I slide the tray onto the oven rack, set the kitchen timer, then turn to watch as a trio of British bakers stare anxiously into their own ovens. This is one of my stranger rituals: I often stream cooking shows as I cook for myself. I can’t count how many vegetables I’ve chopped or cookies I’ve shaped while competitors perform similar actions onscreen.
In the last year, one program has consistently topped my kitchen-watching list: The Great British Baking Show. (UK viewers know the show as the Great British Bake Off, but—alas—“Bake Off” is trademarked by Pillsbury this side of the pond.)
I first discovered the show through the constant recommendations of my friends, who insisted I would love it. They were right: mix flour, friendship, and puns, and I’m all in.
Set in a pastel-decorated tent in the English countryside, the show has made warmth—the interpersonal kind, not just the sensation of fresh-baked bread—its signature quality. Each season opens with about a dozen bakers, showcasing their skills in three challenges per episode. At the end, the judges choose one participant for Star Baker and one participant for elimination. But contestants aren’t cut in such harsh words as that; they’re sent home with a hug and a few fond comments about “talent” and “not living up to their potential.”
When the show released its most recent episodes on US Netflix earlier this month, I of course hit play as soon as I could. But I—like hundreds of others tweeting and otherwise panicking on social media—immediately noticed a difference. The only familiar face was bread master Paul Hollywood, the show’s Simon Cowell equivalent, who only grants bakers handshakes after a particularly incredible biscuit, tart, or pie. Where was Mary Berry, queen of checking for “soggy bottoms” on tarts and pies? Where were hosts Mel and Sue, expert pun-wranglers and the competition’s most frequent givers of hugs?
According to my Google searches, the answer was behind-the-scenes drama, which resulted in a new judge, new hosts, and a new channel for the baking phenomenon. And all this is actually last year’s news: the season we Americans call new was actually aired back in 2017.
If this were Bachelor in Paradise, perhaps we wouldn’t be so shocked. Most reality shows wear their artificial qualities like a thick coat of makeup: easy to see and easier to mock. But a kinder, gentler approach was always a part of The Great British Baking Show’s marketing; it doesn’t even offer a cash prize for the winners. Still, change is one of the most shocking ways to point out that even the most “natural” reality shows don’t always present, well, reality.
So like many other viewers hitting play, I was a bit nervous about this new iteration of the standard recipe. To my own surprise, I found I still couldn’t help but enjoy it. The changes are never forthrightly mentioned: the new figures are mentioned as new members of the team, never replacements. New judge Prue Leith can hold her own against Paul Hollywood’s more acerbic style, and hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toskvig make an ever-quirky, oddly-entertaining pair. I had seen the curtain drawn back on the play—and yet I still believed enough in the “reality” it presented to finish the season as quickly as possible.
I watched the final episode of The Great British Baking Show last week while mixing up a batch of Mexican hot chocolate cookies. The recipe was a fun experiment, the rare chance to mix cayenne into chocolate and crack sea salt on top of dough. And I had the bravery to try it because I had seen bakers infuse caramel with bay leaves and chop rosemary into biscuits. Something produced and artificial had sent me back into my own little apartment kitchen, to try and test and wonder.
That’s a moment worthy of a Paul Hollywood handshake.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.