Here we are then, crunch time. It’s the final meltdown. This is the end, my only friand. The end.
Every year, it happens, and yet every year it’s a surprise. Only yesterday, it seems, we were airing our necks over the freezer with a Pimm’s in both fists, muttering that this lot didn’t have the makings “of a classic year”; now, we’re swaddled in a blanket with blackberry crumble and custard coursing through our veins, wondering what we’ll ever do without them.
Marching into battle, one last time, armed with rolling pins and armoured in pinnies, it’s our caked crusaders. Ruby the Resolute, High Priestess of Protein. Special powers: superhuman stamina; crouching; making you feel slightly scared of her but also like you’d give her all your chips on a night bus, if she asked.
Kim-Joy the Kooky, Queen of the Woodland. Named after Joy the shop, because she was found there as a baby, inside a patchwork cushion shaped like an owl. Special powers: piping; emotional U-turns; affinity with anything that lives in a hedgerow.
Rahul the Doomful, Prince of Pessimism. A vestige of a gentler time, before self-esteem was considered a good thing. A time when people baked cakes for strangers, called their parents every day and had no faith whatsoever in their own ability. Special powers: flavour; pheasant appreciation; self-flagellation.
Tomorrow, we’ll forget everything we knew about crumb structure and pastry lamination and slink on back to Mr Kipling like these past 10 weeks never happened. But for now, one last time, let’s yell at the telly like the shameless backseat bakers we are.
First up, it’s a signature challenge as briefed by Atomic Kitten – you can make a hole again! Our bakers need to present six filled doughnuts and six ring doughnuts, all iced in a way to make Homer Simpson drool.
It’s clear from very early on that we’re going to spend this whole episode in a state of high emotion, not least because we have the traditional peeks behind the scenes into the bakers’ home lives. We meet Ruby’s ridiculously beautiful family, her mum already crying with preemptive pride. We meet Kim-Joy’s partner, proof that a board-games club can be foreplay. And we meet David and Liz, Rahul’s “surrogate family” in Sheffield, who appear to have adopted him much like the Browns adopted Paddington Bear. If that doesn’t thaw your heart to a puddle, nothing will.
Back in the tent, it’s drama all round. You remember Ruby Tandoh? Now we’ve got Ruby Two-dough, as our Rubes attempts multiple doughnut batters. Kim-Joy’s dainty piped bees are so lifelike they’ve attracted an amorous wasp. A real-life honey trap! And from pulling out all the stops to squeezing out one important stop, there is perhaps no better visual representation of Rahul’s mindset than his piping bag bursting in his iron grip, spurting mango crème pât across the carpet. Not for the first time, I’d like to say: I hope the bakers have an on-set counsellor.
Come judging, Kim-Joy scores a slam-dunk on flavour and Ruby charms everyone with her rainbow decoration, but she’s been stingy with the filling. Rahul’s efforts look pretty and deliver generous squidge, but the judges balk at his buttercream roses. “The last thing I want to do when I’m eating a doughnut is taste butter,” whines Paul.
What odds will you give me on Paul setting “buttercnuts”, a cake-doughnut hybrid, as a technical in three years’ time?
GO CHARRED OR GO HOME
On to the last dastardly technical of the year – and, suddenly, out of the blue, it’s time for all three bakers to leave the tent. For 90 minutes! Gotcha! Only in the world of Bake Off does shifting the action 20ft to the left constitute a scandalous plot twist, but still. It feels novel, like in a sitcom when the writers start running out of ideas and decide to send the whole gang on holiday.
Once outside, our bakers discover their next challenge is quite literally the pits. Campfire pitta bread and a trio of fire-roasted dips. In what I think we’re all genuinely worried might be a C4 crossover gimmick to promote a new series of Eden, our bakers must toil over a fire pit in the burning afternoon sun, making dough, blistering veg and sweating profusely into a bowl of baba ganoush.
