Great British Baking Show Power Rankings 2020 – Chocolate Week

Where to begin?

Historically, when I’ve talked about stress in the Tent, I’ve considered stress as a function of challenge complexity. I have no doubt that most weeks, every baker on Great British Baking Show is stressed out to some degree, but the times I’ve felt the need to comment on it have been in situations where one or more of the challenges struck me as outrageous. Making a cake bust of a celebrity – just to name one purely hypothetical example – is obviously a tall undertaking, and a challenge I would not impose upon myself, for any reason. When most of the bakers are visibly freaking out about getting challenges like that done, the challenge itself provides an easy, convenient explanation.

It was only after this season’s Chocolate Week that I came to understand the limits of this thinking. How can this theory of mine – that the level of stress in the Tent is directly correlated with the complexity of the bakes – possibly explain the Great British Brownie Massacre of 2020? For this week’s Signature Challenge, the bakers were asked to make 18 chocolate brownies. That’s it. That was the entire challenge. They didn’t have to make two (or more) separate types of brownies, or use any weird ingredients or techniques, or construct brownies that also functioned as playable cassette tapes of Fleetwood Mac’s landmark 1979 double album, Tusk. All they had to do was make 18 brownies.

What followed was nothing less than a total bloodbath. There were dropped trays and raw brownies and over-baked brownies and brownies that were coated in…*shudder*…freezer juice. I would hesitate to say any of the nine bakers remaining did a good job per se; some bakers did better than others, because some bakers always do better than others. Some players on the 2008 Detroit Lions did better than others, too. Prue declined to eat the topping on the eventual Star Baker’s brownies, and that batch was easily one of the better ones.

When the dust had settled, every single baker looked like they had just watched Paul Hollywood hit their dog with a single engine Cessna. Stress seems like an inadequate concept to capture the emotion of the Tent in this moment. Stressed out people tend to assume they still have some degree of control over events; a lot of times, that assumptions is precisely why they’re stressed out. After this week’s Signature, the Tent was so overcome with stress that it crossed over into despair. Not a single one of the bakers felt good about what was to come, and it’s remarkable that the bakers mostly (although certainly not entirely, but I’m getting there) did much better in the other two rounds .

To top everything off, Lottie, speaking in a cutaway interview after the fact, pointed out that no part of the challenge required anything more than baking 18 brownies. All the meringues and marshmallow fluffs and cheesecake toppings and Turkish delights were completely unnecessary to fulfill the parameters of the challenge; they were only there because the bakers decided to put them there.

That said, I sympathize with this mentality wholly. One of the unspoken assumptions of these later seasons of GBBS is that the whole show is an arms race, and as a rotten, cynical bastard, I can only assume that if one of the bakers had made 18 excellent brownies that didn’t have anything more going on than like, some walnuts, Prue and Paul would have taken them to task for not trying hard enough to impress. But I don’t know if that’s true, because nobody even tried to make even kinda sorta simple-ish brownies. A rising tide sank all boats.

Now, there’s the matter of the Rankings to attend to. First, I need to offer up a correction, as in last week’s column I made a grievous error slip into the final product, one so obviously incorrect in hindsight that I am ashamed the column is published publicly, on the internet, for the entire world to see – I misspelled the word ‘plaiting’, the proper word to describe the process of arranging hair or bread in a braided pattern, as ‘platting’, which is only fit to describe mapping out land parcels. It is a stain on my record as a Tent Power Ranker, and it won’t happen again.

Oh, and yeah, last week’s top baker has been sent home as soon as I said, as publicly as possible, that she had the clearest path to the Finals of anyone. Now that said baker has been Eliminated, my praise has turned to ashes in my mouth. The second-ranked baker only did better insofar as she was not Eliminated herself, and the entire fiasco threatens to turn these Rankings into a farcical shambles.

So uh…with all of that out of the way, there’s a new baker in the top spot of the Rankings, because of course there is. Not to take anything away from this individual, but if you get to the top spot and wonder if perhaps I assigned it by default, and with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, you would be correct. As you would expect, which bakers truly belong in the top tier of the Tent is harder to surmise than ever before after this week, which was nothing less than the televised baking competition equivalent of the Erfurt Latrine Disaster. There’s lots of movement up top, and good amount of shuffling and jockeying for position everywhere else, too.

Enough stalling, it’s ranking time!

Week 4 – Chocolate Week

Signature Challenge: 18 Chocolate Brownies

Technical Challenge

Recipe: Chocolate Babka

Judge: Paul

Parameters: Light texture, with a crisp outside and soft inside. Proper rise and good plaiting, to ensure loaf fits in pan.

