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The Great American Eater Interview With Paul and Prue

Judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith on what makes a new American iteration of “Bake Off” different than its predecessors, and the GBBO fiasco that was Mexican Week

Four people seated around a wooden table smile toward the camera.
Hosts Ellie Kemper and Zach Cherry with judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith
Roku

Thanks to the incredible success of the Great British Bake Off on Netflix, Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood have settled nicely into their place as the cultural arbiters of what makes for a proper British dessert. Now, they’re (metaphorically) headed across the pond for a re-imagined version of the Great American Baking Show, which means that after 13 seasons of watching charming Britons make cakes and pastries on televisions, Americans are finally getting a baking competition of our own.

Putting together a proper American version of the baking competition has been, apparently, complicated. The Great American Baking Show first premiered in 2015, and was hosted by Nia Vardalos and featured original GBBO judge Mary Berry alongside pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini. Then, Berry left and was replaced by Hollywood just before the show was pulled off the air during its third season after Iuzzini was accused of sexual harassment. Hollywood also judged the short-lived American Baking Competition in 2013, hosted by Jeff Foxworthy on CBS, which was canceled after one season.

But now, Leith and Hollywood have teamed up with the Roku Channel for a show that American audiences can finally get excited about. Viewers can get a taste of the series on December 2, when a special holiday episode of the series hits the airwaves with famous contestants like D’Arcy Carden, Joel Kim Booster, and YouTube star Liza Koshy. Ahead of the premiere of The Great American Baking Show: Celebrity Holidays, Eater sat down to talk with the hosts about what makes American baking different from British baking, what audiences can expect in the new series, and the absolute fiasco that was Mexican Week in the 2022 season of the Great British Bake Off.

What do you think are the fundamental differences between American baking and British baking?

Paul Hollywood: It’s a little bit sweeter than British baking. I also think that American bakers tend to celebrate whichever area they’re from in the United States. They celebrate their local food, from the Mississippi mud pie to pecan pie, and I like that. I like the fact that they promote whatever they have at hand. But essentially, the two are very, very similar. The history of American baking has its original roots somewhere in Europe, and it’s changed over the years as it’s been passed down through the generations and been tweaked. It’s become a specifically American thing. However sweet they are, I do enjoy them. I just can’t take the portion sizes that get offered. That’s all.

What did you have to learn about common American flavor combinations that maybe aren’t so ubiquitous in the U.K.?

Prue Leith: One of the things that struck me, first of all, is the greater tolerance for sugar than there is in Europe. Not everything, but it often is too sweet for me. The other thing is that [Americans] are very keen on cinnamon, cinnamon turns up a lot. And I love cinnamon, so that’s a lucky thing. I’m in New York at the moment, and I’ve just had really good breakfast granola, and it tastes of cinnamon. Granola almost never tastes of cinnamon at home. The other thing is that Americans have a much higher tolerance for chile than we do. Paul likes food a bit hotter than I do. I like chile, but sort of at a medium level. I think that’s from the influence of Mexico, which is much stronger in America than it is in the U.K.

PH: My only gripe is that you just can’t make tea in America. I’ve got a proper cup here, bet you’re missing that, Prue.

PL: I find it really distressing that it’s almost impossible to get milk for tea. You might get half-and-half, but you’re mostly offered creamer. When I was young, Americans drank milk in a glass. It was an option like coffee or tea, and we always laughed that the Americans drank so much milk. Now if you ask for a latte, they assume it’s going to be oat milk or something else. And when you say no, I’d like regular milk, they look astonished. Milk out of a cow is what I want!

The upcoming season of the Great American Baking Show kicks off with a holiday edition in which celebrity contestants like Marshawn Lynch and D’Arcy Carden are tasked with making festive bakes. How do you design the challenges differently for celebrities as opposed to skilled home bakers?

PH: Going into it, I thought you’ve got to keep it fairly simple. I’ll leave it up to the bakers to choose either a difficult recipe or an easy recipe. For celebrities, you want to make it as simple as possible because they’re not bakers. They’re comedians, they’re actors, they’re football players. You want to give them an opportunity to create something that looks good and tastes good.

