Image: PBS

It’s been a warm and inviting season thus far, but something has been just a little off with The Great British Baking Show. There’s been a bit of a remove between the hosts, Mel and Sue, and the bakers, and while some of the challenges have worked like gangbusters, others have been underwhelming. This may be airing as season five of The Great British Baking Show, but it’s important to remember that it’s only the third season of The Great British Bake Off (the title of the show during its initial run in the U.K.), and the show is still finding its feet. It may have taken a few episodes, but “Desserts” finally sees the series operating at its highest level, the bakers delivering delicious-looking and creative bakes, the judges offering precise and easy to follow critiques, the challenges presenting intriguing briefs with plenty of room for individuality, and the hosts, or in this case, host, offering insight and relatable access to the bakers and guiding the audience seamlessly through the weekend. Alas, Mel is not along for the ride this time and the bakers struggle to live up to the difficult showstopper challenge, but it’s a terrific, engaging episode nonetheless.

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We start, as we always do, with the signature challenge. The producers give the bakers a specific, but flexible brief: make a torte cake. A torte is (usually) a flourless cake cut into layers with different fillings separating the layers, often using ground nuts to replace the wheat flour in the batter. This results in a denser, drier sponge with less of a rise than a traditional cake, with each flour substitute giving a slightly different texture and rise. The bakers use a wide range of ingredients: Danny goes for potato starch, Brendan for chestnut flour, and Sarah-Jane opts for ground amaretto biscuits. This helps immediately differentiate the bakes, even before the contestants get to their fillings and toppings. Unlike in “Tarts,” there isn’t a default “correct” choice to make. While there are trends (many of the bakers use chocolate), each torte feels distinct, from Ryan’s green tea sponge to James’ passionfruit-infused truffles to Cathryn’s coffee-soaked concoction. There’s a clear sense of focus in the tent, but the bakers feel relaxed and in their zone, which makes for exciting, rather than stressful, viewing.

Another immediate improvement from the previous episode is the decision to interview the bakers about the techniques they’re using. John’s explanation of how to make ganache is helpful and clear, as is Brendan’s aside on how to layer a torte. We still get a glimpse of competitors’ home lives, but for the most part we stay in the tent and that extra time is well used. Sue still has plenty of voiceover, but she takes advantage of the extra time in the tent to interact with the bakers and put them at ease. Her exchange with James is delightful, playing fashion police and complementing James’ now signature sweaters, and Sue Perkins: Spare Decorations Thief is perhaps the best Sue yet. She’s pure audience surrogacy in that moment, doing what everyone at home wishes they could, reaching out and nabbing some of the delicious food on display

When the judging comes, everyone seems to have done pretty well. Even Stuart, whose torte looks a mess, has good flavors and textures. However, because of the creativity and individuality of the bakes, the overall success of the bakers feels like a triumph, rather than a sign that the challenge was too simple. There wasn’t one way to succeed that the bakers all used, negating their agency in their win, they each found their own way to a successful bake, and that’s much more satisfying

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With the signature challenge out of the way, it’s time for the technical, and this episode, Mary has a doozy for them: make a crème caramel, or as it’s more commonly known stateside, flan. It’s another excellent challenge, tricky for its simplicity. There are only four ingredients and this time, the judges have been rather dastardly with their instructions. There’s only one short page for the bakers to work off of and it has helpful instructions like, “Make the custard.” Those who have experience making flan won’t have any trouble, but if it’s been a while, or if bakers have made other custards recently, but not this particular type, there’s a lot of room for error.

If the milk is too hot, it’ll scramble the eggs. If it’s too cold, the custard won’t come together. Crème brûlée, which many of the bakers are more familiar with, uses only egg yolks, not egg whites, and this leads both Manisha and Stuart to skip the whites in their custard mixtures. However as Stuart realizes to his dismay (and explains wonderfully), leaving out the whites robs the custard of the protein necessary for it to firm up and maintain its shape when turned out of the ramekins. Poor Manisha also has to do battle once again with one of her least favorite toppings, caramel (remember that it took her eight tries in “Tarts”), James is off his game, though his flan turns out alright, and Cathryn manages to break a ramekin when turning out her bake. All in all, it’s an exciting technical. There’s a range of results, with Manisha and Stuart at the bottom and Brendan and Danny at the top, but more importantly, as Brendan says, the bakers are, “working on instinct, not knowledge,” and that’s precisely what the technical challenge is supposed to force them to do.

