The Great British Baking Show—or Great British Bake Off, if you’re actually British—has a structural problem. And I mean that quite literally. The U.K.-based baking extravaganza, which currently airs in the U.S. on Netflix, has spent 12 seasons delighting fans with creme pates, chocolate ganaches, and Hollywood handshakes. But lately, it threatens to crumble (pun absolutely intended) under the weight of its outsized design element. The Great British Baking Show is quickly devolving into The Great British 7th Grade Science Fair.
Obviously, design is an important element of any cake; we want our treats to be as adorable as they are delicious. But over the last few cycles of the series—and particularly the first few episodes of the newest season, which recently premiered—the aesthetic element of baking has come to all but overshadow the taste element.
For this season’s first showstopper, judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith asked the thirteen bakers to each bake a “gravity-defying” cake. If I wanted to see something defy gravity, I’d turn off Netflix and simply buy a ticket to Wicked—but I digress. This is a prime example of the extremely difficult tasks that have become du jour on GBBS—challenges designed to test the bakers’ ingenuity, while adding an element of difficulty and danger. Will the cakes “defy gravity,” or will they collapse and fall? Stay tuned in to find out!
Because for every baker that acquits themselves well—like Jurgen with his “Night Time Reading” lamp cake, or Crystelle and her “Bouq-cake of Flowers”—there are a handful who simply fail to execute the brief. The dashing Chigs’ “Where It All Began” tea cup cake fell onto the floor moments after he brought it to the judging table—though the part of the cake Paul and Prue did eat was apparently delicious. “You’re a very good baker,” Prue told him. “Maybe your engineering skills need honing a little.” Hmm—shouldn’t it be more important to be a very good baker on something called The Great British Baking Show?
In episode two, the bakers were given another assignment that stretched the definition of “baking”: creating a children’s toy out of biscuits (read: cookies, for the uninitiated) that had an interactive element as well. “The bakers really have to be engineers as well as bakers,” Paul said of the challenge, more or less underlying the problem with the show.
Eleven of the twelve bakers went on to use gingerbread in their creations, precisely because it’s the sturdiest biscuit in town. In this instance, the design element of the competition discouraged the bakers from experimenting with flavor and form: why take a risk if the point of the exercise is how the cake functions rather than how it tastes? (Poor Amanda, the one baker brave enough to bake sugar cookies instead of gingerbread, found her “Rocking Horse” basically in shambles by the time it was time to present it to the judges.) I started to feel bad for Paul and Prue by the end, watching them eat ten pieces of gingerbread in a row—forced to endure monotony in the name of structural integrity.
Even the showstopper in episode three—during bread week—had a bewildering structural element. As we all know, bread comes in loaves. Yet Paul and Prue demanded that each contestant build them a themed, three-dimensional visual landscape out of bread. While a few of the contestants managed to pull off something interesting with bread—specifically Crystelle’s “Bready for Sunday Roast,” complete with a very convincing bread roast chicken—a lot of it… just looked like loaves of bread, which sort of defeated the purpose. Ultimately, Rochica, who showed some promise and often had solid flavors, was sent home in part because her bread birdcage was structurally unsound.
Given all this, it’s no surprise that Jurgen—a German physicist whose family simply refuses to pick up the phone when he calls—has won two of the three coveted “star baker” titles so far this season. Yes, Jurgen is a wonderful baker and quite deserving of his wins—but given his STEM bonafides, it might not be an accident that he’s having more success in the tent. His style of baking—incredibly scientific and exact—is reminiscent of series 11 winner Peter Sawkins, who also took a more exacting approach than his peers. While Jurgen has been dubbed a “flavor king” by Paul Hollywood, he’s also constantly commended for his engineering prowess. Yes, baking is a science—but I thought the goal of the show was to find the best amateur baker in Britain, not the best aspiring architect.
Haters will say that the design element is, actually, the crux of the show. We can’t taste the cakes, they’ll point out, so we have no way of knowing whose is actually the best based on that metric; we can, however, all see what everyone’s baked goods look like. Besides, taste is subjective—but whether a rocking horse rocks or falls apart is objective. Which is all well and good… but if audiences really didn’t enjoy watching people eat delicious food that they cannot taste, wouldn’t the entire Food Network cease to exist?