Great British Baking Show Power Rankings 2020 – Pastry Week

Last week, just before I published the Chocolate Week Rankings but well after the article was done and in the can, The Ringer published this magnificent piece by the great Brian Phillips regarding our beloved televised baking competition. Not only is it funny as all get out, it is a rich text, one that offers insightful complaints regarding many of the same problems that I’ve complained about in this space. There are complaints about the chemistry of Matt and Noel as hosts and complaints about the absurdity of the bakes and complaints about how the Technical seems to have lost its own thread, as it has become less of a test of bakers’ grasp of the fundamentals of baking and more of a cruel prank being played at the bakers’ expense.

From the jump, Phillips makes it clear what he believes to be the root cause of the show’s decline – with Mary Berry, Sue Perkins, and Mel Giedroyc’s departures, GBBS has gone through a period of deeply unfortunate Paul Hollywoodification. No longer held in check by personalities strong enough to bump him down a peg (I especially enjoyed Phillips’ comment that, because Mel and Sue were noticeably smarter than Paul, he was automatically kept in line; it’s the kind of remark that I know is insightful because it was both something I hadn’t considered previously, and also immediately and obviously correct), Paul has turned the show into a fortress built to cultivate his own cult of personality.

I cannot deny that there is something to this. I’ve made and absorbed a lot of bitching about what Great British Baking Show has become, all of which applies only to show after its move from BBC to Channel 4 in the UK and the concurrent departures of Mary, Mel, and Sue. Nor can I deny that Paul Hollywood is often at the center of most of this bitching, and justifiably so. His many crimes against what was once an Institution of Chill include, but are not limited to: his apparent relish in torturing bakers with esoteric Technicals, his ball-busting rapport with the bakers, his insistence in cutaway interviews that Well Actually, this obviously outrageous Show Stopper, one that no one would ever, ever bake of their own volition, is a totally fair test of the skills of amateur bakers, and how dare you think otherwise, and his obvious power tripping in assigning stupid fucking handshakes.

While it’s clear enough that Paul is losing his damn mind, I don’t think his egomania is the One True Reason for the show’s decline, unless it’s the actual cause of what I think is the real problem with Great British Baking Show today: GBBS has a problem with Judging Chauvinism. Neither Paul nor Prue seem to make any attempt to judge bakes with open-mindedness, that is, to judge bakes relative to what the bakers are going for. Rather, they are judging bakes solely on their own, often pathetically narrow opinions of what those bakes should be.

I recognize that’s a spicy take, so let me explain. My wife has taken to watching GBBS seasons from the good old days as a means of relaxation, and this has given me a fantastic opportunity to compare and contrast the show as it was during its BBC tenure versus how it is today. The differences are fewer and more subtle than I originally assumed.

The Tent has always been a stressful, high-pressure environment. Bakers still freaked out and screwed up and occasionally cried on screen. After the first few early seasons, the now-accelerated escalation of Challenges had already begun in earnest; there are choux pastry nuns and lions made of bread and tiered pies and all manner of ludicrous bakes. In handling the prospect of Elimination with heightened sensitivity, Mel and Sue often made Elimination feel like even more of a world-altering catastrophe, and, while this is my problem and my problem alone, their twin auras of kind-hearted, sophisticated chillness remind me of college, when I was constantly surrounded by people who cooler, smarter, and nicer than me, and this fills me with fear, dread, and cringe.

The real change has been in the judging, which has become meaner and dumber, and this has had a ripple effect throughout the entire show. While I haven’t gone public with this, I have not been shy about telling people that I didn’t like Mary Berry nearly as much as other followers of GBBS, and at the time of her departure I was kind of relieved. While I appreciated her stabilizing, arch-matriarchal presence, I found her culinary conservatism occasionally baffling. In her time judging the Tent, Mary expressed skepticism that peaches and blueberries could ever go together, or that combining peanut butter and grape jelly could be a good idea.

I couldn’t help but scratch my head at this, and yet, when Mary tasted these bakes, her skepticism didn’t influence her actual judging. If something tasted good, she said so, regardless of whether or not the flavor profile fit into her extant taste constellation. When she was still on the show, I enjoyed clowning on her expressions of bafflement, but I didn’t appreciate her willingness to try new things until it was gone.

Nowadays, we’re stuck with Paul being a baby about matcha, or Prue whining that mauve foods are inherently unattractive, or whatever the hell else it is either judge decides to go off on one about. The gentle authority of the judging when Mary was still around has been replaced with temper tantrums; even if they’re typically restrained tantrums, they are tantrums nonetheless. It’s sour, dispiriting, and shitty behavior. Even at its best, it fucking sucks to watch.

