How Britain fell back in love with baking

Forget MasterChef, now we're all in love with The Great British Bake Off. As the show reaches its final tonight, Alice-Azania Jarvis discovers why comfort food wins

Tonight, I'll have cake on the mind. Cake, and pie, and flan, and – who knows? – maybe even croissants. I'm not alone. By 7.55 tonight, baking powder will, in all likelihood, be trending on Twitter. By 9.05, the caster sugar stocks will be seriously diminished. And tomorrow, we'll all be a few pounds heavier. How do I know? Because tonight marks the final of The Great British Bake Off.

The show is a phenomenon. The formula is unassuming: each week sees a collection of keen home cooks attempt to master one area of baking, proving their competence in a series of tests. Comedy duo Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins hover in the background, interviewing contestants about soggy bottoms and burned crusts. The scheduling is hardly glamorous: plonked, unceremoniously, into Tuesday night's line up on BBC2, it faces competition from Holby City on BBC1 and Gok Wan on Channel 4.

Yet it has, somehow, managed to become one of the most talked about television shows of the year. Each week, some four million viewers tune in to watch judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood (her a writer of numerous culinary books, him a baker who has prepared scones for the Queen) critique the calibre of contestants' cupcakes and croquembouche. The fate of Joanne's brandy snaps, or of Mary-Anne's mousse cake, have become matters of the utmost importance at water coolers up and down the country. When the latter iced her Sachertorte with the word "Sacha", instead of Sacher, it produced a collective groan of empathy.

On the high street, the effect is visible. Marks & Spencer have reported sales increases of up to 20 per cent in baking ingredients, with spikes in specialist sugars and cake decorating equipment flying off the shelves. At John Lewis, customers buying cake tins and muffin trays have increased by 15 per cent, while vintage-style tins and stands have more than doubled. Lily Allen and Tom Parker-Bowles are among the celebrities who have sung the show's praises. With its mix of competition, foodism and the quaint Britishness of its presentation (most of the action takes place on the lawn of a stately home in Essex, where blue and white bunting and Cath Kidston crockery is rarely far from sight), it has ticked all the boxes of a television hit circa 2011.

Oddly this is, in fact, the programme's second series. The first – aired this time last year – was little different but failed to pass muster. Perhaps we were too busy watching MasterChef to notice.

Speaking of which, where are Greg and John these days? Heroes of the programme when they took over the reins several years ago, the pair have been curiously absent from the television debate in recent weeks. This despite the fact that a new series of Celebrity MasterChef started last month and, in November, MasterChef: The Professionals begins. At the same time as The Great British Bake Off is demonstrating our seemingly insatiable appetite for televised cooking competitions, the original model is falling behind.

Just 1.1 million people chose to watch the latest series' first episode. That figure slowly fell, dipping to as low as 700,000 as episodes progressed. The programme has been shunted off primetime and left to languish in the less-than-glittering after-lunch slot. Even Friday-night airings managed to snag just 2.6million viewers, just over half of the five million who tuned in last year.

So what's going on? MasterChef, surely, should be in prime position. We love watching people cook. And we love watching people like us cook. Forget Jamie and Nigella – recent years have seen the platform for the amateur expand exponentially. Look at Come Dine With Me, Britain's Best Dish, Dinner Date et al. We're a nation captivated by the sight of our own aprons. Masterchef gave us the first taste, and gave broadcasters the recipe, but it's struggling to keep pace. Why?

Well, I have a theory. Masterchef has overreached itself. Not just in terms of ubiquity (though even the most ardent of fans must have felt their commitment strain as a slew of spin-offs emerged: the Celebrity version, MasterChef: The Professionals, Junior MasterChef... what next, one wonders: MasterChef for pets?) but in terms of ambition. Specifically, the ambition of its contestants.

