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‘The Great British Bake Off’ series 13: Episodes 1 and 2

Episode 1: A cakey delight

 

Another year, another September and another series of “The Great British Bake Off,” in all its bunting-wrapped, sugar-scented glory. There are no major cast changes this year, despite the fact that Prue is now 82 (yet still looks fabulous). The new bakers are a familiar bunch as well—Carole is this series’ chaotic grandmother, complete with pink hair, which Vivian Rothberg ’26 described as “looking like an abandoned poodle.” Sandro is the series’s eye candy, a boxing nanny whose “bite size of love” sandwich cakes are a tribute to his partner. We’re less than 10 minutes in and I would already lay down my life for Sandro.

Meanwhile, Dawn is this year’s wholesome grandmother, Maxy is the contestant who is unfairly talented and attractive and adorable Syabira is a veritable font of positivity. I want to be her friend. Polish Janusz has both a sausage dog named Nigel and (according to the Bake Off website) a statue of RuPaul, and James wears a kilt. All in all, it’s a good bunch.

After a brief “Star Wars” parody (the highlight of which is “Prue-bacca”) and some weak jokes from Matt and Noel, we are underway. The signature is sandwich cakes—which appears to just mean small cakes with frosting in between the layers, allowing the bakers to go in various different directions. Despite this, two bakers (Scottish Kevin and teenager Maisam) both decide to make pistachio, cardamom and rose sandwich cakes. Kevin’s go well. Maisam’s… do not go so well. Poor Will splits his buttercream, twice, the first of many signs that he is not long for the tent. Plant dad Abdul’s cacti sandwich cakes go down a treat, Carole’s bee-themed (yet sadly honey-free) ones do as well. However, the real stars of this round are Syabira, whose use of Southeast Asian flavors like pandan immediately won me over, and Janusz, whose sandwich cakes are neat as a pin and deemed “perfect” by Prue. The queers and the Asians are winning this year, and as someone who is both, I cannot complain.

On to the technical! Over the years we’ve had Jaffa cakes, malt loaves, angel slices, rum babas… so this year it must be something else Americans have never heard of, right? Wrong! The bakers are tasked with making red velvet cake. I must confess, I despise red velvet cake. It’s dry and always has a slight chemical note. That being said, it’s a fairly easy bake. “The thickness of the cream cheese is essential” is the most technical note Paul can give. Meanwhile, the amount of red food coloring his recipe requires makes it look like a minor murder has occurred in the tent, and the vinegar in the recipe causes some head scratching. Still, the bakers manage to produce 12 red velvet cakes, and none of them are crushed or have salt in the place of sugar (both of which have happened in past series). In 12th is James (ugly and short), 11th is Rebs (claggy), 10th is Maxy (undercooked) and ninth is Will (all over the place). It’s not looking good for Will. On top we have Sandro in second and Syabira in first. My initial favorites are doing so well! This never happens. Syabira’s heart is melted. I love her so much.

Going into day two, Will, Rebs and Maisam are in a bit of trouble, while Sandro, Abdul, Jannusz and Syabira are flying high. The question of whether the hosts and judges can pronounce non-Anglo names remains a hazy one.The showstopper, thankfully, is not the horrific cake busts or the complex edible illusions of years past. Instead, it’s a 3-D replica of the bakers’ homes. In cake. Absolutely adorable, and a reminder of why I love this show so much. After a couple descriptions of the bakers’ showstoppers, it’s clear that cakes with tons of layers are in this year. It actually does make sense—thinner layers means a quicker baking and cooling time, and more frosting means more flavor. 

Impressively, Will remembers to set his timer. And then he splits his buttercream again. Oh, Will. We barely knew ye. Noel describes Paul as a “crusty roll” that’s “good with a little bit of butter,” and I contemplate muting the TV. Meanwhile, Abdul watches his Star Baker dreams melt away after forgetting to turn his oven on for 40 minutes, while Sandro over-boozes his cake. Syabira is using milk tea and matcha (be still, my heart!) and constructs some distinctly phallic palm trees. But even her best efforts cannot stand up to the absolute modern art that is Jannusz’s creation, and he snatches Star Baker away from her. It’s okay, Syabira. I’m rooting for you.

Meanwhile, Maxy’s cake looks like it was made by a five-year-old, Reb’s cake is overbaked and Maisam’s is too dense, but it is Will, of the split buttercream and dry cake, who is the first to leave the tent. He takes it well, although I’m sure he’ll be cursing the buttercream gods for the rest of his life. 

Next week: biscuits! Including what appear to be biscuit death masks. Rebs and Maisam both have quite a bit to prove, while Syabira will be chasing an already well-deserved Star Baker. Meanwhile, I’ll be avoiding red velvet cakes and Googling where I can buy Noel’s fantastic sweater.

 

Episode 2: It’s biscuits, b*tch

 

They say that there are only two inevitabilities in life, death and taxes, but I would like to add Biscuit Week and unnecessary Hollywood handshakes to that list. Biscuit week has been a staple of “The Great British Bake Off” since its humble beginnings, and the challenges are almost always the same. A classic. A highly decorated biscuit. And some sort of sculptural biscuit-y nightmare.

