These are difficult days. And what are we doing? We're denying ourselves carbs. And sugar. And butter. Why, people? Why?
Oh, sure, calorie-laden, fat-drenched, lactose-rich, carb-dense, sugar-soaked, gluten-packed baked goods are bad for us. Okay, okay, you're right. But take heart, dear friends! If you are avoiding any or all of those culinary bad boys, here is a way to have your cake and eat it too — metaphorically speaking, at least. It is called the Great British Baking Show.
Now in its third season on PBS, this one hour TV show from the UK (where it is in Season 6 and known as The Great British Bake-Off) certainly sweetens my summer. Every week, we are treated to the creation of scrumptious, outrageously gorgeous baked goods produced by competitors who vie for "Best Amateur Baker." Don't you just dream of being crowned with that title? I know I do! (This, in spite of the fact that I tried a cake recipe last weekend calling for fresh peaches that turned a horrifying, blue-green color. Oh, my! If I had presented THAT disaster to the GBBS judges, I would have been laughed off the show! More on that in a minute.)
I'm not keen on most "reality" shows, but when I watch the GBBS, I find myself falling like Alice through the looking glass into a fantasy world of tarts and cupcakes and honey buns that's incredibly therapeutic. First of all, GBBS Land is beautiful: a lush green English country garden with little lambs nibbling the lawn and ducks padding in the pond. A perpetual spring and early summer blossoms week upon week. Gentle English drizzle refreshes the roses and rhododendrons. And in the middle of this idyllic, pastoral scene stands an enormous canvas tent that shelters a monumental pastry kitchen.
Great care has been taken by the show's producers to dress the set to evoke the most charming of Edwardian British tea rooms. Every detail is delightful. The pastel palette, the crockery on the shelves, the little Union Jack flag banners, and the cake stands with glorious confections perched upon them. It's what Downton Abbey would look like if Mrs Patmore, the cook and pastry chef, were the central character.
All other equipment in the tent lands firmly in the 21st century. The ovens have the cleverest of doors that open outward and then tuck neatly away underneath. Bakers can ever so gently slide in their meringues or their bain-maries of custard cups. No awkward reaching, butt-in-the-air, arms-out-stretched, that surely would put one at risk of dropping a pan of wobbly cake batter and look so bad on camera.
And such tenderness the bakers show toward their pastry progeny. They kneel or sit right there on the floor, peering through the oven doors, gazing into the bake chamber to monitor doneness and proper rising. They tap their resting bread dough in the proving drawer with feather touch to see if it has risen to the exact right moment it needs to be kneaded. They delicately decorate towering cakes with fondant flowers and lovingly lace linzertortes with lemon zest.
Next comes the taste test by the program's judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (seriously), both award-winning pastry chefs in their own right. This can be a bit punishing, watching them sample luscious-looking delicacies….while you're not. Your sweet tooth will surely salivate. But don't be tempted to jump up and search the kitchen for that last, stale Digestive biscuit in the cupboard just to sop up the drooling. Watch carefully. These TV people are sampling creamy custards and fluffy cakes. Nobody is snorfing down an entire dessert. They are trained professionals. Do not try this at home!
The best feature of the GBBS, in my opinion, is the graciousness with which competitors treat one another; the judges and hosts are equally fair and respectful. Far from cutthroat or dog-eat-dog, on GBBS everyone helps each other out. The judges are firm and direct, but oh, so polite. Everyone is so kind. No petty rivalries. One and all hug it out at the conclusion of each show. You get the feeling that they are truly sorry to see their dear friends winnowed out of the contest. It's as though baked goods inspire everyone to be more civilized; to become their best selves. Power to the pastry!
I would have been content to accept that this one-hour, TV-induced state of euphoria was temporary; brought on by vicarious sugar highs. But then I had the incident with the blue-green peaches. I believe that what happened next proves my theory.
A dear friend in Vancouver came to the rescue with research showing that an interaction between the acidic peaches and baking powder containing aluminum was a likely culprit. I went to Whole Foods to buy an organic baking powder.
Meanwhile, I sent emails to three online baking crisis lines (yes, they exist) one of which was Gourmandise, a cooking school in Los Angeles. The most delightful reply came from someone named Clémence, owner and pastry chef at Gourmandise. She was quite certain that the problem was my elderly, non-anodized aluminum cake pan. Clémence signed off her email with, "Wishing you a delicious day." How enchanting is that?!? I wrote back immediately with my thanks and a note saying that I loved her sign-off. It made my day. Clémence wrote again to say, "Glad we figured it out!" and his time her closing remark was, "Wishing you the sweetest afternoon."
I like to think that we could all use a delicious day; friends helping out; perhaps an hour of good manners, sharing a light, beautiful Angel Food, followed by wishing each other the sweet of afternoons. Wouldn't that just be the icing on a cake?