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The Great British Baking Show: Holidays focuses on charm over polish for season three

The Great British Baking Show: Holidays

The Great British Baking Show: Holidays
Screenshot: Netflix

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The Great British Baking Show may have only just wrapped its most recent season, but thanks to the magic of Netflix, there are already new baking adventures to follow back in the tent. While U.K. fans had the opportunity to watch “The Great Christmas Bake Off” and “The Great Festive Bake Off” on Channel Four during the 2019–2020 holiday season, American fans have had to wait all year. Netflix has finally dropped the two specials as The Great British Baking Show: Holidays season three and surprisingly enough, they’re a great fit after the feel-good finale of series 11.

“The Great Christmas Bake Off” (12/25/19)

First is “The Great Christmas Bake Off,” the 2019 Christmas day special. Like the rest of the show’s holiday specials, it features four returning favorites, each back to relive and perhaps redeem their previous experience in the tent. Tom and Yan from series eight (collection five on Netflix) and Briony and Terry from series nine (collection six on Netflix) are back to duke it out, battling for holiday-themed baking supremacy. They aren’t the only familiar faces—previous cohost Sandi Toksvig is back as well, along with current cohost Noel Fielding and judges Paul and Prue. The format remains the same: four bakers, three rounds, and one eventual winner.

After a few reintroductions, Sandi and Noel introduce the signature challenge. The bakers have two and half hours to make 24 highly decorated, Christmas-themed cake pops featuring at least four different designs. The bakers dive in and right away, it’s clear some of them have forgotten how quickly time slips away in the tent. While Briony, Yan, and Terry are making one sponge and differentiating their cake pops with flavored frostings, Tom is baking four different sponges. Almost immediately, he’s in the weeds and frankly, out of contention. There just isn’t enough time for his undoubtedly delicious, but overly bold concept. Everyone’s designs look adorable, and their flavors sound tasty and appropriately festive. The round will come down to time management.

Once the pops are shaped and dipped, the race is on to finish decorating them. Even the more methodical Yan and Briony are rushing by the end and the audience is with Briony when she reaches for the Christmas pudding liqueur after time is called. Terry manages 22 pops and Tom only has 10, though the ones he’s completed are the clear standouts in the tent. Yan and Briony’s look a bit slapdash, but they finish all 24 in the time and their flavors are good.

Paul has set the technical this episode, a festive sausage roll wreath with cranberry sauce. The bakers will have two hours to make their pastry and sausage, roll, slice, shape, and bake it, and make their sauce. It’s nice to have a savory technical after the sugar-soaked signature, and while the round will likely be tricky, it’s at least a rather familiar challenge. That leaves the bakers comfortable enough to banter as they work through the recipe, making for far more entertaining viewing. After a few tense moments, debating when to pull the wreaths from the ovens, the bakers plate them and present them for judging. Briony winds up in fourth place, having under-baked her wreath. Terry is third, having made shortcrust pastry rather than puff pastry. Yan’s bake is delicious, putting her in second, but Tom takes the prize, having nailed his flake, color, and design.

The Great British Baking Show: Holidays

The Great British Baking Show: Holidays
Screenshot: Netflix

The bakers return to the tent the next day for the showstopper round. They’ll have four hours to make a gingerbread structure representing their favorite location for Christmas, and they’ll need to incorporate at least two different confectionary skills as part of their decoration. Four hours sounds like a lot, but making their candies and decorating could easily take four hours on its own. Yan is making her home, Terry’s making the Chrysler building in New York City, Briony’s making a train station and train, and Tom’s making a particular bank-turned-bar in Edinburgh, complete with sugar glass dome. Their designs are complicated, but the bakers have planned and practiced their bakes and they’re raring to go.

Each of the bakers is making different confectionaries and it’s neat to see them make toffee, marshmallow, marzipan, and more. The mood, at first excited and optimistic, turns as time ticks down. Yan’s frustration is palpable, as she runs out of time to complete her ambitious design. Terry has structural issues with the iconic top of the Chrysler building, Tom’s first dome breaks, and Briony forgets the front of her train, saving the day with some offcuts. When it’s time for judging, Yan’s bake is delicious, but looks a mess. Tom’s Edinburg Christmas looks neat as a pin and he nailed his components. It was a very good round for him. Briony’s train is adorable and festive, and tastes good too. Terry’s Chrysler building is last, and it’s easy to see why. He’s incorporated a cracker into his design, blowing the roof off his building. He also has animatronic Paul and Prue dolls which start dancing (flailing?), pulling genuine belly laughs out of everyone in the tent. And again, everything tastes great.

These may not be the most professional looking showstoppers, aside from Tom, but they’re charming and delicious, and that’s exactly what both the bakers and the show are looking to celebrate. Had the signature gone better for Tom and Terry, this may have been anyone’s game. However, looking across the three rounds, the winner is clear: Briony takes the cake plate as the bakers celebrate with friends and family, and a reindeer.

