Like a cake under the scrutiny of Paul Hollywood, Great British Bake Off has, by many accounts, fallen flat over the past few years. Since I began recapping it for Eater in 2019, informative segments on the history behind the bakes and an emphasis on camaraderie have given way to outrageously difficult challenges (biscuits…but they’re functioning toys), mind-bogglingly restrictive timeframes (make focaccia, start to finish, in a quarter of the time it wants to ferment and rise), and the complete devaluation of the Hollywood handshake (he recently gave three in one challenge). In 2020, the atmosphere worsened when former host Sandi Toksvig’s brusque warmth was replaced by the cringe (and extremely dubious) comedian Matt Lucas. It got worse still when the show started making disastrously problematic forays into international cultures.
In the run-up to the show’s 2023 season—its fourteenth—producers have admitted to (most of) these faults. This year’s batch of bakers—whose early standouts are final-year student Rowan Claughton; its first-ever deaf contestant, Tasha Stones; and engineering-minded resource planner Dan Cazador—are entering a brave new era, with hopefully no more nationally themed weeks or non-baking challenges. What’s more, Lucas has been replaced by U.K. daytime TV presenter Alison Hammond, and the early signs are that she has breathed new life back into the tent.
Are these changes enough to fix GBBO once and for all, though?
One of the biggest weaknesses of Lucas’s partnership with fellow comedian Noel Fielding was their one-note double act. Both are best known for off-kilter nonsequiturs—together, they conducted a lot of clownish nonsense dressed in remarkable sweatshirts: Fielding’s Mr. Spoon routine, in which he harangued contestants, was particularly disturbing. Hammond’s comparatively sunny, supportive disposition is a much better foil to Fielding, replacing the previous duo’s surfeit of self-referentialism with a genuine interest in the bakers and how they are doing. When Rowan mentions that he made a wedding cake for his 21st birthday, there’s no lightly asinine quip. She just says, “I love you!” And come the time to announce star baker, there’s palpable enthusiasm to crown the first of the series.
Some things, of course, will not change, and this year’s intro is only an iota less cringe than the Billy Ray Cyrus tribute that opened 2021. Paul Hollywood’s stint as “The Breadfather”—complete with Italian gestures stiffer than his own handshake—also does little to assuage the unstoppable swelling of the sourdough whitewalker’s ego. The show has resisted adding guest judges each week, which could make things a little less susceptible to personal foibles, such as Hollywood’s frequent criticism of rose or matcha flavoring.
As ever, the first episode is Cake Week, and every challenge is actually a cake: a vertical-layered signature; a chocolate and raspberry technical; and a signature cake made to look like an animal. Baking cakes may seem like a given, but after malt loaf’s unceremonious 2021 appearance, nothing can be taken for granted. The tasks are difficult, but not so difficult that anyone struggles to even finish, with none of them requiring functionality beyond being cakes, and none of them requiring cooking processes that have nothing to do with baking; there are no tacos being baked in this challenge.