Sunday, August 24, 2014

Five Reasons We Love the Great British Bake Off

We all love the Great British Bake Off. Well, most of us do. In last week's Sunday Times, AA Gill was baffled by the popularity of a bland television show about people making cakes and biscuits in a tent. What he didn't realise was that the weekly triumphs and failures of the bakers are a microcosm of the ups and downs of life that we can all relate to. Maybe these are the reasons why the Bake Off hits such a sweet spot for so many of us:

  • The happy childhood you had or didn't have Many of the contestants use family recipes handed down from parents and grandparents, and baking can be a sure way to bring back happy memories of childhood. Stirring the Christmas cake every year, licking the golden syrup spoon after making flapjacks, that apple pie or Sunday teatime cake your mum always made. The smells and flavours of baking can take you right back to that time when life was simple and you were safe and loved. 

  •  Or if you never had that, if your childhood was chaotic or loveless or painful, baking can be a healing act. You can make the birthday cakes for your own children that you never had yourself, start your own traditions to pass down to future generations. You can make all the sweet and pretty and lovely things your neglected inner child could ever want, and your kitchen can be the magical place where that happens.

  • It's never all bad. No matter how wrong your bake has gone, Mary Berry can usually find something nice to say about it. Maybe it looks a mess, but the flavours are lovely. An ambitious idea didn't quite turn out as you envisaged, but no one can fault your creative vision and originality. The bake is a bit over or underdone, but it's a design triumph. Sometimes there's a tendency to be too hard on ourselves and focus only on the negative, on the things that haven't worked out as we wanted, that aren't quite perfect. But when you think about it, you can probably find a positive side. Most of us could be a bit more Mary Berry to ourselves.

  • Life is uncertainty... ... and baking is too. So many times, a contestant tries to bake something they've made dozens of times before, and it goes horribly wrong. The genoise sponge inexplicably fails to rise, the tart filling just won't set, the pastry turns out soggy. Maybe it's the different oven, maybe it's the stress and time pressure, maybe it's just one of those days. And we all have those days, when nothing goes quite right and you wish you'd never gotten out of bed. Being able to face the baffling randomness of life and carry on anyway is one of those life lessons that baking teaches so well. Keep calm and carry on baking.

  • Everyone makes mistakes There's a certain schadenfreude when you see a contestant doing something you just know is going to be a disaster. They decide to put their chocolate in the microwave to heat more quickly or put some water in to 'help it melt', they walk away from their simmering caramel for 'just a moment', they decide for some reason it would be a good idea to trim the lovely lacey edges off their florentines with a cookie cutter (why, Ewenzor, why?) They don't listen to you yelling 'NOOOO!' at the screen. They get what they deserved. 

  •  But we've all been there, with our moments of inattention or stupidity, or impulsive decisions that end in entirely predictable disaster. We're all human. That's comforting to know.

  • Floorcake moments. You know how it goes. A contestant starts to take their flawlessly baked cake out of the oven, or triumphantly slide their painstakingly constructed choux swans onto a serving plate. Then, in a sudden moment of clumsiness, perfection turns to a mass of crumbs on the floor. You feel their pain. 
  • Because that's what life is like sometimes. Things are going well, you're full of hope and optimism, the future is bright. Then - illness, accident, redundancy, bereavement, heartbreak - it all comes crashing down. The disappointment can be crushing. You cry, you storm out of the metaphorical kitchen in frustration, you sink to the floor, defeated, you demand the gods or the universe tell you why, why this is happening to you. Then you get up, scrape up the wreckage of your cake and stick it together with buttercream as best you can. You serve it up to the judges with a generous dredging of icing sugar to cover the cracks.
     That, right there, is life.

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