This attitude of Judging Chauvinism is bad enough when it’s benign, but as it has inevitably let Cultural Chauvinism creep into the show, it has become clear how pernicious this trend is. I’ve made it a point to try and call out Prue and Paul on their Cultural Chauvinism, but since I’m a cis straight white male, I’m often ignorant of it myself. I’m trying to work on this, but failure is inevitable.

For example, when Prue said Paul’s washed-ass attempt at babka was better than any babka she had in New York, I certainly regarded this comment with plenty of side eye and deep suspicion, but as a result of ignorance and privileged insulation, I didn’t call it out as the slap in the face to an entire Jewish cultural baking tradition that it is. This article does a great job of highlighting not only how fucked up Prue’s comments about babka were, but how terrible a job GBBS does with Jewish baking in general. I apologize for my ignorance in letting that slide last week.

But some of this shit is so obviously ignorant, it can’t even escape my observation. This week, people were saying the word ‘g****’ entirely too much. Last season, the judges called an Indian flag themed display insufficiently colorful; the only sane response to which is “What in the actual fuck?” While I lacked the courage to call out Loreia’s Cake Week Elimination in plain terms at the time, the judges’ complaint that her cake was too spicy was obviously fucked; complaining about spice levels is the most well-known white person culinary dog whistle there is. I know I just listed Paul complaining about matcha as a more begging example of closed-mindedness a bit ago, but even I know that what he’s really saying is that matcha is from a different culinary tradition than his own, and as such, he feels empowered to disregard it. Soon enough, I’m going to have to introduce a section of this column title “Maybe Don’t Do That”.

For as long as I’ve been aware of the show, its pleasures have always been something of a mystery to me. Why should we celebrate the baking traditions of this dying planet’s absolute worst culinary nation? Good food makes your heart dance and your palate sing with vibrance, but it also clogs your arteries, inches your blood sugar closer and closer to the Type 2, and clogs up your colon like the Holland Tunnel when there’s an accident during rush hour.

I had the privilege of visiting the UK last summer, and while I had a blast, my experience of traditional British cuisine (with the exception of haggis, ironically enough) was that it provides all of the physical ruination of good food but none of the pleasure. Everything good about British cooking came from somewhere else, typically somewhere where the British government brutally subjugated the people who live there for some length of time. When Paul and Prue get on their high horse regarding their own preconceptions about what baking should be, it’s ugly in ways that extend far beyond and past whatever is happening in the Tent.

I hope the show figures out a way to fix its judging, and its judges’ attitudes. I’m not optimistic it will, because I’m not optimistic about anything, but I hope nevertheless.

Pastry Week, as best I could tell, was free of such ugliness. If it wasn’t please let me know in the comments. We didn’t get around to watching the episode until pretty late on Friday evening, and that was enough of a delay that we started to hear vague complaints from fellow GBBS-enthusiast friends that this week’s challenges were completely outrageous, and a bridge too far. Maybe it’s because my guard was so heightened going in, but with the exception of the Show Stopper (which I’ll get to in a bit), I thought the challenges were…actually pretty reasonable?

That can’t be right, and yet, I thought both the Signature and Technical this week were in line with the challenges of old, less pointless escalation and more a skills test for high-level amateur bakers. Making a good pastry crust and a tasty filling at the same time is tough, but it’s fair. I’ve made choux pastry, and it’s really not as tough as all that. By contrast, I’ve also made crème patissiere, and while I would rather hit a dog with a car than try to do it again, I also wouldn’t audition to bake in the Tent, for any reason. It’s reasonable to expect bakers who have made it to the Tent to know how to make both.
The Show Stopper, though…listen. No one would ever make a decoratively caged tart, unless commissioned to do so by someone with far too much money and far too little taste. There is absolutely no reason to test amateur bakers on their ability to make decoratively caged tart, because there’s absolutely no reason to test professional bakers on their ability to do likewise. Last year, I made a crack that bakers would be asked to build a pie based on a wing of the Louvre. I said this purely as a joke, and with no expectation that anything of the sort would happen. This week, Dave designed his Show Stopper after a wing of the Louvre. It was a tart and not a pie, but whatever. You can’t make this stuff up.

All of that said, Tent stress levels seemed to be within normal parameters. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating – this is a really, really talented group of bakers. The baker Eliminated this week had minimal catastrophes, but merely didn’t do as well as the rest. It’s great to see, but makes compiling the Rankings ever more difficult, since the skill boundaries separating each baker are razor thin. As such, these Rankings are much the same as they have been all season – warily conservative towards the top, and full of little shuffles underneath.

