The Grand Prix of Baking is back on our screens and with its arrival is the simultaneous depletion of sugar, flour and icing funnels in every shop throughout the British Isles. The Great British Bake Off – affectionately referred to as GBBO – has taken baking to a new, delicious, level and its spectators to a whole new stratosphere.
With a flurry of flour, a blast of baking powder, a smidgen of suet and a whirl of a whisk, it has sashayed from its spot on BBC2 to prime time viewing on BBC1. And deserving of this place it is. Now in its fifth series, its popularity continues to rise and rise to soufflé proportions with the finals last year attracting a staggering 9.1 million viewers. Out-peaking its nearest rival, Top Gear, in the rating stakes, its formula has been bought by over fourteen countries so we are not the only ones who flock to it like bees to a Honey Cake.
What is it about the GBBO that makes us hit Sky+ every time we hear a new series is on its way? It’s tame – twelve people stand in a tent and…eh…bake or kneel in front of ovens as we look on. It’s gentile. It’s nice. The people are like us. Nice. On paper, it doesn’t sound like a winning recipe.
Across the pond, baking at a competitive level is a mean sport. Compared to its American counterparts, the GBBO doesn’t carry any of that grit or vigour. With Ultimate Cake Off, size really does matter with bakers competing to create cakes over 5ft tall which carry oodles and oodles of pounds in weight. They concentrate on aspects of technical difficulty, aesthetic appeal and tripping up their competitors by knocking them out for 30 minute segments. Taste figures in there too – just – but more attention is placed on girth than mirth as these bakers do battle. Like other American baking programmes, it may look like a kitchen but act like a hardware store when a range of tools is thrown in the mix. For its finale, Cup Cake Wars expects 1,000 cup cakes of different varieties prepared in two hours. Competing teams are allowed assistants and…eh…a carpenter… Blow torches, belt sanders, power saws – the possibilities are endless as are the ingredients where basil and oysters can sidle their way in under the heady challenge of ‘Aphrodisiac Cup Cakes’ for a match-making party.
Back to the comparative tranquillity and twee-ness that is the GBBO. Idyllically set in the garden of a Country House, nestled under cover of a marquee on a warm summer’s day with a set which looks like an explosion in a Cath Kidston factory. It’s difficult to get more quintessentially English than this. But don’t be fooled! It may lack the physicality of the American programmes but GBBO is a battle of wills, striving for perfection over erection. A mouth twisted in a wasp sucking gesture, Mary Berry can floor contestants with one look as quickly as she can raise them up with an exclamation of ‘positively scrumptious.’ Swaggering over, hands in jeans’ pockets, Paul Hollywood can ask a pointed question so sharp it deflates confidence – instantly. And in between the cookers and counters skip Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc spitting out puns quicker than bakers bake buns and throwing in every sexual innuendo conceivable.
The bakers bake. They fret. They sweat. They create with one eye on beating their new found baking buddies and the other on creaming butter, eggs and sugar. Age or experience is not a factor here; it is how smooth you can get your Crème Pat that really matters.
Skills present in one round can instantly evaporate in the next. Mary and Paul judge masterpieces while then looking on in horror as bread is plaited into creations that could terrify even Tim Burton. As bakers hurdle the Technical Challenge, surmount the Signature Bake and wow with the Showstopper, personalities start to ooze to the surface. Who can forget doe-eyed Ruby of the quivering lip or Brendan the Buddhist Baker?
We sit in our homes, barking at the bakers in our telly-box to whip, beat, cream with all the aggression of well-seasoned sports pundits. We tell them the ingredients to use and despair when they pick Genoese sponge over traditional Madeira because how could they not know it will sink under the weight of all that lavender icing? We are shocked at any foul play and demand that custard thieves be spat out immediately. And we watch, aghast, heads buried behind cushions, as a procession of soggy bottoms make their way to the Judging Table.
This is serious business. As we sit glued to the challenges, teenage daughters and sons replicate the masterpieces in our kitchens while the ranks of the Women’s Institute swell to unprecedented proportions. We watch in our millions, the rise and fall of egos and sponges and when we are surprised by the choice of ultimate winner, remark with sheer, unprecedented, delight – ‘Oh, my giddy, giddy, aunt!’
Published online: 2014