1. Do I detect a change in the atmosphere in the Bake Off tent this week? It’s been a pretty chummy-chummy series so far, but in this week’s episode I noticed a sudden increase of soundbites which sounded rather less friendly and rather more battle-ready, including such competitive reality show staples as “all of us want to get to the final” (which came from Christine, who has seemed to me for some weeks now as though that polite retired exterior masks the steely core of the baking world’s answer to Brianne Delcourt). Fittingly, this change in approach from some of the contestants (Beca, god love her, is still insisting that it’s all, for the most part, still one big love-in) coincides with the point where the show’s challenges switch up from the “Everyday” bakes (cakes, breads, puddings) to the “I Beg Your Pardon?”s, such as the Bara Briths and the Couronnes being served up this week. This means that the gulf between the frontrunners and those circling the drain is only likely to get wider from now on.
2. For the Signature Bake, the challenge was to make a sweet tea loaf, such as the aforementioned Bara Brith, which was of course served up by Beca who would have felt it a betrayal of her Welsh roots to do anything else. Some bakers decided to be pleasingly literal by baking actual tea into their bread (step forward Frances and Kimberley), while Glenn caused the show to pose the question, “when is a Panettone not a Panettone?” (The answer: when Glenn is trying to cool it the right way up, and Paul Hollywood gets REALLY arsey about that as a method, causing Glenn to fashion an impressively Mouse Trap-esque cooling contraption out of wooden spoons, some kebab skewers, a casserole dish and several yards of string, while Ruby tries not to get caught laughing at his endeavours in the background). Ultimately, we found ourselves in an unfamiliar situation in which Frances’s Chai Tea Loaf was declared to be delicious but boring-in-appearance by Paul. He clearly didn’t understand it at all, since Frances had (obviously on purpose) somehow baked arse cleavage into her loaf in order to make her most abstract whimsical statement to date. Meanwhile, Christine’s loaf split and ended up all doughy on the inside, to the extent that Princess Paul refused to eat it lest it damage his delicate digestive system, and Kimberley stumbled slightly once more with an underproved bake.
3. Deserving a paragraph all of its own, however, is Howard‘s Date And Hemp Tea Loaf. That’s right, HOWARD MADE A DRUG CAKE AND HE SERVED IT TO MARY BERRY! For maximum comic protraction of the situation, Mary opened this segment by declaring “I know nothing about hemp. Is it a grass?” That Paul, Howard and Sue all made the same “well, kinda…” face in response was a thing of sheer beauty. Naturally, this being Howard’s bake, it didn’t quite go according to plan: it didn’t quite reach its intended shape during the baking process (“I think mine’s spread,” he noted to Christine as they bemoaned their respective fates, in what I’m sure was a mirror of many a conversation he’s had with his friend Jean in Dr Ineson’s waiting room) and Mary’s first response on seeing the finished product was an unenthusiastic “it looks as though it’s going to be rather good for me”. Well, I guess it does have a medicinal effect in certain circumstances. Anyway, Howard took his repeated misfortune in this episode with surprisingly good humour this week, and you are more than free to speculate why that might be. But let’s just say that maybe it wasn’t just the tea loaves that were BAKED, AMIRITE KIDS?
4. I try not to get drawn too far into the metaworld of The Great British Bake Off when recapping, but I couldn’t help noticing that – in the wake of the majority of contestants experiencing either underproven dough or underbaked goods in the first challenge, both series 1 winner Edd and series 3 runner-up James took to Twitter to express their opinion that the time allocated for this task was too tight, did not allow adequate proving time for the dough, and basically set the contestants up to fail from the outset. Now, I’m no baker so I don’t know how accurate these accusations are, but it was interesting that the round opened with a pre-emptive “I think three hours is absolutely fine to make a tea loaf” from Mary Berry, an unusually defensive stance against a challenge that hadn’t actually been made yet. Whichever side of this debate you happen to fall on, the important thing to remember is that when James tweeted that, he was almost certainly wearing a thick woollen jumper and cuddling a large dog.
5. Someone has obviously been listening to my concerns about the rather spartan state of the History Bit in previous episodes, to the extent that we got TWO this time. One was devoted to telling us even more about the Bara Brith (and establishing that there is such an occupation as a “Welsh Food Historian”, god bless this show and its enduring commitment to seeking out increasingly specialist niches) and its unexpected emigration to Patagonia. T’other was all about the Sally Lunn, the brioche of choice for the Georgian trendsetters based in Bath. It was apparently invented by a French woman called Solange Lyon, who changed her name to make it easier for the English to pronounce, and thereby set up the grand tradition of people called Solange never truly being appreciated on their own terms. Apparently the Sally Lunn is baked in something called a “faggot oven”. I can’t tell you anything else about it because I switched off immediately after that uncharacteristic burst of homophobia. Thank goodness Sue wasn’t around to hear it.
