Twelve new friends. That’s where the fuzzy cinnamon warmth of fresh Bake Off comes from: the guarantee that here are a dozen of Britain’s nicest, sweetest, humblest, Britishest people, all different but all immediately our mates. This year’s bunch – in the tent now pitched on the lawn at Welford Park, Berkshire – already look like more national treasures.
I’d very much like to go to the pub with Jordan, a geek so geeky he rides a Chopper round the corridors of the company where he’s an IT manager. I would not mind him almost certainly saying “Two foaming pints of your finest nut-brown ale please, barkeep!” on arrival. I’d like to visit sexagenarian Norman in Buckie and eat casserole from one of the pots he makes himself in his shed. I can vividly imagine knocking back straight whiskies at three in the afternoon with veg-growing, chicken-rearing Lincolnshire gran-of-eight Nancy, who has the sort of street-fighting flair we’ve not seen since James in series three. She was star baker in week one and is my favourite to win.
Challenge one: a Swiss roll, where the first opportunity to balls it up is to not cook that thin square of fatless sponge for exactly the right amount of time. Kate, an upholsterer from Brighton, squatted nervously by her oven and decided to give hers “just a few more minutes”, while graphic designer and accomplished amateur beekeeper Luis confidently withdrew his. Kate glanced round the room and said, “Still gonna give it half a minute.” Martha, a 17-year-old A/S level student with spooky baking skills, whipped it and flipped it, bosh. Kate hesitated a bit more – everyone at home knew by now it was overdone.
Naturally, these Swiss rolls were conceptualised and decorated to the extreme. Richard, a builder who would finish top ten in Britain’s Least Intimidating Builder, piped out some neat flowers. With a pencil behind his ear, he explained that because of his two daughters, “Everything in my house has become pink,” and said it with the transcendent patience of man who somehow won’t fly into a psychotic rampage if he hears Let It Go one more time.
Jordan announced that his Swiss roll was actually “a Japaneeese thing called Kawai!” Speech therapist Claire’s chocolatey orange roll had a topping apparently modelled on the idea of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy sprinkling Smarties on it.
Then, the rolling of the the roll. While absolute idiots like me wondered how people using a tea towel were planning to get the towel out of the finished cake, Iain – a Norse god from Northern Ireland with a magnificent beard as big as his head – was curling his up with Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood breathing hard on his sponge. He’d controversially chosen to score it repeatedly, risking a flat, square fold instead of a smooth roll. To Mary’s silent satisfaction, that was exactly what happened: Iain ended up with something that looked like a trifle caught in a Venetian blind.
Nancy was making caramelised hazelnuts that were supposed to be “nice and toffee and golden” but had on her own admission turned into merely dry nuts. Nancy was not bothered. “I’m going to blitz that to a powder,” she said, shrugging. She did. They were tasty. The judges loved them. No problem.
Claire was the sunniest, most instantly likeable contestant, but also surprisingly the first to argue straight up with Mary and Paul…
Mary: “The cream is a little bit nondescript.”
Claire: “I quite like the cream.”
Paul: “You stand up for what you think’s right! YOU’RE WRONG, but…”
Claire: “Matter of opinion.”
Cut to Claire in bits outside after the judging, delivering the first “I don’t know why I’m crying over cake” of the series. Don’t worry. We know.
Once the dryness of Kate’s sponge had been officially recorded, and Norman had responded to the Mary Berry criticism that his roll was bold, fat and big by saying simply, “IT’S FOR MEN,” it was time for the technical bake – the one where nobody’s practised, the recipe provided is sparse, and the judging is blind, which means Mary and Paul have to leave the tent and take a break. (She: Florentines cabbed up from the Ritz, and a thimble of Lapsang Souchong. He: 100 Benson & Hedges, smoked four at a time while doing chin-ups.)
“We don’t know what ‘prepare’ means,” said Jordan as the baking dozen realised that the tricky part of cherry cake is the cherries. Specifically, how to stop them sinking through the mixture while cooking, leaving the cake with a stodgy bottom.
There were competing theories. You have to dry them. You need to wash them and coat them in flour. You must stir them anti-clockwise with your left sock rolled down. Nobody really knew and most people ended up with them sunk to the bottom – or in the case of fearsomely competent WI veteran Diana, all gathered to one side, the impossibility of which troubled Mary Berry briefly.
Toasted almonds should have been the easy bit. “I can smell something burning,” said Chetna, who’d previously pulled off the sensational addition of cardamom to a Swiss roll. Jordan prowled to the side of the tent, sniffing the air and confirming that something was on fire. Cut to Kate, jovially checking that her almonds weren’t – ah.
Kate’s cherry cake was dry and overdone as well, but she was one of many to redeem themselves in the showstopper: 36 identical miniature cakes. Norman had promised to have “one less pint” to make sure his party piece was perfect; he also unleashed his “lucky spoon”, and a device he’d fashioned himself in his shed that resembled those spikes to stop homeless people sleeping near posh buildings, but turned out to be the perfect way to poke cakes out of a tray 12 at a time.
Norman has high standards. After Paul had praised his almond, raspberry and cream flavour combo, and Mary had complimented his 36 impeccably regular sponges, Norm narrowed his eyes. “What did you think of the jam?”
Martha was innovating effortlessly, measuring out her mixture with an ice-cream scoop and sticking thyme in a sweet cake recipe. But not everyone was coping with the pressure. Claire’s chocolate cakes were described from afar by Paul as a “volcano eruption”, and unfortunately they did look like someone else had already eaten them and then expelled them back into the ramekins. Claire, panicking productively, whipped up a second sponge to slap on the top and curb the damage – which might have been alright, but then she threw on extra decoration. Hundreds and thousands? Oooh no. Not on BBC1.
“They’re both dry,” said Mary of the haemorrhaged sponge and its last-minute companion. “Hnnnnnng,” said Paul, hundreds and thousands rolling around his teeth like gravel in a mixer.
“Poor Claire,” said Mary before the axe fell. Eleven new friends.
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