‘The Great Episcopal Baking Show’ still stirs up fun, fellowship, formation, in South Carolina

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Dec 14, 2021

[Episcopal News Service] Baking and binge-watching television both have been pandemic diversions. The clergy and lay leaders at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church capitalized on those habits last Epiphany when they produced “The Great Episcopal Baking Show,” echoing the extremely popular “Great British Baking Show.”

The idea came up during a Zoom staff meeting in mid-December 2020 at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church as the participants wondered “how to bring people together when we’re not going to be in-person this Christmas?” explained Andrea McKellar, who at that time was the digital ministry coordinator at her parish in downtown Charleston, South Carolina.

“We are a really big congregation with a small space so there wasn’t a way to gather safely without excluding people,” she said, adding that members did not go back to in-person services until May 2021.

The bake-off was such a hit with the congregation that, while there are no current plans for a “second season,” parishioners still talk about how wonderful it was to see their leaders in a different context. McKellar said St. Stephen’s 2020 effort could be replicated by other congregations for this coming Epiphany, or for Shrove Tuesday, which next falls on March 1, 2022.

The organizers asked three bakers to make the sweet pastry known as king cake that is traditionally served on Epiphany but is perhaps more commonly associated with Mardi Gras. The bakers used the Betty Crocker quick king cake recipe.

Andrea McKellar helped organize “The Great Episcopal Baking Show,” served as the emcee and edited the bakers’ videos into the final 12-minute show. Screenshot: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church video

McKellar, who also serves as the Diocese of South Carolina‘s ministry developer and is a member of the Episcopal Church Executive Council said that the project snowballed after the Rev. Laura Rezac, associate rector, suggested a baking competition. The finished product was a 12-minute video, which McKellar edited and shared on the church’s YouTube channel where the parish is still posting Sunday services.

Choosing the bakers centered on one main criterion. “We had to make sure we had people who didn’t mind making fun of themselves,” she said.

Saying she loves to cook but not to bake, vestry member Cynthia Held declared in the video that “this thing right here, scares me … yeast. We’re not very good friends. We’ve hardly met.” Screenshot: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church video

For the competition, the organizers recruited vestry member Cynthia Held; the Rev. Adam Shoemaker, St. Stephen’s rector; and the Rev. Greg Smith, St. Stephen’s deacon, but gave them little information about what they would be making. Serendipitously, none were bakers.

“We didn’t plan on it being people with no baking experience but that ended up making it more fun,” McKellar said.

McKellar and the Rev. Courtney Davis-Shoemaker, assistant rector at St. Stephen’s, suggested a list of ingredients to have on hand. Davis-Shoemaker, who is married to the rector, dropped a bag outside each baker’s home that included a crown, an Episcopal apron, the king cake recipe, a plastic baby to put in the cake, colored frosting and glitter sugar.

The bakers had four hours and could phone one friend and do one internet search. Shoemaker called a parishioner to ask to borrow her stand mixer and he went to the internet to find a video on dough braiding. “It was extremely difficult to replicate what the video instructed me to do,” he said.

Held also struggled with the braiding but that wasn’t all. “The hardest part for me was trusting the yeast and rise of the dough,” she said. “I had no idea if it was doing its thing.”

Noting that he has assembled all but one of the ingredients, the Rev. Greg Smith, St. Stephen’s deacon, said the only thing missing was experience. “I have never baked anything in my life,” he said. Screenshot: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church video

Meanwhile, Smith said he struggled to simply follow the recipe directions. “Having never baked anything in my life I was definitely out of my comfort zone,” he said, adding that he had to Google some baking terms.

The organizers kept the video part easy, the “film crews” were simply told to use their cellphone and to record horizontally, minimize background noise and pause a bit before speaking to give video editor McKellar room for splicing together their clips. Held said her children formed her film crew and found their task easy. Smith’s wife “held the camera and laughed at me throughout the filming,” he said.

During the video, Shoemaker takes a break from baking to briefly tell viewers about Epiphany. “We wanted it to be a formation activity for the church in the midst of the fun,” McKellar said, adding that the producers were aiming for “formation and fellowship in a creative way.”

The Rev. Adam Shoemaker, St. Stephen’s rector, used his one phone call to ask parishioners Rich and Jane Clary if they would loan him their stand mixer. Rich delivered it to Shoemaker. Screenshot: St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church video

The competition was done under the rubric of COVID-19 safety protocols. Bakers baked in their home while family members filmed them. The judges collected their cakes from tables placed outside of the church and took them home for their role in the competition, which family members recorded. One judge, Dr. Scott Curry, is an epidemiologist, one of two in the parish, so “we had medical consultants on this project,” McKellar said with a smile.

The other judges were the Rt. Rev. Charlie vonRosenberg, former Diocese of East Tennessee bishop and past provisional bishop of South Carolina, and his wife and Annie vonRosenberg, Verger Mike Shewan, and parishioners Thelma Shine and Edna Monroe

Videographers uploaded their clips to Dropbox. McKellar watched episodes of the British version with an eye toward the narrative of each bake. She used Open Shot, a free open-source video editing software and created other needed graphics with Canva. Royalty-free music came from Fesliyan Studios.

Parishioners are still talking about the competition and the video, according to Smith. It was the right thing to do, he added. “Our parish needed something to bring us some fun and togetherness during our time of COVID isolation,” he said.

Held reports “I still get kudos.”

Other bakers and non-bakers in the parish were inspired to try their hand at king cake after viewing the video.

However, none of the competitive bakers have baked again since. Shoemaker said he might try to bake another king cake with his kids this year “if for no other reason than to give our family a good laugh watching me attempt the braiding again!”

Smith said his wife Lyn “wanted me to quit while I was ahead.”

It’s not too late for Epiphany 2022. The St. Stephen’s bakers and judges did their parts over three days during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. “I probably spent 30 hours editing because there was so much footage to work with,” McKellar said. “And we knew if it was over 15 minutes, people wouldn’t watch.”

Shoemaker said his advice to any other congregation considering such a competition is to remember that “there was a lot filmed that we ended up not using in the final video.” He said McKellar was a masterful editor.

“For other congregations wanting to try this, I’d say keep in mind the time it will take to put the supplies together, do the baking/recording, and then to edit it all down into a finished product,” he said.

St. Stephen’s members are not clamoring for a 2021 competition, in part because the parish is now back in the church. McKellar said “the feedback we’re getting from people is that they’re tired of video but something like this that’s short and fun, I think people would watch.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired in July 2019 as senior editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.