“But wait!” I hear you ask. “What exactly are biscuits? Why not just call them cookies?”

Good question. A biscuit is a distinctly British invention, a crunchy, flat sweet treat that either snaps or crumbles. By contrast, the American cookie is a softer, chewier variety of the same type of dessert. In the American spin-off of Bake Off, they have Cookie Week, which featured a truly immortal bit of culture shock when Mary Berry discovered what Snickerdoodles are for the first time (“Snicker-poodle?”).

On to the episode. Noel and Matt have their usual slightly painful opening sketch, and the 11 bakers who survived week one troop back into the tent. Some are excited for Biscuit Week. Janusz still can’t believe he won Star Baker. And Syabira would rather just buy biscuits from the shops.

The signature bake is this year’s “highly decorated biscuit,” along with the iced and sandwich biscuits of years previous. It’s an illusion macaron. If you were worried that this year’s challenges would be too easy, worry no longer, because this challenge is ridiculous. Macarons are notoriously finicky at the best of times, and introducing things like unconventional shapes and multiple colors sends them into nightmare territory. It’s no surprise that two different bakers go for something that’s already macaron-shaped: the burger. Both, however, feature an inordinate amount of fondant. Meanwhile, all is not well in the tent, as poor Rebs has to re-mix her batter, Maisam doesn’t finish in time and Janusz’s watermelons are overbaked. Still, there are some successes. James’ raccoons are deemed excellent, and Syabira’s peanut satay macarons go down a treat—can Paul Hollywood actually enjoy Eastern flavors?

It is time now to discuss the Hollywood handshake. Originally a casual but rare sign of approval, the Bake Off production team has turned the Hollywood handshake into something of a mockery of itself. There must be a round of applause after every handshake, and it’s not unusual to see two, maybe even three handshakes in a single challenge. And lo, the time for Series 13 has come, as both Dawn and Maxy received handshakes for their macaron efforts.

Maxy’s delicate daisies are delicate and summery, with absolutely gorgeous decoration. Despite my dislike of the Hollywood handshake, hers seemed as well-deserved as they can get. Dawn, meanwhile, has made yo-yos. Do they look like yo-yos? Debatable. They’re a classic macaron shape with a swirly bit on top and a little string. Compared to the intricate designs of the other bakers, Dawn seems to have played it safe. But she gets a handshake, while I shake my head at the TV in disgust.

On to the technical! It’s Garibaldi biscuits, this year’s classic biscuit challenge, and another bake most American viewers have never heard of. My mother loves these biscuits, and buys them in bulk online, so I am quite familiar with them. Imagine some raisins sandwiched between two pieces of sweet cardboard. The national diversity on this series shows, as all the non-British bakers have never heard of Garibaldis. Not only that, but some appear to have not heard of feathered icing, as both Syabira and Abdul make literal chocolate feathers. Syabira’s feathers are little works of art. “Prue said don’t get creative!” she says. Oh Syabira. Never has anything good come of a contestant saying “instead of what the judges want me to do, I’m going to do my own thing.” Luckily for Syabira, Abdul’s Garibaldis are an absolute disaster, and he comes in a definitive last place. Dawn’s handshake glory is stymied by ninth place. James comes second, and Rebs manages to redeem herself with a surprising first place. “I don’t know how that happened,” she says in shock to the camera. “I really don’t know how that happened.” Me neither, Rebs.

The biscuit week showstopper is always some variation of a biscuit sculpture. We’ve had scenes, towers, dish sets, children’s toys and this year, it is a 3-D biscuit mask. A challenge no doubt inspired by Mawaan Rizwaan’s Paul Hollywood death mask from the celebrity series back in April. Paul says that he expects gingerbread, lots of flavors and lots of color.

Dawn reveals her wild side with a baroque-punk masque, Abdul is baking a tribute to his pet parrot “Chubby” and Maisam is keeping it simple with only two types of biscuit. At that moment, I get the sinking feeling that Maisam is doomed.

Meanwhile, Janusz and Syabira both create legitimate works of art, James makes a mask that wouldn’t look out of place in Monsters Inc. and Sandro is challenging toxic masculinity (I love him). Maxy’s beautiful biscuits make her a shoo-in for Star Baker.

It wouldn’t be biscuit week if someone’s showstopper didn’t come crashing down, and this year, it is Carole who suffers disaster. Her mask falls off its stand and cracks into pieces. In earlier series, she would have been sent home, but since the crumbled rocking horse debacle of 2021, bakers with broken showstoppers are permitted to stay. Instead, Maisam’s overly safe showstopper, combined with unfinished macarons and a mediocre technical, sends her home, and Maxy becomes the series’ second Star Baker.

Next time: the dreaded bread week! In which, judging by the preview, Syabira may try to, and succeed in, setting fire to the tent. Me too, Syabira. Me too. Will Noel’s sweater collection continue to wow us? Will Sandro finally win Star Baker? Will Carole redeem herself? And who’s dough will be overwerrrked? We’ll just have to wait and see.

 

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