I’ve always believed that the day I stop liking Bake Off will be the day a part of my soul dies. Last week’s series premiere suggested that dreadful moment was still far into the future; this week’s episode has left me less hopeful.
On the surface, nothing is entirely wrong with this new instalment. It’s biscuit week in the Bake Off tent, and biscuit week tends to bring its share of excitement and drama. Biscuits are fickle creatures, prone to burning, breaking, and other forms of disappointment. They can easily come out of the oven too tough or not crunchy enough. If Bake Off has taught me one thing in the past decade, it’s that biscuits can let you down in myriad ways.
And yet, this year’s biscuit week lacks pizzazz. It lacks, dare I say, a hint of flavour, a dash of spice, a louder crunch. Bake Off is a show that usually nails its softer, more tender parts – the bonhomie, the usually amiable sense of competition, the solidarity between contestants. Past series have had their dramatic moments (who could forget the tragedy of the baked alaska?), but the show’s backbone has been its gentleness.
This week’s episode is different, in that it’s saved by its edgier sequences – think anxious contestants, a tricky technical challenge, and collapsing biscuit constructions.
For their signature challenge, the remaining 11 contestants must bake 24 “identical, perfect” brandy snaps (says judge Prue Leith). They must be coated, dipped, or filled, which is a challenge as well as an opportunity to play with flavours. Freya, Amanda, and Rochica do well. George’s snaps don’t look great but the flavours are “sensational”, says Leith. Jairzeno’s idea is “sound enough, but not well-executed”, says judge Paul Hollywood. As for Maggie, who emerged as one to watch during last week’s episode, she’s “really quite disappointed” by her own blackcurrant brandy snaps, but the judges find redeeming qualities in her flavours, too. Jürgen, last week’s star baker, nails his chai-flavoured ones.
Here, the challenge of the second episode begins to emerge: the show does what it can to build some storytelling, but it’s so early in the series that we haven’t had time to truly get to know the contestants, or build a strong attachment to a few favourites. On top of that, the thrill of the series premiere is fading. This isn’t the programme’s fault – just a function of its structure – but it is a factor here.
But there is hope in the technical challenge, during which contestants are asked to bake “jammie biscuits” – a homemade version of Jammie Dodgers. It’s a fun pick, because chances are no one has made those at home before. “Who makes biscuits that you can buy in the shop?” muses Amanda. “You can get some for 11p, can’t you?”
Jürgen comes out of the challenge in first position, prompting his fellow contestant Giuseppe to muse to the camera: “Jürgen has been renamed the Baking Terminator.” It’s one of the funnier moments in an episode peppered with mildly funny one-liners from Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas. Fielding fares better during his less scripted interactions with the bakers. But so far in this series, the prepared bits (see: last week’s cringe-worthy musical intro) have had a try-hard quality that I don’t remember witnessing in previous years.
The showstopper challenge does a lot of work in favour of this week’s episode. The bakers must craft a 3D biscuit replica of their favourite childhood toys with an “interactive element” such as lights that turn on or wheels that spin. This provides all the tension required at this stage – will the bakers budget their time appropriately? (Not all of them, no.) Will the biscuits hold up? (Ditto.) Will anything collapse? (Yes.)
George gives us the gift of an airplane-shaped construction equipped with a capricious motor. “Have you got enough time for this? Because it sounds to me like you might need about two years,” wonders Lucas in a perfect, softly deadpan tone. The theme also makes for some interesting childhood reminiscing from the bakers. As for Jairzeno’s exhausted laugh when part of his structure dramatically topples over? I feel it in my bones.
And here come the sweeter parts of Bake Off, which still work. When Amanda’s horse falls apart, Jairzeno is here to tell her that her design was “so pretty”. When Maggie sheds tears of stress, Chigs is here to give her a hug. This is still Bake Off, and every disaster comes with the promise of a redemption arc.
“I would give anything to be here another week,” says an anxious Maggie. “It’s quite silly, really. When I’ve watched people on Bake Off cry, I’ve thought, ‘For goodness’s sake, it’s only cake.’ Suddenly, it’s all changed.” Not that I enjoy watching contestants agonise over the judges’ verdict, but this is one of Bake Off’s primary strengths: we care because the bakers care. The competition is nothing without their passion.
In this final third, finally, the episode comes alive. Much like George’s motor, the show ends up taking off after a difficult start. Welcome back, Bake Off. I thought we had lost you there for a minute.