Sunday, February 22, 2015


I've become a huge fan of a new PBS-TV cooking series called THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF and apparently so have a lot of other American fans on this side of the pond. I had no idea this show has been a huge hit in Great Britain for five years now. Since moving to Portland, I've been bereft of the wonderful PBS cooking shows that aired regularly on PBS there. Apparently this foodie town doesn't love cooking shows. I have been particularly upset about not being able to access Lidia Bastianich's wonderful programs. All we get here is America's Test Kitchen and a Martha Stewart baking program, both of them excellent in their way, but lacking in personality.

Personality is exactly why I've stopped watching anything on The Food Network or the Cooking Channel. I'm not a fan of competitive cooking, generally speaking. Once upon a time, The Food Network had lots of demonstrations shows that catered to all tastes. My favorite was Sara Moulton, but I also enjoyed Ina Garten (not terribly original in the content of her food), Giada DeLaurentiis (a good cook, but too much cleavage and too many teeth), Tyler Florence (the boy tease), Bobby Flay (one of the best technicians on TV), Rachael Ray (an underrated cook with lots of good practical ideas), Mario Batali (a great chef who is a messy cook), and even Sandra Brown (whose tables capes made me nauseous). Then one day, the folks in research decided viewers didn't like studio-bound shows. Suddenly after 10 lucrative seasons, even Emeril Lagasse was considered finished. So all these personalities were erased from the Food Network's prime time line up and replaced by nonsense shows such as featuring cupcake wars, cake baking competitions that featured garish, Las Vegas-style creations with lurid sugar sculptures, some of which shattered on their way to a viewing station. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives with the irrepressible Guy Fieri, is an amusing show, but you never learn how to make any of the foods he covers. Most of us will never get to the particular restaurants Fieri visits, and the publicity by now will surely affect the quality of those destinations.

But I aim my most potent sense of contempt at ridiculous shows such as Chopped! or The Worst Cooks in America. What is the point of filling up a basket of times that don't necessarily compliment each other and then ask perfectly competent chefs to try to figure out what to do with each of the three course they have to prepare in under 30 minutes. Total rubbish and humiliating for the losers. We get the spectacle of three judges who are often condescending (praise does go to Alex Guarnaschelli, a chef and adroit Iron Chef star, for her reasonable responses to the junk that is cooked on this show).  By the time the each series is over, I doubt the competitors on The Worst Cooks in America are actually going to cook again, and their pathetic attempts to try get no sympathy from me. These contestants are chosen from the ranks of the culinary equivalent of anti-Christs. Isn't cooking supposed to be a fun and satisfying endeavor?

The Cooking Channel started out using Jamie Oliver reruns (Jamie at Home managed to be that rare program featuring a professional chef teaching home-cooking that could actually be cooked at home!),  and some very interesting cooking shows from Canada.  The elegantly effortless Laura Calder, was a real pleasure to watch on French Food at Home. Now we're treated to a bunch of former Top Chef and other cooking experts, writers, critics extolling the virtues of food truck fare or baking shop goodies. They moan in vaguely cringe-worthy sexual ways about grilled cheese sandwiches or brownies, which serve no purpose other than to send viewers into their kitchens in search of something sweet and definitely not dietetic to gorge on. These experts are young and meant to attract young audiences who may or may to be interested in anything other than eating these popular foods. 

Call me an old fogey, but I want to learn something, which is why programs with Lidia Bastianich or Mario Batali out of the gladiator sport of Iron Chef, are more appealing. 

Which brings me back to THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF. The contestants are all amateur bakers but they know their way around flour, yeast, sugar and buttercream. The show puts them through their paces. There was one one pastry that I've never heard of--Kouign Amann--a French pastry that had the contestants flummoxed. Most of the time, their challenges are about preparing baked foods they've never done before. They are asked to read recipes, which they have had no preparation. Bake times seem not to be supplied, which often leads to some seriously under-baked breads or cakes. The show is making them use their experience to intuit how long a rise a loaf of bread will need, or how much time a dough needs to a perfect rise or a disastrous over-proofing. 

Many of the baked items on this show are fearsomely ambitious. The Prinsesstarta (Princess Cake) is a Swedish concoction of vanilla custard, with jam, on a sponge cake with an almond (marzipan) covering piped with whipped cream and embellished with chocolate. This is not your everyday slice of cake. Positica is a sweet loaf baked at Christmas and loaded with cinnamon and raisins. Mini Pear Pies require a delicate touch with the strips of dough that wrap around each pear.  I love to bake, but looking at the Tiramisu Cake makes me want to find it at my local bake-shop. 

The challenges do not always make sense. It's quite dumb to ask bakers prepare a Baked Alaska under a hot tent on an equally hot day with at least ten ovens going. The ice-cream alone courted disaster between the times it took to make the custard base and chill it firmly enough to apply to a still-warm cake, and cover with the meringue that still has to be slightly browned in an oven. In fact, timing was my one big reservation about this show. 

I have no reservations whatsoever about this program's hosts--Mel Giedroyc (must be Welsh) and Sue Perkins are funny, supportive and genuinely sympathetic. The two judges are also very good: Mary Berry is a well-respected British cookbook writer with a specialty in baking, Paul Hollywood is a hunky and somewhat gruff professional baker, who rarely minces words in his evaluations, but he's not a prig. Their comments illuminate what is wrong and what is right about each category of baking they are judging. 

The contestants on the 2015 series I've been watching are a diverse group. Their ages ranged from their late 60s to 17. Only one young man fell apart (during that infamous Baked Alaska segment). They were all good colleagues and you didn't hear any trash talk in the interviews that dotted each segment, that make U.S. shows like this a trial to watch. 

The leisurely pace of an hour is just perfect. In the United States, we've had a long tradition of bake-off contests at state fairs, on TV, and most famously the Pillsbury Bake Off. THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF is the best show on the subject I've ever seen. 

I'm looking forward to each new season. I'd love to catch up with previous series. Netflix?

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