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PARTING SHOT: 'Bake Off" offers calming antidote to quarantining

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Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig discuss the week's baking on "The Great British Bake Off."

After watching every limited series that streamed last year, I looked for something that could take me away from the troubles of the day during the coronavirus pandemic. I thought game shows might do it, but I realized I had seen many of them and needed something less anxious.

I found it in “The Great British Bake Off.” There, in a tent somewhere in Great Britain, a dozen or so contestants competed to win a cake stand.

No kidding. A cake stand.

Paul Hollywood (honestly, that’s his name) was the Simon Cowell of the baking world and wasn’t afraid to tell someone he or she had a “soggy bottom.” He also, apparently, was an expert at bread – bread I’ve never seen. In early episodes, Mary Berry was his co-judge. In later ones, Prue Leith filled the bill. Neither had grazed my radar but they were both polite and firm. Having never seen a cookware line bearing their names, I had no way to verify their credentials but the contestants seem to cower in their presence, so that was good enough for me.

Each week, the expert bakers had to go through three rounds. If they got a handshake from Hollywood, that was as good as getting a selfie with Harry or William. If they won the “star baker” designation after the third round, they were guaranteed another week in the sweatshop.

The rub: That tent was hotter than a pizza oven and the recipes were for things they – and I – had never heard of.

“Winging it” was key to winning.

Even though they never seemed to have enough time (and never tasted anything they made), the bakers were always able to get something on a plate to be judged.

When Paul and Prue told them it’s “not very good,” they smiled and said, “Thank you.” Honestly, they did.

One time, it looked like they were trying to make Little Debbie’s Snack Cakes. The concoction had a different name, of course, and depended on a good “sponge” which, I think, meant they could make a cake that would hold up in a convenience store for the better part of a year.

Another time, they crafted elaborate bread chandeliers. After Paul and Prue had their obligatory bites, those breads went away, never to be heard from again. I always wondered if they tossed the creations in the dumpster or if they gave them to some mission. No one said, but you know those things had been kneaded more than any germ-fearing American would want.

Two “presenters” (or, as we know them, hosts) introduced the “what is it?” baking category and told mildly amusing jokes. They also hung out at the contestants’ counters, bugging them just enough to get a sound bite and to throw them off during the all-important “proving” state.

If a contestant stayed in long enough, we got to find out how rigorously he or she prepped for this. No one, it appeared, was in the baking business. They were accountants, students, housewives, cops and artists. 

Each of their stations was outfitted with every gadget known to Williams and Sonoma. The ovens were practically on the floor and no one seemed to care much about doing dishes. (Like the delicacies, they magically disappeared.)

When it got down to the final three, it was really anyone’s game. One person could have won every showstopper leading up the last week and still lost it if a crust wasn’t particularly good. There was a big carnival at the end, too, where family, friends and those who were dumped from the competition greeted the winner.

All very friendly, it was oddly comforting. Unlike American shows, this wasn’t about being the best. It was about being a good sport. Bakers helped other bakers. Judges provided the right amount of encouragement.

No one uttered the word “loser.” No one tried to make anyone feel bad. When the last place person was named, the others began to cry – not because they were thrilled they’re staying but because they were genuinely sad the person was going.

At a time when we’ve had too much name-calling and backstabbing, it was heartwarming to see people shore each other up.

Sure, the prize wasn’t much. But when those folks went home, they knew they’d done their best.

Politicians could learn a lot from these people: The dough that really matters isn’t the kind that goes in your pocket, but the kind that comes out of the oven.

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