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‘Great British Baking Show’ Episodes 3 and 4: Total Dough-verload

Every week, comedian Alison Leiby recaps the oddly relaxing experience of watching British reality TV

All photos courtesy Love Productions

Since PBS has decided to air two episodes of The Great British Baking Show back-to-back — and thus creating the most pleasantly polite evening on television — I'm going to run down both episodes for you here so we can read, digest, have a spot of tea, and get on with our days that are hopefully filled with strolling through fields in a light rain.

The third episode brings us the remaining 10 bakers and a theme that would make every woman on a diet who is not named Oprah tremble with fear — bread.

For the signature challenge, the bakers are tasked with making two different flavors of a free-form quick bread. Judge Paul Hollywood's azure eyes explain (and yes, in my world, his eyes do the talking) the chemistry behind quick breads. Rather than use yeast, these loaves rise from a combination of baking soda or bicarb, which is an alkaline, and buttermilk, which is a... honestly I stopped listening and in my mind am just imagining that Paul's reading me the Facebook status updates of people I went to high school with and mocking them with me. Anyway, it's a very scientific bread.

Flora is doing fig and hazelnut rye breads. One of the challenges of quick breads is getting the measurements right. Too much bicarb can leave you with a very bitter bread, but too much buttermilk will result in one that's too wet. Flora decides to use 600 milliliters of buttermilk for her versions.

[Meanwhile, in America: What the hell is a milliliter?]

Mat and Nadiya both did Mexican-style breads, his with jalapeño and cheddar and hers with cumin and coriander. They don't seem particularly worried about the similar choices, and both just chuckle and move on with their breads.

[Meanwhile, in America: This slight connection would inevitably escalate into a season-long feud that ends with one of them "throwing the other person under the bus" in a later team challenge.]

Gif: Courtesy

The judges taste the various breads and call Alvin's manchego and onion bread "a thing of beauty." That might be because looks more like a deconstructed pizza than a loaf of bread. Isn't that the highest compliment you could make about a bread, that it's almost pizza? Other highlights are Tamal's goat cheese and fig interpretation and Paul's orange and cranberry creation. His is so good it warrants a handshake from Paul the judge. The two silver-haired Pauls shake hands and then open up a portal to an all-Paul alternate dimension that's just pleasant accents and loaves of soda bread.

Now to the technical challenge. This one comes from France, making it not much of a mystery. Difficult bread from France? Duh, baguettes. Paul and fellow judge Mary Berry sit down to eat bread together and discuss the challenge, just two awesome people picking at long loaves of bread. (Make it just one person and that's basically every night from 9 to 10 p.m. in my apartment.) The perfect baguette has a nice crust so if you tap on it, there's an almost hollow sound, and the inside is chewy from the irregular structure. It's a simple bread, yet very challenging to master. Mary notes to Paul, "You've been particularly nasty on this one." This is nasty? Making a difficult bread?

[Meanwhile, in America: A judge would be called out for being nasty by telling someone they have "absolutely no future in baking whatsoever and should quit now to spare everyone else from having to eat any more garbage bread." Also, maybe a blindfold challenge.]

Making a baguette is a lot like jury duty — there's a lot of just sitting around and waiting. I'd say that baguette baking is different because you aren't taking someone else's life in your hands, but I don't know how you cook, maybe you're fast and loose with a gas oven. But back to my favorite thing — the sitting around. The dough has to proof twice, but the first proof is the most important because that's the one that creates an airy texture. Sadly, Paul's instructions don't offer much in terms of how to do this, so some bakers are doing it in a glass bowl, others in the plastic container, some in the proofing drawer, others in the oven. It's mayhem.

Only a few bakers realize they need to use steam to get that crusty outer layer. Paul and Nadiya used none and get 10th and 9th place, respectively, in this challenge. Ian, last week's Star Baker, nailed the baguette and comes in first, just ahead of always-looks-like-she's-on-the-verge-of-tears Flora.

Now for the Showstopper Challenge. This one is very architectural in nature. The bakers have five hours to make and assemble a 3-dimensional bread sculpture with three types of dough, and one of them must be filled. It's a tough one, but it's not a weird one. Who hasn't built a fake small man out of bread and pretended it was their boyfriend? Wait what? No? Hahaha, you're crazy.

Alvin is going Thanksgiving themed, making a cornucopia of bread filled with bread. If his creation were a line from a Watch the Throne track, it would be "Breads on breads on breads." It's a lot of bread. Ian surfaces yet another contraption he brought from home, this time an iron mold to use to create leaves for his sculpture.

[Meanwhile, in America: Ian would still bring his from-home apparatuses, but the editors would play bumbling music over his segments so he seemed more like a kooky inventor than a competitive baker.]

Flora is making a tiered skirt of herbed breads topped with a delicate corset. So interesting for her to choose fashion as her theme, considering it's the exact opposite of bread. Ugne is sticking with her odd Easter theme and creating a woven bread basket with truffle-infused brioche bunnies inside.

The judges are very impressed with Tamal's breadcycle, which is a bicycle made of bread, though saying it out loud it sounds like a frozen carbohydrate treat. The 700 pounds (sorry, American unit of measure estimate) of bread that Alvin made are all excellent, though the judges agree it's somehow too much bread. I didn't realize there was such a thing. Nadiya's bold and spicy red snake slithering out of the snake charmer's basket is excellent, but the basket itself needed a little bit longer of a bake.

