Catnip for the middle classes? Crack for the John Lewis cardholder? Exactly what is the pull of The Great British Bake Off? Yesterday’s Cherry Cake technical challenge was a covert ground cake offensive, sorting out the wholemeal wheat from the chaff, marking out the self-raising winners and losers from their ability to cradle and tilt a ladleful of Royal Icing. It’s addictive television and – as with all cakes – it’s not just down to the recipe but the temperature of the cooking conditions. Who wouldn’t melt milk chocolate in a bunting-strewn damp tent in Berkshire, soundtracked only by the limp throb of summer rain and the sound of fellow competitors’ brains churning through caster sugar weights? The Daily Snail lost the plot entirely, believing the “benchmark of the Swiss roll” was the pre-packed Cadbury’s variety. But then The Daily Snail always has been filled with a load of crackpot peasants who don’t know their flour sifters from their jellied fruit, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
But I was disappointed that The Telegraph was as naive and cakily-stupid this morning as to call this series “Fluffy and uplifting” (vomit). Actually, it was a joy to watch Mary Berry deconstruct the physics of the icing on the cherry cake before forcing Paul Hollywood to eat it. Last night was a bloodbath. Someone even turned up with their own guillotine, and proceded (I think) to cheat cakes with it. Norman, the bluff, retired Navy Scotsman, rolled up an enormous Black Forest Gateaux and squashed it, announcing it has crossed the borders of its own country and was now a Swiss roll. Iain, the Biggest British Bake Off Beard had a grisly time trying to make a Swiss roll which incorporated apricots and basil and which, on completion, unfortunately looked like someone had hurled it down a flight of stairs. Diana had been in the WI for 135 years. She produced a swiss roll of unfettered, unblinking straightforwardness direct from 1965 : lemon curd. The Berry verdict was that it was a “scrummy” and traditional offering. Diana was in full flood, launching towards the Showstopper Challenge ” “I’m ganaching my buns!” she screeched cheerily, before delighting Master Baker Paul with all her chocolate layers. Luis made a Spanish Swiss roll, inspired by his mother, which was just confusing. Martha, who is about six and a half, is coping with attending school whilst performing in Bake Off, gritted her teeth and became terribly jolly when her hands started shaking, playing havoc with her hazlenut crumbles. Jordan, who worked in the IT department of a fruit machine company in Nottingham and who, noted Mr Bluebird, was precisely the kind of person they don’t let into London, took his job to heart and produced a Swiss roll that was “fruit trifle-y” and far too moist. He reacted with an uncooth, vampiric grin and retreated into his ironic shirt. Chetna succeeded with a coffee, cardamom and pistachio Swiss role that really came home, but the true victor and this week’s Star Baker, was an unprepossessing grandmother of 8 called Nancy who, when she isn’t whipping up her own chocolate and orange pastille identical 36 tea time cakes, is busy restoring a house in the South of France. Everything she did was not only polished, but crafted in that no-nonsense, practical way that steps straight out of the Merry Mary Berry School of Getting On With It and Having a Thoroughly Nice Time.
Having a normal and thoroughly nice time is the simple secret of GBBO. Baking is for many children, specifically for little girls, a thing that you do at home, that makes you feel safe, that promises treats, that rewards time and patience with pleasure and indulgence, that whiles away the rainy afternoons with a little alchemy. Baking is a constant. It never really changes. The fashions within it mutate and shift, but the time-honoured slug of egg yolk down the wide bowl, the pfft of flour as it falls like snow through the sifter, the clackety clunk of wooden stick against bowl – these are acts which chime with cakes made yesterday, and last year and before. There is something remarkably solid about this type of cooking that depends so much on distribution of air. And it’s not just the alchemy of mundane ingredients whipping up together into a beautiful cake which has happened. It’s the other kind of alchemy : the GBBO has turned things to gold. Since the first GBBO was aired in 2010 Lakeland has experienced a 42% rise in baking goods sales. Cake stand sales rose 243 per cent at John Lewis over the same period, whilst sieves are up 31% and whisks 79%. Indeed, the GBBO success story has not just comforted Britons during the recession, but confounded it. There has been a revolution in cupcake production, with the number of independent bakeries increasing by 5% in the 2011/2012 tax year.
