Paul and Mary try to get a rise out of this year’s bakers.
1. Week one is always cakes, and as such is a gentle ushering in of the show’s regime each year. It’s not so much a test as it is a low-key introduction, a chance to show what you can do before the real slog of the competition starts. (Unless you’re Toby, of course. Poor Toby.) Bread week, however, is a different beast altogether – this is where the oven gloves come off because bread is Paul Hollywood territory, and you know that he’s going to spend the episode prowling around the marquee like the Beast watching the last petal fall off the enchanted rose and wondering which of those quaint French villagers he should snack on first. Surprisingly, however, everyone seemed significantly less jittery this week – even Ruby. Perhaps it was just the absence of Toby making the quiver-curve that little bit smoother for everybody else.
2. This week’s opening challenge was to make 36 breadsticks of any flavour of the bakers’ choosing, so long as they used yeast in the recipe. They had to be 26cm, or 10 inches, and now I see why they didn’t have this particular challenge last year because frankly I’m not sure how many different versions of “James proudly displays his 10 inches for John” I could’ve run through before blowing out all of my synapses and slumping over my laptop never to wake again. The big test for the bakers was going to be whether the breadsticks snapped neatly when Paul and Mary tried to break them – and also, in a few cases, counting to 36. The contestants’ dough-kneading techniques made for intriguing insights into their personalities: Beca liked to lift hers up and drop it repeatedly, Kimberley held hers up to the light inspecting for individual strains of gluten, making Joey Tribbiani happy-face in the process, and Mark basically got his out, whipped it repeatedly with one hand, and admitted to having hit people in the face with it in the past. He should be on some sort of register. Frances couldn’t resist the opportunity to be ZANY, and actually introduced her breadsticks with a “What am I thinking?”, since she’s apparently being played by Catherine Tate for the purposes of this episode. She decided to make giant “matchsticks” dipped in chilli chocolate, being the only baker to make sweet breadsticks, and also the only one to serve them in a giant panto-sized matchbox. The runaway winners of this round were Ali (whose look of wide-eyed disbelief when he got completely positive feedback from Paul and Mary was just precious), Kimberley, and Ruby, whose double-stranded Mexican breadsticks with jalapeño were really sensaROM NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM. Sorry, something about jalapeños brings out the Cookie Monster in me. The round’s biggest WOMP WOMP was saved for Lucy, who not only went for super-boring “grissini with salt”, but also didn’t even do a particularly good job of them.
3. That Paul Hollywood, though. He’s ever such a useful fellow to have around, with all that expert advice he doles out. Like when he told Lucy that she would have trouble moving her sliced wet dough around, and that he knew how to fix it, but wasn’t allowed to tell her, and then when Lucy worked it out of her own accord he announced that actually it didn’t matter because it was too late now anyway because she’d already done it wrong. Quite how he didn’t end up with his ears filled with wet-dough noodles after that little display is, I think, testament to Lucy’s self-control. Well, either that or another exhibit to add to the pile of evidence that suggests that Lucy is over this whole experience already.
4. Dear readers, you will know that this blog is a staunch defender of The History Bit, and we will fight for as long as it takes to ensure that The History Bit remains a key component of this show, because it’s what makes the whole thing so lovely and BBC2-y. That said, this week’s History Bit was a bit of a low point, in that it basically taught us that England used to be full of muffin men, and you’d know when the Muffin Man was in the neighbourhood because he’d ring his bell, but then the bells got banned (THANKS OBAMA!) and then there weren’t any muffin men any more. I mean, I’m not saying that every week needs to be an thorough exploration of the role that the millefeuille played in pre-Renaissance French history, but I expect a little bit more from The History Bit than that. I’ve seen more in-depth investigations being carried out by Stacey Dooley.
5. At least The History Bit was relevant to the wider scope of the show, though, since this week’s technical bake was to produce eight identical English muffins. This was one of Paul’s recipes – of course, because they’ll be propping Mary’s cold dead corpse up against the SMEG fridges before Paul relinquishes any control over bread week. This round, more than any other, gave us some of our best innuendos of the week, including Mary’s “I love the feel as I touch that, all squishy at the sides”, Howard‘s “it would’ve been nice if it had puffed up a little bit more, but I can work with it”, Deborah‘s “I’m going to keep looking at their bottoms to make sure they’re not catching”, and Paul’s “the size for me is a little too small, I’d like to see it a little bigger” – confirming, much to the dismay of some of the gays in the audience, that Paul Hollywood is a bit of a size queen. To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of scope for huge disasters here – the areas with the biggest potential for error were: not proving the dough long enough, and cooking the muffins on the hot plate for either too long or not long enough. That is, of course, until you count the unseen danger that nobbled Howard’s effort: Sue Perkins leaning down on your workbench for a chat and accidentally squishing one of your muffins. It’s sheer poetry that this happened to Howard, of all people, a man who’s so perpetually hangdog you have to keep reminding yourself that he’s not actually a supporting character in Last Of The Summer Wine. Ultimately it was another disastrous round for Lucy, whose dough wasn’t cooked all the way through, and not a great showing from Beca, who’d overbrowned hers, or Howard, who – the elbow incident notwithstanding – hadn’t quite cooked his through either. (Also, a propos of nothing, the photo of Ali that was used to identify his muffins was super-cute, and I am now completely in love with him.) It was a vagina party in the top four though, as Christine, Ruby and Frances all turned out very creditable efforts, but ultimately Kimberley’s muffins were deemed the most delicious, and as a reward, someone was assigned to butter her muffin.
