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‘Great British Baking Show’ Premiere Recap: We’re Not on ‘Top Chef’ Anymore

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Comedian Alison Leiby on the oddly relaxing, pleasant, and polite experience of watching British reality TV

All Photos Courtesy of Love Productions

Welcome to the brand new, season three recap of the Great British Baking Show (as it's known here in the U.S. — the original version, which aired on BBC One earlier this year, is known as the Great British Bake Off). This all feels extra relevant in the wake of the Brexit which, to me, still sounds what you'd call a bacon, egg, and cheese in London.

My illustrious career here at Eater has made me a nearly encyclopedic authority on American reality cooking competition shows. I know their formulas inside and out, could practically recite from memory hundreds of wacky challenges thrown at professional and amateur chefs, and I play the "going home" music from all of them in my head every time my credit card is declined. But the Great British Baking Show is very, very different.

The show is relaxing, pleasant, polite, and, well... British. Missing are many of the familiar reality competition staples like aggressive product placement, celebrity cameos, and grossly manufactured drama. They've been replaced with things like birds chirping and a judge with eyes so blue you could get lost in them... while fantasizing about paddling a canoe through a glacial lake... while you wait for him to tell someone their dessert is "disappointing."

So every week, we'll hold hands and stroll through this pastoral version of a reality show, and I'll occasionally remind us all what this experience would be like if Bravo, Fox, or the Glad Family of Products were in charge of things. (We'll call these asides Meanwhile, in America, and just pretend they're the fervent scribbles of a Hollywood producer.)

Courtesy of Love Productions

The show takes place in the English countryside, in a tent filled with retro pastel appliances and flooded with natural lighting. The large windows allow the contestants to feel like they're preparing cakes and pies in a lush field.

[Meanwhile, in America: This show would be produced on a sound stage that looks like the lovechild of a professional-grade restaurant kitchen and an MMA ring.]

Hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc waste absolutely no time kicking off this baking marathon, as they call it, and pushing the cooks into their first challenge of many. They barely even introduce the judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, before the contestants are sifting flour and whisking eggs. Side note: I am not familiar with UK celebrities beyond the early-2000's fascination with supermodel Kate Moss and live cigarette Pete Doherty, but Paul and Mary's names sound like what an alien thinks a famous person would be named. That said, they are both fantastic to watch.

Sue and Mel explain that the first of the many challenges of this season is to make a Madeira cake: a simple British sponge cake usually infused with citrus and topped with candied lemon peel. They have two hours to make this cake and that's pretty much it. Within a minute or two we're in the thick of it.

[Meanwhile, in America: The first four minutes of the show would be a montage of sponsors and prizes, like $125,000 furnished by KitchenAid or Perrier or bananas.]

The first baker we meet is Ugne, who apparently has two passions: British baking and body building (and alliteration). We also get a quick voiceover introduction to Nadiya, whose only backstory we know at this point is that she learned to bake in home economics classes. These women aren't interacting or anything, they are simply baking their traditional cakes at their own stations with great focus and great smiles.

[Meanwhile, in America: We would learn that Ugne is a single mother of 72 with a tragic home life that would make you cry faster than a Sarah McLachlan scored ASPCA commercial.]

Because this is a television competition and not a culinary school exam, several of the 12 contestants are doing a twist on the original and adding their own personality to the relatively simple cake. Mat decides on a gin and tonic Madeira cake, which sounds like the Ab Fab of desserts (which is the highest of praise). While preparing the glaze, he adds seven shots of gin and says, "That's a lot of gin. I'll just keep adding it. Fingers crossed." And now we know Mat makes icing the same way I prepare for dinners with my family.

Tamal, an anesthetist, uses his expertise with needles to fill a syringe with rosewater syrup to inject into his sponge cake, making it even more moist and flavorful. If he doesn't win this competition, I have a med-spa-meets-bakery business idea for him. Tamal, if you're reading this, we could get very rich on drugged cakes. A few ideas just off the top of my head: cocoa-codeine, vanilla Vicodin, Lexapro lady fingers.

Time's up and the judges come around to evaluate the flavor, texture, and "crack" of each cake. They love the balance of Nadiya's orange and green cardamon version and appreciate the perfectly candied citrus on top. Ian's inclusion of coconut made the texture of his cake less like a spongy dessert and more like chewing on wallpaper paste. Sandy impressed the judges with her almond liqueur cake and its perfect fruit distribution. Overall, the contestants delivered on the challenge, mostly because it's a familiar recipe that they all knew in advance and could plan and prepare for. (In a very real departure from many reality shows, contestants are aware of each week's theme before they arrive to the tent.)

For confessional-style shots, judges and contestants reflect on what just happened while they're outside in the fresh air among big shady trees or next to an idyllic pond. Their thoughts are often punctuated with the sounds of birds chirping.

[Meanwhile, in America: They would each be questioned in a dark yet brightly lit room with the intensity of a police investigation.]