PL: The one thing that Bake Off is never about is humiliation. There are competitions that are all about humiliation, and that’s not Bake Off. We want to give people the best chance we can to shine. The celebrity bakers probably got on the show because they watch the show and love it, and are quite flattered to be asked to be on it. We want it to be fun, we want them to have a good time, so we wouldn’t set out to trip them up, ever. We’re a bit tougher with the main show bakers, because they are real bakers. They’ve been baking for months and work incredibly hard to get on that show, which is very difficult to get on. They got there by the virtue of their ability to bake. We’re not setting out to catch them out, but we do make it much more difficult, because it has to be. We’re testing the best bakers in the whole of America.

PH: We want the celebrities to succeed, whereas with the normal bakers we’re testing them to see how good they actually are.

Be honest: Did you feel like you had to be nice about the quality of the celebrity bakes, or were they actually good? It seemed like maybe you were being a little… easy on them.

PH: [Emphatically] No. I don’t care who’s standing in front of me. I don’t show bias to anybody. I give a handshake to someone because I’m looking at the plate, not the person in front of me.

PL: I think we are nicer to the celebrities, probably. But we’re not just dishing it out because they’re celebrities, we’re dishing it out because we thought they were really good bakes.

You said that the challenges for the celebrities were easier, but you’re still asking them to make coulis and choux pastry and baked meringues!

PH: A baked meringue is simple! It’s whisking up an egg white with a little bit of sugar at the end. Maybe a little bit of corn flour. Maybe a little bit of lemon. I mean, they’re not difficult.

PL: For choux pastry, if you do what you’re told and actually follow the recipe, it will turn out. The celebrities do have a recipe. We don’t just say to them “make a choux pastry” like we probably would to the main contestants. But if you do what the recipe says, you see the magic of choux pastry. I always absolutely love it because you have this unpromising, slightly gloopy mixture that doesn’t look like anything. Then you dollop it onto your baking sheet and what comes out of the oven is this magic puffed up ball with a big space in the middle to be later stuffed with whipped cream. It’s magic. It’s wonderful. We wouldn’t want to deny the viewers or the bakers of that pleasure. I mean, you can see the faces of the celebrities when they pull out of the oven something that looks like it could’ve been made by a proper baker. They’re very proud that they made that.

What can we expect in the upcoming new season of the Great American Baking Show? How will the show be different from those that preceded it?

PH: Well, Prue is there, for one. The standard of the bakers is incredibly high. It jumped a lot. Maybe that’s because people were watching more of the Great British Bake Off during COVID, and perhaps have been practicing more. I thought the standard was very, very, very, high in this season. In the past, in the American shows I’ve worked on, the standard hasn’t been quite as good as the British one, maybe because we’ve been around for 13 years and have gotten better and better. But I was really surprised, it’s a lot to look forward to.

PL: It was a big jump. Because of COVID, they stopped doing the Great American Baking Show. So there were these two years in which all the bakers had improved, probably because they were staying at home and everyone started baking and making sourdough.

American audiences have really fallen in love with the Great British Bake Off, but do you think they have different expectations than British audiences? Do you have to approach making an American show differently than you would elsewhere?

PH: I don’t think so. The British version is so popular, and now we’ve got the original team coming over to do the American version. We kept it as pure as the original one as possible, so I don’t think the expectations will change. I think the standard is just as good, and I think people will really enjoy it. To see Americans in the tent, and their love of the tent, was the thing that got me. They were really nervous, and you don’t expect that. To see the awe in their faces when they see the tent for the first time is hilarious.

There was no episode more controversial in the most recent season of the Great British Bake Off than Mexican Week. Is that a challenge that will be replicated in the American version of the show?

PH: We’ve already done that, so probably not. I’d literally come back from Mexico about three weeks before we filmed the episode. I spent a month over there with Mexican chefs, working with tacos and enjoying the food in Tijuana and Mexico City and Oaxaca and Cancun. I was all over the place, and we set the challenges based on what I’d seen there. The challenges were very good, and everyone did a good job. There’s not a bad bone in any of the bodies of anyone connected with Bake Off that would want to upset Mexico. And certainly not me, because I love the country.

PL: Can you expect more controversy? Absolutely. We never go out to be controversial. We try to be dead honest. It was quite unfortunate that quite a few people took offense, but we certainly didn’t mean it. As Paul says, the thing about Bake Off is that it absolutely represents inclusivity and diversity and tolerance and togetherness. I don’t want to sound sentimental, but the fact is that the vibe of Bake Off is entirely cooperative and encouraging. So the idea that we were set out to insult anybody is ridiculous.

PH: I was gutted. I mean, I was really upset about it.

The Great American Baking Show: Celebrity Holidays is now airing on the Roku Channel.

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