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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Paul's shadow looms over The Great British Baking Show’s faltering “Bread Week”

The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix
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The Great British Baking Show loves to play up Paul Hollywood’s imposing persona, showing bakers quaking in their boots over his critiques. Though the show and Paul himself have mellowed over the seasons, this approach is still profoundly felt during “Bread Week.” He stalks around the tent, surveying the bakers with an expressionless face and implacable gaze, playing to his reputation and giving the editors plenty to work with. Most of the bakers laugh this off, as is intended, but the specter of Paul’s judgement lingers over the entire episode and the added pressure causes many to falter. There’s still a lot of meaningful, creative baking in “Bread Week,” but a failure to execute that leaves a disappointing aftertaste.

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The episode begins with a delightfully dorky opening, as Noel and Matt play with the famed Hollywood Handshake. Paul joins in on the fun, and this is a lovely way to introduce bread week 11 seasons in. The viewers know what to expect, and the show’s already burned through every bread pun imaginable, so why not go goofy with it? As the bakers head into the tent, some are excited—Marc and Laura—while others are worried. For the third episode in a row, however, the judges are kind with the signature round. The bakers will have an hour and 45 minutes to make two freeform soda bread loaves, one savory and one sweet, and a butter to go with them. Series six, or PBS season three, or Netflix collection three, had quick breads as a signature, but this is the first official soda bread challenge, and it’s a smart and generous choice.

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The bakers set to work right away. As Paul explains, they have a tight window to finish two breads, so they’ll need to get their dough in the oven right away. Prue is hoping for some creative flavors to add variety to such a familiar challenge, while Noel admonishes the judges that no one under 40 eats bread any more. Four of the bakers take inspiration for their bakes from locations. Mark celebrates Ireland with his sausage and Irish cheddar savory loaf and his chocolate and Irish stout sweet loaf. Linda mimics Welsh tea cakes for her bara brith-inspired sweet loaf and goes spicier for her chili, cheddar, parmesan, and coriander savory loaf. Rowan channels Italy with his bakes, a fennel, sausage, olive, and caper savory loaf and a polenta, raisin, honey, lemon, and saffron sweet loaf that has Paul a bit skeptical. And Marc looks to Cornwall for his bread, a grated beetroot and Cornish Kern savory loaf and a milk and white chocolate and dried cranberry sweet loaf.

Hermine may not have a specific city in mind for her bakes, but she goes all out with her flavors, using chopped smoked salmon and grated gruyere for her savory loaf and cinnamon and orange liqueur-soaked dried fruit in her sweet loaf. Sura also goes big with her Middle Eastern-inspired soda breads, opting for za’atar and chopped olives for her savory one and dried fruit and walnuts for her sweet one. Laura has her Nana Peg’s favorite flavors on her mind, with a chopped chorizo, chili-infused cheddar, and spring onion savory loaf and a glacé cherry and grated marzipan sweet loaf. Meanwhile, Lottie tries to capture the taste of summer with her Balsamic red onion, smoked Applewood cheese, and Kalamata olive savory loaf and blueberry and maple bacon sweet loaf. Peter thinks outside the box for his gluten-free oat, black pudding, walnut, and thyme savory loaf and his ginger beer and crystallized ginger sweet loaf, and previous Star Baker Dave opts for a back bacon, gruyere, dried dill, and chive savory loaf and a date, hazelnut, and dark chocolate sweet loaf.

As has become standard this season, the range of inspirations and flavors is impressive. The bakers will need to avoid over-working their dough, lest they become dense and fail to rise, and they’ll need to be careful with their ratios, but they seem to be on track. This remains a charismatic and friendly cast, and with the pressure dialed down for the signature, there’s room for some quality banter with Paul. Sura is avoiding his steely gaze lest she get intimidated, Lottie is uncertain about her proportion of blueberries to flour, and Peter manages to make Paul self-conscious when he reminds Paul that Bake Off has been on the air for more than half of his life. The bakers move on to their butters—Laura wins relatability points for wondering, “I mean, it’s lovely, it’s very twee, but why would you make butter?” and Linda gives a lovely nod to the eliminated Mak by using his honey in her butter—and before long, it’s time for judging.

On the whole, the bakers do well with their flavors, but for many, their execution is off. Laura’s sweet loaf is delicious, but her savory loaf is a little under. Lottie’s savory loaf is beautiful, but her blueberries aren’t evenly spread in her sweet loaf and she should have incorporated her bacon into the dough. Linda has a similar problem with her sweet loaf, having over-worked it, which pushed her fruit to the exterior. Her savory loaf is tasty though, if a bit under. Sura continues the trend of under-baking, her only misstep on her delicious loaves being her too-low oven temperature.