Did Anyone Succeed? Yes, Linda and Laura

Star Baker: Mark

Eliminated: Sura

9. Sura

Last Week: 1st Change: -8

Place in Technical: 7th

Everything about Sura’s Elimination in Chocolate Week felt calibrated to inflict maximal emotional devastation. She displayed visible signs of defeat as she presented her Show Stopper; to look at her Celebration Cake was to know that something was deeply, profoundly wrong with it. Cakes don’t sag like that in the middle if they’re made properly. Sure enough, once the judges’ slice was laid out on the plate, and Paul gave her a look that communicated “you fucked up” with a resigned sigh on top, and it was clear that the cake itself was raw inside, Sura and Paul and Prue and all of us watching knew it was over.
Sometimes, a baker can survive this kind of disaster in the Show Stopper, if only just barely, when the rest of their week has gone passably and they’ve shown great promise previously. No one can doubt Sura had shown great promise, but the rest of her week only went better insofar as she did not come dead least in the Technical. She lost a whole tray of her brownies, which were baked to toughness and uncut. There was no hope.

As you can probably surmise by now, I’m still not over this. I really, truly believed Sura was the best baker in the entire Tent after Bread Week, and a shoe-in for the Finals. This has me of a mind to argue with the judges’ decision in this space, but alas, I cannot. Sura did far worse than anybody else in this week, and that is now and always will be grounds for Elimination, no matter how good a baker has looked in other weeks. That’s just the way the brownie crumbles.

8. Laura

Last Week: 8th Change: 0

Place in Technical: 2nd

A successful Technical aside, Laura did not do well for herself in Chocolate Week at all. Her Signature Brownies were probably the worst of a bad lot, as they were visibly under baked, and her toppings added way too much extra sweetness. At one point, Matt remarked that he found it silly that Paul and Prue were calling out brownies for being too sweet, and while I think that’s an extremely valid and necessary criticism, especially in light of how bad everyone’s Signature was, when it comes to Laura’s brownies…I mean, good lord. Caramel and meringue on a brownie? Thta just sounds unpleasant.

Up until her Show Stopper went up for judging, I thought there was a real chance Laura would be the baker who was sent home. She had to start her cakes all over from scratch, which can be survivable but often portends doom. While it left her no time to decorate the cakes sufficiently, and the finished product was over baked (classic overcompensation, I’m guessing), it tasted pretty good, pulling her out of the fire.

Laura has an uncanny knack for doing just enough to stay alive, even as some of her bakes teeter on the edge of disaster. That may keep her around for a bit longer, but I can’t for the life of me see her making the Finals unless she cleans up her entire baking game. I’m kind of surprised she’s still in the Tent, to be blunt.

7. Marc

Last Week: 5th Change: -2

Place in Technical: 6th

It’s possible that I’m underrating Marc a bit, here. His Chocolate Week performance was far from all bad – his Show Stopper received high marks for both presentation and flavors, even if the sponge was deemed too dense. But outside of that, he had the sort of week that isn’t good, but isn’t bad enough to draw real attention, as exemplified by his deeply middling Technical placement. His brownies were a dry mess, and Paul called them out specifically as sub par.

I’ve said enough about bad brownies here already, but I want to highlight Marc’s, as they are yet another example of a vicious cycle of over baking that is common in the Tent. A bake spends too long in the oven, and then the baker doesn’t have time to decorate it, and the whole bake underwhelms. Marc has shown flashes – you can’t win Star Baker without showing flashes – but his skill set appears quite limited, which makes a playoff bid unlikely.

6. Dave

Last Week: 7th Change: +1

Place in Technical: 8th

If I am, in fact not giving Marc due props, then it’s also possible I’m giving Dave a bit too much credit for his ace job in Biscuit Week. While it remains the best individual performance of the season to this point, the fact of the matter is Dave has had some real problems in each of the other weeks, and I’m hesitant to put him in the upper tier of bakers as a result.

That said, outside of a really bad Technical, Dave did pretty well for himself in Chocolate Week, all things considered. His brownies had problems, but so did everybody’s, and it sure seemed from where I’m sitting that his were among the better ones. They were a bit over baked and sponge-like, and Prue wanted more of a crackly crust on top, but the flavors were good in a challenge where a lot of bakers messed up flavors.

Dave’s Show Stopper was a low-key triumph. It looked and tasted great, and the only real criticism he drew was from Paul, who thought the sponges of his fraisier cake were too dark. This strikes me as nitpicky at best; if the sponges are baked properly, and there was no doubt that they were, who cares if the color is a bit off?

5. Linda

Last Week: 9th Change: +4

Place in Technical: 1st

It’s time for me to put more respect on Linda’s name. She’s taken first place in the Technical two consecutive weeks, and that’s impossible to do without knowing what you’re doing in a general sense. Since it’s judged in relative terms, not everyone who wins the Technical does so because they did a good job in absolute terms; that’s why I track successes in this column. But Linda had never made a babka before in her life, and she really knocked it out of the park.