Before long, Kim-Joy is in her element, exuding the kind of casual frontier woman vibe that leads you to wonder if she might volunteer at a living museum on the weekends. But Ruby is embroiled in a kind of psychological warfare with an onion, and Rahul is openly shouting for help that nobody is allowed to give. I don’t like this. I’ve read Lord Of The Flies; I know how this ends.
As for the pitta, it needs to puff up enough to form the characteristic pocket. But how to cook them on a fire? The answer is the same as Paul’s catchphrase down his gentlemen’s club: put it on the slate!
Once everybody has six passable pittas and the beginnings of heatstroke, they’re allowed back in the tent to face the judges. Ruby’s downfall is one many women will identify with: no pockets. Rahul’s gotta pitta pocket or two (he’s a man), but they’re burnt. And fresh from success in the first round, Kim-Joy has won her first technical – but, really, only just.
If we’ve already had fire and brimstone, what could be left for tomorrow? I pitta the fool.
BEEN THROUGH THE DESSERT ON A SAUCE WITH NO NAME
It’s fine, it’s just cake! Or rather, “a dessert landscape”, a baffling creation that clearly had its genesis in the time Paul tried to eat his childhood Tracy Island.
Still, in true Bake Off fashion, this is one last chance for some serious whimsy. Ruby is making a mountain out of a doughball, or many, while it feels entirely natural that Kim-Joy’s tenure on the show should climax with “fondant seahorses”. And in a nicely cyclical twist, Rahul is back where he started, in episode one – a garden of earthly delights.
But his bake is no walk in the park, as, rather dramatically, one of his jars has spontaneously combusted in the heat. There’s glass everywhere, and poor Rahul is obliged to throw away all of his ingredients and start again.
“Rahul’s got himself into a bit of a tizz,” sniffs Prue, from a safe distance.
A tizz?! He’s protecting your delicate gullet, lady! Are we really suggesting Rahul caused the jar to explode through the sheer force of his anxiety alone? Is he a latter-day Matilda, is that what you’re saying, Prue? I CALL SABOTAGE.
EASY CRUMB, EASY DOUGH
While the bakers scrabble madly, outside it’s time for my favourite bit, the return of the past bakers – or, as I like to call it, the failure parade! Look, there’s thingumy! And whasserface! And Jon! Everyone must hug warmly and pretend not to be comparing notes on who’s been asked to do the Cake & Bake Show 2019.
You’d think they sugarcoat the final round of judging, but, no. Having breezed through the weekend on a high, Kim-Joy’s sunken city of Atlantis has fallen flat. Too much ginger, not enough orange, and even her glitter seahorses can’t convince them. Prue wrinkles her nose at Rahul’s sludge pond (I beg your pardon – he never promised you a rose garden), but this only makes victory all the sweeter for him when they discover his rock garden is entirely delicious. Of course it is. And Ruby’s magical landscape charms them, too, with perfect passionfruit sponge and bitter caramel her only bum note.
So, hang on, does that mean we’re ending the final weekend neck and neck? This never happens!
No, wait. This always happens. As the bakers head out to collapse in the sun, the judges have a convenient dead heat on their hands. It’s impossibly close. Literally the only person with a harder job than Paul and Prue right now is a journalist who might, for certain logistical reasons, have to write three alternative endings several hours in advance without seeing the actual result. But I wouldn’t know about that.
And the verdict? The real winner was inside us all along.
Just kidding, it’s Rahul! Of COURSE it’s Rahul. Put your snark aside and let the tears flow freely, because the man who baked to make friends has hit the jackpot: 11 new mates for life and a whole nation of adoring fans. He’s made his parents, David and Liz, and the lady at the leisure centre so proud. And, somewhere beneath that expression, the one that says, “I’ve won a national TV contest but, look, it might rain later,” I’d like to think he’s made himself proud, too.
And us? We’ve learned that, sometimes, confidence and positivity are overrated. That’s something to chew over, until next year.
Next week: I don’t know, mate. Stare at the wall?