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‘The Great New Year’s Bake Off’ recap: nuns and trombones

Happy New Year! With everything closed and little to do, the best way to keep yourself entertained is to curl up on the couch and watch this year’s Bake Off New Year special. And what a special it was! There was drama, twists and of course, Paul being obnoxious.

Returning to the tent for a chance at the star baker crown was Mark (AKA Irish Mark of series 11), best known for his fabulous hair and pronunciation of the word “bake.” Next is Maggie, the prim and proper traditional baker from series 12. Joining her is Jürgen, also from series 12, and one of my favorite contestants in the history of ‘Bake Off.” Jürgen is a soft-spoken, insanely talented German man who once made a tribute to the Passover story in pavlova. Finally we have Maxy from series 13. Maxy was a quietly competent, classical baker who was undone by pastry.

After a cute intro that involves Jürgen showing off his trombone skills, we get started. The signature challenge is religieuses, which are two choux buns stacked on top of each other, supposedly to resemble a nun. As Noel and Allison introduce the challenge, I am once again struck by Prue’s outfit, this time a sweater covered in rainbow stars and lightning bolts. She also has another beret, this time in red.

Jürgen is making religieuses in the shape of chimney sweeps (a German New Year’s luck symbol), complete with chocolate top hats. One set of choux buns is flavored with coffee and kirsch, and the other is tea and rum. Basically, caffeine and alcohol. Maxy, who clearly wishes she was baking in the Christmas special, is making a choux nativity scene, with the flavors of a cinnamon caramel latte. Mark is also sticking to a Christmas theme, with Christmas-pudding shaped religieuses, flavored with chocolate and orange. And Maggie, a self-described “convent girl” is making glam nuns. One set is flavored with cranberry and port, and the other is flavored with chestnut and brandy. The judges note that Maggie’s choux pastry mix has split, but she decides she doesn’t have time to start again.

The bakers go to take their choux buns out of the oven. Maxy and Mark’s choux buns are fine. Maggie’s are dense and haven’t risen. And Jürgen suffers disaster. He forgot to turn his oven on, and his choux buns haven’t baked at the correct temperature. No! Of all the bakers I would have thought to mess up, it certainly wasn’t Jürgen! Sadly, he is only able to present three completed religieuses.

Time for the first judging of 2024! Maggie describes her religieuses as “not my finest hour,” and Prue doesn’t even like the flavors. Maxy wasn’t able to finish her decorations, but her choux is nicely risen, and her flavors are good. Jürgen is mortified to present his signature, but the judges are pretty kind, as it is a holiday special. His flavors are beautiful, but his choux bun is not baked correctly. Mark’s religieuses look excellent, and he’s the only one who managed to finish his decoration. Prue is very enthusiastic about Mark’s use of orange liqueur and Paul also likes the flavors. Mark, who’s goal going into the tent was to produce something “edible,” is thrilled. Jürgen is less thrilled, but tries to find a silver lining.

The technical challenge this episode is set by Paul, who tells the bakers that he is “looking forward to finding your fehhvs.” At this point, my brain is sent scrambling wondering what on Earth a “fehhv” is. My questions are answered when I learn that the technical challenge is a galette des rois, and “fehv” was Paul’s very Liverpudlian pronunciation of “fève,” a little figurine hidden within the galette. If your slice contains the fève, you get to be king for the day. As for the bake itself, a galette des rois is puff pastry filled with frangipane and then elaborately shaped.

Maxy has a mild breakdown about all the challenges being pastry-based, and then gets on with the job. Allison goes over to bother Mark, and asks him what he’d like her to do if he was king for the day. “Behk for me,” Mark says. Allison, confused, says “you want me to do what? Beg?” After a long struggle, she realizes that “behk” is the way Mark pronounces “bake” in his very thick Northern Irish accent. Later, Mark continues to be an absolute icon when he chugs all the leftover almond liqueur.

Then, Jürgen makes a mistake! Why, Jürgen? He forgets to chill his galette one final time and puts it straight in the oven. The last chill is necessary for the galette to maintain its shape and to prevent all the butter from melting out. Sadly, all I can do to help is sit and yell at the TV.

Then, there is a ‘Bake Off’ first. The bakers had too much time, rather than not enough time, to finish the challenge. That means that during the last five minutes, all the bakers do is sit around. “Just admire your amazing work,” Allison says. “Obviously you have nothing to do.” The episode still uses the dramatic ‘Bake Off’ rushing music during the final minute, which is hilarious.

