This week was the semi-final of The Great British Bake Off. For those of you unfortunate enough to have no idea what this is, it is a gloriously silly amateur baking competition, televised for the nation by the BBC. It has as many puns as cakes, thanks to the delightfully light-hearted presenters Mel and Sue, and despite the best efforts of the judges, nobody can manage to take it very seriously.
I love it. Can you tell?
One of the weekly challenges is the “showstopper”, which has to be elaborate and impressive in design as well as in flavour. There have been some really amazing creations, such as a bread lion, and – this week – a working chocolate well.
My baking is pretty pedestrian by comparison, but this has not always been the case. During my student days I was prone to a bit of Sanskrit gingerbread or marzipan bodhisattva. In Oxford I teamed up with fellow-student Matt Kimberley, an attendee of the Philologists’ lunch, on a few pretty elaborate creations, including a Tocharian caravan-permit, a three-dimensional Indo-European language family tree and a “six layers of linguistic analysis” cake (actually involving six different cakes in concentric circles, so there was quite a lot of cake left over!).
Our finest creation, however, was probably the Shiva-Sutras cake for our friend and fan of Sanskrit grammar Victor D’Avella. The Shiva Sutras are the code-breaker of Sanskrit grammar. Each of the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet feature in order, separated by code-letters (in vertical chocolate) so that any significant group of letters (eg all vowels, all retroflex consonants, etc) can be referred to by a two-letter shorthand. This enables incredibly concise expressions of grammatical rules. Clever stuff. And it all emerged from Śiva’s marzipan drum.
Maybe it is time for me to revisit academic baking. It could make for an alternative challenge for our students, or an accessible way to share research with colleagues….