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'Great British Bake Off' is so veddy entertaining

Tammy Swift, columnist

Some activities automatically make you feel more civilized.

Like attending an opera. Or learning chess. Or binge-watching "The Great British Baking Show."

Last weekend, I spent a delicious afternoon watching past episodes of this BBC series on Netflix. And when I finally tore myself away, all I wanted to do was bake a Boxing Day Suet Pudding, smothered in clotted cream and crumpets.

I am not alone in my obsession with this show, which started out as "The Great British Bake Off" in England and is credited with igniting a nationwide interest in home baking among Brits. When PBS began airing the show, American audiences also succumbed to its charms.

There is something inherently soothing, satisfying and civilized about this staple, in which the country's best amateur bakers genteelly duke it out to become The Figgiest Pudding Maker in All The Land.

Perhaps it's the lovely setting — a giant, white tent set up on a country manor so British that you expect Rochester to come thundering by on his steed. It might be judge Mary Berry, a revered cookbook author who manages to appear kind and grandmotherly even while doling out the most delicately devastating critiques. I honestly think I would swim the English Channel just to hear her say " "that's a delightful lemon sponge" in person.

(I am less impressed with surly judge Paul Hollywood — yes, that's his name — who aspires to be the Simon Cowell of the patisserie world.)

It could be the contestants themselves, a humble lot whose ranks have included a likable school master who makes all his desserts too big, an engineer who approaches muffin-making as if he's building a suspension bridge and a college student who has no self-confidence even though she wins many challenges and looks like Keira Knightley.

Unlike the crazed contestants in cooking competitions on the Food Network, these competitors are sane, reserved — and normal. They actually help each other if someone is struggling. They rarely say anything nasty about each other, and they aren't braggadocious about their own accomplishments.

If a judge lavishes praise upon one of their competitors, they may be caught looking slightly envious — but that's about it. Forget blow-ups, sabotage and petty squabbles. The producers trust that they don't need to bring in histrionic sociopaths to make it interesting. No one gets voted off this Floating Island. This isn't "Baking and Afraid." It's a cooking show, and a mighty nice one at that.

In fact, I wish the Food Network would take a cue or two from its British counterpart. It has become so tiresome to watch a cooking competition devolve into a ridiculous death match in which contestants are expected to make a crème brulee out of sea kelp and expired tuna while being screamed at by Alton Brown. (To be fair, producers did try to replicate the Brit hit with "The Great American Baking Show," but the show flopped like an under-beaten soufflé.)

Perhaps the real strength of this show is that it is so veddy, veddy British. The pleasantly wacky co-hosts, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, seem to really want to help out that struggling contestant, even as they are inadvertently sticking their elbows into the baker's deflating meringue.

Everyone pronounces dishes with a wonderful European flourish, so that macaroons sound like "macaronqth" and croissant sounds like "cwaSAHHHHH!"

Besides, I've been exposed to so many foods I never knew existed. We call it a 'bar'; they call it a "traybake." I call it a 'cream puff,' but they say it's a 'choux bun.' We say 'cake'; they say 'sponge.' That doesn't even begin to mention the other strange and exotic sweets they churn out of that lovely white tent: croquembouche, mincemeat strudel (yuck), tunis cake, Charlotte Royale (translation: dessert that looks like a syrup-covered brain), roly poly pudding, Hand-Raised Boxing Day Pie, galette and farthing biscuits (if you're like me, you'll try not to giggle at that last one).

It's educational, it's civilized, it's British and it's fun.

No wonder I can't stop watching.

So sound the trumpets. Let's make crumpets.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.

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