Has our love affair with baking peaked?
'The Great British Bake Off' is back on our screens tomorrow, but with TV3 shelving a fourth series of the Irish version, Ros Drinkwater asks if we're still obsessed with all things baking
This week sees the return of BBC's 'The Great British Bake Off', last year's most-watched programme on TV, and it would seem people's fascination with whipping up cakes and pastries is showing no sign of abating. The winner of last year's 'Bake Off', Nadiya Hussain, has been named one of the 500 most influential people in the UK by Debrett's, and her new two-part travel-cookery show debuts on BBC tomorrow.
But last week TV3 announced that it plans to shelve the fourth series of 'The Great Irish Bake Off' this autumn. Has Ireland's love affair with the mixing bowl peaked?
The great thing about baking is the sheer breadth of its appeal. Dublin psychotherapist Gayle Williamson sees it as a creative outlet that balances the heavy demands of her career. That it's the one domestic skill women haven't tried to distance themselves from in the equality upsurge doesn't surprise her.
"Cakes make people happy and there's nothing nicer than watching someone enjoy what you've baked," she says. "What I don't agree with is the way the message goes out that the process is scientific and that you must stick to the rules.
"I tinker with recipes all the time - many of them have too much sugar. I also think too much emphasis is put on how a cake looks. It doesn't have to be perfect. So what if the icing is a little bit uneven? The flavour is what really matters."
In Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, Gillian O'Gorman likes baking up a storm - as do her sons, 17-year-old Seanan, presently studying home economics, 15-year-old Fiann, who baked his first cake aged 12, and 12-year-old Fiachra, who now makes the family's breakfast pancakes.
"It's relaxing and so fulfilling. We all love experimenting. Any time we're at a loss for something to do - we bake," says Gillian.
"I learned from my mother and treasure her recipe book, but I also like Delia Smith and Rachel Allen.
"Fiann has a recipe app on his phone. As a small boy he loved Lego and anything that entailed following close instructions, so he took to baking from that first coffee cake.
"We're very much into healthy eating and use only fresh, natural ingredients, so we're planning to get our own hens for fresh eggs," she adds.
The whole family laps up the baking programmes on TV. "It's so cool watching them bake a cake under pressure," chips in Seanan.
At which point Fiachra puts a plate in front of me and there's a pause while I sample Gillian's Quick Cinnamon Crumble cake, made from a Rachel Allen recipe. It's moist, sweet without being too sweet, and the masterstroke is the crumbly topping of brown-sugared porridge oats - melt-in-the-mouth delicious.
Years before 'The Great British Bake Off', two enterprising young women opened Dubliners' eyes to the magic that can come out of an oven - Yvonne Fallon of Queen of Tarts Café, which opened in 1998, and Michelle Darmody of The Cake Café, which opened in 2006.
Both learned to bake at their mother's knee and both studied in the United States before returning to Ireland set up their businesses.
"The basic appeal of baking lies in the sheer physicality of getting your hands in ingredients in a bowl," says Yvonne.
"It offers such a contrast to the technology that so dominates our lives. The other day a customer on her way home from work on a Friday evening confided that she planned to spend the weekend baking. 'I love to bake,' she said, 'it's so de-stressing.'
"Baking takes a lot of us back to our childhoods. My mother didn't bake a cake - she filled the kitchen with them, sponge cakes, fruit tarts in those blue-rimmed white enamel tins. When I was 11, I got a part-time job and used my wages to buy a mixer - that took it all to a new level.
"In 1998, when we opened, we did no marketing or promotion whatsoever and back then there was no internet so no social media, but word of mouth got us going and soon they were queuing up for Victoria sponges and apple and cinnamon tarts."
Michelle Darmody has happy memories of setting off to school in Cork with home-baked banana bread in her packed lunch.
"Mum and dad both baked and I loved being in the kitchen - what's more comforting than the smell of baking?
"Baking is one of life's small pleasures. It's attainable, and you're creating something to share with other people - no one makes a cake to eat by themselves."
Two years after opening, such was the demand for recipes, Michelle started evening cookery classes.
"We get a very eclectic mix, from professionals to teenagers - social media has played a huge role in attracting youngsters. What they learn is that the secret of successful baking starts with the quality of the ingredients: Irish butter, free range eggs and everything done naturally, even the lemons are hand-zested."
As judge on 'The Great Irish Bake Off', Paul Kelly, executive pastry chef at the Merrion Hotel, has the measure of the Irish as cake bakers.
"They are fantastic. I've been blown away by the talent I've seen both at home and abroad. Last year, Karen Keaney of Roses and Bows Cakery won first prize at the Global Cake Challenge in Florida, and the president of the judges at France's most prestigious baking competition, the Coupe de Monde de la Boulangerie, is Irishman Jimmy Griffin."
The cakes Kelly dreams up for guests' afternoon teas have to be the most sophisticated on the planet - they are all inspired by the Merrion's art collection, one of the finest in Ireland.
"Hopefully, in the future, 'The Great Irish Bake Off' will re-appear on our screens," he says. "It is a very personal view of regular people going through extraordinary challenges. The show has encouraged so many to give baking a go.
"For some, it's the perfect opportunity to relax, for others it's the ideal career change. Either way, baking is in our blood here in Ireland and we should be encouraged to develop this passion."
Paul's tips for the baking novice
"In cooking, you'll often see a chef throw in a pinch of this, a handful of that, you can't do that with baking - success is all down to precision," says Paul, executive pastry chef at Dublin's Merrion Hotel.
• Follow the recipe, i.e. the exact amount of the right ingredients and the oven at the correct temperature
• Get to know your oven - you may fall down the first time - but persevere and you'll find you've created something quite magical