The second challenge of the episode is apparently a technical challenge, which is always a mystery to the contestants until the day-of. The hosts claim it's "Quintessentially British. More British than Morris Men, Beefeaters, and chicken tikka masala." A visit to wikipedia taught me that Morris Men are men who perform a traditional folk dance, Beefeaters are guards and not just a brand of gin responsible for at least one of my sexual experiences in college, and I know chicken tikka masala because it's always part of my Indian food order when I feel like spending $40 to stay home (come on, you get the dish, but then you obviously need garlic naan, raita, and a few samosas, too).

The big reveal in this challenge is that the contestants must make a walnut cake using a very stripped-down version of one of Mary's recipes for the traditional sponge cake with meringue frosting.

[Meanwhile, in America: This highly technical mystery challenge would require preparing a classic apple pie but the chefs would all be blindfolded, not be able to use actual apples, and their sous chefs would be a dog.]

While everyone is preparing their sponge cakes for this challenge, I noticed that the cinematography of this show is more like a cooking show than a reality competition. At times it feels like we're in Ina Garten or Giada De Laurentiis's kitchen. Shots are often incredibly sumptuous and sensory — we hear the mixer running up against the side of a glass bowl full of frosting, see a knife repeatedly chopping the waxy walnuts. It's easy to forget this is actually a competition. Even when dramatic music underscores a scene, it feels more like there's an orchestra pit in the tent than someone adding sounds in post.

The challenges of this traditional dessert are that you must chop the walnuts to be fine enough that they won't all sink to the bottom of the light sponge cake, but also still coarse enough to get some texture and flavor from them. The layers must be even and separated by buttercream frosting, and the whole thing must be covered in a fluffy and not granular meringue.

Once cooking time is over, the contestants bring their "bakes" to the front for Paul and Mary to sample and determine a ranking from worst to best. Rounding out the bottom is Nadiya for her under frosted cake, and Stu for his technical mistakes (and maybe also his hat?). Finishing at the top of the pack is Ugne.

[Meanwhile, in America: Someone would have ranted to the other cooks or to the camera in a confessional that they know the real way to make a walnut cake, and all of these morons aren't nearly as brilliant at they are when it comes to caramelizing. Stu's fedora would have been the one constant, though.]

The final challenge of the episode is the Showstopper Challenge. This is another straightforward challenge where contestants have three-and-a-half hours to create their own Black Forest Gateaux, a retro chocolate, cherry, and liqueur cake from the 1970s. Not only are the judges looking for a tasty dessert with the flavors of the classic, they are looking for impressive chocolate work and creativity.

Dorret feels optimistic going into the challenge, saying, "I like working with chocolate, I like working with alcohol." Same here, except without the whole working part. She decides to update her cake with a layer of chocolate mousse, which requires a long time to set. Thinking it's done, she starts to lift the acetate and springform pans only for the chocolate to start pouring out of the cake. When she goes back, as the minutes are slowly ticking away, she thinks it's set — but it's still a liquid mess. She has no choice but to plate and frost it to the best of her ability, knowing it's nowhere near what she envisioned. As she starts melting down into tears, host Sue comes to her aid, telling her this is all fixable and, at the end of the day, "It's just a cake." It's. Just. A. Cake.

[Meanwhile, in America: An intimidatingly successful celebrity chef would stand and judge a competent chef for a reasonable mistake, possibly yelling or, even worse, watching silently. We would all know this is not just a cake. This is everything that ever has or ever will exist.]

One by one the contestants present their Black Forest Gateaux to Paul and Mary. They tell Flora that she made a very big cake as if that's somehow a bad thing. Despite its impressive size, her flavors and textures are spot on and the decorative piping is quite beautiful. Flora seems great, but every shot of her reacting to a judging looks like she's about to cry in a romantic comedy.

From a visual standpoint, the cakes ranged from absolutely beautiful (like Tamal's colorful one and Nadiya's shiny modern version), to less attractive (like Sandy's dated piping). The judges love Marie's simple layer cake topped with enormous chocolate trees. Her cake is smaller, but has excellent sponge and cream and a great classic cherry taste.

Stu hits a wall once again as his attempt at using beetroot to moisten the cake left his layers tasting like a log of astroturf. He also strays way too far from the original cake by covering it in meringue frosting and completely ignoring any possible chocolate work. Dorret brings her cake to the front and also struggles. The judges know from the minute she begins walking up that there was a serious problem along the way. She explains the mousse fiasco. As if that isn't enough, her layers are very chewy.

Paul and Mary go with Sue and Mel to a quiet kitchen table to deliberate. They discuss a few contestants' bakes reasonably and politely, weighing pros and cons of each. There are three different challenges to consider when determining who is this week's Star Baker and who is headed home.

Paul and Mary announce that the star baker for this episode is Marie! She made a great Madeira cake in the first challenge, and her showstopper with the giant chocolate trees was delicious and also, well, a showstopper. Sadly, Stu is eliminated this week as he is a talented baker but struggled through all three of the cake challenges in the episode.

[Meanwhile, in America: Well, pretty much the same outcome. Quality usually wins, bold accessories are often a sign you're headed home early, and there was still a traditional dramatic five second pause before the judges announced who was eliminated. Maybe we're not so different than our U.K. friends after all.]

Alison Leiby is a comedian and writer.
Editor: Hillary Dixler

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