Friday, February 15, 2019

Inner Peace by Way of British Baking

When feeling bluesy, many would whip up a pie or cupcakes to answer that inner call for comfort.  Not me.  When bored as a teenager, I’d mix brownies or chocolate chip cookies to pass the time, but baking was never my passion. While occasionally I’ll bake a Happy Winter Fudge Cake or the Decadent Chocolate Cake in the Silver Palette Cookbook, since sugar was deemed poison – curse that science! - I don’t make them often. Still, it’s blissful when heavenly aromas waft from the oven, and something delicious is rising and turning golden brown.
But when I’m upended, I don’t reach for a whisk. For insight and peace, I turn to writing, woods walks, prayer, and self-help books. Lately, the world is chaotic, and that spins me.  My traditional methods help, but our daughter introduced Dave and me to a wonderful new pacifier.

In the final weeks of her pregnancy, Casey was impressively ponderous and had energy for little other than what could be undertaken from a couch. Her friend Lindsay directed her to “The Great British Baking Show,” and she was hooked.  “It’s so relaxing,” she told us, a moony baby sloth smile lighting her face. 

For years, Chopped was our cooking show of choice. We still enjoy it, although I never liked the posturing and bravado of the professional chefs competing for the $10,000 prize and boasting rights.  The pace of the show is intense as contestants vie to produce flavorful, creative dishes while squeezed for time.

In contrast, as The Great British Baking Show opens, we viewers wing with the camera over sweeping bucolic scenes of the manor house, grounds, and voluminous white tent that houses the competition.  We bank and descend over sheep grazing in emerald meadows dotted with swaying buttercups. Between challenges, we sit with contestants beside the river or in front of a garden.  We zoom in on pastel spring tulips and yellow daffodils, or a dewdrop clinging to a blade of grass.  We join the judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, in their small tent for a cup of tea as they taste various bakes and discuss the bakers’ progress.  And every word rolls lyrically, those lovely English accents sonorous and soothing.  The clench in my stomach eases; my racing mind slows.    

Now, Dave and I spend many evenings unwinding with our new friends Mel and Sue, the presenters; Paul and Mary; and twelve initial contestants seeking, each season, to distinguish themselves.

Mel and Sue are charming and witty, gleefully slinging innuendos about pinching buns, the comparative size of baguettes, and the sauciness of self-saucing puddings.  Paul can be harsh, an arrogant jerk, but contestants yearn for his praise, a softening in those steely blue eyes, and his sought-after handshake.  “Don’t pay much mind to the pouty silverback,” Sue quips when a contestant slinks back to her seat after Paul decrees her entry “Awful.  Raw” after poking his finger into the cake she’s spent four hours baking and decorating with intricate fondant rosettes.   Mary Berry, a beloved veteran baker, is forthright in her comments, but like any good teacher, finds something to compliment, particularly if she feels Paul has been unkind. “But your fondant work is lovely,” she might add. 

As the competition proceeds, the howling of the world fades as our bakers pursue the perfect patisserie; stunning, flavorful breads; heavenly fillings; and spectacular cakes. In the first show of each season, Dave and I scan the line-up of hopefuls as they walk across the lawn to enter the tent. They always seem a sorry bunch; we’ve come to know the previous season’s players and we miss them.  But it doesn’t take long to find our new favorites as the contestants are introduced through quick clips of their families and professions. 

A sampling of names reflects the range of backgrounds: Nadiya, Nancy, Terry, Benjamina, Tamal, Rav, Andrew, Selasi, Iain, and Ruby. Depending on the season, by the quarterfinals, Dave and I have attachments. We love young Andrew with his red hair and self-conscious grin.  He looks like Opie or Howdy Doody; he’s self-effacing and dear; and most of his recipes were “nicked” from his dad or grandma. Nadiya, so far, is my all time favorite.  Initially she seemed foreign and subdued in her dark hijab, so separate from my experience. Once I got to know her, she was completely familiar: animated and expressive, emotional and funny, quick to doubt herself, and, when successful, giggly, teary, and exuberant.  Don’t we find that to be true most of the time?  Given the chance to go beyond appearances, more often than not, there is connection and common ground.  

Wrapped in cozy blankets on the couch, Dave and I lean forward, breath held, as Paul and Mary evaluate the shine of a mirror glaze, the spring of a sponge cake, or the fluffy marshmallow center and crisp coating on a toasted meringue.  We care about their assessment.  If one of our favorites is praised or rebuked, we cheer and cry along with them.  “I can’t believe I’m crying all the time when I watch this show,” Dave says. Yet we do.  What a relief, to lock out concern over a careening nation to weep or exult over brulees, canap├ęs, and eclairs!  

Of course, it’s not the pastry that has us in tears (although watching a rich chocolate buttercream frosting smoothed over a moist sponge knowing I won’t be served a slice can be torment), it’s our fondness for the people. All of us are represented in the students, ministers, doctors, farmers, teachers, professionals, retirees, and stay-at-home mothers who compete; in their diverse religions, colors, ages, and sexual orientation; in their hijabs and housecoats, turbans, wrinkles, piercings, and tattoos. To all appearances, in the Baking Show tent, such differences fold together as easily as the eggs, butter, sugar, chocolate, and flour so essential to my delicious Decadent Chocolate Cake. We identify with our on-screen friends in their wish to excel, bouts of self-doubt, and exhalations of relief.  And when a berry-sweet Charlotte Russe or spectacular gingerbread dragon prompts Paul’s grin and Mary’s “sheer perfection!”  Dave and I beam in sharing the baker’s pride, light as an airy souffle. 

 Like Dave, a contestant once wiped her tears and said, “ I can’t believe I’m crying over eclairs, but I can’t help it.”  They all know this is about bread sticks, roulades, custards, and pastries, not saving the world.  But it IS about testing skills, resilience, calm under stress, learning from mistakes, and striving to be best without losing empathy for those around you.  I once read that in celebrating others’ joys, you make them your own, and the Great British Baking Show gives us weekly doses of vicarious joy. 

Each episode covers three separate challenges in the space of a weekend over the ten-week season. In that stretch (condensed thanks to Netflix), we become fond of the contestants, and they become fond of each other. Paul might be harsh in his comments sometimes, but the bakers themselves seem a team more than competitors. When the walls of Louisa’s gingerbread church tumbled, three of her opponents rushed to help prop them. When Kate ran out of time before starting her glaze, Richard grabbed a pot and spoon and said, “What do you need?” My heart melts like chocolate at these many small kindnesses. 

On the last day, former contestants, friends, and family of the three finalists gather on the grounds for a festival of games, food, and celebration as they await announcement of the winner. To cheers and applause, the bakers emerge from the tent bearing their showstopper entries to be enthusiastically consumed by all.   Soon after, Paul, Mary, Sue, and Mel join them, barely visible behind three massive bouquets.  After weeks of striving, the winner earns flowers, a cake stand, and affirmation; no prize money is given. Bestowed instead is a glorious sense of achievement in being, until next season, Britain’s Best Amateur Baker.  Dave and I beam with pride, then slump a bit, for we’ll miss our friends from that series. 

We glance at the clock. It’s not too late… 

“Wanna start the next season?”

Absolutely. Time to meet a new slew of friends.