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‘The Great British Baking Show’: We pick early favorites and break down Biscuit Week

Contestant Sura, right, with host Matt Lucas, from left, and judges Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood.
(Mark Bourdillon)

The following story contains spoilers from this week’s episode of “The Great British Baking Show.”

Join us, The Times’ resident “Great British Baking Show” obsessives, as we dive into Episode 2 of the new, COVID-affected season, now streaming on Netflix:

Matt Brennan, TV editor: After spending a significant chunk of the pandemic spring and summer bingeing seasons of “The Great British Baking Show” in a handful of sittings, I’m reduced to watching one episode a week — and even then, squeezing an hour out of my schedule to focus on Biscuit Week in this news cycle isn’t easy. So I’ll admit up front that I am watching this week’s episode as we go, in fits and starts. But what strikes me, straight off, are the little allusions to COVID-19 during the signature challenge: Sura heading into the hospital where she works in what appears to be an N95 mask; Lottie waving to her grandparents from the street to maintain going on six months of social distance.

Last week, Meredith, you wrote about the blissful near-absence of the pandemic from the “Baking Show” bubble; Robert, you wrote the ways our broken political process might learn from the better world of the tent. After last week’s nods to COVID and Boris Johnson, it seems as though the season is establishing a pattern of trying to acknowledge the crisis without turning it into a source of too much sentiment.

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How do you think they’re doing?

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Rowan, whose waistcoated Florentines did not find favor with the judges, with Matt Lucas.
(Mark Bourdillon)

Robert Lloyd, TV critic: I think some baseline acknowledgement of the state we, and the world, are in, is unavoidable — this is how we live now — and possibly of some comfort to the viewers: We’re all in this together. But really that tent is an island of calm — or anxious calm, if you’ll allow the oxymoron — in a sea of disease, an escape for an hour to a safe place. (Safe, except for one baker each week, of course.). And, though I certainly noticed that bit with Sura, I was more concerned about the bakes, and the bakers, and interested in how Noel Fielding and new co-host Matt Lucas, playing a happy idiot to Fielding’s impish glam case, are getting along. Very well, I’d say — they play off each other like yes-anding improv comedians — and even too well, as a schoolteacher might say. (I will have to separate you two.) That is all down to the editing, of course, and it may have felt that there was more comedy than usual because there was less drama about the baking, and nothing like Sura’s accidental upsetting of David’s pineapple upside-down cakes last week to focus on, or as bizarre as some of last week’s portrait busts. Also, with so many bakers still in the game, the stakes at this point remain relatively low for each player. Meredith?

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Meredith Blake, TV writer: While it’s true the show is gently acknowledging the reality of the pandemic — that scene with Lottie and her grandparents was very sweet — I was also stunned by the return of the Hollywood Handshake. I’m happy to see everyone in the tent interacting like normal and Lottie’s cookies — err, biscuits — looked delicious, but, today of all days, I’m not sure that a handshake in a green outdoor setting is something I can celebrate.

But enough of that tedious public-health chatter. Let’s talk about the bakes! First up was the signature challenge, which involved baking Florentines — a name I associate with brunch eggs. Some of the bakers, especially Rowan and Mak, struggled to get the requisite snap. The technical challenge involved a somewhat disturbing version of the macaroon, including deeply unnecessary blobs of mango custard in the middle. Is this a British thing? Or just something producers invented to make the recipe more complicated? I strongly suspect it’s the latter. By the time the showstopper challenge rolled around — and the bakers had to make a tea set out of biscuits — I was certain that sweet, bumbling Rowan and his fetching waistcoats would be out. So color me surprised when Mak got the boot.

Lloyd: That old line about America and England being two countries separated by a common language definitely seems to have a parallel when it comes to baked goods — biscuits are cookies, pies are not pies, macaroons have mango custard plopped in the middle. And yes, Rowan getting through, having consistently failed to deliver as promised, and seeming never to hear a suggestion as to how he might, was (along with that handshake) the episode’s shock moment. I am usually pretty sanguine about the judge’s choices — someone’s got to go, after all, and Mak did feel he was a likely candidate for that. But he came in third in the technical, where Rowan was last, and Rowan did no better in the other challenges. (They both got the “nice flavor, though” comment that often accompanies a poor review.) It’s possible that the deciding factor was that Mak’s lack of molding in the showstopper — he used flat shapes — but really it felt like a producer’s choice, that they had decided to stick with Rowan’s heedless whimsicality over Mak’s furrowed-brow intensity. And perhaps age had something to do with it. Last season was criticized for the contestants skewing young. But how can we really know?

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Dave, the winner of Biscuit Week.
(Mark Bourdillon 07831605033/© Mark Bourdillon)

Brennan: As the lumbering Matt Lucas of this conversation, I’ve just got to circle back and add that I cringed twice, first at the handshake itself and then when Lottie followed it up with the usual “I’m never washing that hand again” joke — it just hits different, as the kids say on Twitter. And while you were keeping an eye on Matt and Noel, Robert, I couldn’t take my eyes off Prue’s white, tentacled necklace. “Lovecraft Country” should be so bold!

As for the bakes, I had to look up the distinction between (coconut) macaroons and French macarons, but who should’ve gone home was much clearer in my mind: Rowan deserved it more than Mak. The judges may have given the edge to those ghastly modeling-chocolate waistcoats, but I don’t think Rowan’s natty style has translated well to his baking. I mean, last week he practically built the Crystal Palace for his battenberg — and ended up microwaving his cake to try to get it cooked.

But let’s not focus on the negative. I want to talk Star Baker — and early favorites for the season as a whole. I might have seen Dave, the handsome armoured guard from Hampshire, as something of a dark horse, but his bright, Mexican pottery-inspired “Waiting for Tacos” dish set was genuinely beautiful, and pulled off the desired trompe l’oeil effect almost better than anyone. I can’t argue with the judges’ decision to give him the week’s top prize, though — maybe because I watched it this morning in lieu of eating breakfast — I was partial to Marc’s rougher but hugely charming “Morning Coffee and Toast.” I don’t think either of them has unseated Peter as the frontrunner after he straight-up dominated Cake Week, though of course that secures you exactly nothing except glory on “GBBS.”

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And I personally hope Lottie sticks around as long as possible. Her sense of humor is just my speed.

Who are y’all liking so far?

Lloyd: Peter, the season’s Spookily Talented Young Person, and Dave are definitely the people to beat, two weeks in, but fortunes can quickly turn in baking shows if an assignment doesn’t jibe with a contestant’s talents. I make no predictions. I like Lottie, too — she’s the year’s Screwing-Up-My-Mouth-Doubtfully player, and I think a contender, one of two this week who baked something (her Florentine) that caused Paul Hollywood to say he’d never tasted anything like it. (The other was Mark’s “Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony.”) And I try to remain unprejudiced. I want everybody to win, in the “Baking Show” spirit.

Blake: Ever since I learned that Lottie likes to “unwind from her job as a pantomime producer by listening to Viking metal whilst baking and doing yoga” — which remains perhaps the most wonderfully unexpected sentence in the English language — she’s easily been my favorite. I am on the record as a fan of glamorous Goth Queen Helena, who made adorably ghoulish Halloween treats, and Lottie, with her steaming Viking ship, seems like her obvious successor. I also expect big things from Sura, who has strong potential to be this season’s Chronically Insecure Baker Who Steadily Gains Confidence And Makes It To The Final.


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