Welcome one and all to the grounds of Welford Park, a country estate in Berkshire, England, where 12 budding bakers are about to embark on 10 weeks of competitive, but oh-so-well-mannered, baking.
For newcomers to the show, here’s the basics: 12 hopeful bakers take on an array of baking challenges, three each week — the Signature Bake (bakers make their own creations), the Technical Bake (bakers re-create a judge’s masterpiece), and the Showstopper Bake (bakers test their most-elaborate aesthetic skills) — after which one baker is sent home and one is crowned Star Baker. There’s no safety net or prize for being Star Baker — and also no overall monetary award (this is the BBC, after all) at the end of the 10 weeks of competition.
The judges are Mary Berry (yes, her real name) and Paul Hollywood (also his real name). Mary Berry is the English grandmother you’d just love to have; she’s Mrs. Weasley whirled in a mixer with Mrs. Hughes, but with all the sternness simmered out. A little more rough (and rugged) around the edges, Paul grew up the son of a baker and today is one of the UK’s leading artisan bakers. Mary and Paul share a pleasant and polite relationship, founded on mutual respect and whimsical humor that is 100 percent of the whipped cream holding this layer-cake of a show together.
Then there are commentators/hosts Mel and Sue. They’re surely the punniest pair on television — their convivial and supporting nature easily encourages the bakers.
Now let’s pop the kettle on: It’s time for a slice of British baking goodness. It’s week one, and that means cake week. The bakers enter the tent, and we’re informed the first signature bake of the season is a Madeira cake. Apparently, it’s all about the crack…? We’ll let Mary explain: “Madeira cake, for me, is one of the great classics,” she informs the audience at home. “It is a close-textured, beautiful plain cake, but it should have a dome and a crack on the top.” With just two hours to complete the challenge, the bakers get to cracking (puns!)…
We meet the season 3 bakers as they give us their takes on the recipe. I like to think the ingredients they add tell us something about their personalities, or at the very least their levels of daring and nerve — and, unfortunately, sometimes their lack of taste. Literally. We have…
Ugne: Thyme. She was born in Lithuania and has two burning passions — British baking and bodybuilding. She just really hopes her “crack will show.”
Nadiya: Orange and cardamom powder — which sounds medicinal. She tells us her eldest son will be disappointed if she doesn’t get through and seems to be perpetually on the verge of tears, so I’m totally rooting for her already.
Ian: Ginger and lime, because he used to work in the Caribbean — he says something about mojitos in Cuba, and I’m now fully on Team Ian. He’s a stay-at-home dad and travel photographer, and is naming his sponge “Somewhere West of Madeira.” Bonus points for a creative name.
Mat, with one T: Gin and tonic. There are seven shots of gin in his cake. He’s a winner in my eyes already. Also, he’s a London firefighter.
Grandma Marie: Nothing special. She’s keeping it real with a recipe she’s served many times before. She bakes every day for her five grandchildren.
Dorret: Candied lemons. Baking since she was 11, Dorret is also keeping it simple. She’s been honing this recipe for 40 years, but still seems surprised when Paul points out it should be light as well as close-textured.
NEXT: Meet the rest of the bakers…
Flora: Blood orange. At 19, she’s the youngest baker on the show. She’s so wholesome and completely at home baking competitively in a tent in England, you can’t help but feel she’ll go far in the competition.
Alvin: Figs. He’s not bothering to chop them first because he “likes them chunky.” Paul stops by his workstation and seems skeptical about this decision — he’s a man who likes a well-dispersed chunk of fruit in a cake, which leads us to…
Sandy: Apricot. She lets Paul know “her chunks are well dispersed.” She also delivers this classic line: “I’m quite random. I can be making a cake and you can have a meat pie by the time I’m finished.”
Stuart (Stu): Rum and lime. He’s a lead singer in a band, and he gets such little screen time that I immediately lose faith in his staying power. That, and his bowler hat.
Paul: Ginger and caraway seed. He has the same facial hair as Paul Hollywood, and he’s a prison governor from Wales.
Tamal: Rosewater syrup — which he’s injecting with a syringe. He’s a trainee anesthetist, you see.
