Lessons we’ve learned from GBBO 2014

Tonight it ends. We’ll be left with another 10 month gap in competitive baking scheduling. (Aside from that all too brief week in January when celebrities take up the challenge.)

But this year’s Bake Off will become legend in the history of TV baking – what with bingate, THE pencil and a prodigious 17 year old.

Bake Off 2014

Over the last two months we’ve learned a number of valuable lessons which are worth remembering as we prepare to bid the tent of baked goods a fond farewell…

1. Pesto is exotic and a lovely Scot called Norman was the perfect antidote to a fiercely fought Independence campaign. (See Buzzfeed for more reasons why Norman was brilliant.)

2. The BBC has discovered the loveliest teenager in all of the UK. Martha Collinson not only bakes with a skill way beyond her years, has an excellent sense of humour, did her AS levels during filming, and is a campaigner for Tearfund! All time favourite Martha moment? When she looked into the oven and uttered the words: “I could have practiced this”. Twice.

3. The Guardian could do with improving the quality of its Bake Off reporting. Now, I appreciate that there are bigger issues going on in the world right now, but the Guardian has set itself a high standard to meet with its consistently excellent live blog of every episode. [Hats off to you Heidi Stephens.] It’s just a shame that the side was let down by not one but two articles.

The first, an interview with the “russet Gandalf” (we’ll be returning to him, have no fear), included a piece of utterly bizarre logic regarding last week’s semi final. Apparently, star baker Richard had ‘come second’ and Luis had come first. I may have tweeted my quibble to the article’s author…


Several friends & family members have assured me that I was right, so I’m feeling ok about it. I just wish my first Twitter discussion with Zoe Williams had been about something a little more worthy!

The second article is a delightful run-down of all the Bake Off contestants ever. As with so many countdowns, the most recent series is too fresh in the memory to be objective about. Thus we have the tragedy of Jordan placing above my all-time favourite baker ever – fair isle devotee James Morton (12 to 13). A travesty!!

4. Always make your own fondant!

Mary Berry death stare

5. Howard (from series 4 and custardgate fame) needs his own baking show, stat! His two appearances on Extra Slice were a delight to behold – the world has a new talent and his name is Howard. [Incidentally, well done BBC for Extra Slice – that was a brilliant decision!]

6. No one’s worked out how to pronounce ‘baklava’.

7. Some people don’t understand that Bake Off isn’t Bake Off without the innuendo. Honestly, there’s a reason I don’t watch Masterchef (actually, there are several…) – what makes this show the genius it is is Mel & Sue’s endless punning and the way Mary & Paul knowingly join in. John Whaites (winner, GBBO 2012) wrote brilliantly for The Telegraph on the subject of essential innuendo“innuendo only enters the level of lewd when it is endorsed with a response”. The whole point of the baking double entendres is that they’re not deemed worthy of a retort!

8. Doughnuts can be turned into cocktails. (And this is when all Mary Berry’s baking dreams come true.)

9. A cake made up of several pancake layers with no icing or ganache in between really doesn’t look that attractive. Also, there’s no point making your own Princess Cake when Ikea serves it in their cafe.

10. Always label your creations when placing them within a communal freezer. Always check when moving tins around in a communal freezer that the owner of the tin you’ve removed knows that it’s no longer in the freezer. When a bake fails, don’t throw it into the bin. The British get VERY upset when they perceive that a baking injustice has taken place.

BBC Complaints AugustCredit. Honestly, when I saw this I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. 

Incredibly, this is the first time bingate’s been mentioned on this blog (it’s been a tough summer/autumn). I have very strong feelings about it, not least because Iain of the beard was one of my favourite contestants this year. (Beard + NI accent + baking skills = highly desirable man.) Yes, Diana’s actions may have been exaggerated thanks to the editing, but really, did he deserve to go? Especially given prior mistakes (John Whaites nearly cutting his finger off and custardgate) which resulted in fairer judging or no one leaving. I felt so, so sad for poor Iain – not least because throwing a failed bake into the bin is totally something I’d do. [I once threw a lemon drizzle that had got stuck to the tin onto the floor and stamped on it in a rage. True story.]

At this point in the series the winner almost becomes irrelevant. For the first time, this year I don’t have any terribly strong feelings about it. (Unlike the previous three series when I had definite ‘I don’t want them to win’ feelings.) I’ve liked Richard and his pencil from the start; Luis has real skills; and quite frankly, if Nancy can win after her microwave antics the other week, then excellent! (Although what ‘the male judge’ will think is another matter.)