I hold no illusions about how radically subjective this exercise is. It is often a matter of guesswork on my part, combined with my own radically subjective interpretation of a baker’s consistency and moxie. Compiling the Rankings each week this season has been terrifying, because any baker could go at any time, and any baker, even one I’m down on, could have an earth-shatteringly fantastic week at any time. It’s been stressful, and left me feeling like an idiot more than once, but it’s also fun, so I’m going to keep at it.

Week 5 – Pastry Week

Signature Challenge: 8 Cornish Pasties

Technical Challenge

Recipe: 6 Eclairs (3 Raspberry, 3 Salted Caramel)

Judge: Prue

Parameters: Quality choux pastry. Good crème patissiere across both caramel and raspberry flavors

Did Anyone Succeed? Hermine and Peter

Star Baker: Laura

Eliminated: Linda

8. Linda

Last Week: 5th Change: -3

Place in Technical: 8thWith the way this season has gone, Rankings-wise, perhaps I should have known that Linda would be Eliminated as soon as I started to regard her with real promise. Her Technical performance was pretty dreadful; very few bakers have ever gotten away with starting their bake over once the clock has started running, and I’m not sure anyone I can recall a time a baker pulled a success out of the oven after starting over in the Technical, although I do drink a lot so take that with a grain of salt. I’m concerned about the judges’ critiques she took in the Signature, as they busted her for not crimping the edges of her pastry. This was not mentioned as a strict requirement when Noel and Matt presented the challenge – I backed up to make sure they didn’t, and they definitely didn’t – and it was only mentioned a s requirement in a offhand way, when Prue referred to the bakers’ written instructions. I’m neither surprised nor put out to learn such instructions exist, but I am miffed at the lack of transparency. In my not particularly humble opinion, the hosts should always mention all of the judges’ requirements, both for the viewers’ benefit and as a reminder for the bakers. Perhaps crimping is a necessary component of a Cornish pasty and I should already know that, but that’s still worth a reminder, right? Anyway, Linda’s dome for her Show Stopper shattered despite the rest of it tasting fine, and her Signature didn’t meet the judges’ requirements, and that was enough to her home from the Tent.

7. Marc

Last Week: 7th Change: 0

Place in Technical: 7th

Marc’s Pastry Week went similarly to Linda’s, with a lot of little mistakes that added up and put him in danger of Elimination, even if none of his practice bakes were particularly terrible. His pasties got dinged for dry fillings, but so did many of the other bakers. More concerning was the pale color, although Prue seemed to like the pastry itself. Marc’s Show Stopper was largely a success, but its messy look got him in further trouble, as I must confess I agree with Paul on this one – it looked like the chocolate was sitting on the pastry base, rather than presenting as a unified whole. Still, it tasted right and that’s a plus. In a less closely competitive Tent, the week Marc had would be grounds for celebration. But with everyone else baking at a high level, I’m concerned the the little mistakes Marc is prone to are going to catch up with him, sooner rather than later. I know he was Star Baker in Bread Week, but even then his bakes weren’t flawless. It won’t take much to get Eliminated from here on out, and that’s troubling for a baker who hasn’t shown a ton of consistency.

6. Laura

Last Week: 8th Change: +2

Place in Technical: 6th

Laura’s Star Baker turn in Pastry Week was an obvious triumph, but it also came out of nowhere, and I would hesitate to call her performance complete with such a middling Technical placement. Still, I was pleased to see her outperform the expectations she has set so far. She was one of the few bakers to receive praise for the moisture of her filling, and I cannot deny that her Show Stopper was among the very best of the bunch this week, and it put her over the top. All of that said, those of you who are familiar with my methods know that I am wary of recency bias in all things, and here this prevents me from placing Laura any higher. In previous weeks, Laura has shown a lack of attention to detail and an attendant tendency towards, in her own words, “ #wingingit”. As such, I am inclined to view her previous weeks as more representative of her skill set, and it’s hard to see any baker winging their way all the way through to the Finals. Laura seems cool and fun and I want to see her continue to succeed, but I’m compelled to remain skeptical of her playoff chances unless she starts doing a better job from week to week.

5. Lottie

Last Week: 4th Change: -1

Place in Technical: 4th

I’ve given Lottie a lot of praise in this space because of her mental fortitude and her good showings in the first two weeks of the season, but as time rolls on those successes are receding further and further from view. Lottie did not land in half the trouble she landed in last week, but all of her bakes were still marred by something. Her pasties tasted great, and were perhaps the most well received of anyone’s purely in terms of flavor, but they didn’t look great, and everyone else did well in flavoring their Signatures, too, making that success less of a leg up on the competition than it would be otherwise. Her Show Stopper was the same story – great taste, but messy look except for her dome, which in fairness was excellent and highly praised. Athough again, here we see Paul being a bit of a prick about what is and is not a tart, and I don’t want to echo that nonsense as though I find it valid. It would seem that Lottie tries a little too hard to do too much; all of her practice bakes are highly ambitious, and while she mostly pulls them off, I can see all too easily a week like Chocolate Week, where she doesn’t give herself enough time to do everything well. As the Ten shrinks and shrinks, that will become more and more of a problem.

