Technical challenges, ideally, serve a purpose, and that purpose is establishing a baker’s practical skill. Cooking allows space for imagination and ad-libbing, but baking is based on precision. You have to master the rules before you can confidently break them, which is why timed tests of a contestant’s ability to dispatch—with only minimal written guidance—a treacle tart or an English muffin offer some sense of that baker’s general aptitude. Half of The Great British Baking Show (known in the U.K. as The Great British Bake-Off) is about imaginative whimsy: recreating a bachelor party with five different kinds of biscuits, rendering a Turner-esque storm scene out of meringue and gooseberries, or daring to prove Paul wrong about matcha. But the other half is about simple execution. The person crowned (cakestanded?) as Britain’s best amateur baker should, the theory goes, be able to whip up a Victoria sponge or even a focaccia without cracking under pressure.
Read: ‘The Great British Bake Off’ keeps the dream alive
As seasons of the show have come and gone, though, the technical challenge has evolved from a basic skill assessment to a meandering tour through Europe’s most arcane pastries. This isn’t because the various series have cycled through all the routine baked goods already and want to avoid repetition—note, if you will, the notorious second appearance of pita bread. (More on that later.) Instead, the decision seems to have been made to inject drama into The Great British Baking Show by perplexing contestants to a maximal extent. Why else would producers demand that bakers perfectly create dishes they’ve never seen nor eaten, and would struggle to even spell? Like dampfnudel? Or flauones? Or Spanische Windtorte? Or torta setteveli?
The trend, as far as I can trace, dates back to the fifth season of the show in 2014, when Nancy Birtwhistle, a grandmother of eight from Lincolnshire, paved her road to victory with plum braids, breakfast baklava, and fennel thins. That year, the technical challenges started simply enough, with cherry cake, florentines, and ciabatta. But by episode six (which fell, coincidentally enough, on “Continental cake week”), the judges demanded that contestants produce, with only the sparsest of recipes, a Swedish princesstårta. As the challenge was read out to the bakers, Nancy’s mouth gaped. Chetna looked as though she suspected a prank. Martha started giggling: “I’ve never heard of it, never seen it, never eaten it.” “My heart is beating,” Kate said. “Not a clue,” Richard confessed. (Lovely Richard.) “Not a Scooby Doo.”
The bewilderment afflicting the bakers seems to have struck a chord with one of the more sadistic of the show’s producers. The following week, the contestants were asked to make a kouign-amann, an obscure Breton cake that’s a bit like a baked cronut. Then, in week eight, the technical challenge was to make a povitica, an Eastern European confection of yeasted dough, walnuts, and vanilla. The ninth week’s task was a schichttorte, a 20-layer German cake with a chocolate glaze. From then on, technical challenges mostly abandoned the humble coffee cake or fruit tart in favor of a melange of specialties: ma’amoul, pasteis de nata, marjolaine.