‘Great British Bake Off’ has home chefs trying creative confections

In a big white tent nestled in the green fields of the English countryside, six bakers were putting
Victoria Spongecake is one of the classic desserts repopularized thanks to "The Great British Bake Off" television show. (The New York Times)
Victoria Spongecake is one of the classic desserts repopularized thanks to "The Great British Bake Off" television show. (The New York Times)

LONDON — In a big white tent nestled in the green fields of the English countryside, six bakers were putting their signature spin on dinner rolls.

They fretted over rising times and knelt, prayerlike, in front of their portable ovens, hoping to avoid the dreaded soggy bottoms the judges disdained. Wasps buzzed in their midst, looking for something sweet and sticky on which to land.

It was a familiar scene to fans of “The Great British Bake Off.” The episode in progress, part of a holiday series that will air in the United States in December, was being shot at Pinewood Studios in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, outside London.

The news would soon break that the shockingly popular baking competition was sold away from BBC to the glitzier and deeper-pocketed Channel 4. The two punning hosts, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, and the elegant and deeply knowledgeable octogenarian judge, Mary Berry, would all quit in allegiance to the BBC, while the remaining judge, Paul Hollywood, would agree to continue with the show.

A riotous British media to-do would ensue: Would the show survive without Mary, Sue and Mel, and did Channel 4 really just pay 75 million pounds for Paul Hollywood and a tent?

But that was all to come. For the moment, the only source of suspense was the yeast.

In the six years it has been on the air, “The Great British Bake Off” has fundamentally changed the way the British regard baking, dessert-eating and even their own culture of sweets. The “Bake Off Effect,” as it is known, has manifested in a resurgence in home baking, a noticeable increase in the quality of baked goods sold all over the country, and a growing number of people pursuing careers as professional pastry chefs.

Just as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay increased the allure of British chefs, Berry and Hollywood have reinvigorated the bakers. It’s a golden age for baking in Britain, both for pastries and for their sweet-toothed fans.

Moreover, the bake-off, with its multicultural roster of contestants, has put forward a contemporary vision of Britishness that emphasizes diversity and inclusiveness.

Mixed group

Although the premise of the show is overtly nostalgic — all of the baking is done outside in a tent hung with cheery Union Jack bunting, alluding to the tradition of a village festival — the contestants are a culturally and ethnically mixed group.

There was Norman Calder from Portknockie, Scotland, with his haggis pie; Tamal Ray, an anesthesiologist of Indian descent from Hertfordshire, who used syringes to infuse syrup into pastries; and Jane Beedle, a garden designer from London, who perfected the lemon poppy seed drizzle cake. And, most prominently, there was Nadiya Hussain, the Season 6 winner, who was born in Luton to a family of Bangladeshi immigrants and who wears a hijab. Hussain triumphed with creations like cayenne gingerbread and cream puff towers in bubble gum and peppermint flavors.

About 8,000 bakers apply for each season. After sorting out the best of the bunch, the producers then narrow down that group to arrive at a mix that represents a range of ages, races and professions from different parts of Britain.

“It’s the opposite of the superficiality you usually see in television casting in that we aren’t necessarily choosing people with the biggest personalities,” said Richard McKerrow, a founder of Love Productions, which produces the show. “The show is one of the most uncynical and enjoyable looks at people. You’re looking at a bus driver, a builder, a doctor, just as long as they are great bakers.”

Back in her dressing room behind the tent, Berry said that the main reason for the show’s success is that baking holds a universal, wholesome appeal.

“You have whole families from all different cultures and across the generations, the grannies, the babes in arms, everyone, who can sit down to watch it and know that there will be no swearing, that it’s a family show,” she said. “The children especially love it because it’s full of brandy snaps and other sweet things that they can’t wait to run home after school and have a go at making themselves.”

Nobody expected a baking competition to become one of the top-rated shows on British television, reaching its peak audience of 15 million viewers with the Season 6 finale last year. (The most recent three seasons of the show began airing in the United States in 2014 on PBS as “The Great British Baking Show” because “Bake-Off” is a trademark of Pillsbury.)

It did, however, come at a time when British cuisine overall had reached a high point. Restaurants all over the country were rethinking what it meant to serve British food, both by looking outward at international ingredients and influences, and inward, going back to artisanal traditions and classic but neglected recipes.

What made that thrilling was the mixing of flavors and references, the likes of black pudding and partridge (beware of buckshot) sitting next to the scallops in XO sauce and the guindilla peppers on the menu at Brawn restaurant in London.

Stodgy desserts

Desserts, however, hadn’t been keeping up for the most part, remaining resolutely stodgy and “Continental” — tiramisu and chocolate mousse cakes — at fancy restaurants, and generally uninspired at bakeries and tea shops. Before the bake-off, it was nearly impossible to find classic British sweets like Victoria sponge sandwiches, Eccles cakes and Bakewell tarts unless you or your granny made them at home.

As recently as 2005, when American pastry chef Claire Ptak started Violet Cakes at a stall in the Broadway Market in East London, most British cake shops were rather unremarkable, as she recalled.

“You could find British cakes in twee little tea shops with lace doilies and such, but they were often dry,” she recalled. “There was a lot of stale cake going on back then.”

