It seems impossible that we’re already at the final. Doesn’t it seem like only yesterday that Louise's gingerbread wedding collapsed? That Michael tried to get the judges drunk? That Andrew’s knights had little caramel boners? But all Baking Show seasons must eventually come to an end, and this one’s going out in royal fashion, with challenges fit for a queen. Like a gentler, less glittery Drag Race.
The signature challenge is a filled meringue crown. It has to have at least three tiers, so of course Candice is doing four; the first three are mostly made of puffs of meringue and cream, but the small top tier is an homage to Queen Victoria’s crown, and the filling is mango and strawberry. Jane is using strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and nectarines in her red, white, and blue crown. And Andrew is doing blackberry fool and blackberry jelly as a nod to the purple velvet in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee crown. (Fool is not a very familiar dessert for Americans, as evidenced by the time a YouTube cooking channel posted a July 4 recipe for “orange fool,” George Washington’s favorite treat, and Trump supporters threw a hissy. But it’s a mix of pureed fruit and custard or whipped cream, and I want to eat it. I pity the fool that is not eaten by me.)
Andrew’s use of muscovado sugar in his meringue has the judges wary: meringue made with muscovado has a more caramel-y flavor, but is also more prone to collapse. Ever the engineer, he’s planned a structure with extra central rings for stability. But his real challenge is one nobody saw coming: he’s poured out his pecan praline on the wrong side of the baking paper, and he can’t get it off. He actually says “facepalm” out loud, and it’s a testament to how adorable Andrew is that I think it’s adorable.
Jane and Candice are both using castor sugar, but Candice is using white castor sugar in some of her meringues and golden in others. She’s also got stripes of color in some meringues, and pistachios, and mango curd, and prosecco-soaked cut strawberries, and giant whole strawberries, and gilded... berries of some kind? (Or are they.) In Candice fashion, it’s a lot. Jane’s crown, by contrast, is simple in design, relying visually on the perfect whiteness and smoothness of her meringue. Paul seems to disapprove of the simplicity, but Jane is hoping to wow him with flavors.
The biggest challenge is cooling the meringue down as slowly as possible, since sudden changes in temperature can cause cracks. “If you rush it, you open the door of the oven and get them out and you can hear them going ‘ping, ping, ping,’” says Jane, over footage of Andrew opening the door of the oven and getting his meringues out. “You can actually hear them cracking.” It’s a tense moment, especially since this little speech is followed by a cracking sound — but it’s just Andrew clucking his tongue. His meringue is whole. Jane isn’t quite so lucky. “My bottom’s cracking,” she moans as they all hustle to finish constructing. It’s okay, Jane, all our bottoms are cracked.
Andrew has kept his muscovado meringues from crumbling, but the judges find his praline (which he finally got off the baking sheet) too sweet and his fool too bland. (“Bland fool” would probably not piss off Trump voters but might get Paul Ryan fans worked up.) Nobody notes the hilariousness of displaying it on top of a purple head, but then again, all the jokes I can think of go a little too far even for Mel and Sue. (My best effort: “Oh, is this Prince Albert?”) Candice and Jane both win praise for the texture of their meringues, their flavors, and their presentation— and not just praise. Candice gets a Hollywood handshake, and shortly afterwards, Jane does too. Candice seems a little sulky that she didn't get the only handshake, and Andrew describes it as a “kick in the teeth,” but Jane is over the moon.
“This bake will be very familiar but there are one or two tricky things about it,” says Mary of the technical, before Sue hustles her and Paul off to their “intimacy workshop.” The challenge is a simple and classic cake: a Victoria sandwich with jam and buttercream. The tricky thing is that the recipe is basically “make a Victoria sandwich with jam and buttercream.”