After the bakers present their creations to Mary and Paul (wherein the judges declare Ian’s cake to be “like chewing on wallpaper paste”) and get critiques, it’s time for the Technical challenge. With minimal instructions, the bakers get one hour and 45 minutes to make a walnut cake. We learn the obstacle with this recipe is preventing the walnuts from sinking to the bottom; it’s all in the chopping. Cut to the tent, where everyone is freaking out about the size of their walnuts. Nadiya seems tearful again, and Paul’s fretting he’s misread things.
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Perhaps the most endearing aspect of the show is when we witness the contestants come together to share notes and help each other out. Confused about when to start preparing their caramel, the bakers confer and help one another out. By the way, caramelized walnuts look like the most frustrating type of nut ever — they stick to the spoon and the parchment paper.
After much creaming of butter and sugar, fluffing of meringues, and some rule-breaking from that rebel rock-star Stu, time is up! The contestants line up their cakes for Mary and Paul to blind taste. (What happens to all the leftover cakes? I’m so insanely jealous of the crew on this show.) Words like “granular” and “swirly” are thrown around, and in the end it’s a close call: Alvin takes second place, and Ugne gets the win. No one is surprised (she was pretty confident throughout, casually whisking her cream without even looking at the bowl), but everyone is so polite they all join in gentle applause. Stu just sighs.
NEXT: Whose cake will stop the show?
The Showstopper challenge is to make a Black Forest Gâteau: a decadent blend of chocolate, cherries, fresh cream, and kirsch liqueur, which apparently graced many a menu back in the 1970s (and is “very retro,” as Flora puts it). There’s a lot of chat about chocolate work and a “it’s simple enough” quip from Paul, so we know it’s going to be near impossible to pull off in the three-and-a-half-hour time frame. I predict tears from Nadiya.
Rogue Stu is adding beetroot to his gâteau (is there ever a need to add beetroot to anything, ever?!) while Flora enhances the color of hers — the more pink, the better. Dorret tells us she likes working with chocolate and alcohol, so this is the perfect bake for her (and 98 percent of the world’s population) — but she’s already in trouble and needs to start over when Paul and Mary stop by her desk to check in. Sandy’s adding shortbread to her cake, and Ian is making trees to decorate the top of his. “I can’t wait to romp in your forest, Ian,” says Mel, killing it with the innuendos. (Incidentally, this is a great drinking game to play while watching this show. Every time you hear an innuendo, drink!)
It’s time to temper some chocolate — it can be hard to make correctly, but there are many things one can do with tempered chocolate: Ian’s adding elephant decorations to his gâteau, having forgotten the difference between a forest and the plains of Africa, I guess. And then there’s Ugne, blowing up balloons to make… cup-and-saucer decorations?
(Once again, Marie is in the lead as my favorite: “You’re supposed to measure this out,” she says as she empties a generous helping off the kirsch liqueur to her glaze, no measuring cup in sight, and then adds another glug or two for good measure.)
We move on from tempering to piping, and it looks just as tricky. There’s such a vast degree of difference in each of the baker’s ability to pipe cream onto their cake that it almost seems like they didn’t go through the same rigorous application process. Flora’s are perfectly poised swirls, a pretty picture of scrumptiousness, while Stu looks like he’s cementing bricks for a wall.
Disaster has struck Dorret. The mousse hasn’t set. She’s crying. “There’s no reason to get upset,” pipes in Sue, “It’s just a cake.” Sadly, it’s not really a cake at this point. It’s a puddle of chocolate and cream. Delicious, but no showstopper.
Stu also has troubles. Apparently, putting beetroot in his cake was not a genius streak of innovation. “It’s got the texture of a raw sponge,” says Paul. Oh, dear. His eyes swim à la Nadiya. Speaking of Nadiya, she redeems herself after the last round with a cake so shiny, you could use it as a mirror. “It’s contemporary and minimalist,” say the judges, but it also tastes “beautiful.”
After some deliberation, it’s time to announce the star baker: It’s Marie! And unsurprisingly, Stu is heading home. He got out-baked, plain and simple! But he still has music.
Next week, it’s biscuits! (The cookie kind.)