As the nights draw in and the autumn leaves tumble from the trees, the chill of death is in the air. But one ray of sunshine still awaits us. Bake Off is back, bringing with it the best of British summertime in a bunting-lined tent.
To be fully transparent, I am obsessed with baking. My sourdough starter has a name (Kenneth) and every children’s birthday cake I have baked could sit in the Louvre. To further complicate my relationship with the TV series, I spent a year at Prue Leith’s culinary school and failed my final exam because of my inability to make a puff pastry that would rise in 37-degree heat and over-salting a chicken ballotine. So, for me to come to every series and be charmed rather than triggered by the Bake Off challenges is a triumph for both my personal growth (37 degrees! Impossible!) and the show’s enduring appeal.
Even though it has lost some of its magic since its apex in 2014-15, when there was lion bread, custard-gate, a binned baked Alaska and Nadiya Hussain giving a victory speech that moved most who saw it to tears, Bake Off has never stopped being a reliable source of joy. There are low stakes (the victor wins a plate, after all) but high passion and lovely people making the strongest argument on TV for keeping carbs in your diet.
While some of the handshakes and soggy bottom shtick has been getting stale, season 14 has wisely injected the most lovable jolt of energy in the form of Alison Hammond, who replaces Matt Lucas to present alongside Noel Fielding. Hammond’s infectious cheeriness, which has melted everyone from Harrison Ford to Mariah Carey, is unparalleled.
Hammond kicks off the narration in her distinctive Brummie accent by announcing “It’s cake week!”, which makes for a joyous start to this new era. But the first episode of Bake Off is never its finest. We move at breakneck speed to introduce our 12 new bakers, including the 21-year-old student Rowan, foraging farmer Abbi, laid-back deli manager Amos and quick-witted accountant Keith. As with every year, it feels particularly brutal for whoever has to leave in the first episode, as they are barely given the chance to show what they are made of.
If there is a criticism to level at this series already, it’s that the bakers are too good. There are hints at who will emerge as a frontrunner (my money is on Rowan), but there is barely anything in it. The signature bake – a vertical layer cake that is essentially a sideways Swiss roll – seems designed to create a slow-motion shot of a collapsing sponge. Still, none of the bakers prove incompetent enough to provide it.
The technical challenge, the chocolate sponge cake seen in the credits topped with raspberries, proves just as attainable a goal; even Paul admits the bakers ranked at the bottom have made a perfectly serviceable cake. When it comes to the showstopper, there’s normally a runny gateau or terrifying Lupita Nyong’o sculpture to giggle at.
Without disasters, the laughs are limited, but Prue’s sexual innuendos about beavers have everyone in stitches. Perhaps best of all, no sweaty-palmed Hollywood handshakes are bestowed on the bakers with the grandeur of a Nobel prize – instead, warmed by Hammond’s sweetness, Hollywood breaks tradition to give a nervous contestant a reassuring hug.
Bake Off does sometimes fall into old habits, but only the most fun ones. Paul and Prue are still fans of a pregnant pause to build suspense and give assessments like “That is very unusual … And rather delicious” and “I don’t like that … I love it.” They deliver such lines with all the subtle tension-building of a panto matinee. Cheesiness aside, it is hard to resist the simple joys of an amateur baker being told they nailed it, which virtually every one of them does.
Even if the first episode’s challenges seem a little too easy, the show’s vibes are simply too good not to be engulfed in. So set aside the dark thoughts that seasonal affective disorder may bring! Forget about that over-salted chicken ballotine! Let light into your heart and shovel cake into your mouth! Bake Off is back!
Bake Off is on Channel 4 now.