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"Festival Week" gets back to basics, steadying a rocky season of The Great British Baking Show

Alice’s kek lapis Sarawak
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show
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It has been a rough mid-season for fans of The Great British Baking Show. Head-scratching challenges and surprise eliminations have threatened to change the core temperament of the series, the straightforward, supportive and kind tone that has defined Baking Show from the jump. As if anticipating fan response to the overreach of the past several episodes, “Festival Week” returns to form. The challenges blend British staples with less traditional fare, the judging is transparent and respectful, and the bakers deliver delicious-looking bakes as well as entertaining, relatable interactions. This episode is as close to the platonic ideal of Baking Show as fans are likely to get this season, and if the last three episodes follow its lead, the producers just may salvage season 10.

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The episode begins with a refreshingly straightforward signature challenge. The bakers must make 24 yeasted festival buns. These should be light, airy, flavorful rolls one would prepare for a holiday party. The bakers can draw inspiration from a festival or holiday from any country or culture, they just need to be uniform in size, shape, and color, and of course, delicious. Steph, Alice, and Michael each go for hot cross buns, a British classic, while David, Henry, and Rosie look abroad for their bakes. The specific context of the challenge adds a layer of hominess to the proceedings and takes the episode back to the show’s original core message of celebrating home baking. For many, the holidays are a reason to pull out a treasured family recipe or dust off the measuring cups after too much time away. Several of the signatures this season—decorated chocolate biscuit bars, cultured dairy cakes, custard pies—have lacked this cultural context, and returning to it here emphasizes just how important this aspect is in grounding Baking Show.

All of the signatures look delicious, but it’s Steph and Henry who really hit their bakes out of the park, earning Paul Hollywood Handshakes, Steph for the perfectly balanced flavors and textures of her zest and spice hot cross buns and Henry for the good technique and lovely flavors of his chocolate kardemummabullar, or Swedish cardamom buns. Steph is thrilled with her handshake, but Henry’s disbelieving, giddy reaction to Paul’s outstretched hand—“No, no. Shut up!”—is particularly delightful, and immediately a season highlight. David and Rosie also do very well, with David seemingly on the precipice of a handshake himself and Rosie commended for making delicious, beautiful rolls worthy of a shop window. Michael has a few dings against him for having slightly uneven and misshapen rolls, but both Paul and Prue compliment his flavors and textures, and while the lemon in Alice’s rolls is quite bitter, she also gets positive critiques from both judges.

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Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show

Next up is the technical, and this is where many of the recent episodes have floundered. For “Festival Week,” Paul has set the challenge, and the bakers must make 12 Sicilian cassatelle, fried pastry crescents with a creamy ricotta, chocolate, and orange filling that are dusted with powdered sugar and typically served at Carnival. They basically look like empanadas or hand pies, and while none of the bakers are familiar with them specifically, the concept is straightforward enough that their instincts should be able to guide them. This is precisely what the technical is supposed to be judging: experience and instincts. What does a, “stiff, pliable” dough mean, in the context of a fried hand pie? How thin should they go, and how much filling should they use? What is smooth enough, when they’re sieving their ricotta, and how hot should oil be for deep frying? The bakers have plenty of time to finish their cassatelle and the results are actually useful, with distinct differences between the various bakes that are readily apparent to viewers at home as well as the judges. Rosie takes her first technical win, with poor David still stuck in second place, and Alice and Michael cement their position at the bottom heading into the showstoppers with their last and second-to-last place finishes, respectively.

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After Sandi and Noel touch base briefly with the judges, it’s time for the showstopper round. The bakers will have four and a quarter hours to make kek lapis Sarawaks, celebratory layered cakes from Sarawak, Malaysia often served at festivals and on special occasions. Rather than being baked, the cakes are grilled, cooked under the broiler with the brightly colored batter added in thin, alternating layers. These cakes are then sliced into strips and reassembled so that the layers produce intricate patterns, the strips of cake held together with jam, honey, or other sticky, sweet substances. The bakers have varying levels of success with their Sarawaks, but a quick Google search shows just how detailed and beautiful these cakes can be. A well-made Sarawak is the definition of a showstopper, and given that the bakers had all week to practice, using a type of cake unfamiliar to these bakers pre-Baking Show feels entirely in bounds.

Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show
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The bakers are focused and in the zone immediately; they know they’ll need every moment of their bake time. Their cakes run the gamut of flavors. Henry goes light, with lemon and lime sponges and raspberry and mint jam. Michael takes inspiration from the Jamaican flag for his decorations, using rum and ginger sponges with ginger and lime curd. Steph’s cake is a bit warmer in flavor, using orange and chai sponges and an orange liqueur syrup. Rosie ambitiously tries a more complex, triangular design and blends lemon and mixed spice sponges with nectarine jam for her bake. David goes architectural for his look and uses a traditional Indonesian spice mix, tamarind, and honey for his flavors, while Alice sticks with a flavor profile that has proven popular with the judges this season, making a chocolate, orange, and salted caramel cake. Watching the bakers diligently measure out their batter and painstakingly create these complex, beautiful cakes is a real treat. In the end, it looks like they could have used a bit more time, but even if the results are mixed, the sense of discovery around this challenge is wonderful.

After a rather kind round of showstopper judging, “Festival Week” does precisely what the last few episodes have needed to do. The hosts sit down with the judges and have a real discussion, rather than a brief overview, of where the bakers are currently at. They weigh each round and the judges explain who’s saved themselves from elimination and who’s dropped into contention for it, and who is up for star baker. The conversation is deliberate and measured, with a clear front-runner for elimination, but enough doubt to leave a measure of suspense. In the end, Henry wins star baker for the first time, his delicious signature and delicate Sarawak pushing him into first place. Sadly, it’s Michael who is eliminated, Alice having saved herself with her excellent Sarawak.

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While Michael is clearly beloved in the tent and among the fandom, it was his time to go, as even he expresses. The competition is getting fiercer and one bad round is all it takes to get eliminated. The bakers stepped up their game this episode, certainly. More than that, though, the judges and the producers set the bakers and the show up for success. “Festival Week” is a prime example of the Baking Show fans fell in love with. Hopefully, it will be the template for the rest of the season, and not prove a fluke.

Stray observations:

  • There are so many great little moments this episode. A few favorites: Henry successfully Hacky Sack-ing his dough and saying, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Steph’s assertion to Paul that, “It helps if you watch it,” and Rosie and Noel’s pimp bird-walking banter.
  • I see what they’re going for with buns on buns, but still, the under-the-butt shot during the signature round stood out, and not in a good way.
  • While I’d love for “Festival Week” to put the season back on track, I’m highly skeptical. My doubts are underscored by the exchange between Paul and Sandi before the showstopper round. Paul’s assertion that Alice’s cluttered workstation indicates a lack of clarity of vision is limited to say the least. There is more than one way to run a kitchen, and more than one way to produce delicious, beautiful bakes. Paul’s sense that the bakers must operate the same way he does to be successful smacks of the kind of reasoning that saw Phil and Helena eliminated more because their aesthetics don’t line up with Baking Show than because of their actual finished bakes.
  • I was particularly happy to see Alice nail the showstopper challenge after Sandi’s, “She is getting more and more disorganized.” “Desserts Week” positioned Alice as the clear third finalist of season 10. You don’t get to build that narrative one week, then jump to a diminishing-returns narrative the very next episode.
  • The Sarawak showstopper reminded me of the dreaded schichttorte technical from series five of The Great British Bake Off (season one of The Great British Baking Show). I tried that one out and ultimately found the flavor of the cake not worth all the work. However, I am intrigued to try my hand at a Sarawak cake the next time I have a spare afternoon.
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