Great British Baking Show Power Rankings 2020 – Dessert Week

This week, I am pleased to report that nothing about Dessert Week riled up my feathers, or gave me cause to embark on anti-Reaganist screeds in this space. Nothing in this episode of Great British Baking Show inspired my disdain, or even my side eye. While I appreciate the opportunity to explore cultural chauvinism and class struggle issues in this space, I’ve also been distressed that the show has been making such discussions compulsory as of late. Japanese Week was entirely preventable, you know what I’m saying?

This is good, not only because cultural chauvinism is bad and the show must avoid it whenever possible, but also because this gives me the maximum time available to discuss the Sussex Pond Pudding.

Listen. I’m enough of a student of history to understand that, if you were around in the 17th century and wanted to indulge your sweet tooth, your options were limited. Cupcakes weren’t a thing for at least another century. While I cannot cite a specific source on this, I’m also reasonably certain that Peanut Butter M&M’s weren’t a thing in this time period. You certainly couldn’t hop in your car and run out the store real quick and pick up some chocolate chips for you to eat straight out of the bag like the beautiful monster you are.

In this context, you could do much worse than finding some way to combine butter, lemon, sugar in a casing that is itself comprised largely of fat. To this very day, eating butter, sugar, fat, and lemon all at the same time is all any of us really want of life. That being said, I’m not sure about the Sussex Pond Pudding. I would probably like it if I tried it, but I’m glad that opportunity has never presented itself.

This is not to complain about suet, mind you. As a substance, suet is certainly some strange stuff, but its culinary uses are surely owing to a “use every part of the animal” ethos that is admirable. It’s certainly no stranger a stuff than gelatin, and I would argue that from the perspective of someone cracking open an animal and deciding what parts are worth eating, suet is the less strange of the two. Fatty tissue enveloping the organs? That’s obviously flavor country, right there. A weird byproduct of bone and connective tissue that uh…makes your food wiggly? Huh!?

So suet is not my problem, here. What messes me up is the fact that the suet pudding encases a whole, unpeeled lemon. Weird! That sounds like a textural nightmare, for starters. While it was clear enough that properly steaming an SPP takes a good amount of time, and that when done correctly, the lemon will soften, I highly doubt the rind softens and sweetens to the point of edibility. Consumption of the SPP, then, involves eating around a bulky-ass lemon rind, with a spoon, mind you, and in such a way that does not involve repeatedly dipping the handle of said spoon in either the crème drizzled over everything or the doubtlessly incredibly sticky butter and sugar goo in the center. As a theoretical adult who can’t even eat a short stack of pancakes without getting a crap ton of syrup all over my silverware, this sounds like a nightmare.

At the risk of sounding too negative, and while also acknowledging that I have not ever been the sort of person to be overly concerned with how my food looks, I must further confess that it would seem that Sussex Pond Pudding, even when cooked to perfection, looks kind of gross. The exact reason for this is hard to describe; there’s nothing inherently wrong with food being brown or looking sodden with fat or otherwise appearing far too heavy, but the sum total of the SPP looks to me like something that will sit in my stomach like a stone for hours without giving me nearly enough enjoyment to justify the enterprise.

That all of the bakers struggled mightily with the Sussex Pond Pudding in this week’s Technical would seem to suggest that it is a forgotten dessert in most contemporary social circles. No one even sort of did well in the Technical, and while that’s hardly noteworthy in and of itself – I keep track of whether or not any bakers succeed in making the Technical recipe for a reason – it is yet another testament to the high level of baking happening in this year’s Tent that the season’s first Disaster Technical didn’t occur until the quarterfinals. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer dish. For the first time in a long time, we also received a glimpse at what the Technical recipes look like; I am delighted to report that they are typed out in Comic Sans, our most polarizing font. To the haters: Comic Sans did nothing to harm you, chill out.

Also, I would like to point out that this is the third episode in a row where the Show Stopper was, basically, “bake a cake but, like, a really fancy one”. Is GBBS always like this? While this hardly counts as real evidence, I certainly feel as though in previous seasons, the Show Stoppers have been a bit more varied in their parameters. Remember that one time when the bakers had to build a nun made of choux pastry? That was fun. Or that one time the bakers had to make a tiered savory pie? Or that one time the Show Stopper was an “American Pie” that the judges demanded have an open top, and I almost wanted to bound inside the TV so I could find who on the production staff needed to be taken to task for their ignorance? Those were the good times.

