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On Your Marks, Get Set… Bake!

raspberry-macaron-cookiesOr as the Brits say, “bike.” And we’re not talking cycling. I just finished drooling over the first four seasons of the Great British Baking Show, for the second time, and can’t wait for Season 5. My latest TV addiction, GBBS, is thoroughly entertaining without being treacly. Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood preside over brigades of British bakers who go “dough to dough” over the course of ten weeks to try to bring home the blue ribbon. Once I tuned in, it was love at first bite. In an enormous white tent set in the English countryside, 12 amateur bakers chosen from thousands compete in three weekly challenges- the signature bake, the technical, and the showstopper. With one unlucky soul voted off each week, it’s like Survivor but with spatulas.

Delightfully quirky hosts Mel and Sue provide comic relief in the form of corny culinary and occasionally off-color quips. They take turns having “the happy privilege of announcing this week’s star baker” to the apron-clad contestants nervously awaiting their fate. When Mary and Paul determine the person “to whom we must sadly say goodbye,” there’s an outpouring of hugs, tears, and promises to stay in touch. It’s all very British and genteel- until it’s not. (More on “Bingate” later.)

Not only do the bakers come to feel like family after we see clips of them with their loved ones and colleagues at home and at work, but watching them create sweet and savory delicacies from scratch is the icing on the cake. If you’re counting carbs this may not be the show for you, but if you have a pinch of self-control it’s a great way to indulge your cravings vicariously. It can also be pure torture. While the competitors labor to produce the perfect Black Forest gateau or quintessentially British Bakewell tart, I press pause and scour my kitchen for something- anything- sweet.

Handsome blue-eyed Paul Hollywood, dubbed the Queen of Mean by Mel, can reduce a baker to tears with the words, “that’s a mess,” or simply, “it’s a shame,” while grandmotherly Mary Berry almost always finds something positive to say. After tasting one of lovely Ugne’s Lithuanian cottage cheese cookies, Paul looked her in the eye and declared, “I don’t like it.” As she struggled to hide her disappointment, he admitted, “I love it.” Mary’s harshest critique, meanwhile, may have been, “it’s a bit under baked, and the raspberry is bleeding into the sponge.” She disdains a “soggy bottom,” but her pronouncement of “scrummy” is highest praise.

I can now toss around culinary gems like genoise or crème patissiere (crème pat, to those in the know). Thanks to GBBS, I’ve added a wealth of colorful British expressions to my vocabulary. Aerospace engineer and Cambridge-educated Andy, who skipped graduation to practice for the Season 4 quarter-final, was “really really chuffed” when Paul liked his marjolaine. And to console Chetna- dismayed at having received a less than stellar review- Paul said, “don’t lose your rag” over this. “Fiddly” ingredients, I found out, are particularly difficult to work with, and the bakers are forever “whacking” things into the oven, which is not nearly as violent as it sounds.

Realistically, I’ll probably never make any of the petit fours, mini pear tarts, biscotti, or Victoria sandwich cakes myself. I can whip up a “cracking” carrot cake and my apple crisp is legendary, at least among my family. But when an early attempt at baking a German Chocolate cake with my teenage daughter went horribly wrong, I hung up my measuring spoons for good. I suspect Belfast-born Iain, following the infamous Baked Alaska meltdown of Season 2, could relate.

After a rival contestant inexplicably removed his ice cream extravaganza from the freezer on a hot summer day, poor Iain, in a fit of frustration, dumped the entire mess in the bin and stormed off. He was, unfortunately, eliminated as he had nothing to show the judges. The culprit, claiming illness, never returned to the tent.

Not all episodes are so fraught with drama, and one disastrous outcome does not automatically spell dismissal. (Spoiler alert: Despite her walnut cake placing last in a technical challenge, Nadiya went on to become the Season 3 winner and a minor celebrity herself. The following year she was asked to bake the Queen’s 90th birthday cake.)

I was rooting for 17-year-old Martha from Season 1, who smiled through her tears and was so supportive of her fellow bakers that I was crushed when she was sent home. And how could you not love Richard, the rosy-cheeked builder with two adorable little girls, whose self-effacing humor made everyone laugh. I emailed my relative in South London that I was hooked on the show. She wrote back to admit, “it’s been a bit of a viewing highlight for us over the years,” adding “it sounds a bit sad.”

It seems we’re in excellent company. The Great British Bake Off, as it’s called overseas, is one of the most popular programs in the U.K.

In the comfort of your own kitchen you can recreate some classics from the first season by borrowing The Great British Bake Off: Big Book of Baking by Linda Collister. For the truly inspired, there’s The Great British Bake Off: How to Turn Everyday Bakes into Showstoppers. It’s full of mouthwatering photos and recipes for afternoon teas, bake sales, lunches with friends as well as scrummy desserts for dinner parties, birthdays, and other festive occasions. It also contains ideas for creating gorgeous garnishes using chocolate curls, spun sugar, and elegant piping to achieve that wow-factor every time.

Whether you’re Michelangelo with a mixer or more of an armchair baker like myself, I challenge you to check out any of GBBS’s five seasons on DVD and not end up binge-watching the entire series- or just plain bingeing.

April Cushing is the Adult and Information Services Supervisor at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Mass. Read April’s column in the November 1st edition of the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.

Lydia Sampson

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