Mary, Paul, Mel, Sue, the GBBO 2014 contestants and everyone on social media who has made this year a delight – THANK YOU! Let’s do it again next year.

Celebrating 2014 on a desert island

Sadly not this kind of desert island:

Tongan beachThough strictly speaking, this isn’t a deserted island, but you get the idea… 

Most Brits will be familiar with the concept of ‘desert island discs’ – stranded on a desert island, you miraculously have access to eight of your favourite tracks and the means with which to play them. (Plus the Bible, complete works of Shakespeare, a book of your own choosing and a self-defined ‘luxury’.) It’s a quintessential piece of British radio programming, in fact it’s the longest running programme on Radio 4, about to celebrate its 72nd birthday at the end of this month. [More fascinating facts about the show can be found on its Wikipedia page.]

Thanks to having friends who come up with brilliant ideas, I found myself spending NYE (a night which I have a strong dislike of) embroiled in a ten person desert island discs – possibly my most middle class evening, ever. The rules were simple, but hard. Choose three of your favourite pieces of music and have a story to share about each of them.

Now, it just so happens that I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about what I’d choose. Not because I think appearing on the show is a realistic future opportunity, more that it’s the kind of thing you start contemplating when you listen to the DID podcast on a weekly basis. Getting a list of 8 pieces seems nigh on impossible. Faced with cutting this down further to just 3 seemed to be downright cruel.

However, I came up with a system – they needed to be tracks that I liked and that had good stories attached to them, which helped slightly. After all, there were going to be several people at dinner who I’d never met before, so I needed to look like I had a modicum of sense in my musical taste too. [There was every possibility that my choices would be outdone by the resident 2 year old’s taste in music.] I eventually decided that there would be one classical (this particular piece was always a given), something from a musical and something else. That ‘something else’ was not decided upon until the moment I dutifully gave my choices to our host for the evening’s Spotify playlist.

Obviously, this kind of evening only works with a smaller number of people. 30 tracks is perfectly doable over dinner and isn’t too many stories to hear. The playlist was divided into three rounds, each beginning with the DID theme tune (these people know how to do things in style), and each matching a course of the meal. By round three and dessert, there was a contest to see if people could guess whose choice was whose, based on the idea that we’d now know a little bit more about our fellow guests’ musical tastes. All in all, it was a jolly good way to welcome in a new year – and a dinner party concept that I highly recommend.

And my choices? Well, all-in-all, I think they were good ones and reflective of me and my eclectic taste…

1. Adagio from Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor played by Jacqueline du Pre.
Easiest choice. Elgar’s one of my all-time favourite composers; I rather wish I’d taken up the cello (although it is rather bulky); and listening to this in packed tube carriages is hands down the best way of disappearing into tranquility.

2. Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, sung by Ella Fitzgerald.
In my list of 8 DID tracks, I’d originally had Etta James’ At Last, but felt that Ella singing Cole Porter was more representative of family car journeys and my long-standing love of Ella’s tones. The fact that my Dad was playing this album when he picked me up from Dublin last week helped secure its choice.

3. La Vie Boheme, the cast of Rent.
There were so many musicals to choose from. If this had been 8 songs and no dinner party, Defying Gravity from Wicked would have been a prime contender. I also dithered with choosing One Day More from Les Mis instead, as both are brilliant examples of ensemble songs mid-way through a musical. In fact, of the two, One Day More is definitely better, but La Vie Boheme holds a special place in my heart. Firstly, it’s a very wordy and oh so slightly inappropriate song – and I know the words to the whole thing, which I consider to be something of an achievement. Secondly, in 2007 while on board a coach somewhere in a Palestinian desert, I had a competition with one of the leaders of our international conference as to who could sing the most of it without forgetting the words. Thirdly, watching Rent (and practising what we liked to call ‘the lesbian love duet’) was a key feature of a previous NYE with an old friend.

Happy new year!

2014 Big Ben

Good things come in packages

Call me old school, but I love a nice piece of post. You know, the kind with a handwritten envelope/label. The kind that you’re not expecting and turns out to contain nice things. Like yesterday, when I opened an envelope to discover a thank-you card from some friends who’ve recently adopted a beautiful 1 year old girl – now I have her smiling face on my fridge. Joyous!

