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‘Great British Baking Show’ Episode 2: Making Biscuits Isn’t Always Gravy

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

Photos courtesy of Love Productions

Welcome to week two of The World's Most Polite Kitchen. Honestly, they could call the show this because I'm positive it's true. Even everyone in my kitchen isn't this nice to each other — and I live alone in a studio apartment.

The theme for this episode is biscuits, which are basically cookies in the U.K. I'm from America, where a biscuit is a chunk of dough you convince yourself is a reasonable complement to a meal of fried chicken. So, rather than the flaky butter vehicles we in this country are used to, the challenges for the bakers here are mostly sweet, crisp pastries.

And, an important culinary note: both "cookie" and "biscuit" are great names for a dog. Other foods that would make suitable names for dogs I hope to see this season: waffles, cupcake, cinnamon, herb (hard "H" pronunciation).

For the Signature Bake, the contestants are charged with a very straightforward challenge: to create 24 crunchy, identical biscotti. Biscotti are crunchy Italian cookies often with dried fruit, chocolate, herbs, nuts, or other additions. They are great for dipping in coffee or reminding you that you haven't been to the dentist in a long time.

[Meanwhile, in America: This challenge might be to make a traditional, flavorful biscotti, but the quantity wouldn't be 24, it would be to feed everyone in an entire zip code.]

It's still quite weird to me that Baking Show episodes start with a few minutes of pastoral B-roll before a quick explanation of the upcoming challenge, and that's it. No recap of last week, no long meditation on the episode's theme. It just serenely gets started.

[Meanwhile, in America: There would be easily five minutes of last week's winner gloating about how great they are and how much they deserve that win, interspersed with other competitors being annoyed at that win but also probably happy that whoever got sent home is gone and out of the way.]

Most of the contestants are using macadamia nuts, cranberries, or dark chocolate in their biscotti, but Alvin is using fresh jackfruit in his. Fresh fruit can be a challenge for this kind of bake, as the moisture could render the biscotti too soft. If it works, though, it will be the ultimate Asian-fusion food item.

It's then revealed that it took more than an entire episode for us to learn that Mat is a handsome firefighter. He casually mentions it and then goes back to baking cookies in a nice sweater like some kind of hero.

[Meanwhile, in America: This information would easily constitute a five-minute montage of old photos of the guys on his crew and him tearing up about it.]

Other variations on the classic are Ugne's biscotti with goji berries, Paul's chocolate dough-based cookie, and Flora's Venetian wedding biscotti with fennel and sesame seeds. The judges taste the final bakes, loving Nadiya's coconut biscotti, and appreciating the perfect bake on Paul's chocolate version (but unfortunately, they note, the flavor is a little off).


Next up is the Technical Challenge, where the contestants receive a stripped-down recipe for a challenging and classic dessert from judges Paul Hollywood or Mary Berry. When asked for any advice going into the challenge, Paul only offered, "Don't rush it." Host Sue Perkins thanks him for the incredibly helpful remarks and says, "Brevity is the soul of wit." At first it seemed like everyone on this show was speaking in pithy, Oscar Wilde-like puns. Now they are straight-up quoting him.

[Meanwhile, in America: The hosts and judges would introduce this challenge with enough bad puns to give you a migraine, like, "don't crumble under the pressure," "this will not be a piece of cake," or "this challenge won't be so sweet."]

Paul and Mary leave and the bakers start reading the recipe for arlettes, which are flat, flaky swirls of puff pastry that should be sweet and crisp. Working with these ingredients to get the perfect thin and crispy biscuits requires finesse and precision. The first step in Paul's recipe, however, is simply "make the dough." The contestants all stare at the sheet of paper with the intensity of someone looking at a Magic Eye poster of Big Ben.

Flora seems to know what she's doing, even though she admits at the beginning of the challenge to not knowing what an arlette is. Paul (the competitor) makes a batch, and as he's pulling them out of the oven, unhappy with the result, he says, "Oh, well, they're not looking very clever."

[Meanwhile, in America: Paul would say, "Fuck this."]

