Life Lessons I Learned from 'The Great British Bake-Off'
'Read the instructions twice' is now my mantra.
The Great British Bake Off is currently saving my mental health. Whatever ugliness is going on in the world, however terrible the news reports are, no matter what horrific new tragedies of humanity and planet are being perpetrated, it takes only that jaunty opening credit music to help my shoulders descend from around my ears, and my teeth unclench, and my breathing to slow. Some people meditate with a mantra, or an imagined happy calm place, for me, I simply watch and re-watch old seasons of GBBO, or as it's called in the US, The Great British Baking Show, and it is like settling into a warm bath. I will sometimes just let a previous season run in the background while I am working or doing projects around the house, the muffled tones of Mary Berry or Prue Leith giving encouragement to a baker across the room become a bit of positive subliminal messaging for my own addled brain. If I am having a rough go of something and look up to see Paul Hollywood offering one of his rare and deeply coveted handshakes to someone, it reminds me to just keep plugging along. Not only that, it's taught me some things about baking that even as a seasoned cook, help me out in the kitchen.
Read all of the instructions twice
I don’t care if it is a recipe, or the booklet that came with your DIY IKEA bookshelf, a physics exam or mortgage application, or directions on how to get into the building and find the room where your business meeting is being held. Read it all through carefully TWICE before starting anything. There is no worse feeling than watching some ambitious Brit forget to save twelve of the cherries for garnish on his cake for the technical to remind you that even when under a time pressure, it is worthwhile to take a breath and familiarize yourself with everything that is coming down the pike.
For me, this meant adopting a baking by weight measure instead of volume measure. My kitchen scale is now always on the counter, and the single most asked question of my kitchen Echo is “Alexa, how many grams in _____?” You will always get a more consistent result when weighing your ingredients instead of the usual volume measures, and it has made me a more careful and successful baker.
Watch: How to Make Crumpets
Check your equipment
Sad is the baker who forgets to pre-heat the oven or put the racks in the right place before trying to fit seventeen sheets of carefully organized gingerbread biscuits. While a cook’s best tools are clean hands, you might also need to be sure that your pan is properly greased and lined with parchment else the cake layers may stick, or that you have an ice bath at the ready to stop your caramel burning. This goes for all of the equipment in your life. Change the oil in your car, call the HVAC guys for annual cleaning of your ducts and outdoor condensers, keep your computer operating system updated. A musician I love once said, stopping to tune his guitar mid-performance, “Airplane maintenance and guitar tuning. Always worth the effort.” He isn’t wrong.
If you finish early, help others
One of the greatest life lessons of GBBO is that ultimately you are only in competition with yourself. The contestants don’t ever seem to be battling each other, and as such, the friendships you watch them form are real and unsullied. They are more like foxhole buddies, having survived the wars together instead of on opposite sides. And as such, they help each other all the time. Whether it is an extra set of hands on a heavy showstopper platter or to help get everything on the plate, garnishing a dish or stirring a pot, these folks want everyone in the tent to do their best and have something to present. Heck, even when one has accidentally stolen another’s custard from the shared fridge, the response is “one custard is as good as another, don’t worry about it”. Just because something technically isn’t your job? Doesn’t mean the person doing that job couldn’t use an extra set of hands. Jumping in to help without being asked is an act of true humanity, and we could all use more of that.
Clean as you go
A disastrous work station can mean life and death on GBBO, whether it is a bake sliding off a precarious perch on top of a pile of dirty pots onto the floor, or simply not having a place to mold your fondant flowers, there is something to be said for working clean. Usually this means just slowing down, breathing calmer, and focusing. You are less likely to burn or cut yourself when you are operating in a clean space, and that cleaning includes your mind. Some of the greatest bakers on the show have had a cluttered mind be their downfall, attempting too much too fast and losing the plot along the way. Watching some of the less-likely bakers, the doctors and contractors and scientists tackle their baking with those organized methodologies is a lesson to us all.
It's more important for food to taste good than to look good
So many bakers on the show with serious artistic and creative skills have faced down the blue-eyed rancor of Paul, and the biting comment “Style over substance. Shame that.” While he is a bit saarcastic about it, the message is clear. It doesn’t matter if it looks good if it tastes like an old boot covered in sawdust. Some of the most delicious bakes on the show look a hot mess. Sure, the goal is both to look good and to taste good, but if you have to err on one side? Tasting good always wins.
Watching the competitors challenge themselves with new techniques and ingredients, watching them dive into the technical challenges with gusto, jump into the deep end on constructing things that should probably not be made out of foodstuffs, it is a good way to think about cooking and living. That phrase, don’t sweat the small stuff, and remember it is all small stuff? Over and over through the seasons contestants have said “It’s just cake.” That sort of “what’s the worst that can happen” attitude is key in the kitchen, or you’ll just make the same four dishes over and over. Try not to catastrophize. It’s just cake. So much of life is just cake, when you think about it.
It’s okay to be emotional
here are a lot of emotions on GBBO: Triumph and tears aplenty, anger, frustration, relief, and joy. The bakers wear their hearts on their sleeves, and everyone in the tent knows exactly what everyone else is feeling. And it's OK. When someone is happy, someone else will give them a high-five or a thumbs up. When someone is sad, they get hugs and words of encouragement. The hosts wander about with calming words of support for those who are feeling overly taxed. Someone gets Star Baker and the whole tent erupts in applause and delight, and someone goes home, and everyone bursts into tears and joins up in soggy embraces. No one tells anyone to walk it off or put on their big person pants or rolls their eyes or is snarky. Everyone just recognizes that life is full of emotion and it is perfectly fine to feel your feelings.
You don't have to be perfect at something for it to be worthwhile
Finally, but maybe most importantly, follow your dreams, even in some small way. None of the contestants are professionally trained or working in the food sphere, but they all dream of being a great baker. Some want to switch careers; some just want to test their own mettle. Some need a confidence boost, or to do something that is just for themselves. But they are all there in pursuit of a dream, even if the dream is just an engraved cake plate. I don’t care if you are trying to just perfect your grandmother’s pound cake recipe, or make a complete life change, doing something in service of that dream is never time or energy wasted.