I come from a family that bakes. We’re not professional bakers, but for as long as I can remember, we’ve gathered around homemade cakes at every birthday, spent every Thanksgiving eating way too much homemade pie, and shared trays of homemade Christmas cookies every December. My great-grandmother baked four pies a day to feed the workers on her farm and growing up, my mom was constantly baking bread for sandwiches or cookies for us to bring into class. To me, baking is much more than transforming flour and eggs into delicious concoctions; it’s about community, about sharing your hard work with others and expressing in a small way your appreciation of them. It’s about hours spent in the kitchen with family, learning tips and tricks passed down the generations, taking a pile of ordinary ingredients and, through chemistry, creating something special. While myriad cooking and baking programs air each year, none capture the wash of emotions connected to the topic, for me at least, as well as the fantastic, and underseen in the U.S., BBC series The Great British Bake Off.
The Great British Bake Off (GBBO to its fans) is a baking competition show that follows 12 amateur bakers through a series of challenges, with one contestant eliminated each week until a victor is crowned in the finale. Each episode centers on a different style of baking, from staples like cakes, biscuits (cookies in the U.S.), and bread to much more delicate and particular pastry and sugar work, and each episode follows the same format: Contestants must present a signature bake, focusing on more traditional baking and prioritizing flavor; followed by a technical bake, a challenging recipe pared down to its bare bones that each contestant must execute, the results of which are blind-judged against each other; and finally, a showstopper, an extravagant creation judged equally for presentation and flavor. Each episode is filmed over the course of a weekend, with the signature and technical bakes prepared and judged the first day and the showstopper saved for the second.
While the signature and showstopper challenges will be familiar to fans of cooking or baking competition shows, the technical challenge is a brilliant invention of the series that immediately distinguishes GBBO from its peers. Blind judging (the judges don’t see any of the prep work and rate the finished products without knowing who has made what) the same recipe prepared by each contestant gives an immediate and fair comparison point between the bakers, helping prevent biases from cropping up or influencing the judging. It gives a layer of transparency to the proceedings and helps counter claims of favoritism or producer manipulation in the results. Plus watching the contestants, all very experienced home bakers, struggle with recipes that can include instructions like, “Bake until done” (with no indication of time or temperature) makes them relatable to even the least experienced baker watching. The puzzlement on their faces as they attempt to decipher a particularly confusing aspect of the recipe will be familiar to many who have had similar experiences at home, working through a new recipe or trying to recreate a dish they grew up with. However, the technical bake is just one of the many strengths of GBBO.
More important is the show’s focus on amateur and home baking, and its lack of a cash prize. While series like Top Chef or Chopped give out weekly awards and build to a grand finale payout for the winner, GBBO each week gives out the title of Star Baker—no prize, though season five’s Louie did bring in a sheriff’s badge, which the group passed around each week, adorably—and in the finale, the victor walks away with the title of GBBO champion and a cake plate with the show’s logo etched into it. That’s it. No life-changing lump sum or cookbook deal, no internship at a restaurant or promises of future collaborations with the series or judges. The idea of competing just for fun, or for pride, or to see if you could even do it is a foreign concept to American audiences. We’re trained to expect to see entertaining and hopefully qualified contestants put themselves through grueling and potentially embarrassing challenges in the hopes of landing a windfall. We expect them to jump through hoops and backstab and get pushed past their breaking point in the name of fame and some money.
GBBO is a tonic to this. Everyone competing is there because they love to bake, simple as that. They love the creative outlet it gives them or how it makes them feel; they love being able to physically create food for themselves, their families, or their friends. It’s not a job, it’s an opportunity to put aside their responsibilities for a while and do something for themselves. Unlike most reality shows, contestants have a week between episodes to rest up and prepare, during which they stay with their families and maintain their routine, rather than being isolated for the duration, and a supportive, welcoming atmosphere is fostered, rather than a cutthroat, competitive one. The series casts bakers who want to learn new things, to be challenged and grow, not the egotists who must apply looking for their 15 minutes of fame. They cast for personality, but not the way most reality shows do: They’re looking to avoid conflict, rather than courting it. And crucially, as it’s peopled with amateur bakers and filmed with that in mind, GBBO is open to an incredibly diverse field of contestants. There have been stay-at-home parents, college students, professionals, and retirees; from teenaged (comparative) newbies to old-pro pensioners, men and women hailing from all over the country have competed, their wide-ranging backgrounds shaping their unique perspectives of what home baking, of what home, means.