6. This is one of the interesting things about this show: being a front-runner in the first episode doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’ll last the course – look at what became of Victoria last year. Similarly, Lucy went from runner-up for Star Baker last week to persona non grata this week, while Howard slipped a few places and Ali seemed to make up a little ground. Perhaps it’s because, in these early stages at least, the contestants are working in very distinct areas from week to week, and being good with cakes doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll be a similarly-skilled breadmaker. It certainly makes these early rounds interesting, as you can’t just establish yourself as a contender in week one and then coast through to the final: you’ve really got to prove (no pun intended) yourself. Similarly, I like that there’s the chance for people who stumbled badly in the first week to tackle something that’s sufficiently far removed from what they failed at before, which gives them an opportunity to potentially repair their self-confidence a little bit. It’s an interesting quirk to this format which doesn’t exist on a lot of other competitive, elimination-based shows.
7. This week’s Showstopper Challenge was essentially “eh, just make some more bread *shrug*”. It had to be a decorative fancy-pants loaf, but ultimately the ball was in the bakers’ court in terms of where they went with it. The big clue, though, as to what was expected of them was that they were given four hours for the challenge – so turning out “a cob with some tomatoes on top”, as Lucy did, was not going to cut the mustard. Seriously: SO OVER IT. She might as well have baked her loaf in the shape of a giant V-sign to Paul Hollywood, but to be honest I think even that would’ve required too much emotional engagement from her at this point. Everyone else went to town: Kimberley produced a tear-and-share loaf that she genuinely referred to as “Peace Bread” because it combined Jewish and Arabic flavours (such a Guardianista ❤ – I can’t wait for her Ethical Quinoa Pudding next week), Frances went for a complicated plaited affair that looked lovely and colourful when you sliced into it, Glenn made a Harvest Crown with what looked like little bready zombies attached to the sides (I can only imagine the Harvest Festival at Glenn’s school is unconventional. This is what happens when you let the gays become educators, folks!), while Mark made a sage and garlic plait with what were supposed to be little decorations shaped like ears of corn, but came out of the oven looking like a maggot infestation. Mmmmm. Oh, and then there’s Rob…
8. Yes, let’s talk about Rob. Quiet, determined, a scientist. The sort of person you might describe as “methodical” if you were writing his appraisal. Someone whose demeanour throughout the competition thus far has been that of a man thinking things through carefully, drawing up a plan and executing it flawlessly. So what did Rob bake for his decorative loaf? A TRIBUTE IN BREAD TO PAUL THE PSYCHIC OCTOPUS. I really wish I were making that up, but I’m not. It was quite possibly the maddest thing I’ve seen on this show in years, and now I have all kinds of hopes that there’s a twitching eccentric inside Rob just screaming to get out. I hope he doesn’t disappoint.
9. Star Baker this week looked as though it was destined to fall into Kimberley’s lap, since she came first in the technical bake and performed strongly in both the other rounds. Certainly, pretty much everyone on my Twitter timeline at around 8:56pm expected her to take it. There was considerable consternation, then, when Paul and Mary decided to award it to Ruby instead. On reflection (and having watched large chunks of the episode again), it perhaps shouldn’t have been as much as it was – Kimberley and Ruby were just about neck-and-neck throughout and the difference between the two was largely academic, but it still seemed as though Kimberley just had the edge. I’m now wondering if she’s destined to be the Alaska Thunderfuck of this competition: performing to a high standard nearly every week, but waiting a long time to be singled out as the best due to various twists of fate that involve her getting beaten to the punch at the last minute. Anyway, I have a lot of deep and complicated emotions about all this, as you can tell, most of which involve me pouting that Kimberley WOZ ROBBED, so I’m going to go and bake some War Bread (it’s habanero chilli and pufferfish flavour!) while I work through them.
10. By this point it probably won’t come as a surprise to you that, despite Mark and Beca skirting close to the bottom, it was Lucy who went home. The Fall Of The House Of Lucy was an interesting development this week, in that she genuinely didn’t seem to be able to put a foot right despite a strong start last week. I think arguably it was her lack of ambition that did her in – there were probably people who turned out worse goods than her on balance, but at least they failed in the attempt to make something spectacular – when Lucy couldn’t quite get it together to make salty breadsticks and a loaf with some tomatoes on top, it probably was time for her to go home. Still, at least she’s got her allotment, and I dare say her next scarecrow will have streaks of silver through its hair, and will probably be routinely pelted with overly-moist dough while Lucy screams “I CAN SODDING MOVE IT NOW, PAUL, LOOK!”
Next week: Chris writes all about desserts. Let’s hope nobody makes cheesecake or I’ll never get the drool off the spacebar.