Rounding out the weekend’s baking is the showstopper challenge, and once again, the producers have come up with an excellent brief: make a four-layer meringue. They don’t specify French, Italian, or Swiss meringue, giving the bakers plenty of leeway to design their own bakes, they just require four layers of meringue and some form of filling. Bakers go with mousse, cream, fresh fruit, even sponge to separate their layers and once again, each confection looks fabulous and feels unique to its baker. During this portion of the episode, it’s Danny who explains the science of what they’re doing, and does so clearly and succinctly. Her advice will come in handy the next time this baker tries her hand at meringues (head to the strays for a particularly traumatic Baked Alaska experience).

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While most of the bakers seem energized, Stuart and Ryan are feeling the pressure. Both have had a rough weekend and need their meringues to come together to avoid going home. Adding to the tension is the rain that starts coming down partway through the bake. As Paul, the voice over, and several bakers note, the meringues need to dry completely and take at least two hours to do so. One imagines that baking in a tent outside while it’s raining would impact the meringues’ dry times tremendously, but the bakers take it in stride. It’s surprising this doesn’t get a little more attention from Sue or the judges, but since it doesn’t seem to be throwing the bakers off too much, and the episode is running long, asides about the rain may easily have ended up on the cutting room floor. Either way, the bakers work away with few interruptions and, aside from Ryan’s last minute meringue re-do, everyone seems fairly happy with their bakes when it’s time for judging.

While the meringues look good and most of them fulfill the visual requirements of a showstopper bake, very few of the bakers knock this challenge out of the park. Several struggle with too many flavors or a lack of balance to their proportions, textures, and flavors. Only Brendan and John receive unreserved praise, though as usual, both Paul and Mary are specific and constructive in their critiques. In an episode with such terrific baking across the board and such a clear understanding of the challenge from many of the bakers, it’s surprising that so few managed to hit the nail on its head. Perhaps the brief was too general and they needed more direction, perhaps they were more thrown than anticipated by the weather, or perhaps it’s just a learning curve and they’ll continue to tweak their flavors and textures in the coming episodes. However, the mediocre response from Paul and Mary only mildly detracts from what is an entertaining and engaging episode.

With the episode running short on time, “Desserts” skips the usual judge deliberations and heads right to the results: Brendan snags Star Baker and unfortunately, Stuart is headed home. Paul makes sure to compliment his abilities—Stuart is clearly a talented baker—but he’s been struggling for a while, particularly with presentation, and with the other bakers raising their game, it’s Stuart’s time. Ryan is relieved, but given his past performance, it’ll take a significant turnaround for him to stick in the competition much longer. We’ll see if he can do it next episode, as the bakers tackle pie!

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Stray observations

  • My paternal grandmother used to make Baked Alaska when I was young, so one year I got it into my head that I’d make individual mini Baked Alaskas for my brother’s birthday. Reader, I must have tried four, five times to get my meringue to stiffen, to no avail. I got yolk in the mixture the first time and had to throw it out, I washed the bowl and utensils and dried them thoroughly and tried again, and nothing. I called over my parents and they couldn’t get it to work either, despite having made meringues plenty of times in the past. We tried again and again, and the best we could get was a pathetic soft peak. As you can imagine, it didn’t hold up in the oven and dessert wound up being frozen, almost impossible to eat chunks of ice cream for everyone else and a mess in the oven for my mini-Baked Alaska. I’ve avoided meringues ever since.
  • Eventually, I’ll be able to think of layered meringues without going immediately to Dobby and Petunia Dursley. Not yet, though.
  • Sue is spot on with her fashion critiques. John is particularly entertaining in the signature challenge. He’s straight out of Dreamy Teen Rom-Com Central Casting with his deep V and hair flopping distractedly in his eyes. And he has no idea, which is perfect- he just wants his darn ganache to work!
  • Speaking of Sue, she’s terrific throughout the episode. Her exchange with Manisha, her glee at getting to taste James’ meringue, her assessment of Brendan’s torte as, “a flourless antidepressant,” it’s all wonderful.
  • Team String Player has a strong showing this episode, with Brendan winning Star Baker and James winning our hearts with his delightful “inclement weather” appropriate sweater vests.
  • Also making strides in the social game they don’t know they’re playing are Cathryn and Danny, who are lovely throughout. Cathryn is particularly relatable, with her admission she’s, “always tempted to eat the chocolate while I’m cooking,” that her bake, “can look slightly monstrous” and that she has, “found it hard to make it look… delicate.” You and me both, Cathryn. You and me both.
  • It may not be to Paul’s taste, but Manisha’s meringue looks gorgeous. That lady can pipe!

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