Photo: Love Productions (PBS)

The scent of fruit, pastry cream, and innuendo is in the air- it’s tart week at The Great British Baking Show! Mel and Sue barely have time to lampshade the pastry puns they won’t be deploying this episode before we’re off to the races, with the bakers back in the tent and ready to get to work. For the signature challenge, they must make a tarte tatin, a sweet or savory caramel fruit tart made by putting caramel and fruit in the bottom of a pan, covering them with pastry, and baking the tart pastry-side up before removing the tart from the oven and inverting it to present a caramelized fruit topping with a perfectly baked pastry crust underneath. Apple and pear are the traditional choices for tarte tatin, but the bakers are free to use whatever fruit they’d like.

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It’s a straightforward challenge, and likely a tasty one, but it’s far from the show’s most inspiring. The signature bake is theoretically all about personal, unique flavors, yet all but three of the bakers opt for apples and/or pears for their tart, and for good reason. Apples and (not quite ripe) pears have sturdy textures that hold up well to baking, and both caramelize without releasing too much excess moisture, which would ruin the pastry. The bakers spice things up with different secondary flavors (Brendan uses ginger, Danny goes savory with Roquefort cheese, and James gambles on the potentially medicinal-tasting lavender), but on the whole, the tarts look and sound very similar to one another.

The big exceptions are Victoria, who struggles with her fig, walnut, and pink peppercorn tart, Cathryn, whose plum, cherry, and five spice tart earns a “quite scrummy” from Mary despite the excess moisture from the stone fruit leaving the tart somewhat soupy, and Sarah-Jane, who knocks it out of the park with her caramelized banana tart. Seasoned fans of The Great British Baking Show will know Paul Hollywood is a massive fan of a well-executed banana and toffee combo, and that, along with the sameness of the other tarts, leaves Sarah-Jane in good position at the end of the first round.

Perhaps the bakers should have been more creative with the signature challenge, but their desire to play things safe is understandable. The producers should have planned for a more interesting assignment, particularly as the signature bake only two episodes prior was upside-down cake. By this point in the show’s run, the producers should know better, and PBS’ decision to air “Tarts” only a week after “Cakes” (because of the two-episode premiere) highlights the similarities of these two early challenges, neither of which is especially memorable or striking.

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Thankfully, while the challenge itself isn’t all that engaging, there are a number of entertaining moments with the bakers that keep things moving. Both Mary and Paul have fun psyching out the contestants, we meet Ryan’s adorable daughter Molly, and Danny is utterly charming as she nerds out to the judges over her tarte tatin. Her discussion of the tweaks she’s made to her recipe, looking for the right balance of sweet and savory, is interesting and her passion is endearing. It’s exactly the kind of conversations the show should be spotlighting, letting the bakers give the audience a glimpse into their process rather than plugging in narration from Mel and Sue to fill in the gaps. While both hosts are around, they have surprisingly little onscreen time, at least compared to their many hushed voiceovers. This distances the viewers, putting Mel and Sue—and by extension the audience—at a remove, commenting upon the action rather than experiencing it in the moment.

Both are much more present during the technical challenge: treacle tart. This Mary Berry recipe is a British staple, a tarte with a thin pastry crust and a golden syrup, breadcrumb, and lemon juice filling. Mary has specifically requested a woven lattice top for the tart, but what the bakers may not realize is that the pastry for the lattice will stick to the filling as soon as it’s laid on top of it, making the lattice very challenging to weave. A few bakers manage to find solutions to this challenge, but overall, it’s the contestants’ main stumbling point. Stuart realizes with 40 minutes left that he’s made a mistake with the filling, but otherwise, things seem to go swimmingly. This makes for another rather straightforward challenge, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also another weaving or plaiting technical challenge, right after the eight plait technical in “Bread.” Though most do a decent job, a couple bakers struggle, including Sarah-Jane, who breaks the audience’s heart as she puts herself down, berating herself for her creativity and whimsy, two of her most lovable traits.

The treacle tart, like the tarte tatin, may be a somewhat underwhelming challenge, but what does work well is the judging. Paul and Mary do a terrific job of demonstrating the texture and flakiness they expect from well-made pastry, and they help the audience understand what to look for when baking at home. The closeups on the crusts show the slight differences in color and texture between a perfect bake and one that’s just under, and Paul’s gentle scraping with his knife demonstrates the structural integrity of the appropriately baked crusts versus the flaky, slightly soggy crust of those that are under-baked.

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After a somewhat repetitive and disappointing day one, “Tarts” has some catching up to do in day two. Fortunately, this episode delivers with its showstopper challenge. The bakers must create an ornate, pastry case-ready fruit tart, and they do not disappoint. Every single tart looks beautiful, and the flavors the bakers play with are some of their most inventive and enticing yet. James clinches Star Baker (after winning the technical) with his rose, lychee, and raspberry fruit tart, which both Paul and Mary are over the moon for. Mary says it’s the first rose tart she’s ever had, and based on the tone of her voice, it won’t be the last. Stuart recovers ground with his absolutely gorgeous raspberry triple chocolate layer tart, and Sarah-Jane more than makes up for any technical challenge wobbles with the delicate apple-slice flower design on her French apple tart with blackberry and cassis jam.

Not only are these tarts visually stunning, the range of ingredients and designs attempted by the bakers lead to a much wider array of outcomes. Some have good flavors but a less-than-ideal bake, some are perfectly baked, but are less original. This makes for more engaging television, as the audience decides who they’re rooting for, whose tarts look most appetizing, and whose technical errors they’re most willing to overlook because those sugar spirals are just darling, or because sponge? In a tart? How have we never tried this before? This is the level of baking fans tune in to The Great British Baking Show to see and the pride and excitement most of the bakers feel over their showstoppers is infectious. Alas, someone must go home and this episode, it’s Victoria, whose weekend never quite came together. As Cathryn notes, Victoria may be headed home, but she’s a terrific baker nonetheless. She more than proved her acumen in “Cakes” with her lovely blackbird pie cake, and her creativity will be missed in the tent.

Next week, the sugar rush continues as the remaining bakers take on desserts. Cavities for everyone!

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Stray observations

  • Danny’s yelp of glee when her tarte tatin turns out is exactly what I needed after another exhausting, anxiety-ridden week of real-world terribleness. Sometimes you just need a win, even if it’s a vicarious one. Way to go, Danny!
  • Speaking of anxiety, anyone else fully on board with those fighting with their caramel? The number of times I’ve turned a pan into a grainy mess with a thoughtless stir, or burned one by leaving it unattended too long…
  • We find out this episode that not only is James a bassist, he plays with his sister at their local pub. Welcome to team string player, James!
  • Fellow team string player Brendan, you’re making it hard to root for you this episode with those ridiculously massive apples. Your blackberry, nectarine, and dragon fruit tart looks tasty, though.
  • Mel, no one wants to imagine Paul and Mary naked! (Well, this is the internet. Never say “no one.”) And Sue, thank you for your valiant work, defending James and his tart from those mutated macarons.

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