Not only do the bakers have no guidance, but they’re inundated with options: different kinds of sugar and butter, different sizes of egg. Andrew seems a little rattled by being out of “the handshake club,” and not totally confident in his methods, which differ from the others’: Jane and Candice are doing an all-in-one method, while he’s creaming butter and sugar first, which puts him behind the women when it comes to getting cakes in the oven. But his choices are sound: he's nailed it on texture, flavor, and color, and he comes in first. “To stand a chance at all, I needed to come in first,” he says, and he’s kept himself in the game. Paul and Mary waffle a long time between Jane’s cake (too big, with too-soft buttercream) and Candice’s (overbaked, with grainy buttercream) for second, but wind up choosing Candice over Jane.
This year’s showstopper is the biggest in the show's history: a royal picnic comprising a whopping 49 items. That’s one chocolate cake, 12 sausage rolls, 12 savory scones, 12 fruit and custard tarts, and 12 mini quiches. And per Paul, “every one of those bakes should be good enough to put in front of the Queen.”
There’s a little profile of each baker during this segment, from which we learn pretty much that their families love them. Any more surprising insights? Well, Jane used to have dark hair and looks better blonde (especially with her snazzy new finale haircut), and Andrew used to be chubby and looks cute both ways.
Planning is a huge challenge when you’re baking five different types of thing in five hours. Andrew’s got an incredible Excel spreadsheet that breaks his time down in five-minute intervals, proving that he has a future in project management if engineering and baking don't work out. “If I didn’t have a plan right now, I’d be flapping,” he says. What’s flapping, exactly? Oh, it’s what Jane is doing right now.
Outside the tent, friends and family, including all nine eliminated bakers, are gathering for a final picnic. Val is a Candice fan, Thomas has been backing Jane since week one, and Selasi wants Andrew to win. Inside, there's been “a minor disaster”: Jane was determined to do a successful chocolate collar on her cake after the travesty of Botanical Week, so she drew out a freehand lacy pattern in white chocolate that would have looked really striking, but she chilled it for too long and now it won’t transfer to her icing. With nearly Selasi-level sangfroid, though, she stops mourning and starts figuring out Plan B.
It kind of works, too. Jane goes first, and when she presents her picnic, Mary immediately says that it all looks “right, royal, and regal.” Her sausage roll is underbaked, and the butternut squash in her scone is getting lost, but her tarts are pretty and her quiche is crispy and “cram-jam full of salmon and prawn.” Of the cake, Mary says “it isn’t what you planed, but you didn't panic and you've done it.” It tastes great, too, although Paul can’t resist a little “it’s a shame about the collar” as a parting shot.
Andrew’s sausage roll is underbaked too, to the point where Mary isn’t even willing to finish eating the pastry, though the sausage tastes good. The cheddar flavor of his scones is overpowered by paprika, his quiches are neat and tasty but the pastry is overworked, and his tarts are soggy because the crust has been soaked by his sugar syrup. Not a banner bake for Andrew, but everyone goes into ecstatics over his beautifully decorated, moist, delicious cake. “That’s the star piece,” says Paul.
Candice has set up a pretty and colorful spread, mostly devoid of Candice-style overreach, though everyone (including me) loves her creative pig-shaped sausage rolls. Her quiche is crispy and her tarts are overbaked but tasty, though like the others she’s struggled with the flavors on her savory scone: the olives are overpowering the manchego. She’s made an orange and cardamom chocolate cake with coconut oil instead of butter, and Paul pronounces it “lovely.”
“This was a humdinger of a showstopper,” says Mary. They adored Andrew’s cake, Jane’s quiche, and Candice’s pigs. The bakers stand together hand in hand as they wait for the final decision. Will it be Candice and her incredibly filthy apron, Jane and what seems like a normal amount of kitchen mussing, or Andrew and his weirdly spotless pinafore? Mess wins: Candice takes the prize. Even her boyfriend seems a little teary.
One of the greatest things about this show is the genuine affection and support the bakers show for each other, even at these tense and pivotal moments. Even through her joyful tears, Candice manages to compliment Andrew and Jane, and they return the favor. Watching everyone eat pastries, hug, and praise each other on the grounds of an an English estate in spring 2016 is like a final glimpse at a lost, better world. In our new reality, even Bake Off is nightmarish. Now might be a good time to start a rewatch.
• All Food TV Coverage [E]