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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Great British Baking Show bubbles itself off to serve up new, but familiar flavors

The Great British Baking Show
The Great British Baking Show
Screenshot: Netflix
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2020 has been full of twists and turns, many of them overwhelming and terrible. Viewers are stuck at home and placing a premium on comfort TV, so why let a pandemic get in the way of a beloved reality TV institution? That’s right, The Great British Baking Show is back, promising familiar favorites and plenty of gentle uplift. The season begins by acknowledging the pandemic in the room. Rather than the typical weekends-only shooting schedule, the contestants this season will be bubbled off with the crew, hopefully quarantining the production from COVID-19. This will dramatically change the experience of filming. Instead of continuing their daily lives between episodes, the bakers will be in isolation, unable to visit family or work their day jobs, and the whole season will be shot in six weeks, rather than the typical 12. They’ll also be unable to practice their signature and showstopper bakes and otherwise prepare. The Bake Off tent is known for its supportive and cheery atmosphere. Hopefully that won’t change when the contestants hit week five in the bubble.

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Also new this season is host Matt Lucas, who steps in for Sandi Toksvig. Matt is perhaps best known to American audiences for his time on Doctor Who as companion Nardole, but he’ll be familiar to fans of British comedy for his sketch series Little Britain. The premiere wastes little time, starting with a quick explanation of the show’s COVID-19 prevention measures before diving right in. The signature challenge is straightforward: Bake a Battenberg cake. This feels like a familiar bake, but it hasn’t been used as an official challenge since series two, when it was the first technical of the season. It’s similar in theory to series 10’s kek lapis Sarawak showstopper, but much more straightforward, and a good starting point for bakers intimidated by the complex patterns expected in a Sarawak.

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The bakers need to bake two contrasting flavor sponges which they’ll cut and layer together into a pattern, using jam to adhere the parts into one whole, rectangular cake. The traditional pattern is a checked square, but more ambitious bakers can think outside the box. Then the whole cake should be wrapped in marzipan, and Paul and Prue have specified that they expect the bakers to make theirs from scratch. They’ll be looking for smooth marzipan, a distinct pattern, and a dramatic color difference between the sponges. Plus of course, it needs to taste delicious.

As the bakers work on their Battenbergs, the episode sets about introducing all 12 bakers. Loriea is a radiographer working for the NHS and she’s making a blue bubblegum-flavored Battenberg. Laura volunteers and likes to garden, and is going for raspberry ripple and coconut. Pantomime producer Lottie likes Viking metal and yoga, and she’s ambitiously tackling a star design with her rhubarb and custard cake. Dave, an armored security guard, opts for a boozy approach, with a chocolate espresso martini Battenberg. Single dad Marc—who we may call Hamish, after his dog—is using strong flavors: sour cherry, chocolate, walnut, and rosewater. Then there’s 20-year-old accountancy student Peter, the youngest this season, who’s baking a gluten-free Battenberg. His will be chocolate and orange and is inspired by his wheat-intolerant brother, Andrew.

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

Sura is a hospital pharmacist and she’s using citrus, both lemon and orange. Project manager Mark is missing his anniversary for Bake Off, so he’s taken inspiration from Turkish flavors he and his wife both love: pistachio, cardamom, pomegranate, and orange. Music teacher Rowan channels Mozart’s The Magic Flute for his Battenberg, focusing less on his lemon and vanilla flavors and more on a complex interior design. Linda works in supportive housing and she’s dedicating her raspberry and vanilla ambulance-shaped cake to her late cousin, a paramedic. Management accountant and beekeeper Mak is making what he calls an East India Battenberg, with spiced stem ginger and orange sponges and pistachio marzipan. Last is Hermine, a training accountant who like Peter is going with dark chocolate and orange, even using marmalade in her marzipan. She’s not particularly confident, however- she’s much more into French patisserie.

