It’s week three in the Bake Off tent, and that can only mean one thing, no matter what channel the show currently calls home – bread week.
This is the episode where Paul reaches the pinnacle of his cruelty-masquerading-as-expertise schtick, quizzing the quivering contestants relentlessly and watching them melt under the laser gaze of his steely, robotic eyes. And channel 4’s incarnation of the format is no exception.
“I feel like you’re trying to psych me out,” says lovely Scottish Tom at one point, as the bread monster watches coldly from the sidelines. Of course he is, Tom. Of course he is.
Thankfully, this episode also sees the return of the rich comedy seam that is the baking innuendo – but not from the presenters. It seems the show’s contestants must take up Mel and Sue’s mantle themselves.
Rewind to the beginning, and co-presenters Toksvig and Fielding set the scene with some (very) gentle comedy, recreating a Kingsmill-esque advert with a sepia-toned Noel carrying loaves on a bike while Sandi spoofs it up with an accentuated Yorkshire twang. All very quaint, but it does leave me pining a little for the effortless Giedroyc and Perkins partnership, where expert timing and flawless delivery meant there was little need for props – only puns.
Still, it’s not all bad – Noel’s shirt is particularly fetching, a flowing navy number that reaches mid-thigh and is adorned with millennial-pink smiley faces. Perhaps he will be the new Mary Berry, and the “Noel-effect” will see menswear shops sell out of colourful be-patterned outfits. We can but dream. And there is a truly excellent, albeit overly staged joke in the technical, when Noel says the judges have gone drag racing as they leave the tent. “It’s the Prue Paul drag race,” Sandi quips. Mic drop. We can all go home now.
As well as being all about the dough, this is also the week that I finally start to learn the contestants’ names. I haven’t become emotionally attached to them yet – that’s week five territory – but I have stopped referring to them as “the handsome architect”, “the amateur blacksmith”, “the boring guy” and “the unitelligible scouse granny”. At this stage, 10 remain – a nice round number to get your head around.
The signature bake kicks off proceedings with a seemingly straightforward challenge – to make 12 identical teacakes in two hours and 45 minutes. I don’t quite lol, but I do something approaching a snigger when Noel says the bakers can serve them with accompaniments – “maybe a jazz singer”.
As is often the way, what appears to be a simple task leaves many of the bakers sweating and fretting. “What could go wrong?” asks Kate innocently at the outset. As it turns out, an awful lot. Enriched dough rises slowly and one misjudgement in timing can spell disaster (or should I say dough-saster). There’s under-proving, over-proving, raw dough and Paul’s interrogations to contend with.
Liam, bless his heart, has never eaten a teacake before, a fact which leaves Paul blank and uncomprehending. “What sort of texture are we expecting inside?” he demands. Liam’s response of “teacake texture” doesn’t quite cut it, but at least gets a laugh.
When James admits he doesn’t much like teacakes, calling them “the poor cousin of the hot cross bun”, it’s a miracle we don’t see murder take place in the tent. “You are joking, aren’t you?” Paul asks with an incredulity that barely masks his desire to bop James squarely on the nose. Meanwhile, Stacey’s declaration that she’s putting milk, rather than egg wash, on the top of her teacakes, elicits a flinty glare.
The proof, however, is in the pudding – well, teacake. Despite James’s apathy towards them, his Nordic variants are declared delicious. Two-time star baker Steven confounds expectations and lets himself down, with over-proved madras cocktail teacakes that are flat as a pancake. “They, my friend, are not your finest hour,” declares Paul wryly.
No one particularly distinguishes themselves with the signature bake, but the fiendish technical challenge gives the contestants the opportunity to prove themselves in other areas – such as the art of the innuendo.
The challenge is to make a Cottage Loaf and Paul’s helpful advice of “we expect perfection” does little to calm the bakers’ nerves. This rustic-looking bread is fat on the bottom with a smaller bit on top. Paul says, with no apparent sense of double entendre, that “it’s all about making both the balls quite tight” (undoubtedly causing a flurry of schoolgirl giggles all across the country). Liam takes it a step further with the pronouncement, “you don’t want wonky balls” and Stacey, God love her, says “I just know how Paul does it” while dipping two fingers deep into her dough. It’s all getting a bit steamy and, although I feel that Sandi and Noel could certainly make more of the punning opportunities provided, perhaps they’ve rightly concluded that it would get a bit much if they were at it as well.
Still, this is a challenge, not a sex-hotline, and loaves as well as puns must be made. Kate is the first to come a cropper as her top loaf falls off the bottom, earning her last place. Stacey’s superior knowledge of Paul’s “technique”, however, finally propels her to the top of the pack.
It’s all to play for as they enter the showstopper, which seems designed to create inedible rather than tasty outcomes – the bakers are challenged to make elaborate coloured bread sculptures. You know, just like your mum used to make. The difficulty comes in deriving colour from natural ingredients rather than food colouring, and the contestants use everything from beetroot to squid ink to jazz up their dough.
The tension is palpable, with Flo and Liam both claiming they’re going home as their creations fail to live up to expectations. Stacey’s intricately designed hat earns praise for the design but censure for the flavours, while Steven, rather annoyingly, returns to top form with his handbag-shaped bread, which Paul declares “unbelievable” before telling Steven to take his place as judge next to Prue.
But it’s Julia who wins the day – innuendo- and bake-wise – with her curiously phallic bread snail. “I like the snail,” says Paul, before the whole tent collapses into laughter. As tasty as it is accidentally bawdy, it earns her star baker, snatching the title (finally)away from Steven. Sadly it's Flo - no longer unintelligible scouse granny, but now a living, breathing human in my eyes - who has to go. She takes it in her stride, as the older bakers often do; we all know she'll be back down the club next week with her girlfriends, dancing to Meghan Trainor.