The first time I watched The Great British Baking Show, I was immediately reminded of the Wikipedia page for hats. That might sound like a diss to the series, but I swear it’s a compliment. Before I browsed through the page, I’d never taken a moment to appreciate the breadth of shapes and materials that humans had combined in the name of covering their heads. I could name maybe three to five basic types—your baseballs, beanies, buckets—but the Wikipedia directory was home to a whopping 39 varieties, each with its own origin story and signature shape. There were hats like the deerstalker (favored by Sherlock Holmes) that I had been vaguely aware of but never truly considered. There were also curiosities I had never heard of, like the Phrygian cap, a cone-shaped sock that supposedly represents “the pursuit of liberty.” (I may have been a little stoned when I fell down this particular internet rabbit hole.) All this to say that I was impressed by the degree to which hats had inspired human ingenuity. I guess that’s what people did before they got stoned and looked at Wikipedia pages; they invented hats.
Anyway: The Great British Baking Show—which returns for a fifth season this Friday on PBS—is far better than any Wikipedia page at reveling in highly opaque specialities. The reality series has often been lauded for its soothing, low-stakes format, but its true strength lies in its encyclopedic presentation of and serious dedication to the craft of baking. Contestants face very few consequences for underperforming on the show—there is no prize money or idyllic true love to lose out on—and yet there’s an impressive list of things they can do wrong. Including: overproving, underproving, producing a “soggy bottom,” underbaking, overbaking, making a pastry that’s too thick, distributing a coating unevenly, creating uneven layers, failing to define the layers, producing an item that’s too small, producing an item that’s too big, making an item lopsided, failing to produce enough flake, “over-egging it,” producing a “slack” custard, using too much cream, underwhipping your meringue, failing to produce macarons with shiny tops, chopping your nuts too finely, chopping your nuts too coarsely, adding too much sugar, producing a weak pie structure, overworking your dough, and—the most relatable offense—lacking general ambition.
That there are so many ways for the competing bakers to screw up speaks to the highly precise nature of their task at hand. The Great British Baking Show delights in dredging up dusty recipes from far-flung loaf-loving nations; during the “technical challenge” of every episode, esteemed judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (a.k.a Paul and Mary) instruct contestants to make a complex dish with a silly name—like a prinsesstårta (a Swedish princess cake) or a Hungarian Dobos Torte—with only a set of cryptic baking instructions to guide them. The two then disappear into a private room to enjoy a perfectly baked version of aforementioned dish, smirking between bites of cake about how badly everyone is going to fail. There is seemingly no limit to the odd European specialities they have featured on the show, and subsequently to the interest of the baked-goods inclined public. Google the dishes, and the first search result is almost always The Great British Baking Show’s website.
Lost in all of this process, at least to viewers like me, is whether these absurdly fussy variations of cakes, biscuits, custards, and loaves are even worth baking in the first place. As steeped as Paul and Mary may be in approach, execution, and flavor, they are clearly unconcerned with practicality. Are these legitimate desserts that I would want to eat or the type of thing that’s placed on a table and ignored by the masses? Has there ever been a fruit loaf that tasted good? Would it be more worth it just to eat a bag of Oreos? With all of these criteria in mind, and a lifetime’s worth of boxed cakes under my belt, I have taken it upon myself to round up the most arcane entries of the last four seasons and rank them from most to least edible, according to their appearance on The Great British Baking Show. Please note: I have not tasted nor have any immediate plans to taste any of these dishes.
Tuiles are crispy thin wafers with cocoa swirls that appeared in the second season’s “Biscuits and Traybakes” episode. They’re named after a French roofing tile because that’s apparently all the French had for inspiration when they were inventing desserts back in the day. They’re basically the size and consistency of a potato chip, except sweet. Very edible.
14. Cyprian flouana
This Greek pastry from Season 3 checks a lot of boxes. First off, it’s bread filled with cheese—not just cheddar or provolone, but elite cheeses like halloumi and pecorino. Secondly, it fits in your hand and is easy to eat while on the go. The cyprian flouana could’ve topped the list, but it inexplicably contains raisins. Big mistake.
