“The Great British Baking Show” Inspires More than Pastry
The Joy of Cooking
I’ve been a keen and devoted home baker for about four years now, and it’s no secret to anyone that my interest was encouraged by two things, both very Special & Important.
The first was my friend Emma, a dedicated and creative baker herself. On the rare and treasured occasion we get a full day in each other’s company, there is baking and quite a lot of it.
The second encouraging and inspiring thing was The Great British Bake Off.
Now firmly set in its determination to remind the folks watching at home that its name is, in fact, The Great British Baking Show, those of us who have gleefully watched every episode more than once (okay, fine — maybe more than half a dozen times each) will never break the habit of referring to it as simply “Bake Off”.
We Bake Off fans have seen mirror glazes shine beautifully and buns fall flat in their second proof. We’ve watched competitors receive the coveted “Hollywood Handshake” (judge Paul Hollywood’s mark of particular approval) and we’ve watched competitors literally present a garbage can for judging when, in a bout of great frustration, that’s where their masterpiece ended up.
And we’ve seen all this take place in the relative comfort and safety of a cheery tent in the British countryside. There is natural lighting and Union Jack bunting and butcher block countertops and delightfully patterned china teacups. There are two comedians hosting the show while making baking puns and two judges whose version of a harsh critique rarely eviscerates anyone beyond “it looks untidy” and “it seems a bit rushed, doesn’t it?”
Even the stand mixers are pastel shades, for God’s sake…
So for those of us accustomed to… I don’t know… any other cooking show ever, Bake Off is an enormous breath of fresh, Berkshire air.
How It Compares
My family is fond of the Food Network. When walking into my parents’ home and noticing the television is on, one’s chances are high that it is playing one of four things: sports highlights, HGTV, a Hallmark movie, or a cooking competition.
(If Dad is in the living room during any of those last three, his eyes are fixed rather firmly to his crossword puzzle, but he’s a very good sport about Mom’s love for cheesy TV romance dramas. Bless him.)
And I’ll point out an emphasis on cooking competitions. If Chopped is on when they’re flipping through their hundred odd channels, well, that’s what we’re watching.
Because it’s exciting to see people come up with creative interpretations to some awfully restrictive culinary guidelines. It’s exciting to see ingredients revealed and watch the gears turn behind the eyes of hopeful cooks.
Excitement, you say? Drama? Stakes?
“We can do that,” thinks the American food media market.
Darkness. Dramatic lighting. Spotlights over contestants stations. A giant countdown clock at the back of the room that displays red block numbers ticking down the seconds!
After a while… it’s all a little exhausting.
So in comes The Great British Baking Show. Having now been on the air for ten years running, audiences in the United States started to catch on once a number of seasons made their way onto Netflix.
And oh, did we rejoice.
Because on shows like Iron Chef, if you’re still primping your dish once that big scary clock runs out of time, you’re disqualified.
On Bake Off, if you’re still primping, a host will tell you off with a playful “stop touching your buns” or a contestant will beg “take a long time!” at which point the time call announcing the end of the trial will stretch just a few accommodating moments longer.
Delightful. Charming, even.
Why That’s a Good Thing
In my humble opinion, there is quite enough darkness and dramatic lighting on television.
It doesn’t need more.
Streaming junkie that I am, I’m very aware of just how many true crime programs can put terror in my head. Mother that I am, I’ve spent a good deal of time flipping through and quickly dismissing options I feel are inappropriate for my seven-year-old.
And baker that I am, I yearn for inspiration. I’m happy with my ability to knock together a decent enough pie, and I’m proud to say I’ve done some pretty crafty things with a loaf of bread.
But I’d never attempted an eclair until the day I saw Richard display his eclair showstopper on a set of chicken stairs. I’d never heard of a “pasteis de nata” (a Portuguese custard tart) until Yan and Steven joked about its pronunciation during a technical challenge. I’d never seen a “kek lapis sarawak” until Alice defended her Essex roots when explaining her cake design’s hometown party inspiration.
More importantly than all of that, though…
I’d never seen contestants act like friends. One gets the sense that people who have been put through such tests of creativity and endurance together might actually like each other. I’d never seen competitors hug one another in celebration and congratulations when one does well. For whatever underlying jealousy there might be, not a single one of them is ever outwardly nasty or vindictive to another.
I get my slice of life reality television without feeling like IQ points are slowly leaking out of my ears. I get my ideas for new recipes I want to test out myself, and I get some clarity as to why those buns I made last week didn’t rise properly.
Even better, I get to see some kindness. I get to watch rivals behave like friends, and I get to see bakers offer genuine, heartfelt support for each other’s efforts. The coveted Star Baker accolade is met with smiles, cheers, and applause. The weekly elimination elicits remorse, comforting hugs, and its share of survivors’ guilt from fellow bakers who struggled that week. Gone is the dismissive “you’re out”. There is no walk of shame down a long hallway and out a door. Because despite its competitive nature, this is a show that truly wants everyone watching to love baking, no matter their skill level or background.
It’s a show that judges the cake, not the person.
Bake Off welcomes truck drivers and students and contractors and teachers. It welcomes stay at home parents and artists and retail workers. I’ve seen them all bake, and I’ve seen them all succeed in their own ways, whether that’s by excelling in the ever tricky technical challenge or simply getting large and elaborate creations finished on time.
I don’t need another cooking contest in which the back and forth is snarky and filled with petty barbs. That’s not what I want to see, and it’s not what I want to carry with me into my own love of cooking.
I want to see what other bakers do with their gingerbread houses. Then I want to make a batch for my daughter to help me construct. I want to see real people struggle with a recipe that didn’t quite do what they needed it to and I want to see them pull themselves out of it with determination.
Plucky little bakers doing their best and being nice to each other in the process is exactly the kind of program we ought to be showing to impressionable home cooks everywhere. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Bake Off contestants rush to assist their comrades in the final, suspenseful moments of a signature bake, and I think that sort of kindness is a much more worthwhile thing to see on television than any amount of scheming and pompousness.
I firmly believe that a show about baking deserves to be simply and adorably…