These are dim days, my friends. The Olympics are over. There’s still a fortnight till the Paralympics begin. Poldark is yet to saddle up and the Christmas ads are at least a month away.
But wait – what’s that coming over the hill? Smoothly taking on the baton of joy in 2016’s ‘The World’s A Mess But Let’s Keep Cheerful’ relay race, it’s the Bake Off! Ten blissful weeks of cake and cosiness, come to wrap us all up in a pastry blanket and carry us safe towards winter.
We shall continue to celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of some of the world’s most determined, dedicated individuals – this time in carbohydrates, rather than sport. The disciplines: butter lamination, French pronunciation, nervous crouching by ovens. The medals: instant national treasure status; the chance to add Mary Berry to your WhatsApp group.
So who’s in the starting blocks? In a lineup that seems to have been chosen specifically to make us feel bad about ourselves, the tent this year boasts an actual rocket scientist, a 1st class Economics grad, a nurse, a vicar, a charity marathon runner, a man who’s lost 30 kilos through eating cake ‘in moderation’ and a woman who can actually pull off a dark berry lipstick.
“I have cried over cake,” admits one. “I have shouted at a pie!” says another.
I could find all this perfection and overachievement a wee bit wearying… but to be honest, as a woman in her late 20s, it’s just refreshing to see a marquee that doesn’t have 120 gold chairs, five bridesmaids and someone’s drunk uncle in it. Let’s begin!
Challenge number one, and after six years of increasingly elaborate, obscure (read: ‘made up’) creations, Paul and Mary are taking this year’s bakers back to basics with a humble drizzle cake. It needs to be light. It needs to be zingy. And at this point, so strong stands the Bake Off empire that they’re not even concerned about alienating half their audience through overuse of the word ‘moist’.
In what we can only assume is a nod to fashion’s ongoing 90s revival, headteacher Val is using margarine in her bake. Remember, margarine? Give it a few episodes and she’ll be rustling up a homemade homage to the Findus crispy pancake and putting Sunny D in her trifle.
Louise’s ambitious orange and Cointreau cake in the shape of an actual orange means we can already cross ‘ill-advised cake topiary’ off our Bake Off bingo cards, while we know Kate means business because she just announced she ‘likes the flavour of a Cox’ on national television without even flinching. You’ll go far in this show, m’girl.
Cakes out of the oven, it’s skewers at the ready – and the country hasn’t seen this much determined poking since the days when Facebook could still get you laid. Mel claims never to have heard of Yuzu, the east Asian citrus fruit in Rav’s distinctive drizzle, but this is a BRAZEN LIE – as any true GBBO fan will tell you, Urvashi put yuzu in her cupcakes way back in series two. Look, it’s written right here in my 2011 food journal, next to “consider the avocado” and “find out if cronut is food or dance move.”
Smoothly taking on the baton of joy in 2016’s ‘The World’s A Mess But Let’s Keep Cheerful’ relay race, it’s the Bake Off! Ten blissful weeks of cake and cosiness, come to wrap us all up in a pastry blanket and carry us safe towards winter
Drizzle cake, meanwhile, was invented in 1967 when someone left Richard Harris’ cake out in the rain – but that doesn’t mean it’s a walk in the park for our bakers. Kate’s is bland, Val’s is dry, Louise’s is lumpen, Andrew’s is lacking in lemon (you can’t be mean to Andrew! It’s like kicking over a school of Sylvanian Families), and despite initially piquing Mary’s interest, Tom’s gin-soaked sponge turns out to be a lethal drizzle.
But in the end it’s Jane and Selasi who are showered in praise, despite both forgetting an ingredient. Nice hustle, chaps.
Ask me before today whether it was possible for a person to bake their own jaffa cakes, and I would have laugh-sprayed crumbs in your face. Surely not! That perfect flying-saucer shape, that orange jelly layer so unknown to nature – jaffa cakes aren’t made, they’re birthed from test tubes in underground bunkers.
But if Mary Berry genuinely makes her own jaffa cakes, you have to wonder what else she’s going DIY on. Cornflakes? Marmite? Liquorice Allsorts? Is she puffing her own Rice Krispies and fashioning her own Capri Sun from 12 tangerines and an old shower cap? Relax, Mary – you’re 81 now. Sometimes it’s ok just to get an Ocado shop in.
Anyway, our hopefuls are trying to master the teatime classic as their first technical challenge. It’s a tough one – quite literally in some cases. Tom’s trying to avoid making his sponges crispy “like lady’s fingers”, which does make you worry all those reports about millennials avoiding intimacy might be true. But the main problem is that nobody knows where their jelly ought to go. On the bottom? On the top? This is exactly what Destiny’s Child tried to warn us about.
When judging rolls around it’s a case of ‘full moon, half moon, total eclipse’ for Andrew’s upside-down jafs, while Selasi comes out on top again with cakes that almost look 50% as good as the ones you get from a packet.
But the real miracle here is that we’ve managed to get right to the end of the jaffa cake challenge without anyone boring on about whether they’re really a cake or a biscuit. Britain, you’ve changed.
Talkin’ bout my Genoise aeration
The first showstopper challenge of series seven is a light, fatless Genoise sponge with a ‘mirror’ glaze – which means we can probably expect a piece in the Mail about the rise of narcissism in modern baking before the week is out. Mary doesn’t want much from the cakes, just sheer perfection, while Paul is hoping for something “small and beautiful”. Which I’m pretty sure is a line from the Shakira cookbook.
There are eggs to whisk, and questions to ask. Such as, how do the laws of physics work? Did we just see hairdresser Louise confuse her non-stick spray with a can of heavy duty Elnett? Who is this fat pheasant that keeps appearing on camera, and did they bake our favourite ballsy squirrel into a pie?
Benjamina’s whipping up ‘salted praline Swiss meringue buttercream’, which are words I’m adopting as my new meditation mantra, while young Michael is repping the North London Whole Foods contingent with a potent green tea cake.
“It smells a little like… grass,” sniffs Mary, who has clearly met her matcha.
No sooner do the sponges come out of the oven than there are Genoise flops all over the shop, with half the bakers throwing theirs away and starting again. What happened to improv, guys? What happened to the patented Ruby Tandoh method of ‘just claw your own face with regret until they forgive you’?
For the mirror glaze to shine, the cakes must be coated in ganache or buttercream and thoroughly chilled – which means it’s time for the customary sprint to the GBBO fridges. Meanwhile Kate seems determined to maintain Mel and Sue-phemism’s usual standards, despite viewers in recent years complaining that the show has become too smutty. “I really do like swallows!” she chirps. Don’t hand the gags to Twitter on a plate, Kate. Look, even your cake is blue.
Candice has served her mirror glaze on an actual mirror, which is a level of crockery cockery even your average Essex gastropub hasn’t dreamed up yet. But despite rubbery sponge, her flavours save the day. The judging is a mixed bag, but after Andrew redeems himself at the eleventh hour with a perfect cake, it’s between our pastor and our headmistress to battle it out for salvation.
Val’s curious buttercream has Paul ganache-ing his teeth, but in the end it’s Lee who doesn’t have a prayer, when the ‘surprise’ in his strawberry surprise turns out to be ‘look, strawberries!’.
Farewell to the baking vicar! Warning: the rest of the series will now be "un-pastorised."