In the End, The Great British Baking Show Brought Me to Tears

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The final bakers! Photo: Netflix

All season, we have complained about the many shortcomings of the latest offering of The Great British Bake Off. The challenges were too desperate. The bakers were too bland. The global pandemic continued, and nobody knew how to make brownies. Paul Hollywood was not the ideal emissary of the culinary traditions of Japan. Every week was Hot Week. Hermine was eliminated. The president did not concede his election, and the days got very short.

But there are powers greater than despair; one of them is Prue Leith. The finale is a celebration of perseverance. No, of course this wasn’t the Bake Off that we wanted. It would have been nice if Sandi Toksvig had not left to host a Channel 4 special about Great British literacy, if Sura had stayed longer, if Dave had at any point developed distinguishing characteristics, if Paul had not insisted on the rainbow bagels. And yet if this last episode taught us anything, it is that Bake Off is, at its core, still Bake Off: a show about aspiring accountants whisking creme pat in a tent.

In theory, there are three finalists, but really there are only two: Laura is not going to win Great British Bake Off. Unless … ? But no. The signature challenge is to make custard slices, which are slices of custard. “When we cut into the custard slices, you want a crispy, flaky pastry, followed by a silky smooth set custard,” warns Paul Hollywood. “I just can’t afford to have it not set today,” whispers an anxious Laura. The one thing you have to know about a custard slice is that the custard must be set.

The one thing you have to know about Laura is that her custard did not set.

After receiving a heartwarming video message from his girlfriend, unborn child, and stoic Shiba Inu, Dave unveils a caramel-latte custard slice that Prue says is delicious and Paul says is slightly stodgy. “It’s still pretty delicious,” asserts Prue, again. Peter, buoyed by his family’s Scottish accents, offers up a whisky-raspberry cranachan custard slice, which Paul declares is “very professional actually” and Prue agrees is “a really lovely custard slice.” Laura presents a yuzu-custard puddle. Also, her puff pastry is bad. “You’ve had a bad morning,” soothes Prue, “but you could still have a great afternoon!”

But Laura does not have a great afternoon. The problem, I think, has to do with how she is less good at baking than Dave and Peter.

Still, how can you not root for her, after all this time? Laura, who is very good at flavor but less talented at details; Laura, who sculpted an endearingly disastrous cake bust of her hero Freddie Mercury; Laura, who is sometimes capable of brilliance, like that one time she made an exquisite pastry cage, and other times sticks her head in the freezer and weeps. She is an underdog, up against two glossy-coated Afghan hounds. She represents the reality of home baking, which is messy; Dave and Peter, with their expertly feathered Florentines and their perfect Battenbergs, are like Instagram — too manicured to be interesting. Laura, she embodies the struggle and the joy of real life.

Mostly the struggle part, though, as evidenced by this week’s Technical: eight tiny “walnuts whirls,” a complicated little bonbon with a nutty biscuit base, a coffee ganache filling, a swaddling of marshmallow, and a tempered chocolate shell. It is exactly the kind of project that is going to go poorly on a hot day, which it is. It is so hot. It is 34 degrees in the tent, which is European for “93.2 degrees.”

Everybody’s walnut whirls are too soft, and two of three are melted, but Laura’s is the worst. Peter’s is the second-worst, or the second-best, if you prefer your glass half-full, and Dave’s “decent lump of biscuit” puts him first.

In the morning, it is raining — but don’t worry, it’s still hot. Is there any chance, at this point, that Laura, populist hero, could still win? “We’ve seen stranger things in the tent before,” offers Paul, half-heartedly. In the background, thunder claps. Crows circle.

For their finale Showstoppers, the bakers will each construct a “Tower of Treats,” with a giant cake on bottom and layers of other desserts on top, showcasing at least three different baking disciplines to pay homage to their time on this show. It can be choux pastry or pudding or overflødighedshorn, for all Paul cares! “All I want,” he offers humbly, “is the perfect of whatever they choose to do.”

Laura gets to work on a “Rainbow Dessert Tower,” which she explains is inspired by her favorite G.K. Chesterton quote, about how without rain there would be no rainbows. What this means is that she’s doing a carrot-walnut cake base with orange-chocolate chelsea buns, lemon macarons, and mini versions of the key-lime tarts that won her Star Baker that one time. Careful observers will note that, at this point in the show, “Oh, Laura” was trending on British Twitter. Oh, Laura, I think.

Peter, meanwhile, is constructing a “Bonkers Bake Off Bubble Cake” that will reflect his experience by being “a little bit random,” and also be Christmas-themed. It will feature a cone-shaped Rice Krispies Christmas tree decorated with tiny Christmas puddings and orange-and-chocolate checkered biscuit “presents,” atop a festive sea of blackberry and lemon choux buns, which in turn is balanced on a Victoria sponge. This, he explains, will represent uncertainty but also joy.

Dave takes a different approach and builds a “Tower to Redemption,” made up of all the baked goods he failed at this season. A fraisier cake base. A layer of new and improved chocolate babkas. Raspberry profiteroles, to make up for his lackluster eclairs. Revamped brownies, to compensate for his other brownies. “The definition of insanity,” he says with eyes of steel, “is expecting different results from trying the same thing.” It is obsessive. It is brilliant. It is perhaps profoundly ill-advised. I love everything about it. It is an emotional roller coaster, the Bake Off; you may have to rethink your favorites at any time.

Instead of friends and family and eliminated bakers, the finale picnic is attended this year by an army of production staff, who have spent these weeks together in the bubble, making Bake Off happen. And they have done it. It is exactly at this moment that I realize I will cry.

Though all the individual pieces of Laura’s rainbow tower are triumphant — the carrot-walnut cake is “heavenly,” the key lime “zingy,” the macarons “delicate,” the Chelsea buns “squashy” — it does not come together as a coherent dessert, and she does not win. “You are such a good baker” Prue tells her, as two nations, an ocean apart, sigh together: Oh, Laura.

In the end, it comes down to the showdown we all knew it would: Peter’s random bonkers bubble Christmas extravaganza versus Dave’s monument to past disappointment. Peter’s blackberry choux buns are exquisite, but his Victoria sponge is drier than Prue would prefer. Dave’s fraisier cake is as luxuriously light as any fraisier cake has ever been, but his babka dough is tough. Peter’s Battenberg-inspired biscuits are adorable, but his friands are stodgy. Dave’s brownies are elegantly gooey, but his profiteroles are flat. It is anyone’s game at this point — except Laura’s.

But there can be no ties in the tent, and so there aren’t, and in the end the title and the cake plate go to Peter, who is the youngest winner in Bake Off history, and also the most Scottish, and everyone is happy for everybody else. “I wanted this a lot,” Peter says, shell-shocked and earnest, a tender hatchling who is unsettlingly good at baking. “We Are Young” swells, and we catch up with our old friends. Mak’s son got married! Rowan has assumed his rightful hobby, which is making his own waistcoats! Sura and Mark and Laura and Dave hung out around the fire pit at Lottie’s house, and Hermine went to visit Marc, and Peter returned to university, and Dave had his baby, and then, like Laura in the freezer, I wept real tears for the first time all season.

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