4. Mark

Last Week: 3rd Change: -1

Place in Technical: 3rd

As yet another reminder that being Star Baker the previous week doesn’t protect anyone in the subsequent week, Mark skated dangerously close to Elimination as a consequence of the total collapse of his dome in the Show Stopper, which cracked (rather neatly, I’d say) down the middle when he was taking it off of his mold. Outside of that, though, from where I’m sitting it sure looks to me that the rest of his week went pretty well. Despite not getting his pasties as much time in the oven as he wanted, they received praise across the board, and he continued his consistent excellence in the Technical with another 3rd place finish. But this is still the closest Mark has come to being sent home, and I can’t look past that. Mark’s time in the Tent has felt almost purgatorial at times all the way up until his Star Baker turn last week, and to see him follow up his best week with his worst week further solidifies my impression of him as being right in the middle of this season’s pack. It’s all to easy for me to see him sticking around for a while but falling short of the Finals. Of course, now that I’ve said that he’s probably gonna win the whole season, but I can only speak to what I’ve seen so far.

3. Dave

Last Week: 6th Change: +3

Place in Technical: 5th

Three spots is a heck of a jump in the Rankings at this point in the season, and perhaps I am overrating Dave’s Star Baker turn all the way back in Biscuit Week, which remains (say it with me now) the most complete performance we’ve seen this season to date. When I watched this episode the first time, I joked that Dave hasn’t seemed to bake something that both looked good and tasted good since then, although his Show Stopper reversed that trend in a big way, vaulting him into the Star Baker conversation and reminding me that when Dave is on, he’s on. His Technical scores have sagged as of late, though, and this week was no exception, although it seems that the judges are much more willing to look past rough Technicals when bakers do great things in the Show Stopper than they have in seasons past. His Signature was just about the average of the entire Tent; I know he wasn’t the only baker to do so, but since I’m thinking about it now I’m gonna mention it now – who puts rice in a hand pie? Seems pretty redundant to me, and I love empty carbs more than I love most everything else, much to my doctor’s consternation. I guess savory pies of all kinds often have potato in them, so I guess this redundancy is a feature, not a bug. Anyway, I got off track. Dave is good at baking and I think he could make the Finals if things break his way.

2. Hermine

Last Week: 2nd Change: 0

Place in Technical: 2nd

While Laura’s win was heartwarming, I think Hermine got robbed of Star Baker. She did a great job in all three phases of the game (here we see the perils of writing a weekly football column while also writing a weekly GBBS column), once again nailing an ambitious experiment in the Signature via her hybrid pastie crust, which combined elements of puff pastry and short crust. I’ve dedicated this column to dragging Paul and Prue for being stuff-shirts when it comes to such experiments, but they gave full marks to this odd pastry combination, and her fillings were on point, to boot. Hermine crushed the Show Stopper as well – to be fair, it was Paul who literally crushed Hermine’s Show Stopper, but you get my point – and any complaints from Prue about the size and heft of her cage can be easily dismissed as the most nitpicky of nitpicks. My main standing concern with Hermine’s long term prospects have been her Technical scores, which had stagnated in the low-middle the past few weeks, and she rebounded in the Technical in a big way this week, as well. Outside of a not great (but not terrible) Biscuit Week, Hermine has done a great job in every episode so far, and she’s underrated. I think she’ll sail into the playoffs, barring catastrophe. Catastrophe is always possible in the Tent, of course, but you get what I’m saying, surely.

1. Peter

Last Week: 1st Change: 0

Place in Technical: 1st

Peter is the closest to a baking machine the Tent has this season, and his dominance at the top of these Rankings continues. I maintain that Hermine should have been Star Baker, but Peter had just as good of a case, especially having won the Technical and all. The only problem he faced all week, across all three of his bakes, was that his pasty filling was a bit dry, just like pretty much everyone else’s. He’s been the best baker in the Tent week in and week out, and since there’s not much more to say than that, and since I’ve already gone long on this column, I’m just going to leave it there. I can scarce imagine what it would take for him to miss the Finals, and I don’t care to.

Next Week: Blessedly, since I’m out of playfully self-effacing ways of saying “I don’t know”, Peter let slip that next week is Japanese Week, and given this show’s recent history with baking traditions from other cultures, this knowledge fills me with dread. I want to be cautiously optimistic, but I’m also compelled to say “oh, for fuck’s sake” in advance. Oh, for fuck’s sake.

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