It was the autumn of 2011 – it was the autumn of our relationship. Frank was a wonderful man in so many respects and, for the most part, I believe he thought I was quite great, but it was nonetheless becoming clear, after a year together, that we were not meant for each other. Not for ever. But every year since, around this time, I’m reminded of what kept us close in those final chilly weeks, the sticky buttercream in the centre of the crumbling layer cake of our relationship: it was The Great British Bake Off.
Frank and I were at our best during Bake Off. We’d snuggle on my uncomfortable couch, watching as Britain’s best amateur bakers battled their way to flaky victories. For that weekly hour, our innate incompatibility fell to the wayside as Frank and I were united — with each other, with the rest of the nation — by our fascination with the intricate technicalities of pastry production. Six days a week, I might have wondered why Frank and I were struggling to love each other, but then Wednesdays would roll around and I’d forget that I knew that I should break up with him. We had nicknames for our favourite bakers, growled at the ones we liked least, shook our heads when we knew that over-mixing was about to lead to disaster. When Jo Wheatley took the title, Frank and I held each other and wiped tears of joy.
It’s the Olympics for folks with no sporting skills. A chess championship for those of us who can’t anticipate the move of a pawn, but just might have the foresight to know when to take a custard out the oven, so that it’s neither over- nor underdone. I lost interest in watching sports on television the moment that I realised that I’d never execute a Triple Salchow, but somewhere deep in my heart is the conviction that I, too, could march into the tents with my whisk in one hand and my rolling pin in the other, just another woman with a bag of flour, a pound of butter and a dream. Britain is by and large a nation that frowns on achievement, but deep down many of us long to be champions, and Bake Off convinces every cake-loving Briton (that’s every Briton, right?) that it’s not so far beyond our sticky-fingered grasp.
For that weekly hour, our innate incompatibility fell to the wayside as Frank and I were united — with each other, with the rest of the nation — by our fascination with the intricate technicalities of pastry production
Moreover, it’s a celebration of a kind of dreamy domesticity. There I was, grappling with questions of where my career was going, why I was in the wrong relationship, whether I would ever live in a flat that wasn’t rented and full of the most awful furniture that you find in every rented London flat. But here was a paradigm in which people were concerned, really, with the quality of marzipan above all else. Bake Off allowed me to escape for an hour a week and be that kind of person (even though, in the rest of my life, I hate marzipan).
Shortly after the end of that 2011 Bake Off, my relationship with Frank collapsed like a meringue yanked too soon from a low oven. Soon after, I decided that nine years in England were quite enough and I emigrated. These days, when people in New York ask me what I miss about living in London, I first think of many things I don’t miss: the weather, the expense, the way that my failure to lose my American accent meant that, despite the fact that I was a British citizen, people often assumed I had just stepped off a plane at Heathrow.
And then I think of Bake Off – you see, I explain to those people who enquire, the thing I miss most about living in London is a cozy cooking competition that demonstrates the best of the British spirit, the national affection for self-deprecation, keeping up with the Joneses, and cake. I still watch it on Wednesday evenings, using a web browser plug-in that lets me watch the Beeb, which I’m sure is legal. “I can’t come out tonight,” I say to friends who are suggesting drinks in Williamsburg or dinner in the Meatpacking District, “I’m watching Bake Off.” I’m not sure that they get it. I’m sure I don’t care.
• The new series of Great British Bake Off is on BBC1, Wednesday 5th August, 8pm.