Perhaps it was because our collective mood was low last September, but the 2020 series of Bake Off didn’t quite hit the comforting spot. Have we, as a nation, been through too much to enjoy watching a group of bakers panic over melting buttercream? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding no: watching last night’s opening episode of series 12, it took all five seconds for a big grin to spread across my face.
It was a smile more of bemusement than pleasure, as the episode started with the hosts and judges having formed a country band – Noel Fielding on bass, Paul Hollywood as lead singer, Prue Leith and her wonky moustache on keys and Matt Lucas on drums a la George Dawes – and performing their take on a Billy Ray Cyrus classic, “Don’t Bake My Tart”.
It’s the sort of offbeat skit that could only be cooked up by forcing Fielding and Lucas to isolate together and one can only imagine how much convincing it took to get Prue to join in.
As usual (except in series 9, which controversially started with biscuits), we kicked off with Cake Week, a smart move as it tests skills that even the most amateur bakers should have mastered.
Still, the incoming batch were nervous as they donned their aprons. “I feel sick,” said Greek-Cypriot family man George, “Why did I sign up for this?”
Most of the signature bake, in which the 12 bakers were challenged to make mini rolls, was spent getting to know the new group, who have once again formed a Covid bubble.
There’s Jürgen from the Black Forest in Germany, Prue doppelganger Maggie who might be the most chipper woman in the UK and sales manager Chigs, who only started baking during the first lockdown. But it was 19-year-old vegan Freya’s droll delivery – “I thought it was the best cake I’d ever had, but I’d eat cake off the floor” – that stole the show. She is one to watch.
As for the mini rolls, Jürgen’s Black Forest gateau-inspired take impressed, as did engineer Guiseppe’s almond and white chocolate creations.
Scouser Lizzie, bedecked in a strikingly similar outfit to Noel, was less successful, though her mini rolls were no less of a disaster than Tom’s, whose desperate attempt to cover his cracked sponge with chocolate proved no match for the judges’ discerning eye.
The technical was presented by Leith, who warned the younger bakers that they may never have heard of the cake they were about to bake – a malt loaf.
All the signs of a classic signature were there, with no cooking times included in the recipe and unhelpful instructions such as “make butter”. By the end of the round, it was Maggie in top spot while police detective Amanda fell to the bottom.
The preview at the top of the show had promised collapsing bakes, and with the showstopper challenging the bakers to create “anti-gravity” cakes AKA towering creations that look like they could fall over any second, it was no surprise some of them did just that.
Chig’s suspended mug collapsed as soon as he took it to the judge’s podium, while Amanda’s very impressive (but ironically dry) wave cake fell over once she’d returned to her station. At least they gave it a good go; Tom’s two-tier attempt barely leaned to the side, never mind defied gravity.
When they were good, they were very good, though: I still don’t quite understand how Guiseppe’s Jack and the Beanstalk-inspired bake which featured a cloud balanced on one end managed to stay upright.
Both judges were impressed with Flora and Crystelle’s intricate flowers, but it was Jürgen’s elegant presentation that earned him the honour of being 2021’s first star baker.
If we’re talking potential winners, the German “flavour king”, as he was dubbed by Hollywood, is certainly in the running.
As ever, when one baker rises, another must sink, and Tom became the first baker to get the chop.
Sometimes, Bake Off’s twee innocence can be enraging, but there was less of it this time. Both hosts were on their silliest behaviour – Lucas’ rendition of the Flintstones theme in German, performed to a nonplussed Jürgen was a particular highlight – and every person in the tent was clearly up for a laugh. It might not be groundbreaking or even the most riveting television, but it is excellent fun.
Struggling to find your next favourite TV series?
The i on TV newsletter is a daily email full of suggestions of what to watch as well as the latest TV news, opinions and interviews. Sign up here to stay up to date with the best new TV.