The latest episode of The Great British Baking Show on Netflix had me screaming at my television, and for once, Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas weren’t to blame. I was yelling at the bakers themselves. Not in a mean way, no. More of an exasperated plea for them to get out of their own way. The minute I heard the wack-a-doo flavor combos many of the bakers were choosing for their signature soda breads, the prevailing sin of the season so far clicked into place for me. The sweet, darling, bold, wonderful bakers on The Great British Baking Show are majorly overthinking it this year, and I hope they stop! For their own sake! (And for their bakes!)
As someone who has watched every episode of The Great British Baking Show multiple times, I can honestly say I am rooting for every single one of those precious souls in the tent. I love them all and want none of them to ever leave. However the rules of the game preclude this, meaning that after each week one baker has to go home. The irony is this year’s bakers seem more fixated on winning Star Baker than evading the executioner’s serrated bread knife. I say this because the bakers have been outdoing themselves with overcomplicated, super out-there, majorly ambitious bakes. Sure, if these plans come together, you have a chance of a Hollywood Handshake. But already, this trend is proving to be most of the eliminated bakers’ downfalls.
And I really didn’t see this so clearly until the soda bread challenge.
As an amateur baker, there’s a lot on The Great British Baking Show that is far beyond my personal abilities. I have never made an opera cake, am terrified of meat pies, and struggle to get royal icing into a piping bag. However soda bread? To paraphrase Carrie Bradshaw in the Sex and the City episode, “A Vogue Idea,” “Meat pies? I don’t know. Soda bread? Soda bread, I know.”
The first time I helped my mother with baking soda bread, I was about the age of the cherub baby in The Great British Baking Show‘s opening credits. My mother taught me the most important thing about soda bread is to have “happy hands” for molding the loaf. It’s, as Paul said, a really easy bread to bake! Like, my mom — and she will admit this — is a terrible cook, but she can make a great loaf of soda bread because it’s not complicated. You can toss in whatever nuts, seasoning, dried fruit that you want, or don’t want. That’s it. I, for one, enjoy baking “Steven Sodabreads,” in homage to the director.
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The point is that soda bread is not a bake that should be overthought. It’s simple, straight-forward, and reveals the strength of a baker’s instinct.
Which is why I was cringing in horror when baker after baker kept introducing unusual ingredients, artificial flavors, and untraditional shapes. Mark and Marc kept it relatively simple from the get-go, so I knew they would be fine. But when Lottie tossed in fresh blueberries, Peter drizzled in cider wine, and lovely Rowan called his completely flat bakes “rustic,” I knew they were in peril. (Dried fruit works best, your main “wet” should be the buttermilk, and the point of soda bread is how it rises.)
The soda bread challenge highlighted a particular Achilles heel this year’s bakers have this year and it’s overthinking the bakes.
I understand why everyone wants to dazzle the judges with something truly unique. After all, Hermine’s salmon and cheese soda bread earned her a Hollywood Handshake. But so, too, did Lottie’s technically precise and traditionally flavored Florentines. Bonkers flavors ruined Loreia in the first week, as did Mak’s insistence on free-molding his biscuit tea set. Rowan had been beset with pleas from the start to simple things down, and he eventually ran out of time this week.
When it comes down to it, the judges are prioritizing the bakes themselves over the decoration. Moreover, the only place where contestants are required to go above and beyond with the decor is the Showstopper. In every other round, they are better served playing it safe and to their personal taste. Sure, it could pan out and you could win the glory of a Hollywood handshake, but at this point in the game? Dear gentle bakers, play to stay in.
There will come a time to pull out all the stops. You may yet have your Paul’s “Lion Bread” moment or Nadiya’s freestanding soda pop cake. However at the end of the day, you’re there to prove your mettle as bakers. Not recipe innovators. I know that’s tough to hear, but it’s tough love!
I love all of you bakers so much and if I had my way, none of you would ever leave. But every week, one of you will. So I’m rooting for you all to play it safe (for now). Bake simply, but well. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Otherwise, you’ll be leaving that Bake Off bubble before any of us want you to.
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