Inside ‘The Great American Baking Show’: Apple Pie, Handshakes, and No Oat Milk

Observer was on-set with judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith and hosts Zach Cherry and Casey Wilson as 'The Great American Baking Show' shot its second season for Roku in the familiar tent outside of London.

Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith, Casey Wilson, and Zach Cherry on the set of The Great American Baking Show. Matt Frost

It’s a cloudy day in England, but the set of The Great American Baking Show radiates a sense of warmth that’s familiar to fans of the reality series. The show is filming its second season for Roku at Pinewood Studios outside London and it’s nearing the very end of the competition. Things are tense for the remaining three bakers, who are under constant pressure both from the judges and from themselves. Everyone wants to prove they are the top baker—and to, perhaps, win the coveted cake stand trophy.

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The Great American Baking Show, an adaptation of the immensely popular The Great British Bake Off, has technically been in existence since 2015, when Nia Vardalos and Ian Gomez hosted two initial seasons for ABC. It’s undergone several transformations since, with Hollywood, a beloved judge on the British version, joining in season three. But it’s only been since last year, when Roku acquired the series, that the American edition has felt more like the British one. Now hosted by Zach Cherry and Casey Wilson, judged by Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith, and shot in a replica of the Bake Off tent, The Great American Baking Show finally feels closely aligned with its original. 

Judge Paul Hollywood says the American bakers (above) have now become “comparable with their British cousins.” Matt Frost

“I think the American bakers, certainly in the last two years, are certainly comparable with their British cousins,” Hollywood tells Observer. “You couldn’t have said that before.”

He and Leith are sitting at their judges table, which is placed next to a pond so serene and picturesque it could be in a storybook. One of the producers baked a cake for us to eat along with tea. Someone has put oat milk next to the regular milk and Hollywood immediately hurls it into the grass like it’s the worst bake he’s ever seen. 

“In the last couple of years, especially since we’ve been with Roku, the standard is higher,” he continues, unfazed by the oat milk faux-pas, which has sent ripples of laughter through the nearby crew members. “It’s probably because they’re watching more of [Bake Off] now, and I think they’ve got it. The Americans understand it through the British version and have latched on. And the fact that decent bakers have now applied. We’ve got a very strong, competitive baking lineup.”

Leith, who also hosts The Great British Bake Off  with Hollywood, adds, “It’s partly because there’s been Covid and the whole nation has been at home making sourdough for the first time in their lives. There’s much more interest in baking, and so that widens the pool of people who apply. You have over 300 million people in the country, so if we can’t get eight absolutely excellent bakers, we’re not very clever.”

“Every nation in the world has an apple pie,” says judge Prue Leith (r). “But we think of apple pie being American.” Matt Frost

The biggest difference between The Great American Baking Show and The Great British Bake Off, which airs on Channel 4 in the U.K. and on Netflix in the U.S., is what the contestants are asked to bake. Some of the challenges have been transferred directly from the British version, but others come from overseas. Because, of course, there’s nothing more American than apple pie.

“Quite often we’ve deliberately chosen American bakes like apple pie,” Leith explains. “But, of course, the Brits have an apple pie. In fact, every nation in the world has an apple pie. But we think of apple pie being American.”

Hollywood adds that the judges don’t want to shy away from anything because they want to “celebrate American baking.” He remembers eating something called an Elvis cake in a café on Route 66 and it was as good as anything he’s tried in England. “Even though we’re British judges we know good baking from bad baking, regardless of where it came from,” he says. “And I think American baking is fascinating.”

Cherry hosted Roku’s initial season alongside Ellie Kemper, but when Kemper wasn’t able to return Wilson stepped in. She got her first taste of the series when shooting holiday special The Great American Baking Show: Celebrity Holiday, which aired in November and featured celebs like Joel McHale and Ego Nwodim as bakers. Wilson has been pleasantly surprised by the experience. 

“It’s so good natured and it feels elevated and dignified,” she says. “I mean, I am also a fan of trash TV. It just feels so nice to see a show that is not mean spirited. I’m just obsessed with Paul and Prue and want them to be my parents. I’m not a baker, but I’m just genuinely inspired to bake after this.” 

“It just feels so nice to see a show that is not mean spirited,” says co-host Casey Wilson (r). Gary Moyes

Wilson and Cherry had never worked together before, but both come from similar improv and sketch comedy backgrounds and both were fans of each other’s work (Wilson points out Cherry’s role on Succession as an example). They prepared by having some drinks together ahead of shooting, but Wilson says they basically “hit the ground running” once they arrived on set. 

“It’s an interesting job to try to be funny, but then you also end up having to send people home too, which is a bummer,” she explains of hosting. “I feel like the role is sort of a cheerleader. [Bake Off host] Noel [Fielding] is a good example. He’s a pretty edgy comedian, but yet comes off super genuine and funny and likeable and winning. We’ve tried to strike the right balance.”

