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‘The Great British Baking Show’ Season 4 Premiere Recap: So Many Cakes

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The contestants produce some unusual specimens

Courtesy of Mark Bourdillon, © Love Productions

Welcome to recaps of the fourth season of Great British Baking Show, which pits Britain’s best amateur bakers against one another in a nail-biting yet extremely kind and mutually validating set of challenges for the top prize of a cake plate. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, I’ve sung its praises here on Eater before, under its U.K. name The Great British Bake Off. (I don’t know why the name is worse over here; probably it’s because Betty Crocker has trademarked “bake-off.” I’m not going to Google that. Just go with it.) I am a non-British non-baker who has nevertheless been a fan for many years, making me at least half as qualified to talk about it as next season’s new host Noel Fielding (British, non-baker, might like the show?) and a third as qualified as Paul Hollywood (British, baker, definitely hates it).

Cake Week on The Great British Baking Show — the first episode is always Cake Week — introduces so many personalities that it’s tempting to assign them archetypes. It would be much easier to introduce everyone in this initial recap if I could just map each of them to a day of Christmas or a labor of Hercules or something. What are there 12 of? Apostles, I guess? Angry men? Zodiac signs, maybe? Selasi could definitely be unflappable Cancer, and cake-whisperer Val could be kooky Pisces. (I am not good at astrology. I looked it up, and Selasi is an Aquarius.)

Unfortunately, even in the whirlwind of tension, cake-tossing, and mirror glaze that is week one in the tent, there’s enough time for each baker to appear as a whole and generally charming individual. Tom seems like a totally normal straightforward dude but has also brought at least two kinds of booze into the tent. Andrew is an analytical-minded aerospace engineer, but he’s also a tireless cheerleader for his competitors and an adorable elf baby. Kate is a nurse and also somehow a farmer? Candice is a P.E. teacher and is almost definitely making eyes at Selasi. So much for my plan for an easy who’s who, but at least I don’t have to Google more Zodiac signs.

Paul and Mary sample Benjamina’s drizzle cake
PBS/GBBS

For the signature bake, Paul notes that competitions have gotten more and more complicated over the previous seasons, so they’ll be returning to basics: a drizzle cake. (Drizzle cake, a sponge cake soaked in fruity syrup, usually citrus, is indeed pretty basic; it shows up occasionally on the Baking Show as an option in “classic British cake” challenges.) Notable successes in the signature bake include Benjamina’s pistachio and lemon cake, which is so moist that Mary worries it’s under-baked. (It isn’t.) Benjamina strikes me as an extremely competent baker who has more taste than flair; her drizzle cake is visually restrained almost to the point of being boring, but not quite, and her showstopper is the same. There’s probably a Zodiac sign for this, but I said I’d give that up. (Never mind, I asked someone. It’s Taurus.)

Notable failures for this bake include Tom’s overpoweringly boozy gin and tonic cake — too much gin even for Mary — and Louise’s ambitious orange-shaped Cointreau cake, which comes out looking like Homestar Runner if he ate too much of Tom’s. For some reason, Candice’s gluten-free raspberry drizzle, which is described as being more like a steamed pudding, doesn’t garner any especial criticism for not tasting like a cake. Granted, it’s hard to make a gluten-free sponge that’s as light as a glutinous one, but nobody told you it had to be gluten-free, Candice! Bake to the brief!

I’d love to get a gander at the instructions for a technical challenge sometime, because from what the bakers quote, they sound hilariously vague. Apparently the first two instructions for this technical are “make a jelly” and “make a sponge.” Jaffa cakes or contraception? Anyone’s guess.

Mel inspects Rav’s chocolate during the Jaffa cake challenge.
Courtesy of Tom Graham/PBS

No, it is, it’s Jaffa cakes, a thing I’d never considered people actually baked rather than buying in a box. (I actually said out loud, “Isn’t this like making them bake Ho-Hos?” and then remembered that the Cake Week signature bake last season was Swiss cake rolls. There’s so much stuff you can make yourself if you have even a little bit of baking skill, unlike me!) The technical challenge is responsible for my favorite exchange this week: Andrew whispers dramatically to Sue, in his piping Irish voice, “the sponges are very large,” and Sue goes “oooh!” like he said something naughty and adds: “You’ve gone for maxi-Jaffa. A sort of Jaffa muffin. A sort of Juffin.” WHY IS THIS SO FUNNY TO ME.