When was the last time you saw a recipe on MasterChef that you'd like to try at home? Last year's winner was 26-year-old Tim Anderson. The final saw him produce a menu which included monkfish liver served with umeboshi ketchup, a cheddar cheesecake with whisky jelly and a trio of "slider" burgers representing Los Angeles, Tokyo and London respectively. He conjured the smog of Los Angeles by using German smoked beer and smoked salt. Frequently, things went beyond that: over the course of the series, Anderson dished up liquid nitrogen, moss custard, mustard made from lapsang souchong and a "campfire" flavoured sorbet. It was hard to deny he was the most creative when, fighting off competition from advertising executive Tom Whitaker and nurse Sara Danesin, he was crowned winner. But was he making the food we want?

Contrast that, if you will, with a few Bake Off classics: cheesecake, chocolate roulade, quiche, bread and biscuits. None of it is easy. But you'll almost certainly find the ingredients down the local supermarket. After all, if molecular gastronomy is your thing – if your idea of an appetising meal is as much about its novelty as its taste – well, there are professionals for that. Denmark's René Redzepi, Spain's Ferran Adria, and our very own Heston Blumenthal. There are already plenty of television programmes devoted to the specialist expertise of the trained chef. When we tune in to watch a 26-year-old pub manager show off his skills, something different is expected. Not something worse, or any less delicious, but something more – how to put it? – amateur. Something we might be able to make at home.

Without that, the pub manager becomes just another gastro producing cheffy food that no one's going to make.

And without the starry credentials of Heston et al, there's no reason to pay attention. His USP – that he was one of us – has evaporated.

And therein lies the crux of the matter. After all, who hasn't sat at home and nurtured the idea of entering one of these competitions themselves? For the dedicated food-lover, they exert a double-pull, offering both the opportunity to improve one's own food by studying the secrets of other home cooks, and the chance to win approval from an outside audience. They are the world's biggest dinner party.

"With the Great British Bake Off, there's this sense that if you really tried hard enough you could do what they are doing," says Delicious magazine's editor Karen Barnes. "You know you can find the ingredients yourself for a reasonable price."

Holly Bell, Joanne Wheatley and Mary-Anne Boermans aren't any less talented for their recipe's lack of liquid nitrogen or scented smoke. But they are more relatable, and so is their food. And on that, The Great British Bake Off is hard to beat.

The Great British Bake Off: the final is at 8pm tonight on BBC2

TV dinners: What the professionals think of amateur cookery shows

Simon Rogan

Head chef at L'Enclume and owner of Roganic

The X Factor element has always drawn me in. The transformation of people on MasterChef was always so much fun to watch. It got a little rough and dramatic in the last few years though. I like my cookery shows a little more comfy and more focused on English flavours, like I use in my own cooking.

Patricia Michelson

Owner of La Fromagerie cheese shop

My all-time favourite is The Great British Bake Off. It's like a funky WI meeting. Mary in her jeans, Mel and Sue rushing around consoling and lightly teasing the participants – and all those beautiful cakes. It's like MasterChef used to be and ought to still be: encouraging, knowledgeable and full of zip and zest, rather than huff and puff.

Tristan Welch

Head chef at Launceston Place

Amateur cookery shows are like addictive drugs. I catch one episode and I'm done for, totally drawn in. I sit their watching them and find myself nodding encouragement or shrieking: "No, don't slice that like that or don't add that in now." They're like a foodie soap opera, and I love them.

Tracey MacLeod

The Independent's restaurant critic

Reality shows are usually fodder. You watch them because they're on when you switch on the television. But MasterChef and The Great British Bake Off are actually compelling. They're so successful because they smuggle a contest into what is essentially educational; like a cross between Gladiators and The Archers. And who wouldn't want to watch that?

Jo Crebbin

Bakery director of Betty's Bakery

I learnt to bake with my granny, and I think that is what the best amateur cookery programmes are like – kindly and instructional. Do we really need daft music and dramatic pauses in an amateur cookery show? Give me a well-made macaroon or sponge cake any day.

Camilla Schneideman

Managing director of Leiths School of Food and Wine

Even as a professional you still can't help but be inspired. When they were making focaccia bread on The Great British Bake Off they used particularly wet dough and my colleagues came in the next day and we tried it ourselves. That's just what you want from a food programme – something that gets you into the kitchen and trying new things.

By Samuel Muston

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