As a fan of The Great British Baking Show, it took me a while to warm to Food Network’s version, Holiday Baking Championship, which premiered in 2014, and is now in its eighth season in 2021.
But I’ve come to appreciate having Holiday Baking Championship‘s own charms—particularly its host, judges, and contestants—on TV every November and December.
It’s spun off other seasonal versions, Spring Baking Championship and Halloween Baking Championship, plus the required kids edition, Kids Baking Championship, and a two-season Wedding Cake Championship. They all follow the same basic formula: amateur bakers competing in two challenges, getting judged, and being eliminated one by one.
The formula works so well that Food Network uses it elsewhere, for franchises and one-off shows such as the truly terrible Bakeaway Camp with Martha Stewart. After a two-year absence, Holiday Gingerbread Showdown is returning later this month, and The Christmas Cookie Challenge and Holiday Wars are both airing now.
With so many shows, they can all end up feeling a little like the generic version of a brand-name product: serviceable but not special. The beats of each episode are the same: the host’s bit at the beginning to introduce the challenges, the mid-challenge surprise twist, the interview segments in which bakers describe in present tense what we’re also watching them do.
It may sound like I’m being critical here, but all of this has a sort of hypnotic effect: it’s just an easy lazy river of a show to dip into and let it take me through an hour.
Holiday Baking Championship’s host and judges are terrific
The Great British Baking Show is still must-watch TV for me, but it’s no longer the perfect, charming show it once was.
I still like GBBO’s format better—two challenges that the bakers practice, one challenge that’s judged blind—but Holiday Baking Championship (Food Network, Mondays at 8) has quite a bit of charm on its own.
Its contestants tend to come across as ready, willing, and mostly able. The twists and time constraints can create stumbles (poor Marilyn used apple cider vinegar instead of apple cider!), but they often overcome those to produce some impressive-looking and -tasting holiday-themed baked goods.
But I think it’s in the consistent cast members that I find the most entertainment and joy.
I often have the show on in the background, and it’s during the judging that I’ll pay attention. Thanks to the editing, which recaps anything I may have missed, it’s possible to just watch that and understand everything.
Jesse Palmer—recent host of a surfing competition and future host of The Bachelor—has hosted since season four, and is back again, wearing cornucopia shoes and doing other bits even though he’s currently filming The Bachelor in Europe.
That’s possible, of course, because Holiday Baking Championship 2021 isn’t airing live. It filmed in the summer at the Terranea Resort, which also hosted Halloween Baking Championship. (The set is identical, just with the decorations changed: Now there’s garland and ornaments and snowy windows for Christmas instead of projections of bats on spiderwebs for Halloween.)
Jesse is perfectly calibrated as a host. He’s particularly great at playing around with the contestants, joking and reacting to what they say and do without making it about him.
I’ve found that especially refreshing this year considering that Great British Bake-Off hosts Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas have basically turned the GBBO tent into their comedy playground. Rather than talk to the bakers about what they’re doing, or offering them support, as Mel and Sue did, they just make jokes, sometimes at the bakers’ expense. That can be funny; it can also be frustrating when they’re getting a little too close to being mean, or just adding anxiety to the contestants instead of helping them.
It’s at the Holiday Baking Championship judges’ table, though, that the real magic happens.
Back again to judge are Nancy Fuller, Duff Goldman, and Carla Hall, who joined last year and always enhances any show she’s on. Carla anchored Halloween Baking Championship, where she was always game to dress up in incredible costumes and be playful while still being precise.
Nancy and Duff are terrific, too, offering warm reactions and constructive criticism—and, in Nancy’s case, an appreciation of boozy treats which always makes me want to, say, dunk a donut in some gin.
Considering how effortless the judging feels from the three of them, it’s easy to forget how hard that job is; just look at the bad judging on so many other competitions. While former judge Lorraine Pascale was also good, the panel has just clicked even more these past two seasons with Nancy, Duff, and Carla.
In the Baking Championship universe that it spawned, Holiday Baking Championship still reigns. Spring Baking Championship is mostly forgettable. Halloween Baking Championship benefits from John Henson’s sardonic hosting and might actually have the most-interesting bakes—or at least, baking lends itself better to horror-themed cakes and treats.
But it’s Holiday Baking Championship that shows up at the right time. Carla, Nancy, Duff, Jesse, and the bakers are all welcome visitors on my TV, and I definitely look forward to seeing them on my TV as the holidays approach.
Holiday Baking Championship
Predictable but consistently charming, especially thanks to its judges, and a perfect holiday treat. B+
What works for me:
- Jesse Palmer’s hosting and chemistry with the contestants
- Nancy Fuller, Duff Goldman, and Carla Hall’s
- The familiarity
What could be better:
- While the formula works, a few more deviations from it would lead me to pay more attention
- Skipping the mid-challenge twist, especially because the bakers now know it’s coming and prepare for it