But that all changed after the show first aired in 2010. “The same stale sponges wouldn’t do anymore,” Ptak said. “Everyone became excited and interested in trying new things, whether it was spelt flour, orange blossom water or star anise.”

As the show’s audience grew steadily, interest in home baking had a marked renaissance. Masses of people who had never held a whisk were now convinced that making marzipan-covered princess cakes was the most fulfilling way they could spend their weekend.

Noting an uptick in sales of baking supplies, supermarkets and baking supply stores have been quick to respond by expanding their offerings. After the gingerbread episode aired, Hobbycraft, a crafts, baking and arts supply store, reported a 30 percent increase in the sale of icing piping tools. And Waitrose supermarkets reported that baking tray purchases increased a staggering 881 percent since the series began.

Zoe Tew, who manages the Mrs King’s Pork Pies stall at Borough Market in London, said that for a longtime committed home baker like herself, this greater interest in home baking was both good and bad.

“The good bit is that supermarkets have doubled the size of their baking sections,” she said. “But I find it annoying because baking, that’s always been my thing. Now it’s everybody’s thing.”

Knowledge spreads

Cherish Finden, the executive pastry chef of the Langham Hotel in the West End and a judge on the BBC spinoff, “Bake Off: Creme de la Creme,” which focuses on professional pastry chefs, has been struck by her customers’ increasingly perceptive insights into the confections she serves for the hotel’s afternoon tea.

“A lot of people who come in really appreciate flavors in a more conscious way,” she said. “They can evaluate the acidity and balance in a pastry, and understand how the yuzu blends with the chocolate. Then they want to go home and try baking it themselves. Even home bakers who might have stuck with Eton mess in the past are trying their hands at macarons.”

She’s also seen more interest in careers in pastry from younger people, who have been requesting apprenticeships in ever-growing numbers since the show aired.

Hobbyists hoping to deepen their baking skills are finding help in weekend classes. Bread Ahead bakery in London offers a Great British Baking Workshop, which gives lessons in potato farl from Northern Ireland and fruit and tea loaf from Wales.

“We used to call it the Celtic baking class,” said Matthew Jones, the bakery’s founder, “but after the success of the show, we rebranded.”

In a way, rebranding is at the very soul of “The Great British Bake Off,” a reconsideration of everything that British baking can be. Chetna Makan, a semifinalist in Season 5 who moved from Mumbai to Kent in 2004, charmed the audience with her inspired use of fenugreek, cardamom and turmeric.

“Every week I tried to bake something with flavors that maybe Mary and Paul hadn’t tasted,” she said. “I really wanted them to fall in love with what I made.”

Makan called being on the show “the opposite of ‘Brexit.’ ”

“It’s so different from the picture ‘Brexit’ painted, that the British want their nation back and that they want us out,” she said.

That’s not how it actually feels, Makan said, both in the tent and outside of it.

“It was the most welcoming, warm place, that showed unity and love among the competitors,” she said. “The “Bake Off’ has had such a positive effect on people’s lives, certainly for the people on the show, but also for the people watching.”

Lemon Drizzle Cake

Yield: 24 servings

Total time: 45 minutes, plus cooling time

1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened, more for greasing pan

2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

51⁄2 teaspoons baking powder

1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt

Finely grated zest and juice of 21⁄2 lemons

21⁄4 cups granulated sugar

4 large eggs

1⁄4 cup whole milk

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees and place a rack in the center. Grease a 9-by-12-inch baking pan and line with parchment paper, allowing a 2-inch overhang on the long sides.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt and lemon zest.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together butter and half of the sugar (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until incorporated, then beat in milk, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary (mixture will look curdled, and that’s OK). Mix in flour mixture until combined, then scrape into prepared baking pan, smoothing the top.

4. Bake until golden brown and springy, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then use the paper overhang to lift the cake out of the pan; transfer to wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet and carefully remove paper.

5. While cake bakes, in a small bowl mix together remaining half of the sugar (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) and enough lemon juice to make a runny mixture. While cake is still warm, spoon the sugar mixture evenly over the top. (The cake has to be cooled slightly to prevent topping from melting, but warm enough that it soaks into the cake, leaving a crunchy sugar coat on top.) Let cool, then cut into squares.

Victoria Spongecake

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Total time: 50 minutes, plus an hour’s cooling

12 tablespoons unsalted butter (11⁄2 sticks), softened, more for greasing pan

11⁄3 cups all-purpose flour

31⁄4 teaspoons baking powder

1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt

3⁄4 cups plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 large eggs, at room temperature

2 tablespoons whole milk

1⁄2 cup raspberry jam, more to taste

1 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar, more for dusting

1⁄4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the center. Grease and line the bottoms of two 8-inch round cake pans with parchment paper.

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt.

3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until incorporated, then beat in milk, scraping down sides of the bowl as necessary. Mix in flour mixture until combined, then scrape into prepared cake pans, smoothing the top.

4. Bake cakes until golden brown and springy, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then unmold them onto a wire rack to cool completely, flat side down.

5. Transfer one cake (the less attractive one) to a serving platter, and spread jam evenly on top. In the bowl of an electric mixer, whip cream, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla just until it holds stiff peaks. Dollop about half the cream on top of jam, then top with remaining cake. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve immediately, with the extra whipped cream on the side.

Categories: Food

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