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The Great British Baking Show’s holiday specials are a cheery way to ring in the season

Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show: Holidays
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Fresh off the series 10 finale of The Great British Baking Show, Netflix has decided to ring in the start of the holiday season by releasing a new installment of The Great British Baking Show: Holidays. These two episodes will be familiar to UK viewers and fans—they originally aired as Christmas and New Year’s Day specials last year—but for American fans looking for another serving of Baking Show magic, they hit the spot. Both episodes have their moments, and the first of the two episodes, “The Great Christmas Baking Show” will be particularly appreciated by those who found the season 10 cast too young, as it features fan-favorites Jane Beedle (season seven finalist) and Flo Atkins (season eight), along with Andrew Smyth (season seven finalist) and Liam Charles (season eight). However, this write-up will focus on the second episode, the 2019 New Year’s Day special.

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The Great British Baking Show is incredibly well suited to one-off holiday specials. Not only is home baking more popular and prevalent during the holiday season, standalone episodes are a great way to bring back fan-favorite bakers without the pressure or commitment of a full series. There’s no eliminations, so bakers needn’t worry about tarnishing their Bake Off track records, and for those who got eliminated in their original seasons, it’s an opportunity to come back and snag one more Star Baker title. The producers have cast the specials well over the years and that continues with “The Great Festive Baking Show.” Season five favorite Kate Henry is back, along with season six runner-up Tamal Ray, season seven winner Candice Brown, and season eight runner-up Steven Carter-Bailey. Each of these bakers proved themselves in their original seasons, delivering on flavor and presentation, and they’re all clearly excited to be back in the tent.

The episode dives right in, trusting viewers to remember the bakers from their seasons and wasting no time before the signature challenge. The bakers must make a festive, highly decorated stollen wreath. Stollen is a German enriched bread, often made with marzipan and dried or candied fruit, and it’s particularly popular as a holiday treat. It requires a lot of proving time and a lengthy bake, so finishing in three hours will be quite challenging. The bakers get right to work, and while it’s been a while for some of the competitors, they’ve all clearly been practicing. They know precisely what they need to do and while they’re all having a blast, fully appreciating this rare opportunity to return to the Bake Off tent, they’re also focused. The lengthy proving and baking times give plenty of opportunity for decorations, and most of the bakers fill every moment. Steven crafts a silver stag (Stanley) and decorates nuts and cherries, Candice makes and decorates marzipan apples, and Kate rolls tiny golden balls and plans her bake to allow for lots of piping time, covering her stollen in precise dots of frosting. Tamal is a bit thrown, having focused more on his flavors than his decorations for the signature round. He pipes some orange leaves, giving an autumnal feel, but that’s about it, and after seeing the others’ designs, he’s a bit self-conscious.

Fortunately for Tamal, he gets high marks for his flavors. While his stollen is a little under-baked, Paul and Prue like the look of it, and Prue in particular loves the pistachio marzipan, calling it a revelation. Candice’s stollen looks beautiful, but in a milder repeat of her season seven bread woes, it’s significantly under-baked, with Paul calling it raw—it’s not actually raw—and Prue agreeing that it’s overly stodgy. Steven and Kate have better luck, each earning Paul Hollywood Handshakes. Steven’s dough is perfectly baked and Stanley the stag turned out great, and Kate’s stunning wreath is complimented for its flavors and textures as well as her gorgeous piping work.

Judges’ example technical: Snow eggs
Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show: Holidays
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It’s time for the technical. Prue has set the brief this episode, and it’s an interesting one. The bakers must make four snow eggs. These are a French dessert consisting of steamed meringues floating atop a crème anglaise (custard), with a thin, hard caramel dome on top. Prue does a good job of walking Paul and the audience through the pitfalls of the challenge, and it’s fun to watch the bakers tackle these issues throughout the round. Steven under-thickens his crème anglaise, for example, causing Candice, who nails her custard, to doubt herself when hers is much thicker than everyone else’s. And everyone massively over-bakes their meringues, over-thinking the amount of time allotted for the challenge.