This is but a mild complaint, however. As my therapist is fond of saying these days, everyone is depressed in quarantine. If that means the GBBS braintrust can’t be bothered to devise Show Stoppers that don’t involve cake, then that is their prerogative, and I sympathize fully. I too find myself not wanting to do much of anything, even as I type this. Our furnace is broken, and therefore the house feels like the wampa’s cave in The Empire Strikes Back. I would like nothing more than to smother myself under every blanket on the premises and do nothing but nap until the situation resolves itself.

But, I shall press on, because I’m a professional (nope) and it’s my sworn duty (also nope) to provide these Rankings as a service (get off your high horse, maybe) to the GBBS-watching public. This week sees great disruption in the Rankings themselves. There is a new baker in the top spot for the first time in a long time, and the rest of the Rankings look like I took last week’s list and put it on shuffle.

This whole season, I’ve been terrified of being too high on any particular baker ever since Sura’s untimely ouster. However, this conservatism hasn’t helped me avoid bad prognostication in any way. I’ve still predicted big things for bakers that have been Eliminated a week or two later while also sleeping on poor Laura, who has made it all the way to the Semifinals despite my skpeticism. If I can’t be right about anything, the next best thing I can do is be entertaining.

The fact of the matter is I have no idea who of the four remaining bakers is going to fall just short of the Finals, and since I’m running out of opportunities to entertain myself while preparing these Rankings, I may as well stop pretending preparing these Rankings is somehow a measured, informed exercise. I’m engaging in wild and possibly baseless speculation every week, and I no longer care who knows it. Chaos reigns!

Week 8 – Dessert Week

Signature Challenge: 12 Mini Cheesecakes

Technical Challenge

Recipe: 2 Sussex Pond Puddings

Judge: Prue

Parameters: Sufficiently steamed suet pudding. No leaks. Whole lemon inside cooked through. Good crème Anglaise.

Did Anyone Succeed? Lol, nope!

Show Stopper: Jelly Art Design Cake

Star Baker: Hermine

Eliminated: Marc

5. Marc

Last Week: 3rd Change: -2

Place in Technical: 2nd

And so, Marc’s minor Cinderella run deep into the season has come to an end. His improvement over the course of the season was so notable, even Paul couldn’t help but steer his end-of-episode remarks towards all that Marc has achieved, and all he has to be proud of. He simply wasn’t supposed to make it this far. But alas, there was little question that he had the worst showing in Dessert Week. Ignoring his second-place Technical, which can hardly even be counted as a success (a quick refresher on my position, since this was the first Disaster Technical of the year: the less well the entire Tent performs in the Technical, the less it means for good or for ill), Marc struggled out of the gate. His cheesecakes were too big and didn’t taste like the things they were supposed to taste like. His Show Stopper was a failure of both conception and execution, with two tiers of rubbery jelly (which, I mean…ew) resting on top of overbaked dacquoise and split mousse. In a week when nobody knocked the Signature out of the park or even sort of did OK in the Technical, the question of who was going home was always going to come down to the Show Stopper. Marc had the worst Show Stopper of anyone, and that was it.

4. Peter

Last Week: 1st Change: -3

Place in Technical: 4th

Let the chaos begin! Peter has held down the top spot in the Rankings for weeks upon weeks; in the last installment of the Rankings, I remarked that while Peter hadn’t had a great week in a bit, it had been even longer since he found himself under threat of Elimination, and in a season this difficult to parse that was all the justification I needed to keep him at #1. I was very nearly forced to eat an entire plate of crow yet again, as Peter only just barely survived the week. This sort of thing happens from time to time, and would not merit such a plunge in the Rankings on its own. However, Peter seemed to struggle with the technical aspects of his bakes in a fashion most unbecoming of the measured precision he has exhibited to date. His cheesecakes did not present as cakes, since he fucked up his curd. He was thus forced to trot out sad looking cheesecake cups with a bunch of stuff in them, and was taken to task for it accordingly. While his Show Stopper was better than Marc’s, and therefore good enough to get him through to the Semis, it would be erroneous to call it any sort of triumph. His mousse wasn’t all the way set and the sponge was a bit under baked; I would also like to point out that this is the second Show Stopper in a row that Peter made Christmas-themed. This has no bearing on the disappointing performance he put up this week, but I find it a deeply odd affectation, bordering on a weird crutch. Peter’s flavors did save him in both practice bakes, though, so really, when you think about it, Peter’s performance resembled the kinds of messy but tasty weeks Laura has put up, even though his methods are obviously much fussier. Maybe his bad Dessert Week was a fluke, but it’s clear Peter is extremely mortal.

