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The Simple Pleasures of ‘The Great British Baking Show’

The Simple Pleasures of ‘The Great British Baking Show’

Any doting kitchen connoisseur will beat your eardrums with the adage: Cooking is an art, but baking is a science. It’s true, technically. Baking operates on strict formulas for creating specific reactions between ingredients, so if you aren’t precise, your souffle is going to deflate like an abused pillow. But despite its veracity, that old adage comes with a tut-tut sense of hand-smacking that’s always been a bit overbearing. We’re dealing with cakes and pies here. Why’s it have to be so fussy? Eating what you cook is rewarding. Eating what you bake is fun.

The Great British Baking Show captures the spirit of itself more than any other food show. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is greasy, and Top Chef is chromed-out and sharp, but the essence of baking oozes out of British Baking Show like the creme pate center of a delicate petit four. Releasing its sixth season (excuse me, “collection”) on Netflix November 9, British Baking Show is a scrumptious viewing experience, as inviting and warm as a window-sill cherry pie. Better still, it’s communal and wholesome, both self- and generally affirming in a way that makes it, in the words of conspiratorial judge Prue Leith, quite worth the calories.

On the show, 12 amateur bakers from across the UK gather in a meadow-set tent to try their hand at numerous baking challenges. Each episode focuses on a baking subcategory (bread, chocolate, Victorian) and the contestants work through the weekend to see who will be Star Baker and who will be sent home. British Baking Show looks typical, but its conventional structure masks ingredients that sing with flavor.

The foundation of this delicious creation is its distinct lack of competition. The contestants on The Great British Baking Show want to win, and the judges want to critique, but no one’s here to punish a pie or tear down a tart. It’s baking, after all. This is an indulgent thing.

Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry (their real names) therefore meet excellent bakes with a handshake and a smile. They meet less-excellent bakes with words like “stodgy” or “untidy.” The criticism might be apt or deserved, certainly, but there’s not a note of Simon Cowell on Great British Baking Show. Bullies have no place in this kitchen. Life is quite stressful enough already, thank you.

The cast, for their part, reflects the affair’s general enthusiasm. They’re a cheery lot. They crack wise for the cameras, dance around their benches and often help one another lift heavier creations onto the finishing pedestal. At their most stressed, the bakers sit in front of their ovens and watch their work and bite their nails. It’s quite charming, really. Each week’s elimination sees the surviving bakers ugly-cry over the departure, too. No one starts a row and no one talks rubbish. Instead, there’s lots of clapping and beaming British smiles.

Case in point: The biggest scandal to ever grace The Great British Baking Show came when a baked Alaska didn’t turn out as expected, so the baker binned it rather than present it to the judges. It was heartbreaking, an act of shame so frank and impulsive that all anyone could do was hold their hands over their mouths, stare and—in the case of the judges—assure them that things would be better with time. Fans call it #bingate now. It was quite the stir.

But despite some burnt edges on its light lattice crust, British Baking Show tallies forth in offering a truly well-done pie (no soggy bottom here, of course). It’s relaxed from start to finish (there isn’t even a prize for the winner aside from a decorative tray and some flowers) and the stakes, for what they are, feel as carefree as a springtime Sunday. The show isn’t a skimpy offering for that, either. Every bite is satisfying.

That makes the show addictive in the way good shortbread can be addictive: simple and unadorned, yet somehow rich, warming and flavorful. By dodging the typical food-competition tropes of heroes, villains and saboteurs, British Baking Show allows you to celebrate everyone. Your allegiances adhere to the quality of the bake, not the bakers themselves, and that puts your attention on the baking instead of the people. And since so much of the show demonstrates high-quality baking, the impression is that, hey, this really seems like a jolly good time, doesn’t it?

Great British Baking Show makes baking feel fun and inclusive and valuable. This isn’t just a hobby your high-school girlfriend took up to channel her inner Gwyneth Paltrow; this is a deep, historic and technically-challenging world, with levels of access that can appeal to beginners as well as years-experienced experts. British Baking Show covers all of it, from after-school tray-bakes to 17th-century meat pies. The show does it all, and that implies you could do it all, too.

This is what a food competition looks like as a community, and how lovely it is that you can be in that community among your fellow amateurs, mixing and whipping and piping or—if you’re so inclined—dipping a finger in the bowl and having a taste.

On The Great British Baking Show, the delights take precedence over the fall. This is paradise. You wish everywhere could be just like this meadow in England, where the bread comes out well-proved, sponge cakes spring back to the touch and that mirror glaze reflects not just the sun of the English countryside, but the simple pleasures of a life marked by sugar, flour and icing. Worth the calories, indeed.

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