I’m not the biggest fan of reality TV. Survivor, The Bachelor, Big Brother — why are these shows still on? They thrive on the contestants’ personality quirks, by which I mean the obnoxious behavior of some and the utter weirdness of others. Call me crazy, but I don’t need to witness artificially manufactured drama; I have enough, thank you. And any mom listening to her kids bicker about nothing — e.g., “She’s breathing on me!” or “He’s looking out my window!” on every car ride — knows exactly what I’m talking about.
But this summer I’ve fallen hard for The Great American Baking Competition. I caught the encore showing of an episode on Sunday night and immediately scoured CBS’ site for full videos of the first few shows I missed. It’s ridiculously compelling.
Have you seen this show? From what I gather, it’s a knock-off of The Great British Bake Off, and its premise is to crown the best amateur baker in the U.S. In each week’s show, the contestants are asked to make:
- A signature dish — that is, a recipe from their own arsenal, one that they’ve made a million times before for family and friends.
- A technical dish, in which they are asked to recreate a certain item. They are given the ingredients and some steps from the recipe, but they must fill in the blanks (like how long to bake it and at what temperature). This is the only category where the judges don’t watch them put their baked goods together, and they score the items without knowing who made which dish.
- A “show-stopper” dish, in which they are asked to bake a specific thing — usually something very tricky and finicky, such as croissants or macaroons.
I’m completely intrigued by the show’s set as well. They toil away at individual kitchen counters with state-of-the-art ovens and mixers in a big white tent. You read right: a tent. The kind that you’d see at fancy outdoor weddings. With screened-in sides. In Georgia. Seriously, how do you compensate for the daily variations of humidity and temperature in an open-air structure, especially when you are trying to get yeasty doughs to rise and buttercream icings to stay put on cakes? Is it to add yet another variable to the mix? Did the cost of renting a studio break the budget?
I can’t stop thinking about it: why exactly are they baking in a tent?
I’m also amazed at the level of proficiency the judges expect the competitors to have, especially for amateurs. I always thought I could bake a pretty good chocolate chip cookie or a fairly decent apple pie, but honestly, I’d have no clue how to attempt pretzels or a chiffon cake without a lot of extra information and probably a YouTube video or two. And they have to bake these dishes very quickly. I’d never be able to figure out how to make marshmallow for an upscale s’more cookie within a two-hour time limit. No way.
The thing I love about this show is that the contestants actually create something. Aside from the Southern Mama Francine, who has a big personality and an infectious down-home vibe, my favorite baker is Elaine, the mild-mannered retired college administrator because she’s just good at baking. Even when she has no clue how to make something or when she makes a mistake, she figures out how to (and I’m borrowing Tim Gunn’s catchphrase here) “make it work.”
It’s less about weird characters with Type A personalities and more about what kind of bakes they produce. I don’t need to know seven different ways to manipulate people into voting for me to stay on an island, but I am interested in trying out recipes with wild flavor combinations or creative presentations. My husband googled Francine’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Bacon Pie recipe and wants to try to make it — just because it sounds crazy good. Elaine’s surprise Valentine’s Day cake with the mousse heart in the middle? Bring on the vanilla and the cake pans.
See, what I wish reality TV producers would understand is that we like competition, but we also like to see people actually do something. Shows like The Great British Sewing Bee or Project Runway get it. In this case, the dishes look so amazing and different that I’m want to bake something too — even in the summer. It’s energizing and inspiring, as opposed to that soul-sucking feeling of losing an hour of your life watching vain people try to capitalize on their 15 minutes of fame.
Wonder what the next big reality show will be? I vote for a reality woodworking show hosted by Nick Offerman (aka, Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation). He’s such a great spokesman for the craft, and I’ll bet such a show would motivate people (like my husband) to get out into the garage to make great furniture or spectacular heirloom pieces.
Besides, I could really use some new chairs around my dining room table — you know, for when I serve my fancy-pants macaroons and tartlets.