Gif: Courtesy

Paul, fresh off of his baguette failure, redeemed himself with an intricately sculpted lion that judge Paul deemed "one of the best things I've seen in bread ever." That is high praise. While there were so many impressive sculptures, some failed. Dorret's bread version of Tracey Emin's "Unmade Bed" not only looks sloppy, but the stuffed bread making up the mattress is still raw in the middle.

Taking all of the bread challenges and challenging breads into account, this week the judges give a special commendation to Paul for his fierce (I'm sorry) lion bread sculpture. Star Baker for the second week in a row is Ian, and sadly Dorret is sent home.

Now let's power through right into episode four!

The theme for this one is... desserts? That seems rather broad. That would be like if one of the events at the Olympics was just fitness. But, vague theme be damned, the bakers are jumping right into the competition. The Signature Bake challenge is to make 12 identical crèmes brûlées. These must be made in the traditional way, by caramelizing the sugar on top under the grill, not using a blowtorch.

[Meanwhile, in America: They would absolutely use a blowtorch and there would absolutely be a lot of shots of the flames and fire puns from the contestants and judges.]

While making his light and fresh coconut and lime crème brûlée, Mat says he wishes his station were in the back of the tent rather than right up front; that way, he wouldn't be front and center for the judges, and could see how other competitors are doing. It's such a calm and relaxing idea for a reality show, the fact that he wants less attention.

[Meanwhile, in America: Everyone would be fighting to show off the most all the time and never, ever, ever shut up.]

Sandy is taking a risk by dropping pontefract cakes (for which I had to look up both the spelling and the definition even though she kind of explains them) with their licorice flavor into the bottom of her crèmes brûlées, and is using lemon as well.

One of the bigger challenges with crème brûlée is managing the temperatures when you mix the hot milk to the cold whisked yolks and not end up with a bowl of sweet scrambled eggs. The ideal texture is the opposite of my ideal thighs: wobbly. Paul chats with the hosts and says, I think, that he's doing an "adult-themed" brûlée with almond flavors. Or maybe he said "almond-themed"? My ears can only really understand what people are saying if it's in a thick New York accent or vocal fry.

The best versions of the challenge are Nadiya's fruit and tea infusion, Ugne's amarula fruit liqueur version, and Tamal's flavorful rhubarb and ginger crème brûlée. Unfortunately, Paul's taste like boozy, sugary scrambled eggs, and Alvin forgot to turn the grill of his oven on, so his sugar never caramelized. Sandy's was basically soup.

The Technical Challenge is definitely not a breeze, as the bakers are tasked to make a Spanische Windtorte, which, in a geographical twist, is actually an Austrian dish. (Look, if the show isn't going to make puns, I sure as hell am, it's one of my very few skills.) Mary helpfully tells the contestants, "Read the recipe thoroughly and then try and visualize exactly what it should look like at the end."

The cake is, in a word, confusing. It has two types of meringue, Swiss and French, and is filled with berries and cream. Also, it has a top, like a shoe box does. I haven't eaten many cakes with removable tops, so now I have a new bucket list item. I was also happy to learn that I'm not some kind of cake idiot, and that virtually none of the contestants knew what it should look like, either.

After a few hours of what Flora kindly called "the most feminine kind of plastering," these meringue cakes are ready for judging. Rounding out the bottom, sadly, are Alvin and Nadiya in 8th and 9th place. Second place goes to Ugne, and Paul wins the whole thing with his giant fluffy, but hard, white cake thing.

And now for the main event of every episode, the Showstopper Challenge. The contestants must make a tower of baked cheesecakes, minimum of three tiers, and they must be sweet, not savory. I've never had a savory cheesecake, but now that I know they exist, I desperately want one right now.

Most of the cheesecakes have a biscuit base, which, if you have a dumb American brain like I do, you must remind it that in the U.K., biscuit means "cookie." I'm always partial to an Oreo cookie base for cheesecakes, but really, I'll eat whatever is put in front of me. A major challenge for this bake is that the tiers are all different sizes, and those require different temperatures and bake times.

Ian is being very Ian and doing spicy and herbal cheesecakes with flavors like szechuan peppercorn, rosemary, and tarragon. While it's risky, Nadiya seems to be taking an even bigger risk with her "fizzy pop cheesecakes." I wondered if "fizzy pop" had a different meaning in England, like it's what they call dog tranquilizers or edible glitter. Nope, just soda. She's infusing her cakes with simple syrups she's made from ginger beer, lemonade, and cream soda.

Screengrab: Courtesy

While Nadiya and bakers like Mat and Tamal are also going over the top and doing three completely different cakes to build into one massive dessert, Flora is worried that her elderflower-flavored cake is too simple. She's using the same base and recipe for all three cakes, and decides last minute to do some macarons to add more to the presentation.

The judges absolutely love both Ian and Nadiya's inventive cakes. They also rave about Tamal's honey, rosemary, and mango cakes that feature gorgeous caramel work as decoration. Unfortunately, Sandy's third tier doesn't even make it onto her cake, and the bakes are extremely inconsistent. Alvin's tower has a similar problem, and, while flavorful, is a bit clumsy.

Now for the second emotional rollercoaster in this long night of pleasant cooking television. Star Baker for this episode is Ian, with his third title in a row. He's proving to be the baker to beat. Who knows, maybe he'll win every challenge this season and take the whole thing. Unfortunately, Sandy is sent home for her poor performances this week.

[Meanwhile, in America: Ian would become a complete asshole, letting the consecutive wins and from-home mold successes go to his head and start trash talking everyone else in the competition. And maybe that will happen next week, who knows!]

Alison Leiby is a comedian and writer.
Editor: Erin Dejesus