Therefore, I love a project that involves the use of Royal Mail. In the past, I’ve entered blogging contests to win books or other randomly lovely things (like the annual craft giveaway I was part of for a few years) – it makes someone feel warm and fuzzy inside and leads to you discover all sorts of wonderful bloggers. Thus, when a friend mentioned on Facebook that she was signing up for Oh Comely Magazine’s November care package, I thought this was something I should find out about…

The premise was simple: sign up online by a certain date, providing your postal details & anything you thought might be useful to a person who might be creating a box of goodies for you; await an email giving you the details of the person to whom you’d be sending nice things; prepare your box & get it in the post by November 18th; and await the arrival of your own parcel.

The guidance was simple too:

Something personal. Eg: a favourite family recipe, a good book you’ve just finished, a playlist of your favourite music.
An inspiring snippet. Eg: newspaper clipping, a photo or illustration you love, the lyrics to a song that strike home.
A wintry treat. Eg: a pair of gloves, your favourite tea, a mini hot-water bottle. The spending guide for each box is £10.

Simple, lovely and genius!

So, I duly signed up and got my package together. Being the idiot that I am, I forgot to take photos of it, but it contained the following:
Christmas Tea (That’s a winter essential in my world)
Giant Buttons (Why not? And they’re perfect for dipping in the tea.)
Hand-made Christmas tree decorations. (Made by me, so I guess that’s personal!)
A recipe for my brownies & our family scone recipe. (Written on the back of some inspiring views on postcards.)
Cold-kit (A Ugandan purse with Cath Kidston tissues & a lip-balm.)

Nice, no? I mean the Giant Buttons would be a winner for me alone! Oh, and there were labels (courtesy of bargain shelf Target finds while in California), so everything looked nice – which is always important.

Today, I’d just got home from a busy morning when the post man rang the bell – apparently he’d got a large box for me. Although I was expecting an eBay parcel (that would be book 3 of a 3 book EBD purchase I made last week), I had a feeling this would be my care package – I was not wrong. Here are its contents, not particularly artistically arranged on the table:

NovCarePackage

It’s really very lovely! Obviously, there are gloves & Buttons (great minds think alike!), plus a nice artistic postcard, on the reverse of which is an explanation for what some of the items are. The novel is one she’d just finished, but had enjoyed and the memory stick contains some tunes which I haven’t listened to yet – but I’m looking forward to. In the middle is the most genius inclusion: a mini bottle of Sangria plus some cinnamon sticks – a DIY mulled wine kit! Love it! Thank you so much Daisy and I hope you’re enjoying your parcel too!

What’s even better is that thanks to the #OCswapbox hashtag, you can follow people as they send off and receive their parcels. It’s a veritable world of loveliness and generosity!

Incidentally, it’s worth checking out the Oh Comely blog – their most recent post is about their culinary adventure with chocolate teacakes, which are categorically top of my ‘next thing to bake that will be a challenge’ list. I knew I liked them…

Where are the Gromits?

It is a real joy to be part of a circle of friends who enjoy hunting for things. Whether it be hidden TfL features, elephants, gorillas, or eggs, if a city has enough of them, we’ll hunt them out. The animals and eggs were deliberately created for finding – London’s hosted the Elephant Parade and the Egg Hunt in aid of charity in recent years, while Bristol (not to be outdone) had gorillas two years ago. This year, Bristol has dogs. Gromits, to be precise – you know? As in Wallace and…? Created by Bristolian Nick Park in Aardman Animations Bristol studios.

I would not be kidding if I said our trip had been long in the planning. I can’t remember when we first heard that it was happening, but our 165 message Facebook thread about this trip began on the 14th of January. That, my friends, is what I call advance preparation and planning! [My ISTJ loves this, and it’s ridiculous contrast to my London friends who are led by a load of ENFP’s who never plan anything in advance!] By April, we’d booked hotel rooms and by the beginning of July, our dinner location on Tuesday night was booked. [Pieminister – the only logical place for us to have dinner while in Bristol. Two passions combined!]

And thus, it came to pass that last Tuesday, 8 women, 3 girls and one baby gathered in one city to hunt out up to 79 Gromits. I began the trip one-up on everyone else, having discovered the lone London Gromit on the platform at Paddington station (from which point trains to Bristol begin). We knew we wouldn’t get all of them, as several are outside the city (like the several at Cribbs Causeway and one at Cheddar Gorge), but we were going to have a good bash at getting all those within the city – with a specific aim to beat the 44 the father of two of our party had already spotted.

