Baking Impossible: cooking meets engineering in hare-brained but moreish show

Contestants rig circuitry into desserts and race them through obstacle courses in the latest cultural obsession with creative fusion

  • Baking Impossible is streaming on Netflix in Australia. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

Even if you have an enormous appetite for baking shows, the cornucopia currently on offer might be a little overwhelming. Some days I load up Netflix and I swear I’m drowning in an ocean of buttercream. But trust me when I say this show takes the cake with the addition of a special ingredient that probably none of us thought to ask for. Luckily, the streaming gods know better.

Baking Impossible combines baking with engineering (“bakineering”), which is both utterly hare-brained and the perfectly logical conclusion to our culture’s obsession with creative fusion. We’ve all seen cooking shows and TikTok vids of absurd desserts where you wonder if the chef has compromised flavour for structural integrity; we’ve all played “real or cake”. So why not make people rig circuitry into their desserts and race them through obstacle courses? There’s talent, suspense, some awkward moments as the teammates try to hold back from blaming each other, and a double-whammy wow factor when it actually works.

The contestants are paired off in the first episode, with each of the nine teams comprising one baker and one engineer. Some work really well together despite meeting their partners for the first time in this competition, while others struggle to gel. In each episode of the eight-part series, they face a challenge that demands ingenuity from both bakineers, such as making an edible remote-controlled boat that floats and holds a cake. Then, their creations are put through a stress test to assess their engineering (for the first episode, they have to steer their boat down a waterway, racing against the clock) and a taste test to judge their baking. Subsequent challenges span fashion, architecture, robotics and more, requiring skills in different branches of engineering, a wide culinary repertoire, solid teamwork and a quick imagination.

Animatronic inventor Menuka
The bakineers’ creations are put through a stress test to assess their engineering. In the first episode, the contestants have to steer their boat down a waterway, all while racing against the clock. Photograph: Patrick Wymor/Netflix

Part of what makes the show so compelling is that this is exactly the kind of nonsense many of us would try at home – especially during lockdown – with less success. It’s inherently delightful to watch people do something silly with utter seriousness, so I’m tickled seeing the bakineers make careful calculations with marshmallows and bits of noodle. And there’s real talent on display here – with teams made up of professional bakers and engineers and $100,000 on the line, the process might be a sticky mess, but the results are impressive.

As most of the challenges restrict the bakineers to food materials, there are a few ingredients that pop up repeatedly: watermelon rind, dry pasta, tempered chocolate, rice paper, fondant and Isomalt. Some of the creations aren’t entirely edible (I’d challenge you to chew through a coconut husk, for example) but most are, and it’s thrilling to see the teams innovate their own materials for the unusual task at hand. They mix crushed ramen with melted gummy bears and chocolate in the hope of making flexible, edible, load-bearing bricks and transform ombre fruit leathers and laser-cut gelatine into wearable food art.

The judges are weirdly qualified for a niche field of expertise that, as far as I know, doesn’t really exist outside this show. There’s award-winning chef Joanne Chang, who graduated from Harvard with a degree in applied mathematics; Stanford-educated astrophysicist and inventor Dr Hakeem Oluseyi; and Andrew Smyth, an aerospace engineer who was a finalist on The Great British Bake Off and coined the term “bakineering” for his unique pursuit. It’s a well-balanced panel that provides detailed, constructive criticism. My only complaint is that host Justin Willman, a comedian and magician, feels a bit surplus to requirements as the trio of judges are perfectly charming and complementary without an extra narrator.

Baking Impossible host Justin Willman with judges Joanne Chang, Dr Hakeem Oluseyi and Andrew Smyth.
(L-R) Baking Impossible host Justin Willman with judges Joanne Chang, Dr Hakeem Oluseyi and Andrew Smyth. Photograph: Patrick Wymor/Netflix

At this point, I should warn you that the judges change their clothes with each episode, while the contestants wear copies of the same outfits through the whole season for ease of editing. It’s an odd choice given that contemporary audiences are pretty used to seeing reality TV confessionals that we know were recorded after the fact (eg in RuPaul’s Drag Race), but don’t let it bother you as it has evidently bothered dozens of viewers on social media! I do appreciate the fact the series steers clear of trauma mining or overdramatised contestant backstories, allowing them to speak through their work.

All the contestants are pretty endearing, and their enthusiasm for their craft is infectious. My favourite teams include Cindy and Taylor, two twentysomethings who share a love of whimsy and an eye for design finesse; Rodolfo and Sara, a duo whose chilled, grounded vibe makes me feel instantly at ease; and Brandi and Menuka – she’s a bright, bubbly mother from Kentucky who loves baking things that are a bit weird, he’s an animatronic inventor originally from Sri Lanka who can often be spotted dancing around the kitchen laboratory. The casting also reveals the diversity of talent within both Stem disciplines and the pastry arts, which is nice to see.

There are a few queers in the mix and roughly half the cast are people of colour. It’s not surprising, really, because surely the appreciation for a dessert that can walk itself right up to your mouth is universal.

Contributor

Jinghua Qian

The GuardianTramp

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