Call me crazy, but I sure thought Linda made an under-the-radar case for Star Baker contention in Chocolate Week. I guess Prue and Paul really thought her brownies were far too over baked and cake-like, but is that really the worst thing if everything else about the brownies was good, and all the bakers struggled? Her Show Stopper was a bit dense and poorly decorated, but still, I do think she should have been at least mentioned as a contender in an off week for everybody.

If Linda can keep doing well in the Technical, she can survive the Tent for quite a while, but not indefinitely. She has yet to knock it out of the park in any of her practice bakes, and there will come a point where she will need to do so in order to keep going.

4. Lottie

Last Week: 2nd Change: -2

Place in Technical: 9th

In the immortal words of Prue Leith, in speaking to a struggling, endangered Lottie, “You only have to be not the worst.” Lottie cleared that particular bar, if only just barely. She took on far too much in the Signature, requiring two separate bakes, one for the brownies themselves and one for the cheesecake topping. This left her with no time (again, we see the cascading effects of poor time management), and the bake required a stint in the freezer, resulting in their coating in “wet freezer juice”, a phrase that will haunt my nightmares for the rest of time. I know it’s just water, but…

Her Show Stopper was a bit of a rebound. Even though the sponges were dry as a desert, the flavors and presentation were there. Lottie lives to bake another week as a result. Lottie’s best quality has always been her unflappability and mental resilience when things go wrong, and even though it was a tough week, these qualities were on full display, so I’m keeping her relatively high in the Rankings. I’m optimistic she can rebound.

3. Mark

Last Week: 6th Change: +3

Place in Technical: 3rd

Finally, Mark did a thing! After three entire weeks of mostly flying under the radar, save for some high Technical placements, Mark was able to put together enough to snag Star Baker. Granted, it was a rough week in the Tent, and several of the better bakers didn’t bring their A game, but that shouldn’t take anything away from Mark. He had an opportunity, and he capitalized on it.

I am a bit surprised, however, that he did take Star Baker, even in a weak episode. His performance in the Technical was good in relative terms, but his babka was a clear cut below Laura’s and Linda’s. Like many of the better brownies, his texture wasn’t great, with a cookie base that was too thick, and the judges seemed split on the flavors. Paul liked them well enough, but Prue was afraid to even touch his marshmallow top for fear of cloying sweetness. His Show Stopper was praised all around, except for the flavors, which were all too delicate. Not enough flavor is far from a nitpick, but I guess it wasn’t all that bad? Frankly, I’m not sure how to interpret this, since the bake must have graded out as impressive or else I doubt he would have been in the running for Star Baker at all.

Still, Mark stood out for the first time, and after a chaotic week in a chaotic season, and with several upper-echelon Technical finishes under his belt, I’m starting to believe Mark is going to be around for quite a while.

2. Hermine

Last Week: 3rd Change: +1

Place in Technical: 5th

Really, Hermine only has two consistent issues. Her decorations tend to be a bit messy, and she doesn’t usually do all that well in the Technical. Beyond that, though, Hermine has showed up week after week. Like Dave, her Show Stopper was excellent, but in a way that flew under the radar. The decoration scheme was an odd choice – I can’t help but agree with Paul when he said it looked like two different cakes, and I found the look of it quite jarring indeed – but the flavors garnered universal praise, and Prue seemed to love it a little too much.

I hate to break my veneer of exceptional professionalism, but I must admit I’m tired of getting into the nitty-gritty of what went wrong for each and every baker’s Signature brownies. Suffice to say they were too sweet, although neither judge commented on the texture, so maybe she did OK in that respect? Hard to say. My point is that Hermine does consistently well at her practice bakes, and that places her in great position for the rest of the season.

1. Peter

Last Week: 4th Change: +3

Place in Technical: 4th

And so, Peter returns to the top spot in the Rankings, having bounced back admirably from a bad Bread Week even though his penchant for making the challenges harder than they need to be reared its head again in the Signature. Who puts cinnamon and dates in a brownie? I like cinnamon and dates as much as the next guy, but in that context they can only create the confusion that both judges dinged him for.

Nevertheless, Peter has done a good job on his practice bakes more consistently than any other baker. His Show Stopper may have been the best of anyone’s in Chocolate Week, with nary a substantial criticism thrown its way. That was enough to vault him into contention for Star Baker, and even though entering that conversation this week almost felt like damning with faint praise, it speaks to the high level Peter has been baking at all season.

A Finals berth for Peter is not guaranteed. I need to see him show consistency in his Technical placements before I can crown him in that respect (and, as you can probably imagine, I’m hesitant to crown anybody after Chocolate Week conclusively showed anyone can be Eliminated after a bad week). But I can’t deny that his path is clearest.

Next Week: lul

2 thoughts on “Great British Baking Show Power Rankings 2020 – Chocolate Week

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