The end of the technical is particularly delightful. Having over-baked their meringues—40 minutes or so, instead of the 12 they should have gone with—the bakers don’t have enough time to make their caramel cages, so it’s a mad dash for the finish. The bakers scramble to get something caramel-y on the plate while Noel and Sandi, freed from the constraints of a more formal, competitive episode, stretch for time as they call the end of the technical round. Kate, who had the hardest time with her caramel, winds up in fourth place. Tamal takes third, due to his massively over-cooked meringue and underwhelming caramel, and Candice takes second, thanks to her beautiful custard. Despite having the worst custard, Steven walks away with first thanks to nailing both his caramel and meringue (at least, compared to the others).

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The holiday theme, while clearly present in the briefs for the first two challenges, comes into sharp focus for the showstopper challenge. The bakers must make a three dimensional New Year’s resolution cake, choosing a New Year’s resolution and then embodying that concept in cake. Candice decides she’ll wear more lipstick, making a giant pair of lips out of orange and raspberry sponges and a tube of lipstick out of mint chocolate sponge and ganache. Tamal wants to make a suit that actually fits him, tired of settling for ill-fitting clothes off the rack, so he designs a chocolate brownie and hazelnut tailor’s dummy with an in-process vest. Kate dreams of opening a restaurant, so she’s building and decorating a pastillage (strong, but brittle sugar icing) restaurant exterior for her pistachio and black currant cake building. Steven takes the challenge and runs with it, recreating his grandmother’s desk—complete with chocolate, coffee, and hazelnut rotary phone, notepad, and tea, along with fondant address book, pencil, and doily—to represent his resolution to work on his communication skills.

Screenshot: The Great British Baking Show: Holidays
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Unsurprisingly, the bakers with the clearest concepts and strongest connection to their resolutions wind up doing the best. Candice gets dinged by Paul and especially Prue for being too heavy with the mint in her lipstick tube, and while her cakes taste good otherwise, they’re too messy for Paul. Tamal’s dummy is instantly recognizable and his cake smells wonderful, but the cake itself is too dense. He had a good idea, but needed more finesse in his execution. Kate’s showstopper looks gorgeous, despite the crack in her pastillage roof, and both Paul and Prue rave over her flavors. Bright green pistachio sponge with vibrant purple black currant ganache may not be the most instinctual pairing, but in Kate’s hands, and in 12 neat layers, they’re delicious. As for Steven, his showstopper not only looks remarkable, it’s entirely edible, down to the delicate fondant doily. Paul loves the combination of Steven’s flavors and textures, as does Prue, and they both love his concept; the detail, storytelling, and execution of his showstopper sets him apart.

It’s no surprise when Steven is declared Star Baker and thankfully, the episode doesn’t stretch for time or try to build too much suspense before announcing the winner. The judges are careful, though, to commend each of the bakers for their strengths and single out Kate in particular for her work over the weekend. It’s a nice touch, and is appropriate to the tone of the series and the special itself. All in all, “The Great Festive Baking Show” is a pleasant, entertaining diversion, and a lovely reminder of The Great British Baking Show’s many charms.

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Stray observations

  • I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this special. The format works exceptionally well as a fun, but not overly stressful way to celebrate past bakers and spend a bit more time with them.
  • This special doubles as a nice bit of holiday baking inspo for the home bakers watching. I may try my hand at those snow eggs this winter.
  • The holiday remix of the opening theme, with added bells and percussion, is a nice touch.
  • The producers obviously cast for talent, but they also made sure to pick bakers who they knew would have fun being back in the tent. The double entendres are everywhere this episode, and they’re greatly appreciated. Some favorites: Candice’s “sausage is going inside,” followed by what at least feels like an organic moment of realization; Steven’s, “It’s a festive time of year. Why not roll your nuts in dust,” and “Scatter my nuts and glitter my cherries”; and of course, Kate’s, “The detail’s on the front, but you’ve got to have a little bit of back door action,” both for Kate’s delivery and Candice’s reaction.
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