This past Friday, the Great British Baking Show returned to the telly for season three, and with it, three months of me fantasizing that I’m a fancy Englishwoman: living off tea sandwiches, pretending I understand Brexit, adding superfluous u’s to everything I write. At last, all is right in my wourld.
I must begin by letting you all know that I hate food shows. Despise them. Imagine you went home at night and tuned into four hours of programming about your job. America’s Best Insurance Adjuster. The Secret Life of Medical Billers. Extreme Accounts Receivable. You feel me here?
That being said, I break my own rule and watch GBBS religiously, as it is, without question, one of the best shows on television. Every chef I know was similarly apprehensive about watching, but one by one we’ve fallen for Mary Berry’s charms like dominoes. GBBS is not mean-spirited, it’s not make believe, there is no manufactured drama, and there’s not even a cash prize (the winner gets a simple trophy); it is pure and lovely, and exactly what baking should be about—the love of the craft, the love of sharing.
I watch GBBS in bed and dream the contestants are baking just for me. (When you’re a chef, no one ever cooks for you. We are the loneliest, most cakeless people in the world.) I get to go to a beautiful English manor with all my other chef friends, where we run through the grass barefoot and act out scenes from Spice World. We eat charlottes and biscuits and delectable puddings. All the contestants give us hugs. Nothing is wrapped in bacon.
This season begins as all others do: with an aerial shot of a beautiful English manor with sprawling lawns, upon which sits a white tent where the show is set. Why aren’t they allowed inside the house? Because these contestants are average. They are not chefs, they are not washed up 90s celebrities. They’re just like you and me, and if they need to pee, they’ve got to go in a portable trailer just like the rest of the help. The fancy, tapestry-filled privies are to be used exclusively by Paul Hollywood.
And let’s talk Paul Hollywood! There are two judges on the show: You’ve likely heard of Mary Berry, who has become a celebrity for her warm, grandmotherly charm. But co-judge Paul Hollywood is an acclaimed baker, cookbook author, and pure sex, with piercing blue eyes and a body that is just barely contained by a shirt. He’s reminiscent of Gladiator-era Russell Crowe, if instead of dying at the end of the film, Maximus retired to a five star hotel in Gaul and devoted his life to making light and airy sponge cakes. His critique is kind and gentle, yet spares no blows, and it is just a matter of time before one too many bites of trifle causes his shirt to rip in two, the shock of which causes him to accidentally drip whipped cream across his chiseled chest.
Sadly this isn’t trifle week, it’s cake week. The good news is that it’s raining, so the contestants are going to have a hell of a time making buttercreams and meringues (being that sugar is hygroscopic and will suck up the atmospheric humidity like cocaine), so there’s a good chance something will get messy and the shirt will still have to come off.
So after we see Paul Hollywood and his eyes there are a bunch of contestants. One of them has a stupid hat and I hate him. I’m guessing the rest of them are okay?
The first challenge is a classic Madeira cake. Here’s example number one regarding what makes this show magical: A Madeira cake is understated, classic, and unbelievably delicious. It’s similar to a pound cake here in the U.S., but better because it’s British and classy. Simplicity wins.
Of course, guy in the stupid hat decides that he’s got to go big and bold and do a lime and chocolate marble cake, which is not a Madeira cake. Also, if you’re picking a citrus to go with chocolate, you pick oranges, you elderberry-huffing twit. Who picks limes?! You’ve had months to prepare for this, knowing what recipes you’ll be expected to make, and that’s what you came up with? Yes, my snarkiness might be the antithesis of everything this show is about, but if you want to go American-game-show style on a Madeira cake, that’s what you get. Plus the show tells his backstory and we see him playing standup bass in a band while wearing his stupid hat, so screw this guy.
The rest of the contestants also try to jazz things up, but safely and predictably. One adds cardamom, which the judges warn not to overuse because too much is terrible. Another adds rosewater, which the judges warn not to overuse because too much is terrible. Pretty much, guys, when you’re adding flavors to stuff, don’t add too much because it will make it terrible. Like lime and chocolate.
After spending a lot of time on the other contestants’ stories, we come to a contestant named Paul, who looks somewhat similar to judge Paul. His bio package is exactly four seconds long, which reveals he’s a prison governor who likes to relax by making sugar flowers. You read that right: Season three has a contestant who is a goddamn prison warden and looks like Paul Hollywood’s cousin who is visiting for the summer. I don’t know what happened with his cake because I immediately began writing fan fiction which Food52 refuses to publish.
Next comes the technical challenge…
...where the contestants are given a recipe with no instructions and are told to do their best. This week it’s Mary Berry’s walnut cake, which involves making both hard crack caramel and a boiled Swiss meringue icing, which is just about the worst possible thing to make on a rainy day with full humidity under hot television lights. Do they have some sort of climate control system in the tent? This is a high tension situation! Fortunately it’s eased by hearing people with accents say the word “nuts” over and over again, which will never stop being hilarious. This is why I don’t get invited to garden parties.
The last round is the “Showstopper” round…
...where contestants are allowed to do their own interpretation on a classic: This week is Black Forest cake. So many big dreams and elaborate plans! The sketches—yes, sketches—are nothing short of brilliant! Would I ever make one of these myself? NEVER! Who the hell are these people, making these sorts of cakes for their friends? Does Paul bring them to prison for birthday parties? Could he and Paul Hollywood bring one of these to my bedroom with some extra chocolate we can all temper together?
For the most dramatic moment of this episode: One contestant’s cake doesn’t come together. Her nerves caused her to make some critical timing errors and her chocolate mousse layer doesn’t set. My husband and I immediately sit up and bed and start screaming: “DON’T CRY! DON’T CRY! IT WILL BE OKAY!” Because this isn’t a show about wanting people to fail! It’s a show about trying your best, pushing yourself to your limits, and praying you succeed. The hosts and fellow contestants comfort her and offer support. No one is in a dark confessional gloating. This show is about hope, and Paul Hollywood’s eyes. It is about what we aspire to be as humans: good, kind, and generous.
I have another 11 episodes to try to become that person, though, because stupid hat guy goes home and I cheer. He put beets in his Black Forest Cake. Seriously, dude? GTFO.
Next week: BISCUITS! Which is what they call cookies, and what I will be calling them for the next several weeks until my husband threatens to leave me.
Do you watch? Are you a Paul Hollywood fan? We want to hear from you in the comments.