13. Jumble biscuits
These biscuits date back to the medieval times, and are therefore decidedly unfancy. They’re made with butter, sugar, caraway seeds, aniseed, and mace (a nutmeg-derived spice). I guess I would eat one if that were the only catch, but the braided geometric Celtic shaping is not an ideal shape to try to fit into your mouth, and seems like it might make the biscuits extra hard.
I kid you not, when the religieuse à l’ancienne was first introduced on the show, the hosts described it as “a choux mountain in the shape of a nun” without any further explanation. So I’ll pose the two obvious questions here. (1) What is a choux? And (2) WHY ARE THE CHOUXS IN THE SHAPE OF A NUN? Playing Jenga with your dessert is exactly how you end up with a pile of dirty chouxs—which, it turns out, are a pastry used to make profiteroles and other acceptable desserts—on the table. I am not amused.
Here’s an interesting fact about the spanische windtorte: It’s actually Austrian. That might not make any sense, but neither does this extremely retro blob of fruit-flavored cream enclosed in a hard meringue shell and decorated with fondant violets. I imagine breaking into it might be satisfying the same way popping bubble wrap is, but that’s about where the fun ends.
No offense to my German ancestors, but this dish is clearly plain bread dressed up to look like cake. You’re telling me that the way you’ve decide to add flavor here is by topping a yeast-based cake with candied apples and cinnamon? Excuse me while I see myself out of this Aesop’s Fable before a witch attempts to cook me alive.
The English have loved tea for centuries, and somewhere along the way, they decided to accessorize that tea with joyless loaves filled with fruit and spices. There are so many confounding variations of this loaf: the bara birth, as pictured above, Lincolnshire plum bread, Swedish tea rings, iced bread swirls—the list goes on. I respect the tradition. But with all that we know now about the superior carbs one can consume with tea (i.e. cookies, biscuits, literally anything with a crunch that isn’t in loaf form), are these things really necessary?
8. Iced fingers
These are basically just hot dogs but with icing instead of meat. You’re not fooling me.
According to the show, a recipe for lace pancakes can be found in one of the earliest existing cookbooks. They were apparently eaten by rich people. But I don’t care what history says, these are NOT pancakes. These dough strings exist so people can brag about being able to make them or eat them, not to be eaten. I’m worried what might happen if Instagram finds this recipe.
My main reference point for trifles is that one Friends episode when Rachel makes a trifle, and accidentally puts meat in it, and everyone hates it but Joey. I can’t see how a meatless version is much of an improvement when the whole thing is still drowning in custard and nuts. I don’t care what tiramisu apologists say, lady fingers are not a substantial enough base to soak up all of that ridiculous custard!
The Charlotte royal is made of strawberry jam and sponge rolls with a raspberry bavarois filling, all combined to create a cake brain. Honestly, the photo above makes me slightly uncomfortable because it looks like someone is cutting into a shiny, ripe brain.
4. Tennis cake
Invented during Queen Victoria’s reign, the tennis cake is quite clearly a fruit loaf that has attempted to disguise its bland flavor with a fondant tennis court. We know what you’re hiding.
Paul’s trolliest technical challenge choice ever occured on Season 4, when he forced all the contestants to steam unappetizing, sweet buns with a name no one could pronounce. Mary described them as “just like an iced bun without the icing,” which is actually a really sick burn.
2. Suet pudding
Suet is the hard white fat that surrounds the loins of sheep and cattle. To put it in a pudding, you’re supposed to grate it, combine it with flour, salt, and liquid, and work it into a pastry. After this episode aired, the Telegraph ran a story about how disgusted British people were to learn that’s what suet is. So I rest my case for the dish to win runner-up for least edible dish.
To quote Season 2 fan favorite Ruby: “Why would you float a meringue on custard?” This is a good question, which I don’t think we’ll ever answer. I don’t care for meringues, and I don’t think them being smothered in crème anglaise would help me come around. It’s hard to explain just how uncomfortable I am by the appearance of this dessert. They look like a bunch of wet eggs melting in the sun. These are the dessert equivalent of the McPoyles on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and definitely the least edible thing I’ve ever seen on this show.