One way I self-soothe is by watching lots of TV shows and movies. Thanks to multiple streaming platforms, I have access to hundreds of hours of audio-visual programming. One of the shows I’ve become obsessed with is the reality cooking competition The Great British Bake Off. It’s like watching hobbits make sweet biscuits.
What I do is often referred to as “binge-watching” and I think that’s an overly judgmental phrase. There is nothing wrong or unhealthy about streaming entertainment in bulk. I read books. I go out to dinners with friends. I frequently attempt jogging. And sometimes, when I’m feeling especially introverted, I stay up late watching hours of a TV show about nice British people with my best friend, couch.
I would also like the record to show that I came up with the phrase “Netflix and chill” long before it became code for “casual sex.” I am, in no way, opposed to healthy consensual casual sex. It’s just that, when I say I’m going to “Netflix and chill,” I do not mean I am inviting someone over in the hopes that we will attempt consequence-free relations. No. When I “Netflix and chill,” I am literally watching Netflix and doing absolutely nothing else.
And, recently, I’ve been chilling with hours and hours of The Great British Bake Off, which premiered on the BBC in 2010. It’s an hour-long show in which amateur bakers compete, not for money, but for the title of “star baker.” If this was an American show, the contestants would be fighting it out to win a cash prize. But not The Great British Bake Off. No. These ordinary Britons just want bragging rights. They just want to make the very best tea cake possible.
Each episode features three challenges: a signature challenge in which the bakers show off their own recipes, a technical round designed to test their skills, and the showstopper, in which the bakers are assigned an impossible baking task, like creating a chocolate, 12-tier victorian sponge cake from which doves fly (once it’s cut into). There is a pleasant, zen-like vibe as each rosy-cheeked hopeful kneads, proves, and pipes frosting. You’d never know from watching The Great British Bake Off that these polite island people once ran an empire that ruled the world.
I cannot bake. I can cook because cooking is sloppy and improvisational. I will start out trying to follow a healthy meatloaf recipe but end up with a skillet full of nuclear-hot chili. I am the Miles Davis of “make it up as you go” pasta. Baking, however, is about exactitude. It requires patience and attention to detail and a basic knowledge of chemistry. I have none of those skills. A good baker, of course, also wants to make something delicious. There is a part of me that wishes I had a brain that was good at measuring and following basic directions, but I don’t. It’s disappointing; I love carbs almost as much as I love family.
The Great British Bake Off has two hosts and two judges. The co-hosts, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, are a pair of elf-like pranksters who love puns and keep the proceedings as light and fluffy as a meringue. Another decidedly un-American feature of the show is that the loser of each episode gets a big, tearful bear-hug goodbye from both cohosts. No matter the stress of the day, this always makes me smile. The stern, yet supportive, judges include Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. The improbably named Hollywood is a gruff and handsome baker and chef who has worked all around the world. He has a fondness for tight, distressed jeans. His partner Mary Barry is a beloved celebrity in the United Kingdom, a pioneer of television cooking shows there. She is delightful. If Hogwarts taught a class in magical cakes, she would be the wizard to teach it.
I cannot get enough of these two judges poking loaf flesh with their fingers and declaring “a perfect bake.” There have been times I’ve re-watched Berry eat a forkful of Swiss cake or a single profiterole and then sensually mutter the word “moist” approvingly. I want to be Mary Berry’s friend. She could teach me how to make cream puffs. Both Hollywood and Berry have a beatific authority and make knowing how to bake seem like the most important skill in the world. Before this show, I didn’t know what a “self-saucing pudding” was. But now I don’t know how I ever lived without knowing that.
The series is friendly, warm, and positive. It is as edgy as a hot-buttered crumpet. There is no drama, no back-stabbing, and no celebrity judges who could one day go on to lead the free world. When I finish an episode, I feel light and flaky. So I immediately stroll over to my local bakery to check out their pies, tarts, and shortbreads. I recommend watching The Great British Bake Off. The shows you’re currently watching can wait. What is the secret to “Netflix and chill?” I can answer that because, one day, I will rightfully be credited with coining the expression: First, sprawl out on your couch. Next, prop up your feet with a pillow. Turn off your phone. Then, finally, watch Mary Berry delicately eat a snickerdoodle.