The Great British Baking Show: It’s Just a Cake

The following contains a spoiler in Episode 301 (Cakes) of the Great British Baking Show. […]

Carrie Willard / 7.11.16

The following contains a spoiler in Episode 301 (Cakes) of the Great British Baking Show.


In the early 2000s and in the early years of our marriage, my husband and I gathered around a television set with friends on Sunday nights to watch Sex and the City, or Six Feet Under, or whatever HBO series was headlining that year. But at home, when we got tired of the news or didn’t have anything better to entertain us while we folded the laundry, we’d settle in to cooking shows on the Food Network or PBS, and numb our brains to the strains of Sara Moulton or Ina Garten making beautiful, elegant menus.

If the HBO series were cocktails and high heels, the cooking shows became our hot tea and slippers. They were comforting and entertaining, and we joined the millions of others in a post-September 11 America who wanted to be at home, cooking and eating. Even the bad shows were worth watching for their sheer awfulness. Sandra Lee’s “Kwanzaa Celebration Cake” is nothing short of a travesty, but it was still an entertaining travesty.

We haven’t subscribed to cable or satellite TV for years, and so we missed out on the Food Network’s transformation from soothing risotto tutorials to shouting celebrities. When we do catch a glimpse of their programming, we’re like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from the 1990s Saturday Night Live sketches. What are these intense people doing shouting on our television sets? Is foam a food now? Why are they all angry and stressed? Is it because of the foam? This looked more like ESPN or even C-SPAN compared to our old, beloved cooking entertainment.

And so, imagine our delighted surprise when we tuned into The Great British Baking Show, which is known in its original BBC format as The Great British Bake Off. In this throwback to a more civilized cooking television era, twelve contestants assemble under an enchanting white tent in the countryside to compete in a baking competition. Think wedding tent, not Boy Scouts tent; think towering layer cakes, not 4-H brownies – this is nothing if not sophisticated, after all.

From the first episode we watched, we were charmed. Now, I will admit that we’re easily charmed by English accents, but this was more than that. There was no shouting or throwing. There was no cursing, and there were no raised voices. They baked beautiful creations with demanding specifications, without throwing anyone under a proverbial double decker bus in the process. And if we weren’t completely in love with the whole program already, the judges are named Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. For real.

At the end of each episode, one contestant is sent home. Instead of an abrupt “You’re fired!” or even a brusque “You-are-the-weakest-link-goodbye,” the eliminated contestant is sent home with hugs and tears and all the best wishes from the judges and everyone else under the tent. There is kind encouragement, and very little gloating. I have the distinct impression that these people would not last for a hot minute in an American fifth grade recess dodgeball game, for the trash talk if nothing else, but I’m mesmerized by their calm encouragement of one another. This phenomenon is something that even our beloved early-2000s American cooking shows lacked — instead of one soothing voice stirring the batter and talking about her mother’s favorite birthday cake, this was a chorus of soothing voices, encouraging each other and showing true concern when something goes wrong.


This revolutionary compassion shows up again in the first episode of the most recent series, which is airing on PBS as Season 3, but aired on BBC as Season 6. (This might have something to do with Brexit and the pound and the metric system, but probably not.) This week’s “showstopper challenge” was a Black Forest Gateau, a layered dessert of cake, mousse, and cherries. One contestant, Dorret, had some major difficulties with getting the mousse filling to set, and her cake looked pitiful. And I’m not saying that it had a corner that wasn’t perfectly squared, or that the brown was just too dark to be a “true mocha.” It was, even to an amateur’s eyes, a wreck. You know, when you’re watching the Olympics, and the diving judges are saying that the diver’s toes weren’t pointed quite right to due East and so it was a terrible dive, and you’re thinking, “Well, shoot, that looked like a pretty great dive to me…”? This was not that. This was just objectively a bad scene.

Dorret, understandably, broke down in tears. Her cake was literally a hot mess. One of the hosts of the show comforted her by saying, “It’s just a cake. It is just a cake. It’s just a cake.”

I’ve been in Dorret’s shoes. Not in a fancy tent, of course, but in my own kitchen, weeping over a failed cake. I’ve also wept over burned pancakes, lost friendships, missed opportunities, too-harsh exchanges with my children, spilled breastmilk, broken glass, or any number of other disappointments in myself. I saw Dorret’s disappointment in that cake, and I’ve known her pain. I could feel her humiliation burn in my cheeks as the cameras focused in on the dripping layers and the falling mess of a thing. It felt a little bit voyeuristic to watch another person’s failure so closely.


What Dorret did not do is what another contestant did on a previous series: pitch the whole lot in the rubbish. (Which sounds so much better in British English, don’t you think?) The previous contestant was disappointed with his results, and threw the whole thing away. Dorret, instead, wiped her tears, and brought her ridiculously ugly cake to the judges’ table, with sympathetic glances from the other contestants, and a friendly pat on the back from the hosts.

The judges were kind, but honest. Dorret did not win the challenge, but she didn’t go home at the end of the episode, either. What struck me, though, was not the fact that she got to stay for another week under the tent. The judges have a decision to make, and their decision this week was that somebody else did worse, overall, than Dorret did. Rather, what was remarkable to me were the comforting words of the host to Dorret: “It’s just a cake. It is just a cake. It’s just a cake.”

I’m the primary cook at our house, and thankfully, I’m not cooking and baking for a panel of judges and an international viewing audience. I drop things, I break things, and I ruin things on the regular. I forget to put forks on the table every time we have guests over for dinner. Other than some tyrannical toddler moments when my children were younger, I have a pretty forgiving crew. My husband has said some version of “It’s just a cake” probably hundreds of times in our dozen years of marriage, and I never get tired of hearing it.

Nothing – no ugly cake, no garbage-throwing tantrum, no tears – will get us kicked out of the tent of God’s love. Nothing can stop Him from forgiving us. We all get to stay, with our fallen cakes and our ridiculous ideas of what we have to do to earn His love. And since we all get to stay, we might as well give each other calming pats on the back and remind each other, “It’s just a cake.”