Welcome to The Reheat, a space for Eater writers to explore landmark (and lukewarm) culinary moments of the recent and not-so-recent past.
I love The Great British Baking Show (known in the U.K. as The Great British Bake Off). Everyone does. Watching it is a rare opportunity to detach from the bleak contours of reality and to lose yourself in the calming tedium of the big white tent, an alternate realm of warmth, friendship, and baked goods.
I could rhapsodize endlessly about the by-and-large impervious virtues of The Great British Baking Show, but there’s one challenge in particular that’s continued to haunt me (and not in a nice, cute, friendly spirit sort of way!) long past its original airing last year: the open fire pita challenge in the ninth season’s finale.
One of the most comforting aspects of the series is how almost nothing ever changes: there are always three baking challenges per episode, there are the same two judges and two hosts (barring the one major alteration that resulted in the current cast), and there is the iconic big white tent that’s both backdrop and centerpiece of the entire production. But in 2018, for the first time in the show’s history, the contestants — and, by extension, the viewers — were taken out of the tent for a round of baking. “Make good use of your heat source,” is judge Paul Hollywood’s mysterious advice, before the hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig tell the increasingly baffled contestants to leave their ovens and work benches and to go outside.
The three finalists’ technical challenge on that blisteringly hot day is to make six pita breads and three accompanying dips — on an open fire. Left with scant instructions, as is typical during the technical challenge, the bakers — Rahul Mandal, Kim-Joy Hewlett, and Ruby Bhogal — wrestle with the difficulty of controlling live flames for the first time, the bakers growing increasingly sweaty and frantic with each uncooperative eggplant or singed pita. Ruby accurately diagnoses the situation: “This feels like hell.”
The real challenge, apart from knowing what to do with an open fire, is controlling the amount of heat — too much, and it will kill the yeast in the dough, resulting in pita bread that doesn’t rise and achieve the signature pocket. It’s not a huge surprise to learn that the contestants’ pitas, on top of being overly charred, don’t really puff up. Fire, ultimately, is the real victor of this challenge.
To this day, the cavernous empty halls of my mind palace still echo with questions about this challenge, first of which is: how dare you?? Technical challenges are meant to test the contestants’ prior baking experience, advantaging those with more know-how; in this case, the only way for a contestant to be remotely prepared for a challenge like this would be if they were, I don’t know, a survivalist who regularly bakes on open fires? Relatedly, “baking” is a bit generous here, as half of the challenge is graded on separate dips that have nothing to do with baking.
Mostly, though, I don’t like that this challenge is symptomatic of the culinary direction the show has been moving towards as a whole: more focus on flair, spectacle, and obscurity; less on the kind of baking that everyday people do for the sake of creating something delicious. One Reddit user analyzed the data and found that technical challenges are getting more difficult, decreasing in familiarity while increasing in complexity. “Over time I’ve felt less and less like the challenges might be something I could achieve,” the user, u/cremepat, wrote. “I’ve gone from trying recipes to just being glad it’s not me in that tent.” Qualitatively, one just has to compare the season finale showstopper challenges: in the ninth season, it was an entire landscape dessert; in the third, it was an elaborate chiffon cake.
A surprisingly large part of my baking knowledge can be directly attributed to watching The Great British Baking Show. Thanks to constant viewing over the past few years, I’ve absorbed the barest awareness of terms and techniques — the windowpane test for dough, what a “crumb” is, the difference between Genoise and Victorian sponge — I never would have learned otherwise. In its best moments, the show strikes that perfect balance between attainable and fantastical, serving entertainment while also upholding the delusion that maybe I, too, will attempt one of these creations in my kitchen on some holiday weekend. An open fire challenge betrays that balance, moving the show solidly into the “almost certainly never” end of the spectrum. That, to me, is not what the gentle magic of The Great British Baking Show is about.