 In fourth place is Jürgen. Jürgen coming last in the New Year’s technical was not on my bingo card, but his bake was sabotaged by forgetting the final chill. Third is Maggie due to butter leakage. In second is Mark, whose galette is just a little too small. And first is Maxy, who seems to have finally ditched the pastry demons and produced a near-perfect galette des rois.

In the judging pavilion, everyone is shocked that Jürgen is not doing well. He needs a serious redemption moment to have a chance at winning. The showstopper challenge is a spectacular New Year’s inspired “smash cake.”

Now, what is a “smash cake?” Well, according to ‘Bake Off,’ it’s a cake topped or encased with a “smashable chocolate shell.” I am immediately suspicious, and I turn to Google. All that comes up when you google “smash cake” is a cake for a first birthday party (that the baby then smashes to pieces). So ‘Bake Off’ made this whole challenge up. They thought they could fool us, but my Googling skills defeated them.

Maggie’s cake depicts a winter scene. She’s making two varieties of chocolate cake, one with chili and one with orange and rum. Mark’s cake is inspired by his honeymoon in Cuba, so he’s flavoring his cake with rum, lime and ginger. It’s shaped like a melting snowman. Meanwhile, Jürgen is taking inspiration from Japanese New Year traditions. His chocolate dome is shaped like Mount Fuji, and his cake is shaped like a monk face, a traditional Japanese New Year’s luck symbol. His cake will be made from genoise sponge, joconde sponge and strawberry and yuzu bavarois. It is absurdly complicated, and Prue describes it as “typical of Jürgen.” Finally, Maxy is making a cake inspired by the phoenix, since it represents rebirth, flavored with lemon, mango and passion fruit. She describes her decoration as “abstract looking.”

The most technically challenging element of the showstopper is making the chocolate dome. Maxy is taking a risk by molding hers in a glass bowl. She has to oil it really well to prevent the chocolate from sticking. Jürgen has engineered his own mold from foam board to make a chocolate Mount Fuji. Maggie is using a balloon, and Mark invested in a silicone mold. 

By some miracle, Maxy gets her dome out intact. Mark does as well. Jürgen’s Mount Fuji has a little crack but otherwise looks great. Maggie, alas, breaks her dome. She takes the British tradition of a stiff upper lip very seriously, and decides to just push on. She might be “keep calm and carry on”-ing a little too close to the sun, but who am I to judge? 

All the bakers achieve the Bake Off version of smash cakes with varying degrees of success. In judging, Mark’s decoration really makes Prue smile, and Paul deems it “simple but effective.” Paul then takes a mallet (a literal mallet) to Mark’s chocolate dome. His buttercream doesn’t have enough lime in it, but his ginger cake is very nice. Maggie’s cake is a bit of a mess, but Paul and Prue are very kind (again, it’s a holiday special). The dome is too small for Paul to whallop with a mallet. Her flavors are strong but solid, but her cake is dry. Maxy’s cake is absolutely gorgeous. Paul (incorrectly) says that the phoenix decoration looks like it hit a windshield. Thankfully, we have Prue to set him straight. Maxy’s cake is gorgeous, and Prue can’t fault it. And then, we have Jürgen’s showstopper, which blows all the other ones out of the water. His Mount Fuji is a piece of modern art, as is his cake. Paul is almost scared to take a mallet to it. And Jürgen’s cake is “beautiful.” Jürgen is back and better than ever. Sadly, he didn’t bring this energy to the first day.

It’s obvious that Maggie isn’t going to win, but Mark, Maxy and Jürgen all have a chance. The big question is whether Jürgen’s showstopper is enough to make up for a pretty dreadful signature and technical. And the winner is … Maxy!

This is absolutely the right decision. Although Jürgen is my favorite, Maxy did excellently in all three challenges. She’s thrilled, and is practically jumping up and down. It’s adorable to watch, and she says that winning the special is “an amazing ending to my Bake Off story.”

Jürgen takes disappointment like the gentleman he is. And then he concludes the episode by playing trombone (accompanied by five other trombonists) while everyone else dances awkwardly. Because why not? 

Well, that’s the end of ‘Bake Off’ for a little bit. Yes, there will be celebrity specials and junior Bake Off and all the rest of it. But, if we’re talking about good old standard ‘Bake Off,’ featuring the loveable home bakers of the UK, we’ll have to wait until September. I hope you have all enjoyed these recaps and I’ll see you for the next series.

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