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.

2014 – a year of bread?

I have said many, many times that I do not do New Years Resolutions. They’re pointless. Yesterday was January 10th – the day when it’s apparently most likely that resolutions will be broken. I personally subscribe to the theory that new starts (if needed) can happen at any time of the year, all you need is determination. This is why, in the first days of a new year, I prefer to think of things that I’d like to do or achieve over the year ahead. Much more positive!

I’ve been thinking for a while that it was time to up the ante in my baking adventures. Yes, I make brownies that are near perfection (they are one of the few things that I will boast about); yes, I do a good line in scones, muffins, cupcakes and biscuits; but am I anywhere near the standard of GBBO? No. Not that I intend to reach that level, but there are some things I’d like to get the hang of.

High on that list is bread. Until 2014, I had never baked a loaf from scratch (I’d used a couple of those packet mixes you add water to), but surely it’s a good life skill to have? And who better to learn from than my favourite GBBO contestant of all-time – the snuggly jumper wearing, Shetland born, finalist James?

Having followed him on Twitter for over a year, I’d witnessed his passion for encouraging people (even beginners) in baking bread, which even included the publication of Brilliant Bread. Now, a lot of people jump on the “I’ve just appeared on a cookery competition, so I’ll publish a recipe book” bandwagon [it’s rather like celebrity fitness dvds], but this wasn’t one of them. The tweets from people using it clearly had great success, so I added it to my pre-Christmas wishlist – from which it was duly purchased by a family member who may also have wanted the book…

Brilliant Bread book

First things first, this book has the best first chapter of any recipe book I’ve ever owned. It contains no recipes, just explanations of the key ingredients, methods, techniques and varieties of bread making. I’m really not a natural baker, I often don’t understand why we do things, and I need clear instructions – so this was ideal. [I also have an incredible skill in remembering exactly what people, well, usually Mary Berry, have said in cookery shows – and then reciting these in appropriate situations, making it look as though I know what I’m doing. I don’t.]

Secondly, the chapters contain recipes in order of difficulty, so you can confidently progress through different types of bread, without fearing that you’ll suddenly hit one that takes you out of your comfort zone. I like that there’s a focaccia in the first chapter of recipes – I’m sure I’ll have some students willing to test that one.

Thirdly, it’s unpretentious. There’s no fancy equipment needed (the only new thing I’ve needed is a dough scraper that cost £1.99, I have lots of trays and tins) or terribly fancy ingredients. For under £2, I acquired a bag of strong flour and some yeast sachets – at home I had water and salt. Job done.

Fourthly, it appears to work. Admittedly, I’ve only made one of the recipes so far, but Twitter attests to its success.

As proof, here is my First Loaf:

First Loaf in progressFirst prove; second prove; third prove; into the oven; out of the oven…

First loaf - done Not too shabby? Obviously needed more flour to make it look like the photo.

Lessons learnt? Start baking bread a lot earlier than you think is necessary! I got distracted and it was 5.30pm before I got going, meaning it was 9pm before it was done – given that my evening meal plan was leftover chilli plus fresh bread, this was a little unfortunate. I think I still need some work on the shaping technique, but the slices had a good crumb and there was no proving line. (I was too busy eating the bread to take photos once it was done.)

As for baking accomplishments to achieve this year, there’s a list aside from simply working through the book:

  • Chocolate teacakes – you know, the kind with marshmallow inside. (A technical challenge in GBBO 3.) It’s been a dream for a while and now that I have both the moulds and a sugar thermometer, it shouldn’t be an issue – but it is a lot of work for only 6 cakes, and a lot can go wrong… 
  • Macarons – made without resorting to one of the cunning kits I pick up on my semi-regular visits to French supermarkets. (Now available in Sainsbury’s, but honestly, I’ve not found them to be as good as the French ones.)
  • Marshmallows – this is a follow up to the teacakes. Teacakes have smooth, unset marshmallow inside them, but I’m intrigued by the kind you’d put in a hot chocolate. Again, this is where the sugar thermometer comes in.

Obviously, I’ll need tasters/guinea pigs. I definitely need someone else with me on chocolate teacake day, because I would be more than capable of eating all 6 myself. (As an added motivation – if needed – the Lakeland moulds I have fit to the size of a digestive biscuit, meaning we’d have some of those to nibble on during the rest of the process.) Tempting?