“It’s sort of like hosting a party,” Cherry adds. “You’re chatting and making sure everyone’s feeling good.”

On set, the atmosphere is far calmer than you might imagine. The tent at Pinewood is an exact recreation of the one used for Bake Off, which is located on the grounds of Welford Park in Berkshire. The details are immaculate and everything is extremely charming and clean. The camera operators seamlessly position themselves throughout the kitchen as the bakers work, and the hosts and judges carefully move around the room to speak with the contestants about what each is doing step by step. 

“Bake!” The Great American Baking Show hosts Casey Wilson and Zach Cherry. Matt Frost

“They’re baking for a long time, so we go up to them a lot,” Wilson says. “But we also try to strike the balance between finding out what they’re doing, but not annoying them because they are really genuinely trying to bake. Zach and I keep it light when we go over and learn about them.”

“And try to pick our spots,” Cherry says. “If they’re pulling two things out of the oven that’s probably not when we would go over to chat. We pick moments where they have a little downtime.” 

Today, the tent is almost eerily quiet and focused as the contestants are tasked with baking fruit tarts, a seemingly simple challenge that proves more complication Leith says the hushed atmosphere is because we’re nearing the end. It hasn’t always been this peaceful throughout the six-episode shoot. 

“They really don’t want the host to come around and talk to them at all,” she says. “Because they want to win and they are concentrating and they’ve realized, ‘Oh my god, I’m in the final.’ At the beginning nobody thinks they’re going to last and they just making new friends and it’s quite jolly.

“It might look calm, but have you ever seen a duck trying to go upstream?” Hollywood asks. “When it’s moving it just moves its legs underneath. That’s exactly what’s happening here.”

Hollywood is known for his withholding attitude as a judge. He terrifies some of the contestants, but it’s mainly an act. Both judges say it’s important to keep the bakers at arm’s length while shooting because it helps keep things fair. Leith tends to get emotional about the contestants and their backstories, but Hollywood just wants the best baker to win. So far during filming he’s given three of his famed handshakes, including to one of the finalists here today, but generally he’s held back. 

The rare Hollywood Handshake in action. Matt Frost

“When they’re out and have finished the competition, then I’ll engage with them and say hello to them and ask ‘How are you doing?’” he says. “And they often open up. But I can’t talk to them on that level while they’re in the tent. It’s not fair. So once they’re finished and finished in the tent then, sure, I’ll engage them.”

Although viewers don’t have the privilege of tasting the bakes, it’s fun to try to guess who will ultimately prevail. This season showcases some disastrous moments in the kitchen, which are as entertaining as they are stressful, but there are also moments of real, emotional triumph. Even the judges say they think they know who will win, but never actually predict it correctly. 

“The point is that you’re judged on that day only,” Leith says. “Not the past two days or that week. You can get Star Baker four weeks in a row and then mess up on the fifth week and you’re out. You’re judged on your latest performance and it’s brutal.”

“By the end of the second week you have more of an indication of who you think could go through, or you certainly have an indication of who you think could lead,” Hollywood adds. “Not necessarily who could win. It normally follows a pattern. But this year has been fairly straightforward. There’s a couple of people who got through to semifinals and finals who I wouldn’t have expected, but that is exactly the beauty of the show.”

The bakers await judgement. “You can get Star Baker four weeks in a row and then mess up on the fifth week and you’re out,” says Prue Leith. Matt Frost

The judges could also never have predicted just how many viewers want to watch people bake onscreen. The pandemic helped, with everyone stuck at home and looking for comfort in their entertainment. American audiences have caught on to Bake Off thanks to it streaming on Netflix and Roku, which is free, has encouraged new viewers for The Great American Baking Show by keeping the setting and judges familiar. 

“I’ve been stopped by people who you would never expect to be keen on baking,” says Hollywood, who recalls once being fawned over by a teenage rugby team in the Scottish Highlands. “We’ve been to America a few times in the last year and it’s been incredible. The reaction from people in America who know who we are, through Bake Off and now Roku as well. You can’t walk through a city without getting stopped on every block.”

“It’s very American,” Leith adds, laughing. “It’s not what the Brit do, which is just to nudge their friends. And of course I love the attention. Paul does not.”

Still, they understand the allure of both versions of the show, especially in a world where the news can be overwhelming and a lot of entertainment is amped up. For Leith, The Great American Baking Show represents something where everyone can sit down together knowing it’s going to be peaceful. Hollywood compares it to the Scandinavian concept of hygge, where everything is warm and cozy and comforting—as long as no one serves oat milk along with the tea. 

“It’s not just about the baking,” Leith acknowledges before the judges return to set. “It’s like having time off and there are not many shows like that on television.”  

Season 2 of The Great American Baking Show will be available on the Roku Channel on May 24.

Inside ‘The Great American Baking Show’: Apple Pie, Handshakes, and No Oat Milk