6. This week’s Technical Challenge was what we in the trade call “a right bastard”, in which the contestants were instructed to produce an apricot couronne. Howard declared that this challenge didn’t fill him with terror like all the others did. (*takes another toke*) Meanwhile, pathetic fallacy paid a visit to the Bake Off as the heavens opened and the sides of the marquee were pummelled by wind and rain. Given that that rascal Paul hadn’t specified how long to prove the dough for, a game of baking chicken ensued as everyone tried not to be the first person to whip theirs out, and the increasing vagueness of the recipes in this round combined with several bakers’ lack of familiarity with what a couronne is supposed to look like, meant that we were treated to quite a variety of shapes. Howard and Beca’s rather clumsy and unconvincing efforts left them at the bottom of the pack, while Frances and Ruby delivered the two best, setting up the CLIMACTIC BATTLE IN THE SHOWSTOPPER ROUND. Meanwhile, Howard declared it simply “annoying” that he’d come last because it was the first technical bake that he’d really enjoyed, then suddenly realised that he was REALLY HUNGRY all of a sudden and started rummaging through the cupboards for biscuits.
7. A brief interlude here for this week’s Innuendo Watch (in your end-o watch, etc). Once again top honours go to Ms Susan Perkins for the frankly filthy “your rings must face the judgement of Paul”, but honourable mention must also go to Mel’s mention of “Christine’s naughty buns” and Sue saying “come on, over the bench” to Glenn when he was in need of comfort. Mary Berry also uttered the line “lucky children, to have such lovely buns”, but I’m not going near that one lest I end up entangled in Operation Yewtree.
8. This week’s Showstopper Challenge led to a DRAMATIC DEVIATION FROM THE USUAL FORMAT, in which rather than being sent home after the Technical Bake as is customary, the bakers had to start on their sweet doughs for their 24 European sweet buns right away, because it needed a long, slow prove of eight hours minimum. It was to my great disappointment that Deborah didn’t sneak back into the tent in the dead of night and steal everyone’s dough for herself, or possibly swap it all from fridge to fridge so everyone ended up with someone else’s work, but maybe they’ve stepped up security since she was at large. Highlights of this challenge included Mel likening Howard to a snail (and him responding with an enthusiastic “thank you!”), Kimberley using her deep psychological insight to profile the rest of the bakers, Criminal Minds-style (complete with the stealth burn that Howard is the man of “really interesting flavour combinations”), Ruby sounding even more like a Dickensian street urchin as rendered by The Simpsons than usual, Frances baking a big game of noughts and crosses (of course) and Kimberley’s amazing drive-by sabotage of Glenn’s Sticky Caramel Kanelbullen, which ran as follows:
GLENN: They aren’t out!
KIMBERLEY: Tip them upside down, then?
[Glenn tips the tray upside down. Random pools of dough flop out onto the worktop while the rest of the cakes remain firmly wedged inside the cases.]
GLENN: Oh no, that was a crap idea!
KIMBERLEY: Sorry. Don’t do that. I’m stepping out. [flees with arms flailing]
Amazing. Now I’m wondering if it was secretly Kimberley who switched Deborah’s and Howard’s custard. And who pushed Sue over so she squashed Howard’s muffins. HAS KIMBERLEY BEEN THE BIG BAD ALL ALONG? Christine’s showstopper was enough to redeem her poor performance in the earlier rounds, Howard’s peach-shaped brioches looked exactly like peaches but tasted nothing like them, Emo Ruby pre-emptively declared her goods disastrous yet again (“I just left them in the oven and they’re like biscuits. They would’ve been good last week.”) only to have Paul and Mary declare them delectable YET AGAIN, Kimberley was rather middle-of-the-pack, Glenn was told rather frankly that his Kanelbullen “don’t taste good”, and Beca ruined an otherwise excellent brioche with a prune. Hey, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?
9. And so Star Baker once again came down to Frances vs Another Contestant, and yet again poor Frances was pipped at the post – this time by Ruby, whose commendation came with a caveat in the form of Mary Berry telling her in a polite, Mary Berry-esque fashion that she was Gettin’ Real Tired Of Her Shit and that she needs to actually start believing in herself. Poor Frances, though. She’s come so close on two consecutive weeks and always been undone not by any error of her own, but by someone else just being ever so slightly better. It must be maddening. Let’s hope she’s planning some sort of baked collage to express her emotions about this for next week.
10. Sadly, this week’s elimination was no surprise – despite the show’s best efforts to convince us that Glenn was also in danger, it was only ever going to be Howard that was going home. Poor Howard – he truly was the Kirk Van Houten of the competition, constantly being stamped into the ground by fate but nonetheless getting back up again. (And presumably being a pretty big wheel down at the cracker factory.) Naturally we’re distraught since Howard was the blog favourite, and it’s just not going to be the same without his gloriously melancholic disposition. This means that Glenn’s the last man standing, although probably not for long. I really wouldn’t be surprised if it’s an all-female top five this year.
NEXT WEEK: as if by magic, Mel appears and tells Ruby to “get a grip, just get a grip, okay? Get a ruddy grip.” A nation erupts into applause.