“All the challenges this year are considerably harder,” warned Paul Hollywood.
He looked exactly the same – I fancy he’s a two haircut-and-beard-trims a week man – but the series three opener did indeed feel as if standards had been raised a few degrees.
More importantly, the contestants, the new baking dozen, look like a classic Bake Off gang: brittle, humble, varied, embodying and yet overturning stereotypes, and containing two or three people of both genders whom I would happily marry tomorrow.
The first challenge, in the tent now pitched at Harptree Court in Somerset, was upside-down cake. Cathryn Dresser, a Sussex housewife who has the short bob and nervy disposition of a Downton maid, outlined her plans to Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry with her hands clasped rigidly together as if in prayer. In fact her diligence and talent saw her through comfortably, but others could have done with some supernatural intervention.
Ryan Chong fell into the most familiar trap immediately: making it more difficult for yourself. His would be a kumquat polenta cake. Paul narrowed his eyes almost imperceptibly. “It’s dangerous using polenta in a cake you have to turn…”
Paul was straight into his groove in this episode, issuing apparently kind statements that were iced with arsenic. His catchphrase: “Have you ever had any problems with [your really stupid idea]..?”
Another baker giving himself problems was Stuart Marson-Smith, who’d dreamt up a tomato and ginger upside-down cake featuring unappetising black treacle and, for flavour, tomato jam. Without the tomato jam, Stuart admitted it would be “just a cake with tomato decoration”. Stuart forgot to put the tomato jam in.
Panic spread as Sue Perkins held up a hand-scrawled “10 mins” sign, upside-down. Even Sarah-Jane Willis, who looks like a serious contender, was ruffled enough to blurt out the first unintentional semi-innuendo of the series, explaining why her timings are always rough: “At home, all the numbers have worn off round my dial…”
Then the all-important flip, to put the upside-down cake the right way up. Manisha Parmar’s peaches stuck to her lid, while James Morton – a lovely medical-student boffin from Shetland whose Hestonian experiments will light up this series if he can only stay in it – didn’t turn his cake at all until the last second because his parsnips wouldn’t cook.
Ryan’s polenta was dry and crumbly. Stuart’s tasteless tomato manhole cover was awful. James’s parsnips were barely discernible, although Sue mothered him brilliantly. “Tasty,” she kindly lied.
After the tea-break history lesson, the technical challenge, baked in Paul and Mary’s absence (little-known fact: they like to plough through a 12-pack of caramel Krispy Kremes while they’re waiting) was another Abigail’s Party retro classic, the rum baba. Essentially a boozy cream doughnut, this demanded exact proving and whatever the batter/dough equivalent of horse whispering is if the mixture were not to stick.
Here was where Natasha Stinger, a midwife from Tamworth, crumbled like yesterday’s kumquat polenta. She bain-maried her babas but soon regretted it. “I’ve made the wrong decision. It could all be over for me now.”
As James’s glasses steamed up with the strain, we got to know the other student in the contest: John Whaite, a 22-year-old law undergraduate who ditched Oxford to be nearer home, and spoke of knocking up cakes after a night clubbing: “Baking’s the biggest fashion.” He was charming, he was cool, he was unaffected… he dusted his tin with salt instead of sugar and nearly made Paul blow chunks. You never can tell.
The baba was testing everyone. Assured 42-year-old sales manager Peter Maloney, seen in his VT foisting a cupcake on an obligated office underling, panicked and erected a caramel cage around his cakes, as if to protect them from Paul and Mary’s gaze. Paul smashed the cage with the back of a spoon. The babas were fine.
Peter was, however, one of the stars of the show-stopper bake: a cake containing a hidden design. He and Stuart both concealed union flags in theirs. Peter wielded a spatula mathematically, while Stuart’s Union Jack looked like a child had drawn it on rough seas, and his Queen’s head on the icing had a treasonous Medusa look.
Stuart was a long way behind the star baker of the week, Victoria Chester, of whom much more in weeks to come, I’m sure. Also lagging was James, whose triple sunset-themed Genoese was about a foot tall and could stop a bus.
But it was Natasha who left the competition, because her sunrise design was unclear and her cake was raw. The beauty of her two-tone icing was, in true Bake Off style, evidence of aptitude agonisingly not quite marshalled in time. It’s all heating up already.
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