Tonight is the finale of the American Baking Competition, which, in case you haven’t been watching, is the homey antithesis to higher octane shows like MasterChef, with which it competes in the same time slot. Though its episodes bear all the tell-tale signs of high cheese — clearance-section-worthy barnyard décor sets, rows of lacquer-red showpiece kitchen equipment, host Jeff Foxworthy — the show, with its unerring focus on good technique, ends up being oddly endearing. The result is devoid of the teary cheftestant confessionals, nonstop and gratuitous product placements, interpersonal squabbles, and most other food television clichés that have been overproofing during a decade’s worth of comparable cooking shows. Its lack of edge is exactly what makes it fresh, especially for home baking nerds who fuss over inherently unglamorous things like pie crusts and shortbread. Grub Street spoke with show judge Paul Hollywood, who’s more well known in England, where he serves as judge on the ongoing British original, about the last bakers standing and how the quirky show is intentionally positioned as a "warm blanket" instead of a high-stakes drama.
The show tends not to deal in drama, and you say you’re not interested in contestant personalities, but the overall tone somehow ends up being more sincere, in a way, in its depiction of contestants. Everyone just seems too nice for a competition show.
Baking is really about nostalgia, because people remember something from their childhood: a pie, a cake, a bread, something that grandma or grandpa or their parents or siblings made. It’s such a part of their lives, and when they smell or taste it again it brings warm memories. Baking is a passionate subject, and the show is all about promoting that. If someone watches the show and says, "You know what, I’m going to try making something new tomorrow," well, that’s exactly why we’re here.
The show had a slow start and ratings have been decent. Do you anticipate coming back for a second season?
I’d love to come back for a second series, and I think there’s definitely enough to do another one. Our first season of the Great British Bake Off was, by comparison, a slow-burner. Ratings started off low, the second program picked up where we left off, and it was on a slow rise. By the third season we were up to 7 million viewers, with another million online. People who follow me on Twitter are asking me the same question. I suppose the program is different than some of the other reality programs that are in America at the moment. It’s not aggressive; it’s quite passive. It’s got a feel-good factor to it, like a warm blanket on a winter’s night, or like a comfortable pair of slippers that you know do the job. But we’d love to come back.
Meanwhile, Bake Off has had several spinoffs. There are thirteen versions of the show on the air or in production around the world right now. Do you watch them all?
I do ask the production company to send me clips of the Danish or German or Ukrainian one. It’s sort of gone viral now. I ask the production company to send me clips of whoever my counterpart is in those countries.
One of your three finalists, Francine, told a local newspaper a month ago that her "dream is to be the next Paula Deen." I’m sure you’ve been following everything that’s been happening here with Paula Deen.
Yes, I have heard something. I don’t know much detail, but yeah, I’ve seen it in the newspaper.
She’s got something about her, Francine. She’s got a very lovable quality, and her baking is actually pretty good. I think people warm to her because she wears her heart on her sleeve. And I found it hilarious to work with her on-camera, because she knew me from the original show, and so when I walked on for the first time she actually let out a little scream. I got to know her more over the next couple weeks, and she’s an absolutely fantastic person.
Is there one thing you noticed American home bakers do better than the British?
I worked throughout Europe, in France, Italy, and Cyprus. So a lot of the core recipes in America — whether they’re from the Carolinas, New York, or wherever — come from three or four core recipes, I think, that people use around the world. Everyone bakes variations on these recipes, and what Americans have are flavors. I think they’re more ambitious than the British, who can be quite reserved with their flavors. I found the Americans came up with combinations that frankly stunned me. Most of the time I didn’t think they would work, and a couple of times they did work really well.
You’re talking about someone like Francine mixing bacon and chocolate, or baking Red Hots and pecans into bread dough.
[Laughs.] I’ve never seen that before. That for me was like a breath of fresh air. If someone gets away with that, if it not only looks good but tastes good, that’s what it’s all about. America’s got some fantastic flavors, and that’s what I like to see in the bakes.
There’s a French baker in New York making something called the cronut. Have you heard about cronuts?
Is this the cross between a doughnut and a croissant? I’ve heard of it. I need to get a hold of one so I can take a good look at it. I’ll have to see if I can make one myself. [Laughs.] It sounds a lot like a pastry in the U.K. called the Yum Yum, which is like a log that’s layered, made with good butter, and fried. They have a lemon water icing on the top. Cronuts sound a bit like that, and if they are, they’re delicious and I know because I buy them and eat them often.