The Great British Bake Off - like The X Factor – but with cake
Millions will be gripped by tonight’s final on BBC Two of The Great British Bake Off.
Let them eat cake... the jaunty presenters of 'The Great British Bake Off’, Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc Photo: BBCBy Sarah Rainey
The chocolate roulade made me cry. It was a Tuesday evening, just after dinner, and I was glued to the sofa, bawling over a wonky roulade. And it wasn’t even mine.
The roulade belonged to Janet, a grandmother from Liverpool, who I’ve never met, but who has become a big part of my life over the past eight weeks. Despite her best efforts to roll the sponge into a spiral, the unruly pudding fell apart, spilling whipped cream everywhere, leaving Janet – and me – reaching for a hanky.
Fans of The Great British Bake Off will understand. For two months now, many of us have become over-emotional on Tuesday evenings. From soggy-bottomed quiches to deflated cupcakes, I have struggled to hold it together as cakes collapsed and sugar roses unravelled. Surely I wasn’t the only one in tears when Yasmin burnt her fingers on the caramel, or when Rob’s perfect Genoese sponge smashed on the floor? Baking doesn’t get tougher than this.
For anyone who has missed the doughy delights of the Bake Off, it is the cake lover’s X Factor. Over eight episodes, 12 hopefuls from across the UK have tried their hand at buns, biscuits and all manner of complicated patisserie in a bid to be crowned Britain’s best amateur baker. So what, you ask; surely a bit of flour and eggs can’t be that intense? Oh, but it is.
Now in its second series, the Bake Off has elevated the humble cake into a work of art. Judged by Mary Berry, the Queen of Baking, and the silver-haired Paul Hollywood (who has made scones for royalty) this contest is as intense as it gets. A crumb out of place, an over-baked pastry or a misshapen biscuit is enough for a contestant to be sent back to baking obscurity. Just look at what happened to poor Janet.
Tonight, nearly four million of us will be perched on the edge of our sofas as the finalists knead, stir and mould their way to the title. The Bake Off has become a cultural phenomenon, with two spin-off recipe books that have outsold Jamie Oliver’s in the top 10. During one episode last month, the ingredients for a Victoria sandwich even started trending on Twitter. But why has a show about cakes got us so hooked?
“I think it’s the contestants that make it so likeable,” says judge Mary, who has written more than 70 cookery books. “People start liking one baker and they have to keep watching to see what they’ll make next. None of them have any commercial experience so it’s exciting to see a real star emerge.”
From housewife Mary-Anne – who was a professional rugby player – to Jason, a 19-year-old engineering student from Croydon, the contestants are what makes the Bake Off unique. More than 4,000 people from all walks of life applied to take part in the first series, leaving Mary and Paul with the tough job of deciding who would make the initial line-up of 12. Forget Sophie Dahl’s flawless skin or Nigella’s in-your-face curves: these are real people with a real passion for calorie-busting food.
The whole concept of the Bake Off is refreshingly homemade: the bakers, who – like the rest of us – haven’t a clue what hot water crust pastry is; the judges, who love puddings even more than Masterchef’s Gregg Wallace; the jaunty style of presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins (“That croissant looks like a neck support”). And there are no unnaturally clean worktops or glossy kitchens in sight: the series is filmed inside a tent pitched in a garden in Redbridge. Delia would be proud.
The Bake Off also comes at a time when home baking is in the midst of a major resurgence. Cupcake shops are popping up on every street corner, while afternoon tea, scones and jam-making are very much back in vogue. Inspired by the floury plights of the contestants on screen, thousands of us are stocking up on muffin trays and piping bags. Just yesterday, the department store John Lewis reported a 46 per cent rise in sales of three-tier cake stands in the past year, with sales of the traditional Wedgwood tea set up by nearly 50 per cent. From vintage crockery to novelty cookie-cutters, the lavish dinner party is being replaced by the homely comforts of a mug of tea and a chocolatey tray bake.
As Mary says: “Baking is something we can all enjoy. With a recession on, people are out of work and they’ve started baking to relax and save money. It’s cheap and it’s enjoyable.”
But isn’t it stressful for the Bake Off contestants? “It’s a matter of timing,” she explains. “The tension sets in when they can’t do it in the time we give them. The bakers take it all in good spirit; they don’t cry when something drops. They just smile and pop it back on the table to be judged.”
This undeniably British attitude is what gives the Bake Off its charm. And the three finalists couldn’t be more charming. There is Essex mother-of-three Jo Wheatley, who bakes up to 10 times a week, and produces the prettiest, pinkest cakes in the competition. Then there’s super chef Holly Bell, this year’s favourite, who wowed the judges with her farmyard sponge and has been crowned star baker twice in a row. Making up the final three is cake fanatic Mary-Anne Boermans, a Welsh housewife who has confessed to owning 700 recipe books. Polite and always cheerful, all three have proven their ability to stay calm when things get hot in the kitchen.
As someone who has baked since the age of eight, I don’t know how they do it. My lemon drizzle cake and hazelnut macaroons are far from perfect. My muffins don’t rise, my pies sink in the middle and sometimes I have to throw my cake mix in the bin. The thought of subjecting my chocolate chip cookies to Mary and Paul’s milk-curdling criticism fills me with dread.
In the final episode, the remaining three hopefuls are catering for a street party – so expect petit fours, crumbles and meringue nests galore. Holly, Jo and Mary-Anne, I salute you. But I don’t envy you. Tonight, I intend to pour a glass of wine, put my feet up and spend the next hour on a sugar high, fighting an overwhelming urge to lick the screen.
The final of 'The Great British Bake Off’ is on BBC Two tonight at 8pm.
MARY BERRY'S PERFECT VICTORIA SPONGE
4 free-range eggs
225g caster sugar, plus a little extra for dusting
225g self-raising flour
2 tsp baking powder
225g soft butter at room temperature
good-quality strawberry or raspberry jam
whipped double cream
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.
2 Grease and line 2 x 20cm cakes. Use baking paper to rub a little butter around the inside of the tins. Line the bottom with a circle of baking paper.
3 Break the eggs into a large mixing bowl, then add the sugar, flour, baking powder and butter.
4 Mix everything together until well combined. Put a damp cloth under your bowl when you’re mixing to stop it moving around. Be careful not to over-mix. The finished mixture should be of a soft 'dropping’ consistency.
5 Divide the mixture evenly between the tins. Use a spatula to remove the mixture from the bowl and gently smooth the surface of the cakes.
6 Place the tins on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Don’t be tempted to open the door while they’re cooking, but check them after 20 minutes.
7 The cakes are done when they are golden-brown and coming away from the edge of the tins. Press them gently to check – they should be springy to the touch. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool for five minutes. Then run a palette or rounded butter knife around the inside edge of the tin and turn out on to a cooling rack.
8 To assemble the sandwich, place one cake upside down onto a plate and spread with plenty of jam. Then spread a layer of whipped cream on top.
9 Top with the second cake, top-side up. Sprinkle with caster sugar to serve.