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The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix

Dave is the exception to the flavor rule, his soda breads well made but lacking the punch of the other’s bakes, while at the opposite end of the spectrum, Peter’s gamble with his gluten-free savory loaf does not pay off, his texture lacking despite his delicious flavors and tasty sweet loaf. The baker with the most trouble, though, is Rowan, whose savory loaf is under-baked and whose polenta-heavy sweet loaf Paul compares to, “eating a lemon drizzle cake in a sandstorm.” Only a few bakers nail both of their loaves: Mark and Marc get high praise and Hermine wins the round with her first Paul Hollywood Handshake (PHH). Both Paul and Prue rave over her flavorful and creative bakes, which are novel to both of them, no small feat considering how long both have been around the baking world.

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After Hermine’s requisite PHH freak out, it’s time for the technical. For “Bread Week,” Paul has requested six rainbow-colored bagels, made with five layers of brightly colored dough that gets shaped, boiled, and baked. The bakers have two hours and 45 minutes, a comparatively long time for a technical, and Paul warns them to be mindful of their timings. Series three, or PBS season five, or Netflix’s The Great British Baking Show: The Beginnings, had a bagel showstopper for its bread episode, but given that the bakers won’t have had the chance to practice these, and the added difficulty that comes with boiling bagels, this is a good choice of challenge.

Most of the bakers seem okay with the brief, despite not having made bagels before. They understand the process in theory, the question will be their execution. Everything seems to go smoothly, more or less, until it’s time to prove and boil their bagels. Unfortunately for the bakers, once their bagels are proved, they’re only supposed to be boiled for 15 to 40 seconds. Paul omits this instruction, however, and many over-do the boil, leading to wrinkly dough that flattens out in the oven. Those who manage to navigate the boiling run into trouble in the bake, as the brightly colored dough obscures the golden color they’d usually look for to tell them the bagels are done.

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When Paul and Prue return to the tent for judging, hoping for a table of “happy bread,” as Prue says, they have quite a reaction. Prue switches into cheerleader mode, finding at least one element to commend in each bake, and Paul dials back his critiques to avoid being overly harsh. Rowan winds up in last place, which is unsurprising considering his assessment that his aren’t even really bagels. Dave is in ninth, having overproved his bagels, and Sura’s in eighth, her bagels having a good texture, but lacking the trademark twist. After her PHH, Hermine’s seventh place finish is quite the come down, her bagels over-baked and tough. Then there’s sixth-place Laura, who lost her way during shaping and struggled with the boil. Lottie’s bagels aren’t bad, despite being a bit crispy and over-baked, which puts her in fifth, and Peter’s overproved “hula hoops” taste good enough to put him in fourth. Only the top three really pull off the technical. Mark is in third place, having slightly over-boiled his, Marc is in second place for his delicious, if oversized bagels, and Linda takes first, the clear winner of the bunch. Linda is absolutely thrilled—she’s come a long way since her shaky start in “Cake Week”—but aside from the top three, the technical seems to be more or less a wash.

The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix
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The next day, the bakers are looking to put their best foot forward for the showstopper. While a few bakers distinguished themselves on day one, most of the group is about tied. For the showstopper challenge, the bakers will have three and a half hours to make a large, decorative bread plaque in the style of a traditional harvest festival sheaf. They must portray something they’re grateful for, and their bread must be impressive in size, visually powerful, and as always, delicious. Paul’s main priority is for everyone to finish their plaques, and he’s excited to see what tools and techniques the bakers bring to the challenge. Prue, meanwhile, warns against getting too complicated. They need to make sure their design is workable in bread.

Once again, the bakers have compelling inspirations. Marc is making a Buddhist dharma wheel with fennel, coriander, and caraway seeds. While he isn’t Buddhist himself, a book on Buddhist philosophy really helped him while he recovered from the accident where he lost his leg and he’s applying lessons in breathing and mindfulness to his experience in the tent. Linda is calling back to her childhood working on her uncle’s farm with her black olive braid and tiger bread animals. Rowan’s love of Worcestershire inspired his pear tree bake, with blue cheese and pear bread, chestnut bread, and potato and truffle oil bread, and Hermine’s yearly road trips to Paris prompted her brioche twist, mixed herb focaccia, and parmesan bread stick plaque.

