As a contestant on “The Great British Bake Off” listed the ingredients in a savory leaf-shaped bread, one in particular stood out to the audience in a St. Paul living room.
It was the common herb oregano, but the contestant stressed the first “a” so it sounded like “ore — GONE — oh.”
Katie Sisneros, who was watching with two friends, shook her head and sighed. “British people.”
In an alternate universe otherwise known as Great Britain, cakes are “sponges,” cookies are “biscuits” and familiar pantry words sound altogether foreign. Here, under a tent pitched on a serene country estate, a group of amateur bakers, two shrewd judges and a pair of comic hosts have been delighting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
“The Great British Bake Off,” as the BBC show is known in Great Britain — and “The Great British Baking Show,” as it is broadcast in the United States — has become something of a big-hearted culinary phenomenon. Though it has run for seven seasons across the pond (the latest season’s finale was Oct. 26), it has only recently picked up steam in the United States after a couple of seasons appeared on Netflix. PBS recently aired the sixth season, with no air date yet scheduled for the seventh.
As its star grows — even as a recent major casting shake-up worries fans about the show’s future — more Americans are becoming devoted to the reality show’s unique blend of suspense and positivity as a sugary alternative to the high-drama, cutthroat competitions that usually grace our airwaves.
“It’s just very wholesome,” said St. Paul fan Laura Kulm. “I normally don’t watch any reality TV, but everyone is so nice and the bakers are so humble, and a lot of the entertainment comes from puns.”
The show’s premise is simple: 12 amateur bakers meet weekly to bake their way through three challenges, two of which they have prepped for ahead of time. Their desserts, or “bakes,” are often spectacular three-dimensional takes on classic European pastries. Each week, the best of the bunch is named “star baker,” and one person is eliminated until only one champion remains. The grand prize is simply a cake plate.
American reality competitions like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Top Chef” feed the suspense with dramatic music, contestant outbursts and secret smack-talk. But on this British iteration, the competition is polite, supportive and very, well, British.
“There is no ‘mood’ music, no fake shots, vile pretense, bravado or courage, and best of all, no heroes and no villains,” said Amed Hamila, a fan in Edina.
Instead, the drama comes from whether a contestant’s mousse will set or their intricate floral designs will pay off.
“It’s like watching ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” said Sisneros, a self-proclaimed Anglophile, citing another British TV export that swept American fancy. “When somebody receives a letter on ‘Downton Abbey,’ you clutch your chest, while in an American movie, an explosion has to mean drama. To me, [“Bake Off”] encapsulates everything Britain does differently.”
Sisneros and her friends Amy Wielunski and Meaghan Dop have made binge-watching the show a tradition, obtaining the current season by whatever means necessary. They can get passionate about the stakes.
“Someone’s cake doesn’t rise like they wanted it to, and we’re like, ‘Nooooo, worst thing ever!’ ” Sisneros said.
When one contestant discovered, much too late, that he never turned his oven on, the three women gasped in shock.
They recently took their fandom to the next level. They were watching the latest British season via not-so-legit downloads when they invented a drinking game, “The Great British Drink Off.” Among the signals to take a swig: the goofy hosts’ baking puns and words like oregano that sound funny in British tongue (also: aluminum, proof).
But their binge was bittersweet, knowing that this would be the last season the hosts and judges would be intact.
There was an international uproar in September when it was announced that the show would move from the BBC to Britain’s Channel 4, which could add advertising breaks to its currently uninterrupted format. After the announcement, three of its four beloved cast members — hosts Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc and judge Mary Berry — stepped down. The uncertainty about what the show will look like after the shake-up even spawned a “Bake Off”-worthy hashtag: #breadxit.
“I hope it doesn’t lose its basic sense of itself,” Sisneros said.
For now, anyway, the show has provided this group of friends a reason to get together.
It also has given Anne Jensen and her 12-year-old daughter, Marit Erickson, something to bond over.
“My daughter loves baking shows, and it’s one of the things we can watch together that doesn’t drive me crazy,” said Jensen, of Golden Valley.
She and Marit have been so inspired by the difficult baking challenges on the show that they’ve started their own “cake bucket list,” baking a new treat together every month. Now with scratch angel food cake, scones and caramel whiskey sauce behind them, they’ve got an intimidating coconut layer cake ahead.
They are up for the challenge.
The show, Jensen said, “inspires you to try something new.”