Baking – with added vitriol

Last night was not a great night for our student group to be doing the second week of an all-church Bible study that has to be done at the same time as everyone else. Several guys arrived at my flat wanting to know if we could have the Arsenal match on ‘in the background’ (everyone knows there is no such thing as ‘in the background’ when it comes to football); I, on the other hand, was in a state of frenzy at the fact that while I was leading a meditation on Genesis 37, anyone not watching football was watching three women bake cakes and pies.

This year’s GBBO final is the most watched of all the series – 8.4 million people watched last night (that’s more than X Factor apparently). It’s also been fiercely debated in the media and on social media. I had at least two fierce debates with people on Facebook yesterday about who should win – nothing terribly unusual about that, in competitive arenas people are always going to have their favourites. Just as the guys were desperate to see an Arsenal victory last night, I had strong views about who should win a national amateur cake baking competition.

I’d had strong views last year too – I’d loved the work of John & James and therefore I wanted ‘anyone but Brendan’ to win. I wasn’t out to destroy Brendan, I just liked the other two more. That’s how life works. [I’ve been re-watching that series recently and it is a classic. James and Sue need their own baking show!]

GBBOFinalists2013Ruby, Kimberley & Frances.

This year, I wasn’t overly keen on either Kimberley or Ruby – if pushed, I’d take Kimberley on her consistent technical skills – but I loved Frances’ creativity. One friend argued that she wanted Ruby to win ‘because she was so vulnerable and pocket-sized’, but last time I checked, vulnerability wasn’t a way of avoiding a soggy bottom. I wanted her to gain some confidence in her skills – to apologise a couple of times for what you think are terrible bakes (but it emerges aren’t) is fine; to do it consistently is not. Friends debated whether Kimberley appeared smug thanks to editing – but is simply saying that “I’ve baked this before” during a technical challenge really a sign of smugness? Surely it’s just stating fact?

Opinions are fine – but not when they cross the line. What got interesting about this year’s competition is that so much of the criticism was in relation to the finalists’ gender and size. Last year, I don’t recall sexuality being used in such a way, even though 2 of the 3 finalists were openly gay. Why should female bakers still attract such ridiculous interest?

Ruby puts it brilliantly in a column for the Guardian:

Raymond Blanc waded in on the commentary to so helpfully deride the “female tears” on the show. (What are “female tears”, anyway? Are they more fragile and delicate than male tears? Do they wear pink?) Kimberley’s self-assurance – a character trait so lauded in men– has been rebranded as smugness, cockiness and even malice.

It’s a culture of frilly baking versus macho Michelin stars, of real chefs versus domestic goddesses. Food has become divided and gendered, torn between the serious sport of haute cuisine and the supposedly antithetical world of women pottering around in home kitchens.

I saw one male friend complain that the presence of 7 women to 1 man in the semi-final (that’s 1 male judge, 1 female judge, 2 presenters & 4 female contestants) was indicative of the assumption that baking was a female activity. Has he not seen the prevalence of male finalists in previous years? That the series is gender balanced to begin with and baking is judged on talent alone? That seeing women outnumber men on a prime time TV show is still a flipping rarity in Britain??

Another friend posted a link to Ruby’s column this morning, with the comment “now to face up to this in the church too”. I couldn’t agree more. If the world of food has become gendered, how much more is the church? Are “female tears” derided? Is self-assurance seen as smugness or malice? Is there still the assumption that if there’s food to be cooked, women will do it? I’m sure you can come up with your own answers…

Great-British-Bake-Off-2165415Farewell, class of 2013! (Incidentally, did anyone else notice Deborah’s brilliant new hairstyle in the final?) 

Back to the Bake Off. I have a suggestion for the BBC (well two, see above idea of the James & Sue Baking Show). The Bake Off moves to BBC1 next year, now that it’s considered to be mainstream enough. So, how about we make a bit more of the final? This year, there was a rumour that the winner had been leaked – so avoiding a repeat of this would be ideal. A good way to do this would be to make the final a live one.

It sounds ridiculous, I know, but actually perfectly doable. Have the same tents in Somerset, broadcast the day’s baking (perhaps just the showstopper) via the BBC’s red button so you can dip in and out whenever you want to. A friend even suggested multiple ‘oven cams’ so you could choose which cake you wanted to watch rising. Then at the end of the day, BBC1 could broadcast the judge’s decision live. Fabulous. What do you think, BBC?

Oh, and for those who don’t know, my favourite won. Frances made a gorgeous wedding cake and looked stunned when she received her celebratory cake stand. There were audible whoops of joy from my living room. Until next year, Paul & Mary…