The technical challenge also proves that it’s actually impossible to rattle Selasi, even when you’re trying. “There seems to be some discussion as to whether the jelly disk should go on that side or on that side,” Mel confides to him, flipping one of the cakes over. Behind them, Val, Jane, and Andrew struggle with this very question. “That side,” he said, indicating the correct side, “one hundred percent.” Do not even attempt to introduce uncertainty into this man’s psyche; it will find no purchase.

And his cool confidence pays off: After a typically uncompromising judging (Paul on Louise’s cakes: “They are fairly uniform...ly bad”), Selasi comes out on top. Andrew, unjustly, is on the bottom just because he confused the bottom of his cake with the top. That’s a cosmetic issue, not a baking one! Granted, I may be partial to Andrew because I just think he’s so sweet. He keeps checking in on the other bakers and giving them thumbs up and high fives! Surely we can forgive him a few cakes that just happen to be upside down.

Andrew’s Showstopper cake
Courtesy of Monika Frise/PBS

But the showstopper challenge, a mirror glaze cake, should let him redeem himself. “A mirror glaze is shiny, like a polished posh car,” says Mary, and Andrew builds jet engines for Rolls-Royce; surely he’s got an advantage here. And his “Ultimate Indulgence” cake — salted caramel, orange, chocolate, and caramelized hazelnuts — wins praise for taste and presentation. Jane’s cake also gets top marks for finally acing the technical, one challenge too late: She’s produced an “elegant Jaffa cake” with an optimally shiny surface. In the end, she wins Star Baker.

Benjamina nearly has a meltdown working on her showstopper, until Sue steps in to give her a pep talk, which is a service for which I would absolutely pay some kind of subscription fee. But she pulls it off, with a white-and-beige creation that looks like a living room in a golf community but apparently tastes delicious, and is appropriately mirrored. Selasi’s raspberry mirror glaze isn’t shiny enough, but it’s a stylish-looking cake and “a joy to eat,” per Mary, plus in my opinion he should get points for trying to do something that isn’t chocolate.

Kate is the only other baker who attempts a colored mirror glaze, and it’s an unmitigated disaster: Paul says her “swallows in a blue sky” attempt came out more “penguins on the sea,” and I’d add that the sea looks like Play-Doh, which you’ll note isn't shiny at all. And P.E. teacher Candice’s cake is sports equipment themed, though not on purpose: The decorations on top look like Wiffle balls, and the Genoese sponge resembles a Nerf discus. We know, because Candice was one of several bakers to throw out their first attempt at a Genoese and start over, and her initial effort was so solid and rubbery that Sue encouraged her to toss it through the tent window. The new one isn’t that much better, and Candice debuts an irritating habit of being so committed to performing “nobody knows how terrible I am better than me” that she repeatedly interrupts Mary friggin’ Berry during critique. (Selasi offers her some soothing words afterwards, another service I would probably pay for.)

Michael makes the inconceivable miscalculation of baking a matcha sponge with a chocolate mirror glaze. Buddy, listen. Matcha and chocolate is one of my favorite flavor combinations; I even love the matcha custard pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds, which is both incredibly delicious and tastes incredibly like sweet creamed spinach. But Paul and Mary, for all their talk about flavor, are still very British; they don’t really like to be challenged. We’re talking about people who once got disconcerted by the daring flavor combination of peanut butter and grape jelly. Literally someone went home over it. Then again, that was in 2015, so Michael probably wasn't old enough to stay up and watch.

Rav, who made a similar mistake in the signature bake (Paul doesn’t want to know what a yuzu is, Rav; a yuzu confuses Paul’s mouth) gets the critique that, “You got the flavor spot on, but the texture’s all wrong” — echoing Lee’s critique from the signature. Luckily, Lee has screwed up even worse, pairing a dry sponge with dry ganache and no cream, and combined with a lackluster signature and an 11th place technical finish (also known as “last place if Andrew’s perfectly good Jaffa cakes hadn’t been upside down”), that’s enough to send him home. “At church I do baking demonstrations,” he says, a bit defensively. “I won’t show them a Jaffa.” He's Capricorn.

Jess Zimmerman is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Hazlitt, the New Republic, and others.
Editor: Greg Morabito

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