Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Bake-Off Mania

I love baking. However, I have not baked in years now. And as I can't actually eat most baked goods at the moment, you would think I wouldn't be up to watching baking shows.

You were wrong!

Last year, I got absolutely obsessed with The Great British Bake-Off. So, I'm very happy that it's now back (and on YouTube!) for a fourth run. I really am not usually a fan of these types of shows, but The Great British Bake-Off snagged me in a way I did not expect it to. Because it's not like other reality shows.

Everything about it is amazing- the hosts, Sue Perkins & Mel Giedroyc, were gentle, supportive (to the point of often trying to help the bakers), and banter-y. The judges were grandmotherly Mary Berry and the professorly Paul Hollywood. And the bakers were always a great mixture of young and old, "alternative" and traditional, schooled and self-taught, precise and wild. Each season, the stakes really were raised and the results got more impressive- they went from almost everyone in the first season struggling to make french macarons to french macarons being a "safe" choice for presentation accent to a big showcase bake.

Or, more accurately, I might've been able to get on the first season and get by for a couple episodes. There's no way I could've been on the show during third season.

The show was so sweet and loving to the art of baking. The opening credits were like a Martha Stewart Magazine come to life- bringing up sepia-toned images of children helping their mums in the kitchen while delicate whimsical music played.

Home footage of each baker is used, like any competitive show, but you start to realize that there are very few sob stories and that most of the bakers have either a house full of kids or a full-time job that they have no intention to leave. And, more importantly, the show doesn't shy away from the fact that a great amount of their competitors are gay. Yes, gay people love to bake, too!

The first bake of each episode is the Signature Bake. A vague type is declared (layer cake, fruit tart, ect) and each baker is to make their signature version of that item. It's the easiest challenge, as it should be something the baker has done before and can just pull from the mental vault on how to make something memorable and personal to present to the judges.

Before each judging, similar music plays as beauty shots of each presentation are shown with the pensive baker in the background, looking at the presented goods they have to show. Often with some voice over comments about how the baker feels about their finished product.

The technical bake, which is the second of the three bakes in each episode, is always my favorite because it shows what happens when everyone is working from the same recipe for the first time and it's usually when Mary and Paul would get playful or quippy as they were judging without any knowledge on who baked each item.

The final bake of each episode is the Showstopper. Big and impressive is necessary and most bakers should be putting themselves outside their comfort zone to do something that can help them recover from any missteps in the first two challenges. It also tends to appear that if you can't wow on the showstopper, it's going to hurt you more than messing up on the signature or technical bakes.

And, as this is a competitive show, at the end of each episode, someone goes home. There are tears and a giant group hug every time as they're all actually nice people that get along and help each other, despite it being a competition. But the person going home usually just says "I still love baking and I'm going to share that love with my kids/partner/dog now that I'm not on this show every week." and then comes back for the finale episode. It's all really sweet and humane.

Mary and Paul have a calming "mom and dad" energy and dynamic. They try to teasingly predict how the other person feels about what they're tasting at the same time. And if one person disagrees with the other, they will make sure the baker knows that they disagreed.

Most of the drama comes just from the nature of baking on a time limit. Things go wrong with only a half hour left and then the baker has to decide how they continue from there. Every once in a while, there's an injury that will stop someone in their tracks- but they're few and far between. Although, you will notice as the show goes on that more bakers have blue bandages covering small wounds.

The only thing that really baffled me about the show was that they make the poor people bake in a tent set up in some random estate's land. I know England has milder weather than the US, but I can't imagine how much baking outside must fuck with some of the recipes. I'm always amazed they don't have more electrical issues with the fridges and ovens. Well, and then there is the mostly pointless baking history lesson that's in every episode. But I think that's just so they can keep the actual competitive footage to roughly 40 minutes so that it can be repackaged for commercial television (as the BBC doesn't do mid-show commercial breaks). Other than those two things, the show is perfection and I love it.

This spring I nearly cried when I found out that there was going to be an American version of the show... lamely titled The American Baking Competition, due to a trademark issue with Pillsbury. And hosted by a dire Jeff Foxworthy. Oddly enough, Paul Hollywood was a judge on the American version as well.

After watching, I realized Jeff is a safe choice for a nice guy host, and clearly watched the original show to get his tone right and pretty close to Mel and Sue. I think the show would've really benefited from stealing Alton Brown, but I only really hated Jeff's presence when it started to seem like the bakers were contractually obligated to chuckle at his really lazy jokes. The show doesn't vary much from GBBO, shockingly. There's still a tent in the middle of no where, but decorated more in an Americana/Coca-Cola/Cracker Barrel style, of course. The music is slightly more/too dramatic at times. The editing removes too much. The pictures for the Technical Bake are now in frames on the table.

But, on the other hand, they're using even the same "recipe book" animations from GBBO and even using actual GBBO footage for examples of some of the bakes.

Paul is the same as on GBBO, but his co-judge is Marcela Valladolid who just doesn't seem to give enough input and lacks the wisdom of Mary Berry. I have to wonder if they wanted a "hot" female judge or if they originally offered it to Martha Stewart and then just worked their way through Food Network personalities before landing on Marcela. I do give the show major credit for going with a latina host (it's just a shame she's so bland), as the American version of the show seems to mysteriously have the most heterosexual crop of bakers.

Being an American reality show, they have found some bakers with big personalities (Francine is basically auditioning to be the next Paula Deen) that wouldn't end up on the British version. But the majority of bakers do appear to be the same variety of nice everyday people that dig baking.

The show has been re-created in most European countries in the past couple years. And Australia aired The Great Australian Bake-Off this summer.

I've only watched the first episode so far, but the hosts on the Australian version are terrible and have scripted banter that makes Oscar presenters look natural. And make Jeff Foxworthy look like a perfect choice of host. The judges are not my favorite either. Kerry Vincent is no Mary Berry. And their critiques just aren't as deep or as constructive as Paul and Mary would be. Paul especially is good about commenting on things that the average person wouldn't notice but that he is obsessive about- and trying to make sure that everyone knows what they should do for success in the future.

And they've done an odd combination of using the same whimsical music as GBBO but also mixed in a lot of short clips of pop music at random moments. It's really an odd mixture. And to just throw you off your game a little more, there are live tweets about the show randomly appearing on the screen. And while the tent set up for GBBO and The American Baking Competion have both gone for more shabby-chic looks, GABO has gone for a lot of candy colored pastels that are hard on the eyes.

Yes, I'll be watching more when I have time. It's a great way to learn more about baking techniques and you get to see a lot of creativity that even out-does Pinterest at times. And you can multi-task to it! It's better than Pinterest for that one fact!

What I'm saying is I think you should check it out.

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