As important as the contestants to the show’s success are the judges and presenters. The entertainingly named Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry are knowledgeable, engaging judges who thread the needle of supporting the contestants without excusing their failures. Paul in particular can be relentless and though Mary usually finds at least one complimentary comment to give, she’s just as particular in what she expects from the bakers. Because rave reviews are rare, from either judge, when contestants earn them, they’re much more meaningful; the Paul Hollywood Handshake is a compliment reserved for only the most spectacular achievements (who could forget series six’s handshake and special commendation-winner Cecil the Lion by Paul Jagger?). Both Paul and Mary are upfront about their personal tastes—using liqueur is an easy way to get points with Mary, but she’s not fond of coconut—however both are happy to be proven wrong when a flavor combination or technique they’re skeptical about pays off. All of these traits combine to make for judging and judges that are formidable but fair; clearly expert, but open to new ideas; and always, in the end, kind. As Paul and Mary are quick to point out, no one gets through to the Bake Off tent without being an excellent home baker, and, the show stresses, having a bad day doesn’t change that.
While Paul and Mary must, by virtue of their role on the series, be critical, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins are unabashed cheerleaders for the contestants and their warm energy is a key part of what makes the show work. They keep things moving and check in with the bakers, they’re there to lend a hand or talk down a stressed contestant when needed, and they’re giddy audience surrogates as well, walking around the baking stations and nicking unused ingredients or extra treats like so many of us watching wish we could. As is inevitable on a baking competition, disasters arise—the inability to perform a quick fix after a bake has gone awry is one of the suspenseful strengths of baking shows over cooking shows—and when they do, Mel and Sue are there to refocus and energize the contestant in question, beacons of support and can-do positivity. Just compare the weekly eliminations on GBBO to their reality competition counterparts. Mel or Sue (the pair trade off the sorry task) gives the name of the contestant who, “will be leaving” or who they’ll, “be saying goodbye to”, then bring them in for a big hug, along with Paul and Mary. This sure beats Heidi’s brusque, “Auf wiedersehen” on Project Runway or Padma’s often chilly, “Pack your knives and go” on Top Chef. (The closest comparison to Mel and Sue’s approach is the wonderful Cat Deeley on So You Think You Can Dance, easily the MVP of that series and a deserved multi-Emmy nominee her work.) With their entertaining comedy-double-act rapport, endearing interactions with the contestants, and interesting educational asides—that’s right, GBBO also finds time each season for history lessons pertaining to a given week’s challenges—Mel and Sue are instrumental to making GBBO the standout program it is.
This year’s series six maintained the elements of the show that set it apart from the reality competition crowd, but it also brought new and intriguing challenges for the contestants and some of the most dastardly technicals yet. While Ian was an early frontrunner, by the end of the season, it was anyone’s game, which always makes for great TV, and the eventual champion stole viewers’ hearts in the finale with their earnest, surprisingly affecting reaction to winning, and to the whole experience. Paul and Mary changed things up and avoided getting into a rut by seeming to actively avoid their catchphrases of, “It’s a good bake!” and “Scrummy!”, and the show in general demonstrated a useful self-awareness that should help keep it fresh moving forward. More than the specifics of this season, however, I’m grateful that in 2015, alongside intense dramas, brilliantly dark comedies, and captivating documentaries, an unabashedly sincere and warm-hearted reality competition series like this can not just survive, but thrive, capturing the joy and passion of something as simple and universal, and yet personal, as making a loaf of bread. The Great British Bake Off is a televised treasure, and it’s one of the shows I’m most thankful for this year.