With buttercream, bits and beavers, “The Great British Bake Off” is finally back to prime saucy form

"Bake Off" is always at its best when focused on good people in good knitwear trading baking-themed innuendo

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published September 30, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This recap contains major spoilers for Series 14, Episode 1 of "The Great British Baking Show" now streaming on Netflix.

I suspected that "The Great British Bake Off" was finally back to prime saucy form when a series of events led judge Prue Leith to have to diplomatically invite a contestant to describe their creation by saying, "So, Nicky, tell us about your beaver" as the tent erupted into tittering laughter. My suspicions were confirmed when, just a few minutes later, the delightful new host Allison Hammond cooly remarked that while Nicky's creation may have looked amazing, unfortunately "no one likes a dry beaver." 

It's been a rocky few seasons for the series that was once known as, essentially, televised comfort food, a reputation that was well-earned because it was so distinct from so much contemporary food competition programming; while "Food Network"  chefs were being asked to wander around kitchens blindfolded or whip up a multi-course meal with no utensils, over on "Bake Off" — stylized on Netflix for American viewers as "The Great British Baking Show" —things were always a little different. 

The pace was a little slower. Contestants had the opportunity to practice their bakes beforehand and came in relatively prepared. More importantly, however, was the tone of the show. No one was screaming or back-biting or calling someone an "idiot sandwich." 

"Bake Off," as a rule, was pretty much a jerk-free zone, which was one of the reasons it was disappointing to so many fans that, through a series of host shake-ups and controversies, the show seemed to lose its focus, a point of view that was really crystalized amid the outcry over the series' poorly executed and xenophobic internationally-themed weeks

At its best, "Bake Off" is a show about good people in good knitwear getting together to bake, do bits and, when the occasion calls for it, trade in some light baking-themed banter and sexual innuendo. With the return of the show's 14th season ("Collection 11" on Netflix), we're back to the basics and it feels so good. (A note: stop reading here if you aren't looking for spoilers.) 

At its best, "Bake Off" is a show about good people in good knitwear getting together to bake, do bits and, when the occasion calls for it, trade in some light baking-themed banter and sexual innuendo.

The premiere episode opens on a quick sketch called "The Breadfather." Judge Paul Hollywood sits behind a massive desk — cheeks packed with dough balls — doing his best Don Corleone as series co-host Noel Fielding, dressed in his best Spirit Halloween gangster costume, announces they have a new member to "welcome to the family." This is our very brief introduction to Hammond, a British presenter and reality television veteran who got her start back in the early 2000s on "Big Brother" and went on to host everything from the BAFTAs to ITV's "This Morning." 

We don't get to see a ton of her in this episode, which is a shame, but her palpable charisma and general ease around the contestants is a joy to watch, especially as they embark on their first challenge of the season: a vertical layer cake made by stacking layers of perfectly moist, yet rollable sponge cakes. 

Remember the Swiss roll challenge in the very first episode of the very first season of "Bake Off"? It's like that — just standing up. 

While this recipe doesn't necessarily require a degree in pastry to make, it's technically challenging enough that it quickly enables viewers to start identifying some of the real early contenders. Namely, there's Rowan, a college student who is cake-obsessed enough that he had an elaborate wedding cake to celebrate his 21st birthday, and then there's Dan, an avid gardener and beer brewer who brought rhubarb he had grown to serve as the basis for his classic rhubarb and custard cake. 

Towards the bottom of the pack were Tasha, whose lopsided Genoise sponge prompted Paul to ask if she'd used it as a seat, and Matty, a fast-talking boxer with benevolent Jamie Tartt energy and a particularly stubborn batch of buttercream. 

The technical challenge was also a nice nod to "Bake Off's" origins as contestants were asked to make the chocolate cake covered in ganache and raspberries that is featured in the series title sequence. Much like the vertical layer cake, this is a challenge that is really based on timing and temperature control. If the cake is too warm, the ganache will melt upon touching it. However, if contestants attempt to refrigerate the cake and ganache due to being short on time, the texture of the chocolate will likely become chalky and the ganache will take on a dull, matte appearance. 

All the contestants put on a pretty good show, but once again, gardener Dan comes out on top. 

Next came the signature challenge, in which contestants were asked to create a cake that looked like an animal. "This is going to be an absolute horror show," my partner, who was watching with me, said delightedly. And I'll be honest: As someone who has watched (and rewatched) the now-infamous cursed celebrity bust episode of "Bake Off," I really thought they would be, too. 

"This is going to be an absolute horror show," my partner, who was watching with me, said delightedly.

But, there must have been a little extra magic floating around The Tents that day because, while there were a couple of small disasters, the overall resulting menagerie was pretty solid. There was an especially cute lamb made by Abbi, a forager who, like Dan, brought her own ingredients to the challenge, and a very sleek cartoon-style Highland cow by baker Josh. 

This, of course, is when Nicky — a Scottish 52-year-old dressed in a chunky striped knit and ruffled collar — announces to judges that she'll be making a beaver, whom she has already dubbed "The Lovely Norman." 

While Norman comes out just fine ("lovely" may be a stretch), other bakers don't fare quite as well. For instance, upon surveying his lopsided and incomplete killer whale cake, deli manager Amos declared it a "piece of poo." As such, it's not a huge surprise his name is called when the time comes for one contestant to pack their fondant and go. 

One of the things the producers of "Bake Off" promised when teasing out this season is that it would be a return to the classics in many ways, from the technical challenges to the showstoppers. More importantly, however — with the addition of Allison and her easy chemistry with the contestants — it seems like they've returned to what made the show so great to begin with tone-wise and managed a very sweet premiere. Let's see what the next challenge brings. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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