Nostalgic British biscuits, bubbly hosts, talented contestants... Bake Off is on the rise

Alison Hammond's warmth has rescued the show
Alison Hammond's warmth has rescued the show - Mark Bourdillon/Channel

It was Biscuit Week in The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4) and the contest’s “back to basics” approach paid dividends. No niche confectionery here. Hopefuls whipped up Wagon Wheels, Tunnock’s Teacakes, Jaffa Cakes and custard creams. Basically the contents of a 1970s biscuit barrel. We were only missing some stale ginger nuts, two pink wafers and a mint-flavoured Club.

Of course, the contenders couldn’t resist poshing them up a bit. A pinch of cardamom here, a strand of saffron there, a splash of rosewater for good measure. At least every viewer knew what the finished items should look like. A marked improvement on recent series, when increasingly obscure challenges – smörgåstårta, joconde imprime or krokan, anyone? – contributed to the show somewhat losing its way. The problem was solved by raiding granny’s Teatime Assortment for ideas.

New recruit Alison Hammond is a key part of the show’s welcome reinvention. When her co-host Noel Fielding was paired with predecessor Matt Lucas, silliness overtook sweetness. Their surreal skits and scripted time-calls distracted from the true secret of Bake Off’s success: the amateur bakers themselves.

Hammond, overflowing with warmth, corrected the balance. She discussed maternal guilt with mother-of-four Cristy Sharp. She grumbled about the “shrinkflation” of supermarket food. Amusing moments arose organically from free-wheeling chats, rather than feeling forced.

The signature round was marshmallow-based childhood favourites. Tension mounted as bakers grappled with silicone moulds. Tasha Stones, the show’s first deaf baker and already a breakout star, earned this year’s inaugural Hollywood handshake for her malted chocolate treats. Hammond helped herself to two. Tasha went on to win Star Baker and was endearingly thrilled.

Star Baker Tasha
Star Baker Tasha - Mark Bourdillon/Channel 4

As a rain lashed the tent canvas – it doesn’t get more British than that – the technical challenge was custard creams. Everyone cooed at the nifty stamps to create that familiar baroque design. One baker accidentally used another’s dough. Unlike the “custardgate” scandal way back in series four, this baking burglary was sportingly shrugged off. Cumbrian forager Abbi Lawson won with what was deemed “better than a commercial custard cream”. Cue alarm bells ringing at McVitie’s HQ.

It wasn’t until the illusion showstopper that things got fancy with bakers making their favourite meal out of biscuits. I’ve never understood the daft trend for making one foodstuff look like another, finding it gimmicky and off-putting. Who wants to eat a cake disguised as a leg of lamb? Still, it tested their artistry and ingenuity.

Student Rowan Claughton said his favourite night in featured a charcuterie grazing board. Things have changed since my university days when it was a Pot Noodle. Leicestershire scientist Josh Smalley’s uncanny burger and fries came with a side order of another Hollywood handshake. You wait ages for a congratulatory clasp in a master baker’s paw and two come along at once.

Keith Barron, this year’s oldest baker at 60, crumbled under pressure. An indication of Keith’s stress levels was how long he spent with a splat of marshmallow on his forehead. He swore at sugar syrup, sweated over misbehaving buttercream and was rightly eliminated. A shame, as the Hampshire accountant’s deadpan wit has tickled me. Still, nothing a cuppa and a Tunnock’s can’t fix.

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