My wife Jo, who is a knitwear designer, had the privilege of selling a jumper to Saint Mary Berry earlier this year, and the great woman promised to wear it on The Great British Bake Off, so naturally we had to watch every single minute of every single episode with intense care in the hope of spotting it. But she never wore it, probably because the temperature in the marquee during the competition never seemed to go below 30C, which was of course part of the cause of Baked Alaskagate.
Like most people I was charmed by the competition, but my overriding feeling was of relief that I wasn't a contestant. OK, yes, better than being roasted alive on Come Dine With Me. But It's not that I'm not competitive. Tennis yes, pool just about, Monopoly if I have to, but cooking surely not. One of the joys of cooking is that it's not competitive. And cooking against the clock, ugh. I can't think of anything worse than having two minutes to attach an over-ambitious sculptured icing folly to a cake that's still hot, and watching it melt down the sides like a Salvador Dali painting. And then there's the ghastly imperative for complexity, a curious kind of obsessive over-elaboration that was the legacy of Middle Europe in the early part of the 20th century, was then championed by the Cordon Bleu Tendency in the 50s, and seemed to be in terminal decline by the end of the 60s as people discovered the perfect simplicity of Mediterranean cookery. Personally I don't even like iced cakes.
Of course there's the desire for personal betterment (which, by the way, I gather, is the actual meaning of the word jihad', it's just got rather twisted), that drives people to do marathons and pay money to be insulted by Hanif Kurieshi, and of course there's nothing wrong with trying to better oneself, but not in front of Paul Hollywood surely. I was continually surprised by the contestants' intense humility when confronted by his withering critiques. I was fully expecting (translation: was desperate) to see someone take revenge with a slightly sub-standard Sachertorte.
So, in response, some easy baking recipes.
It's worth saying that whereas in most aspects of cooking there is a large amount of leeway, in baking accuracy is more important: quantities, method (for example, beating egg whites), oven temperatures, baking times. So it's worth following the recipes with some care, and being prepared to adjust the timings to suit your oven.
Granola an update on the recipe in my book.
90ml sunflower oil
Generous tsp ground cinnamon
Scant tsp salt
340g jumbo oats
80g whole skin-on almonds + a few hazelnuts
90g sunflower seeds
90g pumpkin seeds
8 dried apricots, sliced thinly
Heat the oven to 160C.
Put in the water, oil, honey, cinnamon and salt in a small saucepan and heat it till the sugar dissolves. Measure out the oats, almonds and seeds into the largest possible baking tray. Mix in the syrup thoroughly. Spread out the mixture evenly.
Bake for 35 minutes altogether. Half way through, take the granola out of the oven, break up any lumps and mix it around. At the end, turn off the oven, prop the door slightly ajar, and leave for 15 minutes.
When the granola comes out of the oven, thoroughly mix it again, adding the raisins and dried apricots.
Cheese Souffl (serves four)
A souffl easy? Oh really? Try it!
2 tbsp plain flour
300ml hot milk
100g grated Cheddar
70g grated Parmesan
Pinch cayenne pepper
A scraping of grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
A little extra grated Cheddar
Heat the oven to 200C.
The souffl dish should hold about a litre. Thin china works better than thick.
Make a cheese sauce: melt the butter over a gentle heat, and cook the flour in it for a couple of minutes without letting it colour. Gradually add the milk, stirring continuously, and simmer for about five minutes until the sauce is smooth and thick. Add the cheese, the cayenne, the nutmeg and the salt and pepper, and stir well.
Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks into the sauce, and let the mixture cool to lukewarm. Add a pinch of salt to the whites and beat with a balloon whisk until they stand up in soft peaks that hold their shape. Stir a couple of tablespoons of the whisked whites into the cheese mixture to loosen it up, and then, using a rubber spatula, very lightly fold in the rest of the whites.
Butter a souffl dish and sprinkle in a little grated cheddar. Pour in the mixture. Make a deep groove in the surface about 2cm from the rim the idea being to make the souffl rise like a cottage loaf. Bake for 25 minutes, or if you're feeling brave, slightly less. The middle should be slightly runny.
Try using Gruyre instead of Cheddar.
It used to be that in London you were never more than two metres from a rat. Now you're never more than two metres from a chocolate brownie which is a mild improvement. Try this alternative.
125g butter, melted
225g soft brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
tsp vanilla essence
200g self-raising flour
100g chopped walnuts
Heat the oven to 180C.
Mix the melted butter, sugar, egg, salt and vanilla essence. Add the flour and walnuts, and mix well.
Butter a tart tin (approximately 20cm x 20cm) and spread out the mixture into it. Bake for 20 minutes. The inside should still be slightly runny. Cut into squares and leave to cool.
It's true to say that cooking any of these recipes on Bake Off would ensure a severe Hollywooding and an early exit on grounds of lack of ambition, but let's leave them to their Mohnstrudels and get on with our lives.
Words by Orlando Gough