If I stand on my copy of Paul Hollywood’s “Pies & Puds” I too can reach my Kenwood mixer, bring it down and batter my way through a chocolate Victoria Sponge that will knock you bandy. This is not because of the GBBO, but rather that as a 14 year old I was addicted to baking, made a chocolate cake every weekend and forced family members to eat it. I can do buttercream fucking swirls. The lot. Not that I’d cope for ten minutes with yesterday’s Cherry Cake technical challenge. It brought a sweat to the brow of each of our 12 bakers. It became a gleeful, cruel game of those who knew the winning strategies (Nancy : “Coat the cherries in flour first”) and those who didn’t (Louise : “I’m not cutting them into small pieces like Paul said. I’m cutting them in half. And then I’m going to be rude to Mary Berry because I KNOW BETTER”. She was first out of the show). Ok, so sometimes your cherry does sink to the bottom, but isn’t that life, Mary? (I often ask Mary questions in my head. She always has the answer to most things to do with Planet Earth as she is our oracle. Mary : “is my boiler broken? ” Mary shuffles her shoulders into something vaguely militaristic and multi-coloured from Zara. “No, but your pan was insufficiently greased”. Mary, is fracking for shale gas environmentally detrimental? Mary : “Only if your lemons aren’t de-pipped before use.” Mary, what am I looking for in life? Mary: “Suspended cherries.”)
The highest accolade one can received from the Oracle of Mary is “Really scrumptious”. It shall be chiselled onto her tombstone. There is no higher honour that can be bestowed upon the individual, except possibly receiving The Victoria (Sponge) Cross. It is only Episode 1 of this most thrilling and engaging public spectacle, but the heights of bakery – my goodness. Could you produce 36 identical miniature cakes in three and a half hours? Could you produce them in three and a half years? Norman, the sea-venturing (ret.) Scotsman, produced a perfect raspberry and almond victoria sponge selection in miniature, happily dusted with icing sugar. He didn’t even seem to get his oven gloves messy, but I suppose they teach you that sort of thing in the Royal Navy. He will survive for a long time in this competition. Dozy Kate of the “too dry” bakes has caused some disagreement in our house, with me betting a quid that she won’t get to the final and Mr Bluebird betting a quid that she will. Nancy will continue to reign supreme and probably has “finalist” tattooed on her knickers. Builder Richard from North London is another one to keep your eye on, if you aren’t already staring into your oven at home wondering why your 63 individual minature sponges aren’t rising. Mel and Sue are very very good at everything on this show (despite what some people may say) and are one of the funny reasons why it all holds together, but the true beauty is the format does not – indeed will not – change. It’s perfect. It’s like the ideal tarte au citron : you’ve found your recipe, you’ve developed your knack, you’ve got a suitable, slightly glamorous wobble, the heat and pace of the bake is perfect. Why change it?
Here are last years Bake Off contestants, most of whom were developed in a factory just outside Reading, and who have spatulas where the rest of us have hands. But they aren’t bitter because they make some lovely scones.
Here is Paul’s cake den. If you’re lucky he’ll invite you in to lick his madeleines, but if you’re unlucky, he’ll mostly cover you with his gin-laced spittle whilst screaming that it was your fault his rye bread was a disaster and his wife left him.
Here is last year’s winner on the far right, Frances, whilst the one who all the men fancied, and who got her own column in the Guardian, Ruby, is on the left. Who had the last lemon drizzle laugh there then, ladies?
The London Bluebird is not, despite what may be apparent, a promotional wing of the BBC, this is simply an impartial review. But not that you care of course, because you’re already planning world dominion through the medium of seeded loaf, aren’t you? The Great British Bake Off is on telly every Wednesday, but this blog is updated every other week, so the next instalment will be on Friday August 22nd. Thank you!