WHAT HAPPENED WITH THE FOCACCIA????
In the aftermath of one of the best seasons ever of ‘The Great British Bake Off,’ a soggy-bottomed question looms large.
Oy: Spoilers ahead for the 2021 season of The Great British Bake Off (I simply can’t deal with the series/season discrepancies, so let’s just call it that).
In the third episode of this year’s season of The Great British Bake Off, an incredible bit of finale foreshadowing takes place. It’s Bread Week, and the signature challenge for our group of aspiring, carbed-up champions is focaccia. Contestant Crystelle Pereira is making a feta and grape loaf, adorned with fennel and walnuts. Ohh la la! As the bakers bake, she has this exchange with host (and Discourse Blog enemy) Matt Lucas.
Matt: How's it’s going?
Crystelle: I never like to say it’s going well because I’ll only know when Paul cuts into it and he tells me it’s raw, but it’s fine.
Crystelle’s focaccia was ultimately not raw and in fact, was “beautiful” according to bread baron and judge Paul Hollywood, who went on to call it “annoyingly thin” and “highly unusual, but beautiful.” It wasn’t raw then, but Crystelle would go on to present the judges with a raw loaf of focaccia in the very final challenge of the show—a mistake that, in my estimation, cost her the win. Let’s take a minute to focus on how the tragedy unfolded.
In the final Showstopper challenge, Competent Crystelle, Italian Giuseppe, and Hot Chigs are tasked with creating a Mad Hatter's Tea Party (twee and twisted!) featuring a variety of sweet and savory baked goods modeled after Alice in Wonderland. The centerpiece of Crystelle’s party is a loaf of focaccia that looks like a clock. A smart move to be honest, as focaccia is notoriously pretty easy to make and pretty undeniably great, since it’s bread. Even better, the focaccia will be flavored with za’atar, garlic, and honey. Again, seems pretty genius. But as we all know, the baking gods love to laugh at the plans of mortal bakers.
In this episode, Matt and Crystelle have yet another exchange about the terrifying fate of her focaccia.
Matt: Did you sleep last night?
Crystelle: Do ya know what? I actually did, although I kept on having a recurring dream that I forgot to prove my focaccia. And I kept on waking up, like, “Why did I not put my timer on?”
Matt: And what was the consequence of it?
Crystelle: I don’t know what happened after that. It was one of those cliffhanger dreams.
I’ll say!!!!!! Throughout the challenge, we see several shots of the focaccia in progress, and hear Crystelle saying things like, “I only learned this from Bread Week, but it’s supposed to be so oily. So I just feel like, the more oil, the better,” accompanied by shots like this:
Eventually, she looks in the oven and says, “This is really hard because there’s piping oil in there,” followed by “Oh that definitely seems done. Yeah I might take it out.” It looks perfectly fine, but then we get to judging and this face from Crystelle:
Followed by this face from judge Prue Leith:
Followed by Prue literally tossing it aside while saying, “Uh, this is not recognizable as focaccia.” Paul chimes in, with “That’s not focaccia, that’s raw dough” and then stares down at it and asks, “What have you done?”
What have you done!!!! Crystelle does not know what she’s done. “I don't know,” she says, to illustrate the not knowing. “Has it been in the oven?” Paul asks. “Yeah,” Crystelle replies, followed by, “I don’t know what happened, that’s bizarre.” Paul then calls it inedible and Prue calls it a pity and then Crystelle repeats, “I don’t know what happened.” Ahh!! What happened???
This, quite frankly, has haunted me since watching the finale last week. Not because I was stanning Crystelle (I like her, but to be honest I was rooting for Giuseppe), but because of the mystery surrounding the disastrous bake, and the absolutely confounding way this show is produced. One of the many charms of Bake Off is its insistence, for the most part, on shying away from the things that plague most reality television. It’s gentle, it doesn’t seem to manufacture drama, and its contestants aren’t characters, they are simply people who like to bake. But the lack of time given to a contestant, and an experienced baker, serving the judges raw dough in the final challenge has plagued me. Again, I ask, what the heck happened???
After the episode aired, Crystelle offered an explanation of sorts on her Instagram, writing in part: “...you can bake something 100 times but you can never guarantee it will always come out the same. I wish I could tell you what went wrong with that bake but, till this day, I still don’t know what happened!” (When this was posted, from thousands of miles away, Lady Gaga heard the echos of "there can be a hundred people in a room.")
As a baker myself, I suppose I can and should accept this as a sufficient explanation. Baking is hard and alchemical. Sometimes its mysteries elude even the most studied and skilled bakers. And yet, I can’t help but wonder how the focaccia fallout occurred. Inedible, raw dough doesn’t just happen! That said, I do appreciate that Bake Off doesn’t feel the need to dwell on these dramas, which they could easily tease out for minutes on end. It all feels quite British actually, and the restraint serves as proof that the show needn’t continue down the path of outlandish challenges to stir up chaos. Baking itself is enough. Let us not, after all, forget Bingate, the absolute greatest Bake Off drama of all time.
More than a decade into its existence, Bake Off certainly has its problems (again, Matt Lucas), but it’s recovered in many ways from a frankly awful 2020 season (a DARK year for everything, including this show). Like the ticking hands of time on Crystelle’s oil-preserved dough-tastrophe of a clock, Bake Off changes and Bake Off stays the same. As it probably should be.
I realize I’ll likely never get the focaccia answer I seek, but in rewatching Bread Week to write this blog, I realized that another 2021 contestant, Lizzie (among my favorite bakers to ever enter the tent), might have stumbled upon the ultimate answer in an exchange with Bake Off’s other and better host, Noel Fielding.
Noel: Do you like making bread?
Noel: Why not?
Lizzie: Because it’s horrible. You don't know what it’s thinkin, do ya?