Paddington GromitPaddington Gromit – No.80 & the original. (On platforms 8/9 if you’re interested…)

These trips are something of an endurance test. On the first day we must have walked at least 7 or 8 miles, with a total of 36 Gromits. The second day involved fewer dogs, but a significant amount of up-hill walking, culminating in some Gromits by the Clifton Suspension Bridge. We were dog tired, but very pleased with our total of 56 (or 57, for me).

Gromit HuntingAll 56 of the Bristol Gromits we hunted down.

Did we feel silly wandering around a city clutching matching maps and hunting out bright coloured dogs? Not a bit of it! Yes, virtually all the people we met along the way had small children with them, but I bet they couldn’t have found 56 Gromits in two days – very small children have no stamina! I expect they would have cried upon being told that another 5 Gromits had to be ticked off before an ice cream could be consumed – we didn’t, we simply obeyed orders and marched on…

It was a huge amount of fun, as Jenni’s fabulous video ably demonstrates:

Oh, and yes, I had a favourite, there was a hands-down winner in that department – No.4 Vincent Van Gromit:

Vincent Van Gromit

Vincent Van Gromit

I had a suspicion that at night, this might prove to have an additional tribute to Van Gogh, and having seen the tweet below, I was proved correct. Genius.

As summer activities go, this was a pretty good one. There are photos aplenty if you want to see the other Gromits (I have a Flickr set and so does the superior photographer Gill), but the best plan is to try and get to Bristol before September 8th and see them for yourself.

Team Gromit Team Gromit with the appropriately placed Gromit at Aardman Studios.

Failure to prepare is preparing to fail…

When I travel, I like to prepare. I have an A5 notebook entirely dedicated to packing lists – it lives on my bedside table and contains the details of what I’ve packed for every trip since around 2008. Yes, I am *that* anal.

However, I’ve become rather blasé about packing for vicar weekends. We have lots of them, I need the same things each time, it’s only two nights – what could go wrong? I hate to generalise, but there’s rarely a residential when one of the men hasn’t forgotten something fairly crucial. Toothbrushes are frequently neglected, in fact one friend has now forgotten his twice, including once in France – resulting in a very amusing Franglais conversation in a corner shop in an attempt to procure one.

But, as of this past weekend, I can no longer mock. On Friday, as I unpacked at our latest residential, I realised I’d forgotten my hairbrush. Inconvenient, but by no means a disaster. Especially as I had packed my new hairstyling gizmo (the Babyliss Big Hair – it’s amaaazing), which would brush my hair as I dried it on Saturday morning. Plus, various people offered to lend me one. Easily solvable.

During Friday evening’s lecture, a thought crossed my mind. I pondered which pants I’d packed. (Yes, this is the kind of thought that crosses my mind during a theology lecture. I’m sorry. I’m very easily distracted.) I couldn’t remember and, worse still, I couldn’t recall the action of placing them into my bag. Hmmmm. This could be a difficult one to resolve.

Before bed, I remembered this pondering and checked my bag. No pants. But, at least I had the opportunity to handwash them, and hope that they’d have dried on the radiator (of my very toasty room) overnight. I came up with a couple of back-up plans – namely using leggings as underwear (but only after checking that they weren’t the pair with an unfortunately placed hole in the seam) and persuading someone to drive me to Sainsbury’s sharpish – but fortunately, they were dry by morning. [Why did this have to happen the very weekend I’d decided to risk an outfit that was simply a long top and leggings??]

Obviously, I’d also tweeted about this misdemeanor. Not in a ‘Oh no! I’ve forgotten my pants!’ way, simply: “Hmmmm, looks like my hairbrush wasn’t the only thing I forgot this weekend… #MajorError”. And obviously, my sister instantly knew what I’d done and invoked one of her favourite memories of me from primary school, ending her tweet with: “Does dad need to do another emergency pants delivery?” Yes, one day, when I was 9, I’d worn my swimsuit to school, realised when getting dressed afterwards that I’d forgotten my underwear, and I suspect (though I can’t remember) then threw a wobbly and insisted that my Dad came to school with some immediately. Everyone’s been there, surely?

Facebook revelationsA Facebook status in the same vein. I only went as far as to like the correct response…

In fact, I’ve been there as an adult. Not often, occasionally I’ve forgotten my pants on a swimming day, but never before for a 48 hour trip. On this occasion, blame lies entirely with my new weekend bag. I was clearly so excited by my recent purchase (less than 2 hours prior to packing) and all the extra space it had compared to my gym bag, that I decided not to fill it to its maximum capacity.

I am an idiot.