During the pandemic, The Great British Baking Show became in millions of homes, including mine, literal and figurative comfort food. Its contestants—gathered under a (literal and figurative) big tent—are eliminated one by one, week by week, in as genial and good-natured a format as exists anywhere on television. As my colleague TIME TV critic Judy Berman has written, binging old seasons of the show “practically qualified as therapy” during lockdown.
This year, the show enters its 14th season, maturing but somewhat miraculously maintaining itself as an alternative to cattier, more intense, eat-or-be-eaten reality shows. Certain aspects of the show have morphed over the years—most notably roving co-hosts (British morning TV presenter Alison Hammond this season replaces comedian Matt Lucas.) But there has been one constant from the start: celebrity baker-turned-judge Paul Hollywood, whose blunt feedback, searing blue eyes, and eponymous handshake for outstanding bakes (you can track them at hollywoodhandshakes.com) have become the show’s trademark.
I spoke with Hollywood ahead of the new season; episodes air weekly on Channel 4 in the UK starting Sept. 26 and on Netflix Sept. 29. (Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
My 15-year-old daughter and I recently went back to the beginning of The Great British Baking Show, and the technical abilities of the contestants seems like it’s just increased so much. I think it’s reflected in the handshakes [bakers get for stellar work], to be honest. The handshakes are more [frequent] because the standard of the baking has gone much higher. It attracted the better bakers.
The show is a rare bastion of friendly competition. How have you maintained that over the years? There’s an honesty to Bake Off [as it’s known in the U.K.]. Sometimes my choice of words to describe what I’m looking at or tasting might be a little bit harsh. But I’m straight to the point. Other programs are quite destructive in their criticism, because all they want to do is shoot them down in flames and use that as the part of the program. Making and baking things for people nurtures more of a soft approach than it does an aggressive one.
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You have a new co-host this season, Alison Hammond. Part of the appeal of the show is the predictability—it’s comfort TV. How do you balance that against shake-ups and change? The bakers are the stars of the show, and they tend to lead how things progress. The format is pretty rigid. I suppose I’m the guardian of Bake Off. I don’t like change generally. So I like to keep things the way they should be. Everybody knows about the feeling of Bake Off. And as soon as they step into the tent, they just adapt immediately. Bake Off is set in stone. So whichever host comes in just brings their little twist. And this year Alison and Noel [Fielding] were fantastic, and it was a really good laugh.
What is Alison’s twist? Her laugh is contagious. And once she starts laughing, she’ll set everybody off. It’s tense for the bakers obviously, but I think the rule is, we try to give the bakers a little bit of calmness and a little smile while they’re doing the work.
Last season brought some criticism on a variety of fronts, including for Mexican week, with its maracas, serapes, and sombreros. Is that something you’ve reflected on? I spoke to a couple of friends of mine. The ones I spoke to, none of them were offended. I think most of the people who were offended weren’t even Mexican, which I found quite strange. Because there’s not a bad bone in Bake Off’s body. I was in Mexico filming a month before I started the series that year. And I spent a month traveling around working with amazing Mexican chefs. And that’s where some of the challenges came from. They came from a good place, never a bad place.
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You’ve written so many books about bread. How do you keep coming up with new recipes? The key thing is experiment. When I first started making bread years ago, I was working at some of the best hotels in Europe. I was doing Stilton and walnut bread and cherry and chocolate bread—all these mad things. This history I’ve got in my head; I will remember something and go, “Oh, I haven’t done that for a while.” And then I’ll write it down and it will go in the next book. Sometimes to go forward you have to go back.
Have you ever used an automatic bread machine? When I was just starting Bake Off, I was approached by The Gadget Show in the U.K. And basically they said, “There’s been another line of bread-making machines. Would you like to have a look at them?” I said, “Not really, no.” And they said, “Well, would you like to go head-to-head with them? We make the bread in the bread machine, you make a bread, and then we do a blind tasting with the public.” So I went head-to-head with seven bread machines and I got 96% of the vote. You can’t beat homemade breads made by hand.
What’s the best advice you ever got, or have given, about baking bread? Weigh up really carefully. Having a good set of scales is critical. Because you get that right, and you’re 90% on the way to creating something that’s going to taste amazing. A good-quality flour always makes a difference. Good ingredients in, and it’s a good bake at the end.
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