned just enough to let us all know that he has a chest tattoo, and Sk8er Boi Jamie, who is desperately trying to bring the worst possible JT-era of sexy back.
Episode one’s signature bake is fruitcake, something most Americans don’t care much for, only salvageable if the whole cake is drowned in brandy overnight. In Britain, however, fruitcakes are a popular teatime treat, and it seems every contestant has an heirloom family recipe: Amelia is using her mother’s, Sk8er Boi Jamie is using his grandmother’s, Steph is using her great-grandmother’s. Michelle is using a recipe from her Welsh ancestors, all of whom have been dead way longer than Steph’s great-grandma, and she uses eggs from chickens she’s raised like they’re her own children, making her fruitcake solemn, yet impossibly moist reminder of the inevitability of death.
There is no “winner” in the signature bake round, but if I had to give anyone a prize it would be Michael, who, while telling the cameras how he needs to be calm and focused, badly cuts one of his fingers. This fiasco draws attention to his other fingers, which all seem to have been victims of hideous offscreen accidents. Though his hands are bandaged so heavily they function more like lobster claws, he manages to make a lovely chai-spiced cake that stuns the judges, making me wonder what sort of things he’d be capable of if he “accidentally” lost an entire hand on next week’s episode.
Next is the technical round, where bakers are given the same recipe with few instructions outside of “Good luck, punk.” This week, 13 people who thought they were such hot shit in the fruitcake round showed us 13 ways to fail miserably at making an angel cake: a relatively simple cake made from genoise sponge cake layers and fluffy Italian meringue. Several contestants say aloud that they’ve never made a genoise before, which I was tempted to call bullshit since genoise is a fundamental cake recipe. But I am not Sk8er Boi Jamie, who somehow managed to beat out tens of thousands of other applicants to be on this show, yet could not manage to fold together flour and eggs not once, but twice. You’d think that someone preparing to be on this show would at some point say “I should learn how to make genoise, a cake that every baker knows and has been featured on multiple seasons of the show I’m about to be on, as well as in it’s tie in cookbooks and spin-off series.” But that didn’t happen, now did it Jamie. No, it didn’t.
Fresh-faced Henry wins this technical challenge, whose angel cake Prue compliments as having “very good feathering” and “excellent in every way, really.”
The showstopper round is where heroes are born and dreams go to die, a sugar fueled David-and-Goliath where amateurs push themselves to the limit in hopes they’ll accomplish feats no ordinary baker could. On the surface this challenge seems to be a simple one: the contestants are told to make the kind of birthday cake they wish they’d had as a child. But birthday cake is not aspirational, like a towering chocolate sculpture, or an homage to the tragically assassinated Cecil the Lion made from three different kinds of bread. Birthday cake is personal: a gift from someone who cares about you, who wants to celebrate the very fact that you’re alive. My birthday was a few weeks ago, and you know what my cake was? Nothing. I didn’t even notice until this episode. So I’m not going to issue a critique about a single one of these cakes because they’re all better than nothing.
Our star baker this week is Michelle, Mother of Chickens. We say goodbye to Man-Bun Dan, and weep softly upon realizing that we’ll never learn more about his chest tattoo. Some mysteries God never meant for us to solve.