Despite what Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith say, an uneven bake has its charms. "The Great British Baking Show" judges penalize contestants for undercooked pastry and stodgy custards, just as prior judge Mary Berry haughtily pooh-poohed the odd soggy bottom on a cake. It's a baking competition after all. There must be standards.
But there isn't a dessert lover on Earth who wouldn't eat one the ugliest, globbiest creations placed before them by any of the 13th season's finalists – not even their imploded pudding bombes in the final technical challenge.
Every season's contestants are the binder holding this show together, but Sandro Farmhouse, Abdul Rehman Sharif and Syabira Yusoff kept us loyally engaged through these 10 episodes.
Regardless of the ridiculous trials, the judges tossed at them, and no matter how often hosts Matt Lucas and Noel Fielding made us want to yank out our hair, these made staying on top of the action in the tent worthwhile. For that matter, so did semi-finalist Janusz Domagala and fan favorite Marie-Therese "Maxy" Maligisa, eliminated the week before Domagala.
That's always been the case with "The Great British Baking Show," or "GBBO," to use the shorthand based on its U.K. title "Great British Bake Off." From the start the producers figured out that viewers didn't only want to see amateur home bakers crank out incredible-looking sweets, they also wanted to witness self-taught hobbyists who share the same love for sugar and imagination be sweet with each other.
And this year's winner, Syabira, personified those ideals, becoming the first Malaysian-born contestant to win, and the first woman victor since 2017.
The three-time Star Baker demonstrated creativity and care. Leith praised the fact that Syabira "practices like anything, and she's imaginative." Hollywood cited the fact that her uncommon flavor combinations mostly worked, and that they'd never experienced them in the tent before and may never see their equal again.
Across the board, the 13th season's class lived up to the good-natured rep set by previous contestants, which may be why the unnecessarily Byzantine and probably unfit challenges chosen by Hollywood and Leith, were especially irritating. "GBBO" is the rare competition reality show where success is its own victory, making the actual wins more triumphant. But these are also home bakers, amateurs whose practice can yield perfection or something near it.
When the judges threw technicals at them that made it seem like the show is desperate to stay fresh or up the ante or both, that seemed unfair to the contestants and annoying to those of us watching at home. And at the end of a season that wrought fury over passing off spring rolls and misinterpreted tacos and s'mores as baking challenges, when the finale's pudding bombe technical was unveiled, I blurted out an exhausted, "Oh, bite me."
This is only because I and many others want the best for the finalists and all who came and went before them and find no joy in seeing them thrown into a culinary pop quiz that sets all of them up for failure, purely to stir up some TV drama. Proving this was Hollywood's characteristically vague advice for the bombe: "You only get one shot at this. Try not to mess it up."
Which translates from British English-to-RuPaul to mean: "Good luck, and don't f**k it up."
However, much as I love "Drag Race," this is not that show. The Welford Park tent is a bastion of gentility and encouragement, not threats and befuddlement. If the contestants are the flavorings and the judges and hosts the structural elements of "The Great British Baking Show" recipe, this season was one rough pastry that was still tasty enough to clear the plate.
Season 13 had another viewership-retention advantage: the public's lust for Sandro from the moment he came onscreen. As the weeks progressed, the telegenic Instagram influencer's showmanship increased; few, if any contestants, was as aware of the camera and how to play to it as he is.
Sandro's competitiveness constantly showed – he really wanted that Hollywood handshake! – but his affection for his fellow bakers was equally as intense. Simultaneously he softened and showed his vulnerability.
Abdul was the final's dark horse, earning Star Baker for the first time in the semi-final and, in a development that caused some controversy beating Maxy to make the semi-finals. Abdul also consistently improved over the weeks, which the judges always like to see.
Meanwhile, Syabira took flavor profiles to entirely unexpected places along with creating sensational desserts that were almost always stunning to look at. When they weren't, as was the case with the monkey-business showstopper that resembled a child's creation, at least each bite was a mouthful of glory.
Her consistently delicious creations and artistic ambition ultimately put her over the top, making her the 13th home baker to take home the coveted "GBBO" cake plate – a win that was easy to predict and yet, up until her name was announced, did not look to be entirely in the bag.
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.
Without speaking for the "Justice for Maxy" crowd, the final three are a balanced bunch, and in another production change that made sense, we see Hollywood and Leith explain what they saw as each baker's strengths.
Even that scene's critiques were kind. Of Sandro, they explained, it isn't that he doesn't have the skills, it's that he's always in a rush. That may not serve him well under the pressure of competition but, when he's on his own time I'd bet plenty of folks would line up to get a custom-designed treat where, as Abdul says, if you ask for three things, you'll get nine.
Speaking of Abdul, Leith observes that his classic flavors were always spot-on and never boring.
Regarding Syabira, Sandro has it right when he calls her the "queen of flavors." She's also precise, save for the odd bombe thrown her way.
But never mind that. Damn the tacos, the s'mores, and the patisserie-on-the-side technical stupidity – these folks soldiered on and made the best of a season that wasn't.
And in the end, their charm is what redeemed everything despite the producers and judges overworking the recipe. "We can do anything we want, as long as we give all of our heart and work for it," Syabira said, closing the book on yet another bake.
All episodes of "The Great British Baking Show" are available on Netflix.
about "The Great British Baking Show"