Even those of us who don’t know our sodium bicarbonate from our aniseed can comprehend that the key to good baking is balance. There’s taste and texture; different types of flavours; variations in textures; contrasts in colour, ingredients, design, even temperature. The same goes for television and, in particular, for The Great Christmas Bake Off (Channel 4), the first of two festive spin-offs we’re being treated to (a New Year’s Day edition follows).
Thus, for this instalment, the four contestants – who all previously appeared on GBBO – are nicely balanced in age and personality, from nerdy engineer Andrew Smyth through token kid Liam Charles to Waitrose mom Jane Beedle and homely scouse nan Flo Atkins. (Maybe one day she’ll be asked to do a Nan bread just for the gag.)
They get on pretty well, though I would maybe enjoy a bit more conflict and accusations of copying and sabotage between them – all for the honour of being named Star Baker and presented with what looks to be an inscribed dinner plate that passes for the “trophy”.
Join Independent Minds
For exclusive articles, events and an advertising-free read for just £5.99 €6.99 $9.99 a month
Get the best of The Independent
With an Independent Minds subscription for just £5.99 €6.99 $9.99 a month
Get the best of The Independent
Without the ads – for just £5.99 €6.99 $9.99 a month
On the other hand, it is Christmas, and you’ll have had enough of that sort of baked-in domestic tension by now. So, fine, I guess.
Then there’s Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, complex seasonings that don’t really work together as happily as, say, cinnamon and vanilla, or that well-known off the shelf flavouring mix, which can be added to any light entertainment show, Mel and Sue. I don’t know what Channel 4 pay Noel and Sandi to gang around and wrestle with challenging lines such as “Bakers, you have one hour”, but I suspect it is disproportionate to the lift they give to this particular dish. There is only one real attempt at humour, which involves Noel and a chocolate Yule log, and that has no place in a civilised society, let alone the hygienic environment of the GBBO tent.
As for the baking… it is all very impressive indeed, as you’d expect. The technical challenge, set by judge Paul Hollywood, playing Grinch to Prue Leith’s Mary Poppins, is to create some obscure Icelandic decorative poppadoms called laufabrauo. All the bakers naturally fail, but the instructions are so deliberately opaque that I’m surprised any of them got near. Seems unfair, contrived even. It’s when Jane triumphs here that I think she is destined to win, as this is the round that always weighs so heavily in the judges’ scales.
I am, though, also rooting for Flo, so to speak. I remember her awesome – genuinely – water melon replica cake from the summer run, and I admire both her technical skills and soaring imagination – a fine balance of qualities in any cook.
Anyway, she has the strangest concoction of all to bring to the showstopper round. This is where the bakers are asked to make “a cake that looks like a Christmas present and Inside is a design you see when you cut it open”. A cake within a cake, you see?
Liam essays a “speculoos” theme, which has me worried until I google it. That isn’t grand or, indeed, neat enough for a win.
Andrew reaches back to childhood memories of Christmas trees, and decides to suspend a pair of baubles in his sponge, though sadly one of them drops too early and rather lets the side down – decidedly unbalanced.
Jane, characteristically, is more cautious, avoiding trying to bake one cake inside another and instead just sticking to a simple cake-on-cake construction with cute penguins – less ambitious but very on trend for 2018.
But Flo! Flo decides to make a sponge that is spiced – in the way Charlie Sheen is spiced – with an entire bottle of mulled wine. She then adds three cheese-themed fillings – with real cheese ingredients. Real cheese, and not shy ones either – Roquefort, Stilton and cream cheese. It is, she explains, a balance between two ends of the spectrum. Arriving on a marzipan sleigh led by marzipan reindeer, it looks, well, show-stopping.
The judges hate it. “Not good,” says Hollywood. “I don’t like it,” goes Leith. It is Noel’s moment. “But a kind of genius,” he exclaims. He is right. Flo is robbed. It’s the sort of thing Heston Blumenthal does, not some amateur. Yet the audacious Flo transcends the rules – and everything turns sour.
Anyway, I want one of Flo’s “Christmas in a Cake” cakes in a way I rarely desire anything on a telly cookery show. I expect to be eating one this time next year, probably bought from Waitrose, which seem inclined to this sort of innovation. They should share the vast profits they’ll make with Flo. That would be a sweet balance of taste and decency.