Great British Baking Show Recap: Episode 1

Editor's Note: Haven't started watching The Great British Bake Off yet? Now's the time to start. We'll be recapping the third season every Friday after the episode airs on PBS. Need to catch up? You can find season 1 on Netflix.

I have to start these recaps of Season 3 of The Great British Bake Off with a confession.

When I saw my first episode a year ago, I was filled with shame. Like many Americans, I first discovered the show (aired as The Great British Baking Show in the U.S.) when a season was released on Netflix. I was immediately smitten. It was reality television that was warm and friendly, and there were lots and lots of cakes involved. The judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, are almost always kind and gentle. The hosts, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, are totally goofy and make inappropriate jokes in between taking turns saying "Let's Bake!" in strange accents. Plus, everyone is actually rooting for the contestants to succeed. Can this lighthearted, pleasant show even be called reality television by American standards? Perhaps not.

I quickly realized we could never have something as wonderful here. (In fact, attempts to replicate the success and je ne sais quoi of the British original have all been DOA on our shores). They get good-natured pensioners creating eclairs, we get wine-throwing. I literally had to make myself read an episode recap of Big Brother to remind myself that England wasn’t all just happy bakers tramping around the countryside, whisks in hand.

There is also something so hopeful about the cast of the show. They help each other, despite the fact that this is indeed a competition, and seem genuinely upset when anyone has to leave. But don't take my word for it, you have to see it to believe it. So, let's start recapping!
The first episode of any competition is as much about getting the lay of the land as anything. We have 12 bakers, many with improbable backstories (like Paul, the prison governor with a “penchant for sugar craft”). Half of the delight of the first episode is hearing their jobs and stories — and the very British names of their hometowns, such as Cambridgeshire, Berkshire, or Luton. The other half is trying to suss out who is going to rise to the top, and who is going home quickly. This first episode provided tantalizingly few clues — it’s still anyone’s game. Then, it's finally time to bake.
Each episode is made up of three challenges: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper Challenge. The signature allows contestants to showcase their own spin on recipes; the Technical is all about replicating a classic, and the Showstopper is straight-up food art.

In their first challenge of the season, the bakers attempt Madeira cake. It’s telling how far American cuisine has come from our days as a British colony that I had no idea what Madeira cake is, much less that it has to have a tell-tale crack on top. In that competition, Tamal, Marie, Flora, and Nadiya are awarded high praise, with the rest of the eight getting mixed feedback. There's only one true failure: Stu and his grainy attempt at a Rastafarian-inspired Madeira.
But, proving that early successes mean nothing, the Technical challenge, a frosted walnut layer cake, sees different bakers rise to the top. Though, tellingly, poor Stu stays at the bottom of the pack; Ugne, a mom and bodybuilder originally from Lithuania, takes top spot.

On to the Showstopper round: a Black Forest gateau. With some help of post-production editing, we already know that Stu is going to have to really knock it out of the park (to borrow a rather American metaphor) to stay in the game. A good Black Forest gateau, we’re told, is a “decadent blend of chocolate, cherries, fresh cream, and kirsch liqueur.” (Side note: My god, they love a boozy cake over there, don’t they?)

After much of the show’s signature shots of panicked bakers and piped icing, it’s judgement time again. In an episode that has been short of any real baking disasters, we finally get one when poor Dorret’s cake nearly collapses when it fails to set. But, at the end of the day, and especially this early in the competition, taste trumps presentation, and Stu’s overly moist beetroot sponges are the final straw. Dorret, bless her, gets to stay in the tent.

The show then ends with more of the signature friendliness and hugs all around. Though, as Nadiya reminds us with her victorious statement that she “lives to fight another day,” under all that sugar and sweetness are 11 bakers determined to go all the way. I can’t wait to keep watching.

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