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All seems to be going well at the beginning, but by the end of their allotted two hours, several of the bakers are scrambling. Rowan’s sponges are raw in the middle, so he throws them in the microwave. No Temple of Enlightenment interior for his Battenberg. Lottie can’t punt on her design like Rowan does, but she does regret going above and beyond with her star pattern. Sura may have a straightforward square shape, but her cakes are crispy, the batter having overflowed the pan. There’s enough tension in the tent that the episode skips right over whatever injuries led to both Rowan and Sura sporting Band-Aids by the end of the bake.

The first moment of truth has arrived, the judging for the signature. The bakers overall do well. Peter’s gluten-free Battenberg, complete with polka dot marzipan, is rich and decadent. Hermine’s is visually striking and flavorful. Dave’s may be lacking on the boozy flavor—that’ll happen when you put vodka up against coffee—but as a coffee and vanilla cake, it’s delicious. Sura gets high marks as well for her pretty, well-textured cake. Even Lottie, who struggled with her cuts, is praised for her striped marzipan and delicious, if not distinct, sponges and rhubarb jam. In the middle of the pack are Mark, who has good texture from his pistachios, but needs more pomegranate; Laura, whose sponge is good but lacks raspberry flavor; and Mak, whose Battenberg is neat, but overly complicated. That leaves four at the bottom: Marc, Rowan, Linda, and Loriea. Marc gets dinged for too much rosewater and his busy decorations. Rowan’s night sky marzipan is praised, but his cake is too heavy, due to the excess moisture that didn’t bake out. Both Linda and Loriea have the opposite problem- their cakes are bone dry.

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

With the signature done, it’s time for the dreaded technical. Paul has been rather kind to the bakers for the premiere. They’ll need to make six mini pineapple upside-down cakes. Each cake will need to be topped with a fresh pineapple ring, caramel syrup, whipped cream, and a cherry. A few bakers have made the cake previously, but most of them are unfamiliar with it. Full size upside-down cakes were the premiere signature for series three, and the show has asked for the not dissimilar tarte tatin a couple times previously, but adding the stumbling block of whether the pineapple and caramel will keep the mini cakes from turning out adds enough of a spin to make this a solid starter technical. The bakers struggle a bit with their caramel—always a tricky one—but on the whole, the bake goes smoothly. There’s a moment of drama at the end, when Sura bumps into Dave and knocks several of his cakes to the ground, but fortunately a couple are spared, and Dave is judged based purely on these.

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In the end, timing and caramel issues are the main hurdles for the bakers, with several piping their cream while their cakes were still too hot. A few overbaked theirs, while only Loriea under-baked hers, and the top four all delivered tasty, neat bakes. Linda is in last place, with her self-described pineapple fritters, followed by Marc, Loriea, Dave, Mak, Mark, and Laura. Hermine is fifth, her melted cream knocking her down in the rankings, and Lottie and Rowan are fourth and third, and both Peter and Sura get high marks for their lovely cakes, putting them second and first. Sura can’t enjoy her win, however, as she’s still clearly upset and feeling guilty at having knocked into Dave.

The next day, Linda, Marc, and Loriea are in trouble heading into the showstopper, while Sura, Peter, and Hermine are on track to duke it out for star baker. A lot can change with this bake though, as the bakers have been tasked with making a three-dimensional cake bust of their personal celebrity hero. This is an excellent showstopper challenge. Everything may be cake in 2020, but the concoctions that have blown up online certainly took more than four hours to bake, cool, and decorate. This will take a lot of creativity and engineering awareness from the bakers, and it’s a good counterbalance to the more straightforward signature and technical rounds.

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

The challenge also allows a window into the personalities of the bakers, which is helpful for viewers who are trying to determine rooting interests between 12 new bakers. Several of the competitors choose singers. Marc is making a chocolate and vanilla Ziggy Stardust, Linda a lemon and orange Bob Marley, Laura a lemon and elderflower Freddie Mercury, and Dave a mint, strawberry, and dark chocolate Tom DeLonge. Peter’s the only baker to take on an athlete, racer Chris Hoy, and Mark and Rowan go for historical figures, Mark with a ginger, chocolate, and coconut Charles Darwin and Rowan with a cherry and chocolate Marie Antoinette. Loriea and Mak opt for writers, with Loriea making a chili, chocolate, mango, and ginger Louise Bennett-Coverley and Mak a lemon madeira, red current, and vanilla Bill Bryson. As for film and television, they’re represented by Sura’s coconut and raspberry David Attenborough, Lottie’s coconut and lime Louis Theroux, and Hermine’s coffee and chocolate Lupita Nyong’o.