3. Laura

Last Week: 5th Change: +2

Place in Technical: 1st

Speaking of Laura, it’s high time I give her a bit more respect in this space. She did far more in Dessert Week than scoot by; I am, in some ways, surprised that she didn’t end up snagging Star Baker, although she had the misfortune of getting in a Disaster Technical. Even so, there is little to say about Laura’s performance that isn’t positive. The only criticisms she faced this week were cosmetic. Her mini cheesecakes were a bit of a mess, but this mess extended only to the presentation; the ratio of base to filling was right on and her flavors were top-notch, as always. Similarly, she got a bit of guff for the sponge in her Show Stopper being exposed, but everything else received high marks. Even if these minor squabbles can be taken to reflect the inattention to detail that has made me wary of Laura’s chances, it’s inarguable that Laura is doing well when it counts, and also putting in work to avoid her worst tendencies. I don’t know if Laura is going to make it into the Finals, in no small part because as recently as two weeks ago I didn’t think there was half a chance she would have made it to the Semifinals. Far be it from me to compare anyone to the greatest Champion in GBBS history, but I sense a resemblance to Nadiya’s arc in Laura’s late improvement. She started off struggling repeatedly, but her flavors were always there, and when everything comes together for Laura, she does a eye-opening job. That makes her a real threat in the playoffs.

2. Dave

Last Week: 4th Change: +2

Place in Technical: 5th

Also, Dave is here! Compared to Laura, Dave’s triumphs this week were a good deal quieter, and not the sort of thing that demand immediate attention, although if he does make the Finals, you can be certain his Jelly sunrise cake is going to be in his season recap montage. I am particularly impressed that his use of gelatin in the Signature, which had Paul all kinds of ready to be mad when the cheesecakes were weird, ended up working out just fine. That said, his Show Stopper was far from perfect; while Prue was higher on the texture of the baker than Paul was, she still didn’t think the mousse was quite right. So yeah, this was not a perfect week for the guy. In a way, he takes the #2 spot in the Rankings by default, and as a result of his relative consistency. Peter put himself in so much trouble that it felt wrong to bump him down just one spot, and while Laura has done a lot better than I’ve been giving her credit for, her inconsistency made putting her all the way up here feel crazy. But Dave has triumphed more often than not; I do fear for his continued tendency to not fully nail both the decoration and flavor of his bakes at the same time. If anything keeps him out of the Finals, it will be that his bakes feel short in one of those aspects when no one else’s did.

1. Hermine

Last Week: 2nd Change: +1

Place in Technical: 3rd

Being the first baker to win two Star Baker awards, and winning both of those awards in consecutive weeks, in undeniable, and it would be ranking malpractice to keep Hermine out of the top spot in light of this achievement. And really, Hermine’s Jelly Art Cake was one of the two or three best looking bakes of the entire season, and quite possibly grounds for first place all its own. If the knocks on Hermine’s game prior to this week were that her decorations tended toward the sloppy and her design philosophy tended toward the simple, I can think of no greater repudiation of those criticisms than that Show Stopper. Like, holy shit. Hermine has done the most complete job of any baker in the Tent for the past two weeks, and is peaking at the right time. At the risk of placing the Ranker’s Curse upon her, I am having some real difficulty seeing how Hermine could fail to make the Finals with only one episode to go. The key to her high level of performance has been her ability to design and execute her bakes within her means; she plays to her strengths, and hides her weaknesses. Yes, the competition in the Tent is an arms race, and in this light a tendency to keep things simple can be a disadvantage, but Hermine doesn’t use it as a crutch. Instead, she uses it as a platform to show off all the skills she’s mastered. If she keeps it up, her ticket is punched.

Next Week: The Semifinals, and with it, the last traditional Rankings column of the season. Life comes at you fast, and all that.

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