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The Great British Baking Show struggles to balance surprise and satisfaction in “Roaring ’20s Week”

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Season 10 has been an interesting one. Challenge and theme fatigue has set in, with the producers stretching to find new ground, with mixed results. The bakers themselves are lovely—they’re supremely watchable and clearly talented—but the showstopper bakes in particular haven’t lived up to the high bar set by previous seasons and this season’s bakers have surprising blind spots. Noel and Sandi are in fine form as hosts and Prue in particular seems very comfortable in her role as judge, but several episodes this season have suffered from a lack of narrative build, with the eliminations feeling arbitrary, not adequately supported by the preceding commentary and judging. “Roaring ’20s Week” highlights each of these conflicting traits, putting the season’s contradictions into stark relief.

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The episode kicks off with the bakers for once not concerned with the theme of the week, still smarting from their poor showing in the “Dairy Week” technical. The tone at the beginning of the episode is almost apologetic, and not just from the bakers, but the show itself. “Roaring ’20s Week” begins with a signature challenge that would have been more at home in the previous episode: custard tarts. The bakers must make four highly decorated, open-top tarts that set while they’re baking. They must use short crust pastry and keep to the episode’s ’20s theme for their decorations. Most of the bakers opt for citrus flavors, with lemon and lime the most popular, but a few go another way. Rosie goes with blackberry, Michelle chooses blueberry and white chocolate, and David goes with a classic: vanilla.

The signature is a fun one. Each of the flavor combinations sounds absolutely delicious and for a signature bake, the decorations are surprisingly detailed. There’s also plenty of delightful baker and host interactions. With fewer contestants, there’s more space for the episode to breathe, and that allows for more personal moments, like vet Rosie’s digression into not liking to work on rabbits, who “just want to die.” Rosie has flown under the radar this season, consistently delivering on her flavors but winding up just outside of Star Baker contention. Her blackberry tarts with decorative flower domes seem poised to put her over the top, until she misjudges her force while moving her tarts and one goes sliding off the counter, splatting across the floor. The editors do a wonderful job of building suspense throughout the tart de-tinning sequence, but it’s the extra connection viewers feel with Rosie that makes this moment all the more devastating. She breathes a tiny, “Oh.” and freezes for a moment, before returning to her work. The other bakers try to comfort her, but they know there’s nothing they can do or say, and a pall hangs over Rosie, and the audience, for the rest of the segment.

When judging comes, Paul and Prue barely mention her missing tart, though, focusing instead on her misjudged decorations—the jelly flower domes melted—and under-baked matcha tea pastry. She’s not the only baker to get mixed reviews. Helena’s sea monster tarts look amazing, but her heavy hand with the lavender leaves them tasting soapy. Alice and Michelle also struggle with their flavors, Henry’s tarts are over-baked, and Priya has a particularly hard time of it, having boiled her custard. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael seems to have just missed a Paul Hollywood Handshake, having under-filled his delicious and delicately balanced tarts, Steph packs lots of citrus punch into hers and is commended on their flavor, and David’s simple vanilla tarts are deemed “exquisite” by Prue and “perfect” by Paul, earning him the second handshake of the season.

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For the technical challenge, Prue again dips into the past, keeping to the episode’s theme. The bakers must make 18 beignet souffles, along with a sabayon sauce. Beignets, apparently very popular in the ’20s, are small fried doughnuts made from choux pastry, filled with jam and dusted with powdered sugar. As in “Dairy Week,” every single baker is lost. None of them have even heard of beignets. Several of the bakers are familiar with choux pastry, but no one seems confident with how to get the right consistency for their dough. It needs to puff up when fried, creating air pockets for the jam to go in, but only a few manage to get the chemistry right. Michael’s having a particular time of it, his batter (rather than dough) refusing to fry. Noel comes over and is able to comfort and reassure Michael, who powers through his frustration and tears and finishes the technical, presenting a complete, if somewhat sad, plate for the judges.