Everyone brings up their batch for a blind taste test from Paul and Mary. The biscuits on the table range from cinnamon swirl discs to Dali clock-esque melting butter. Marie managed to make a good arlette, but unfortunately only made four of them rather than the expected eight, after failing to turn on her oven on time. She and Paul are 11th and 10th place, respectively, in the competition. Flora comes in second, and Dorret, after a rough first episode and Signature Bake this week, nabs first place.

[Meanwhile, in America: The aggressive men on the show who think they are the world's greatest chefs would complain to the camera that she doesn't deserve to be here and their versions are so much better than her dumb cookie.]

Reflecting on her poor performance, Marie tells the camera, "In hindsight, I should have checked the oven. It's my fault. It was silly silly."

[Meanwhile, in America: She would have a total emotional breakdown.]

Now is time for the main event, the Showstopper Challenge. This week, the bakers are tasked with making 36 biscuits to be presented in a box made out of a different kind of biscuit than the ones inside. Every time a challenge starts, I barely notice, because the kickoff is one of the hosts saying, "On your marks, get set, bake!" and then the contestants start calmly gathering their pots, pans, and ingredients.

[Meanwhile, in America: A host screams for the contestants to start as they sprint around an industrial kitchen wielding knives and lighting flames. Miraculously, no one has died.]

Alvin is making brandy snaps to go inside a gingerbread casket. Yeah, he keeps calling his box a "casket" to the point where I wonder if those are something entirely different in the U.K. Like Alvin, many of the bakers are using gingerbread for the box because it's a very sturdy dough (they are not, like Alvin, referring to their boxes as something normally reserved for vampires). Other words being used besides "box" include "chest" and "hamper."

Nadiya is doing a ginger and cayenne pepper cookie box. Inside will be 36 chocolate-dipped fortune cookies. I'm not a fan of the fortune cookie: I don't like to let cookies tell me what to do — that's cake's job, and all it say is, "Finish me and skip the gym."

Ugne plans to sculpt a marshmallow baby to look like it's climbing into the box, which is something that will haunt my nightmares forever. Alvin, after attempts to assemble his gingerbread casket, gives up and just makes sure his cookies are good.

The judges love Ian's buttery shortbread box filled with perfect macarons, as well as Flora's beautifully piped box with teabag-shaped earl grey cookies inside. While Alvin didn't present a box like the challenge required, his brandy snaps are delicious, though a little wet with the filling. Alvin tears up explaining that he ran out of time, and the judges are super-nice to him and complimentary of what he managed to put forward.

[Meanwhile, in America: Alvin would be admonished for not being a flawless model of time management doing something he's never done before under the pressure of a TV competition.]

The judges enjoy Sandy's savory sun-dried tomato cheese biscuits, though the box itself could use a stronger flavor. Tamal's checkerboard shortbread are also a hit and perfectly baked. Ugne's marshmallow baby and overly iced box are too garish for Mary, and the amount of icing leaves the box a little soft for the challenge. Of the cookies inside, though, Paul says, "I don't like them... I love them." As a comedian, that joke makes me cringe so hard I count it as strength training every time I hear it; yet coming out of Paul's mouth, so close to his bright blue eyes, I love it. Say it again!

Marie's Russian box of shortbread is underwhelming, and the judges note that since she's from Scotland (where that particular biscuit recipe originates), they should have been perfect. The box containing the biscuits is also not quite crisp enough to please the judges.

More people struggled with this challenge than thrived in it, which was evidenced by the judging. Star Baker for the week is Ian, who notes he's never been given the prize of Star Male Baker in his town of 400 homes, yet here he is winning that title on The Great British Baking Show.

Unfortunately, for her trouble with the Technical and the Showstopper Challenges, Marie is sent home this week. It's a shame that some silliness with the oven got her eliminated, and a shame that our relaxing hour of televised baking is over for this week. Until the next episode, I'll be trying to recreate the experience by listening to birds chirp while eating a sponge cake and getting lost in my memory of Paul's sparkling blue eyes.

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