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Musical theater fan Laura goes bold and graphic for her showstopper, with bright red curtains, golden pulls, and comedy and tragedy masks made of fougasse, red chili oil, and pancetta and cheese focaccia. Laura has seen around 70 performances on the West End, including Matt’s turn as M. Thénardier in Les Misérables, which she loved. Paul hasn’t seen any, which sets Matt to planning a must-see syllabus for him. Mark embraces the apple orchards of his childhood home with his wild garlic bread, apple and cinnamon filling, and hazelnut bread plaque. Sura also takes inspiration from her youth with her tomato vine loaf, using olive bread, sun-dried tomato, and feta. She associates tomatoes with her mom, as her mom carefully tended a tomato vine in their London apartment when she was growing up. Dave, Lottie, and Peter similarly are basing their bakes on their homes. Dave is making his home and his family out of a woven hibiscus and guava bread, with a mango and chili roof. He’s about to become a father, and he’s very excited. Lottie’s making her house out of sun-dried tomato and chorizo bread, with pesto bread palm trees and bushes, and Peter is making a cityscape, capturing Edinburgh in multigrain bread backdrop and a poppy seed-coated bagel bread cityscape.

As time ticks down, a few bakers look to be in the weeds. Hermine’s decision to make an enriched, brioche-style bread remains questionable, given the time constraints, but she maintains she’ll finish. Rowan seems to be on finishing touches, and this may be the first time he finishes his entire design. Peter adds a red egg wash to his rail bridge, mimicking the rusty red of the actual bridge, and Laura goes for the glitter with her gold curtain pulls. The concept of a bread plaque seemed a little strange, at least to this viewer, but the bakers have put together visually interesting and emotionally resonant bakes. The question will be whether they taste as good as they look.

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The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix

Hermine is up first for judging, and while Paul remains skeptical of her enriched dough, both he and Prue like her focaccia and her design. Sura is complimented by Prue for her dramatic and effective presentation and by both judges for her flavor and structure. Laura is praised for her design and flavors, but her decision to place fougasse theater masks over her focaccia kept it from rising in the oven, spoiling its texture. Peter has similar texture troubles, his bagel bread winding up foldable and tough, despite his effective design and nice flavors. Lottie is next, and she receives mixed reviews. Her flavored bread is delicious and her design is pretty good, but while her white bread is beautifully risen and has good texture, it lacks flavor. So does Linda’s bake, which needs more olives and a bit more proving. The bake is a bit dense, according to Prue, but she loves the concept and design, particularly the cow.

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The editors save the pre-showstopper leaders and stragglers for last. Mark is dinged by Paul for his wonky proportions, but Paul likes his structure and bread, while Prue likes his apple cinnamon filling. He seems like he may contend, at least until Marc presents his showstopper. Paul critiques the braiding at the edges, however he likes the flavors and thinks the middle looks beautiful, while Prue compliments the flavor and presentation. Marc has this in the bag. Next is Dave, who may be in danger. His bake gets mixed reviews, with Paul liking the flavor and concept but finding it over-baked. Prue likes the mango and chili, but can’t taste the guava. Last is Rowan, who needs to wow the judges if he’s going to stay. His showstopper looks terrific, a beautiful pear tree. Unfortunately for Rowan, it doesn’t taste nearly as good as it looks. Prue can taste the cider flavor, but wants more salt, and Paul wants more blue cheese and walnut, not to mention a bit more proving.

The episode tries to build up some suspense with the judge deliberations, but the result is clear. Marc gets his first Star Baker, and Rowan is sent home. As Paul notes, the bakers’ technique suffered this episode. Hopefully this episode will prove to be a fluke, driven by their nerves over baking bread for Paul, which several mention. This remains a particularly charming and creative cast, and one well worth the benefit of the doubt.

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Stray observations

  • If it was mentioned previously, I completely missed that Marc had lost a leg. I’m reminded of Briony from series nine, or Netflix collection six, whose disability (her “little hand,” as she calls it) was only noticed by myself and many other viewers partway through the season. It’s great to see disability representation on Bake Off.
  • Marc’s daughters are quarantining with them in their production bubble? I raised an eyebrow at this, but it was a lovely moment, the kind we’d never usually get to see on the show.
  • Prue’s genuine excitement for Hermine at getting a PHH is much more endearing for me than the handshake itself.
  • Paul tying the rainbow bagels in to the NHS feels like a stretch, but I’m good with any excuse to celebrate the U.K.’s publicly-funded National Health Service. Also, now I want a shot of Noel out on the lawn, trying to catch rainbows.
  • As soon as Rowan started slapping his dough, my mind jumped back to series three, or PBS season five, or Netflix The Great British Baking Show: The Beginnings, and the flicked streusel dough ordeal.
  • I enjoy Rowan, but it was definitely time for him to go. His final sentiment, about being consoled by Noel, is lovely, as was his quote from earlier, “This is such enormous fun. It’s a shame it’s a competition, really.”
  • I’m looking forward to seeing everyone take on chocolate next episode. Chocolate can be very temperamental and tricky, so it’s a great opportunity for the bakers to demonstrate their technical chops, especially after this shaky showing.
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