Helena nabs first place in the technical, followed by Priya and Henry. Each of them deliver decent to good beignets, but fail on their sabayon. Down at the bottom, David’s bakes are raw on the inside and closer to churros than beignets, and Michael’s are closer to blinis, though he’s one of the few to deliver a good sabayon. Everyone else muddles in the middle, and for the second week in a row, the judges seem perfectly happy to throw out the technical. Helena is over the moon with her first place finish, and the other bakers are pleased as punch for her, but when Noel and Sandi ask Paul and Prue about their rankings going into the showstopper, Priya doesn’t seem to have been given any boost by her number two finish, and Michael doesn’t seem to be in any trouble for his second-to-last placement. In what has become an increasingly irritating staple of the series, everything will come down to the showstopper.

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For their showstoppers, the bakers are tasked with creating a two-tier Prohibition Era cake, a cocktail-flavored cake with ’20s-themed decorations. The judges emphasize that the cakes need to be elaborately decorated, but none of the bakers seem to have gotten the brief. They look fine, but none have the elegance and finish viewers have come to expect from Baking Show showstoppers. This is one of the weakest showings of the season, and the challenge itself seems more suited to a signature challenge, given the emphasis on cocktail flavors.

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Four bakers take inspiration from piña coladas, and of them, Steph knocks her cake out of the park, impressing Paul with her lime sponges. Alice’s pineapple-heavy recipe is dinged for looking messy, but at least comes together into a good, but clumsy cake, and Priya’s passion fruit bake looks rushed and incomplete, though Prue appreciates her delicate flavors. Michelle gets knocked for having overly-complicated decorations—a surprising critique in a showstopper challenge—and Paul doesn’t like her inclusion of coconut in her cake. Rosie edges past Henry in the battle of the White Russians, though neither hits it out of the park, David gets high marks for his Amaretto Sour cake despite it starting to collapse in from its weight, and Michael’s Bramble cake is complemented for its flavor if not its design. Paul is not fond of Helena’s Vampire’s Kiss cake, calling it bland and dry, and Prue wants more raspberry flavor, but she at least seems on board with Helena’s sinister, yet pretty design.

The judges and producers seem intent on delivering suspenseful, dramatic eliminations this season, but rather than making for more exciting episodes, the hard-to-read critiques wind up making the eliminations feel arbitrary. This episode, despite a first place finish in the technical and mixed comments for her signature, Helena is cut for her showstopper, apparently for prioritizing look over taste. Her elimination, though, feels more driven by a lack of interest and respect for her spooky aesthetic than her actual baking. Michelle also gets the chop, the judges deploying their double-elimination powers this episode. She also got mixed reviews for her signature, and admittedly lower marks than Helena, and struggled in the technical. Her elimination comes out of the blue, though, because of the judges’ comparatively even comments on her showstopper. Were coconut flakes really enough to put her over the edge?

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With such a likable and even field of bakers, the judges need to do a better job of demonstrating their thought processes. This is the third episode with a somewhat surprise elimination, and that makes for frustrating, rather than exciting reality competition TV. That being said, congratulations are in order for Steph, who is awarded Star Baker for the second week in a row. She’s starting to get an insecure-frontrunner edit, and there’s nothing Baking Show loves more in a winner than some cathartic validation. Fortunately, she has the baking chops to deserve a place in the finale. David is right there with her at the front of the pack, but the other two spots will come down to endurance and creativity. With a return to the more standard “Desserts Week” next episode, hopefully the landscape will become a bit clearer, and the results and overall viewing experience will be more satisfying.

Stray observations

Seriously, how have none of the bakers heard of beignets? I am not used to knowing more than the Baking Show contestants; it feels very strange. Granted, my associations with beignets are all tied to New Orleans cuisine, but still. Anyone curious about this topic, and up for a thrilling but at times devastating glimpse into post-Katrina New Orleans, particularly the food and music scenes, check out David Simon’s Treme.

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I’m with you Helena. A Noel Fielding Hug is much more meaningful than a Paul Hollywood Handshake.

Paul doesn’t think coconut flakes belong in cake? Has he never had a good coconut cake? Shout-out to Alton Brown’s delicious, though time-consuming, coconut cake recipe.

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Michael’s emotions may get the better of him eventually, but good for him for pushing through this episode. Plenty of people respond to stress with tears, and as he rightly says, #RealMenCry.

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