“The oven’s on, the process has started.” Mat, a 37-year-old London firefighter, looked suitably stoked as another 12 bakers got under way, although the contest doesn’t ever really get going until someone makes an elementary error. Very soon, Perthshire teenager Flora obliged: when she’d finished making her mix for the first task, a Madeira cake that required subtle flavouring, brittle candied fruit, an unobtrusive glaze and a crack along the baked top, she realised her oven wasn’t on at all.
Every year when Bake Off begins, small, angry people from the 1940s, who think British folk have to be pale and called Jane or John, complain that the “politically correct” BBC has picked too many contestants who are not properly British. It’s important, you see, that only true-blue Brits are allowed to cook classic national treats such as focaccia, tarte au citron, Sachertorte and indeed Madeira cake.
Anyway, if there’s a citizenship test we can all get behind, it’s the ability to deploy GBBO innuendo. “Hopefully the taste will be good,” said Ugne, born in Lithuania but now proudly residing in Essex, “and my crack will show.” Textbook stuff. I stood and proudly saluted.
Bake Off is, literally and ideologically, a big tent, which this year tentatively extended its welcome to a social group not seen here before in its raw form: the hipster. Singer and upright bassist Stu, with his hat, beard, collar tips, nose-ring and tattoo sleeves, proved that baking truly covers all creeds and classes. At least, he would have had his glaze not overheated in the pan – ironically, it wasn’t cool enough.
Innovating more promisingly were Mat, who aimed for the tried and tested “sozzled Berry” route to success by splashing seven shots of gin into his glaze; and anaesthetist Tamal, who injected lemon drizzle-juice into the middle of his cake with a syringe. Could the Bake Off editors resist the temptation to smash-cut from that to him at work, using a real syringe? Should they have resisted? No they shouldn’t and no they didn’t.
Ugne crouched happily by her oven. “I’m looking for crack!” she said, showboating now by moving onto a secondary, drug-based innuendo. She was really mining that “crack”. It was lovely to watch her go at it.
In the judging, however, Ugne’s thyme was indiscernible, just like Mat’s gin (seven shots are not enough for a Mary Berry beano) unlike Leeds mum-of-three Nadiya’s finely poised cardamom and Flora’s “stunning” flavours. Top of the tree were Marie – 66 and also from the baked-goods Mecca that is Perthshire – who just made a normal bloody Madeira cake, and Tamal, whose lemony Botox completely fooled the judges.
Near the bottom was Swansea prison governor and Paul Hollywood Crimewatch e-fit Paul, who was awarded the first “overbaked” of the series by Mary. Actually at the bottom were Alvin’s unchopped figs, which had indeed sunk, as wearily predicted by the judges. Plum last was Stu, whose chocolate and lime harlequin caper wasn’t a Madeira cake. “The flavours are all wrong, really,” said Paul, brutally. “It’s quite bitter.”
Up first this year in the slightly annoying round where nobody knows how to bake the thing because the recipe is deliberately unhelpful, so who cares really: Mary Berry’s walnut cake. Three layers of creamed nutty sponge with buttercream betwixt, covered in marshmallowy meringue with some caramelised walnuts on top.
The key phrase there, as so often it is, was “caramelised walnuts on top”. Because to caramelise walnuts you need caramel, and caramel is a notorious swine. Bracknell nurse Alvin’s caramel looked like cocaine left in the rain, while Stu’s recalled that unspeakable foam you get on the surface of the big tanks in sewage plants. His solution was to add more water, thus defying even the scant instructions given. He was disobeying Mary Berry directly. Has he not even seen GBBO before? Was he too busy spooning Peruvian street ceviche onto rustic boards to watch the previous five series? Contradicting Mary never works.
Unpredictably, Nadiya also deviated from the gospel, with no meringue round the sides of her cake – leaving her in last place, behind even Stu with his sad single walnut and overly relaxed frosting. Winning the round was Ugne’s perfect whip, followed by a triumphant Alvin. “That caramel is not going to ruin me!” he shouted afterwards, outside the tent. Yeah! You tell it. Caramel is not the boss of you. Caramel can stick it.
Black Forest gateau: a 70s throwback as British as beer and sausages. Immediately Stu unicycled in, twirling his beard and chomping on a bowl of novelty cereal, promising to add beetroot to his.
“This is the perfect bake for me!” announced sunny 53-year-old project accountant Dorret. Sensing overconfidence, the judges floated into view. Mary pretended not to know how to make an Alhambra sponge and gazed warmly at Dorret as she added melted butter to her fancy sabayon.
Dorret’s ability to bake immediately curdled in her hands. “It’s not supposed to look like this,” she said, her whisk clogged with bad goo. “Don’t panic!” said Paul as he sauntered cheerily off again. Too late.
Bradford child welfare officer Sandy, who is just a touch too aware of the cameras and talks like a Victoria Wood script put through a shredder, was bullish. “My last practice one… ooh, it was straight, it was powerful. It had that real trendy look, you know. I try to model meself like that as well. A bit random, with a trendy twist.” Eh?
Back to Dorret’s doomed gateau. “It shouldn’t be rising like that,” she observed, opening the oven and extracting a tray of sponge with a large dome in one corner. It would have been ideal had the task been “make a crazy golf course from cake”.
A properly decorated BFG requires glossy, tempered chocolate; those conversations that the bakers have with themselves, their whisks, Sue, Mel or thin air soon focused on what temperature the heated chocolate should reach. Ugne: “Ideally, 31C.” Marie: “I’m looking for 32C.” Mat: “I don’t know what temperature it’s got to be. Just looks good, dunnit?”
Mat is one of five or six contestants this year who, if they are the future champion, are fiendish hustlers. Ugne achieved 31C and began blowing up long, pendulous purple and orange balloons before dipping them in her perfectly warm ooze.
While Sandy supped kirsch from a teaspoon (“Is less is more, or more a winner?”), Nadiya and Tamal were doing fancy stuff within a circle of acetate. Dorret had a similar plastic wrap but was just staring down at hers. “The mousse is… not going to be set.”
One futile trip to the Iain Watters Memorial Fridge later and, indeed, it wasn’t. Off came the acetate and down cascaded the mousse. Dorret froze (if only her mousse had done that) and cried hopelessly. Could Sue Perkins – diving in to prevent another Bingate but just possibly, maybe, almost having to stop herself laughing – be right that it was “just a cake” and Dorret wasn’t necessarily toast?
Ugne had burst her multicoloured choccy udders and finished her trimmings, but the sponge underneath was a bust. “It’s not good,” said Paul. It’s not good when he says that. The way was clear for Marie, who had got away with wantonly dribbling ganache down the side of her Black Forest, to glide in and snatch Star Baker for week one.
And Sue was right: Dorret’s passable walnut cake had been enough. Stu was on his fixed-gear bike.