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'The Great American Baking Show' brings beloved competition across the pond

(Front row, L-R) Zach Cherry, Ellie Kemper, Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood sit with the contestants on "The Great American Baking Show." (Courtesy of "The Great American Baking Show")
(Front row, L-R) Zach Cherry, Ellie Kemper, Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood sit with the contestants on "The Great American Baking Show." (Courtesy of "The Great American Baking Show")

“The Great British Bake Off” is coming to the states.

Nine American bakers will enterthe tent to vie for the title of America’s top baker. “The Great American Baking Show” — hosted by Ellie Kemper and Zack Cherry — drops on the Roku Channel this Friday.

Beloved judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith flew across the pond to see how American bakers measure up to their British counterparts.

“‘The Great British Bake Off’ is very popular in America,” Leith says, “so wouldn’t a baking show be even more popular if the contestants were all American?”

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After judging several seasons of American baking shows, Hollywood says these contestants make delicious deserts that originate across Europe — though a bit sweeter.

“Certainly this season the standard of baking from the American bakers was the best I’ve ever seen,” Hollywood says.

Many American food competition shows like “Chopped” and “Hell’s Kitchen” pit cut-throat contestants against each other in high-intensity kitchens. American contestants are often aggressive and fight to win the attention of the camera — the polar opposite vibe of those on “The Great British Baking Show,” Leith says.

But when “The Great American Baking Show” contestants walked into the tent, that famous chill, supportive energy ensued.

“There just is something in that tent. [The Americans] behave exactly the same. They’re encouraging to the fellows. They help each other. They’re really nice,” Leith says. “It’s a quite a gentle show, just like the ‘British Bake Off.’”

The bakers are only competing for small prizes like an apron or a cakestand, after all. But another unofficial prize is the coveted Hollywood handshake — legendary among fans of the British program.

Hollywood gave out his first handshake on Season 3 of “The Great British Bake Off.” Since then, he’s only shaken a few hands every season.

“Now the reaction when I do give a handshake in a tent is like a big round of applause,” Hollywood says.  “And I did give a couple out this year in the tent, [which] proves the point that the standard this year was exceptional.”

The American bakers even sold Hollywood on some ingredients he felt skeptical of, such as sweet corn bakes from Midwestern contestants.

The more traditional part of the show is the technical challenge, where contestants must complete a bake based on a minimal recipe. The challenge helps the judges separate the amateurs from the pros, Hollywood says.

“You have to know the basics of baking. If this was just nothing but things everybody was very familiar with, then they’ve made many, many times, we’d end up with nine perfect bakes every time, and we wouldn’t be able to judge that,” Leith says. “We have to put some hurdles in that some people won’t be able to jump.”

The show appeals to viewers who may never attempt a Victoria sponge or chiffon cake because of the spirit in the tent and the relaxing energy of the competition, she says.

“I think it’s very nostalgic baking. It often takes you back to your youth and takes you to a very pleasant place,” Hollywood says. “It’s like a peaceful fire when it’s really cold inside.”

Karyn Miller Medzon and Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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