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The results are a mixed bag. Only Lottie has the idea to base her showstopper on a skull-shaped cake, so few of the faces look particularly realistic. Some of the bakers manage pull it off. Lottie’s looks great, as does Rowan’s, Mak’s, and Dave’s, but some of the others’ attempts are best forgotten—Hermine and Loriea’s especially. The bigger question is the flavor. Ultimately, Rowan, Linda, Peter, Hermine, Mark, Sura, and Laura deliver flavorful, delicious showstoppers. Lottie, Mak, and Marc overbake theirs, but still manage good flavors, and Dave and Loriea are the two who really struggle. Dave’s mint is overpowering, giving a toothpaste feel, while Loriea’s heavy spicing is too much for both Paul and Prue.

Laura in particular is relieved at her showstopper critiques, convinced she’d be headed home if she hadn’t at least nailed her flavors. After his comments, Marc is steeling himself to have his name called, but he’s spared. The first baker eliminated is Loriea, due to her low placement in the technical and dry, flavor-challenged signature and showstopper. She leaves with her head held high, though, proud of having even qualified for the show and for staying true to herself during the process. There’s a lot of personality in the tent and plenty of talent, with first star baker Peter a particular one to watch. A lot will hinge on how the changes to the filming schedule impact the bakers, but for now, viewers look to be in for another entertaining, inspiring, and tempting season of The Great British Baking Show.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to The Great British Baking Show coverage! I’m glad to be covering the show again and I look forward to seeing how filming in a bubble, and with a compressed schedule, impacts the beats of the show.
  • A word on numbering. The A.V. Club began covering Bake Off in 2018, when PBS aired series three of The Great British Bake Off (GBBO), which they called season five of GBBS. This same season is available on Netflix as The Great British Baking Show: The Beginnings. We opted for the PBS numbering. But then the show moved entirely to Netflix, and when we covered series 10 of GBBO in 2019, we opted for the U.K. numbering rather than the Netflix title, GBBS collection seven. The current season is series 11 of GBBO on Channel 4 and collection eight of GBBS on Netflix, and we’ve stuck with the U.K. numbering.
  • This season will be airing on Tuesdays on Channel 4 in the U.K., but on Fridays on Netflix. That means spoilers are likely to abound online in the days between, particularly as the season starts heating up. Plan your social media intake accordingly.
  • The Channel 4 premiere began with a political sketch that is excised entirely for Netflix. It served to introduce new host Matt Lucas and while it’s not a huge loss, the lack of any mention of previous host Sandi Toksvig feels strange. Matt is fine as a host, but I definitely missed Sandi in the premiere.
  • Peter citing John Whaite—or more accurately, John Whaite’s mum—from Bake Off series three for how he knows his cake is done is delightful.
  • Prue can’t stop eating the pineapple upside-down mini cake examples. How far she’s come from her calorie-counting introduction.
  • I’m pleasantly surprised that Sura was allowed to prop up her showstopper after it fell over. A harsher show would have left it, since time had been called. Her piping bag pillow and pitch that he’s sleeping was a creative solution.
  • As a musician, I’m currently rooting for Rowan, but I’m already on board with several of the bakers, including Sura, Peter, and Laura.
  • I did not expect to feel such a wave of emotion at the end of the episode as everyone says goodbye to Loriea. It feels strange to see people interacting in the tent without masks, but it’s even more jarring to see them pull each other close for a hug. I would not have guessed in 2019 that the part of the 2020 Bake Off experience that would be the most vicariously thrilling would be the hugs.
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