The Great British Baking Show: Holidays

The Great British Baking Show: Holidays
Screenshot: Netflix

“The Great Festive Baking Show” (1/1/20)

“The Great Festive Baking Show,” the 2020 New Year’s Day special, has a different energy than the previous Baking Show holiday specials. Instead of returning bakers, the cast of Derry Girls are recruited to compete in the special. Derry Girls is a sitcom set in the 1990s following teens in Derry, Northern Ireland as they navigate school, teen life, and the Troubles. Stars Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Nicola Coughlan, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, Dylan Llewellyn, and Siobhán McSweeney are on hand to compete, and they have very mixed experience levels. Nicola, for example, is an avid home baker while Saoirse has literally never made a cake before. It would be easy to grumble at the rare opportunity of competing in Bake Off going to the undeserving, but the cast is incredibly charismatic and will quickly win over skeptical viewers.

The judges have taken these bakers’ limited experience into consideration and are rather kind with their challenges. For the signature, the bakers have two and a half hours to make a large sharing trifle of at least three layers, including either a biscuit or cake base and a custard. There’s a flurry of action as the bakers get to work and in the context of a one-off special, their tizzy of nerves and confusion is incredibly charming. There’s the air of anxious teens being set an exam they haven’t prepared for as the judges walk between the stations to interview the bakers. That, combined with several of the bakers’ performative confidence and everyone’s tongue-in-cheek good humor, makes for an incredibly entertaining energy in the tent.

Nicola is the early favorite, as she’s the most experienced baker of the group, but her excitement over being in the tent and meeting Prue leads to some rookie errors. She winds up making her sponge three times, which means she doesn’t have enough time to cool it before assembling her bake. Her time management issues result in a texturally off trifle, but it’s still the tastiest in the tent. Dylan and Siobhán have some trouble, but both Jamie-Lee and Saoirse do better than expected, given how rough theirs look. With trifle, though, it’s easy to have a messy heap of a bake that tastes delicious, and that’s still a win, for this special at least.

Prue has set the technical, and it sounds a bit daunting. The bakers have one hour to make 12 salmon and beetroot blinis, finished with horseradish and garnished with caviar and dill. That’s a lot to do in one hour, but it quickly becomes clear that the producers have provided most of the components. The bakers just need to make the blinis, mix together the cream cheese, beetroot, and horseradish, and assemble the canapes. The shots of the instructions are telling. Unlike usual episodes, they have clear, step-by-step instructions laying out everything they need to do. As Prue tells them at the beginning of the round, just follow the instructions. Nicola doesn’t trust them and winds up in third place, having fried her blinis in oil. James is in last place, somehow both under and over cooking his blinis. Jamie-Lee is in fourth, due to slightly under cooking the blinis and the size discrepancy between her blinis. Saoirse is thrilled to take second place, only knocked down because a couple blinis were inconsistent and because Siobhán came right back after her slime issues in the signature to take first, nailing the technical.

The Great British Baking Show: Holidays

The Great British Baking Show: Holidays
Screenshot: Netflix

For the showstopper, the bakers have another thankfully straightforward challenge. They have three and a half hours to make a two-tier at least partially sculpted cake celebrating their favorite decade. Dylan chooses the 1960s, making a camper van on a hill. Jamie-Lee chooses the 1930s, making Amelia Earhart’s plane to celebrate her emergency landing in Derry. Nicola also goes for the 1930s, inspired by Cabaret and Sally Bowles’ bowler hat specifically. Saoirse, like Dylan, has chosen the 1960s, making a peace sign on top of a heart. Siobhán chooses the 1980s, a tent on a hill to represent her family camping trips. While Dylan, Jamie-Lee, and Saoirse are sticking with two-tier cakes, both Nicola and Siobhán opt to do three, two base layers as well as their sculpted toppers.

As Noel reports to Dylan, the round is more or less a series of mini-catastrophes, though at least it’s a fun journey. Jamie-Lee’s cake is a mess, though her concept does come through clearly. Unfortunately, she confused tablespoons with teaspoons for her baking powder, taking her out of contention. Saoirse’s grey tie-dye cake doesn’t look how she imagined, but it’s tasty and flavorful. Nicola’s cake looks nice, if not quite Liza Minnelli-worthy. Her cake looks okay when cut into as well, but for some reason, it tastes musty. That’s not what you want. Dylan has the most successful visual, but only one of his two cakes turned out, the other having been massively under baked. Siobhán’s showstopper is also a mixed bag, with one tasty cake and one slightly overdone and a clear, if messy design. Had her custard cooled more before she put it into her trifle, she might have taken the whole thing. However, with all the rounds taken into consideration, it’s Saoirse who is the most consistent and winds up the winner.

This is undoubtedly the least impressive showing in a Baking Show special, and it should not be a template for specials moving forward. However, as a one-off, it’s delightful and cheery, and a lovely way to celebrate the holidays. It’s also a great message to viewers at home. You may not be an experienced baker, but with a decent recipe and plenty of confidence, you can make something delicious and beautiful, so why not give it a go. The kitchen, and future baking glory, awaits.

Stray observations

  • Yan has published a few papers since her Bake Off appearance. Way to go, Yan! I would have liked similar updates from the other bakers, to find out what they’ve been up to over the past couple years.
  • It’s hard to pick a favorite moment from “The Great Festive Baking Show,” but Siobhán’s plaintive “It looks so weird!” is absolutely delightful.
  • If you’re at all charmed by the Derry Girls special, please seek out the series on Netflix. It’s an easy, enjoyable watch—two seasons, only six episodes each—that’s perfect for a holiday binge.

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