In a year that has been filled with uncertainty and anxiety, many have turned to baking as a way to pass the time and learn a new skill. The calming interest in baking has extended to baking-related television shows as a form of relaxation. That is, of course, except when the competition itself starts stressing viewers out!
The “Great British Baking Show,” or “The Great British Bake Off,” as it’s known on the other side of the pond, is a popular baking competition show known for taking their baked goods very seriously.
And while, like with all competition shows, it’s common to see the judges get pretty intense in their feelings on technique and ingredients, it’s hard not to take offense when they take aim at a pastry rather intimately tied in to New York City culture!
On a recent episode, the bakers were celebrating Chocolate Week, with cocoa-rich pastries ranging from brownies to babka among the challenges in the baking tent. As many of the bakers had never before seen babka, let alone tried one, this lead to a conversation on what makes a proper babka, and what one should even look like.
Babka is a sweet braided loaf that often has a chocolate, cinnamon or fruit filling, with roots in Jewish Eastern European communities, but also uniquely popular in modern-day New York City. The bakers understandably struggled with this task, from leaving their babka undercooked, overcooked, or just not looking like a babka at all.
But the real controversy wasn’t in any of the babka presented on the show, but co-judge Prue Leith’s comment during the episode. When co-judge Paul Hollywood shared his own chocolate babka, Leith commented, “I’ve had it in New York and it’s not nearly as nice as this.”
Well, those are fighting words. It’s not like New Yorkers are coming after British scones saying their take is “nicer!”
Social media was fast to react.
This isn't the first time that this popular series has alienated lovers of Jewish baked goods. “In the past on ‘The Great British Bake Off,' there have been several challenges featuring Jewish baked foods: challah, which they called a plaited loaf; and bagels, which they also didn’t reference as being Jewish at all, which of course it is,” Shannon Sarna, editor of The Nosher and author of “Modern Jewish Baker” told TODAY in an email. “So I appreciated that this was the first time they actually referenced that babka is Jewish!” she said.
While Sarna said she didn’t take any issue with the recipe — it was “pretty classic, filled with chocolate and chopped nuts,” there was an aspect with which she did take issue. “The methodology/technique was all wrong, yet again,” said Sarna.
An enriched babka dough must do a rise before filling and shaping, says Sarna. Then: “It should do another rise after being shaped to give it air and make sure it’s not too dense,” said Sarna, who was surprised that none of the bakers were familiar with babka. “You can see babka posts on Instagram everywhere from Atlanta to Buenos Aires to Dubai, and so the shaping seemed to challenge them the most, having no visual reference,” Sarna said. The biggest mistake? “Rolling it the long way, instead of short, making it impossible to fit into the pan,” said Sarna.
But it was one thing that Sarna took issue with most of all. “Prue commented that she had tasted babka in New York City, but thought the one on ‘Great British Baking Show’ was much better,” said Sarna. “She has never had Breads Bakery babka, or other high quality babka which there are really plenty to choose from in New York and beyond. This is the second week in a row New York City foods have received quite a bit of shade from “Great British Baking Show.” A bit disappointing!” But, Sarna is glad to see babka and bagels featured all the same.
“We are amazed by the emotional response Prue has aroused with her comment," Gadi Peleg, owner of Breads Bakery in New York City, told TODAY in an email. "We are flattered at the response from defenders of Breads Bakery’s babka. Of course New York has great babka. Babka has become part of the culinary language of New York City. The babka, like New York itself, has never been better. We look forward to a world where we can host Prue and have her taste Breads Bakery’s babka, right out of the oven," said Peleg.
This isn’t the first time the popular baking series touched a nerve. In late 2019, judge Paul Hollywood came under fire for saying a particular dessert looked like “diabetes on a plate.” At that time, co-judge Prue Leith, came down on friendlier side of the debate, countering: “This is worth every calorie, Paul.”
Who knew discussing sweets could leave people so sour?