Bake Off is back and this week I had the pleasure of creating a cake to celebrate its tenth birthday. Drawing inspiration from the chocolate Showstopper I baked in my first week in the famous tent, I revisited the Black Forest and took pleasure once more in a little ‘bear handling’. When I first modelled Paul the Bake Off Bear in chocolate, I did it with one hand bandaged in blue plasters. I’d managed to cut my thumb badly, literally minutes into my Bake Off experience. This time was much easier. So here he is again, ready to celebrate with his own little cake. If he looks a little apprehensive it’s probably nothing compared with the new batch of bakers making their debut. There’ll be tears, there’ll be triumphs but Paul (and I) wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
As the sun sets on another year of summer food festivals, I marked my September finale at Arley Hall with a very special demonstration. Dedicated to the compere without compare, Katie Johnson, I reflected on a conversation we’d had some months earlier about memorable meals, when she recalled her favourite childhood dish - her mum’s ginger pudding with white sauce. Now Katie has been part mentor, part muse and a total friend for nearly five years. She and her husband Glyn are the driving force behind Wot’s Cooking, providing demo kitchens for events across the country. Katie in particular has encouraged me to ‘be myself’ on stage, resulting in some very ‘memorable’ performances.
Having devised a recipe for ginger pudding, I turned my thoughts to the all but forgotten creation that is sweet white sauce. Most of us can knock up a custard but I had to go back in time to rediscover this particular pudding accompaniment. I found it in my late nan’s copy of ‘Cookery Illustrated and Household Management’ published in 1936, which I regularly turn to whenever I want to check how to roast a ptarmigan or remove freckles with curdled milk.
Katie was clearly touched when onstage I finally revealed what I was making. We worked through the ancient sauce instructions and… it was pretty good. If you fancy having a go at my version of this pud, the recipe is here.
And if you’re looking for the best compere I know… you really can’t do better than Katie!
On May 19th, I found myself sharing my birthday with celebrations to mark the latest royal wedding. Armed with a (happy) couple of boxes of cupcakes, I made a return visit to the lovely Gifford Lea retirement village on the outskirts of Chester for a special live broadcast of Harry and Meghan's big day. Suitably bedecked in bunting (that's Gifford Lea, not me), a big screen and an even bigger marquee welcomed local residents and the wider community.
Hearing the much-reported flavours of the royal cake, I worked on a recipe for lemon cupcakes, artfully piped with an elderflower buttercream. Researching the elder flower (to reproduce something like it for decoration) I soon uncovered my botanical ignorance. For years I'd mistaken white fronds of hawthorn, cow parsley and others for elderflowers, shamefully realising that elder flowers actually grow on elder trees. Duh!
In my defence, I'd been somewhat confused by reports that the royal baker would be incorporating flowers from the Sandringham estate, which suggested that Her Majesty had managed to personally commission Mother Nature to deliver an early crop of the late-May-flowering plant.
In the end, it turns out baker, Claire Ptak, relied upon bottles of elderflower cordial to flavour her buttercream, as did I. (Excuse the slightly smug expression on my face). The cakes were a great success and Gifford Lea's lovely Sue and I rounded off the day by delivering cake to residents who hadn't been able to get out. One cheery lady answered the door in a very patriotic outfit, recounting the highlights of a glorious day. As we left, Sue said, "You should see her father... he's 102 and still wears a suit to go to the gym". A truly inspirational elder!
Always good to have a title that grabs your attention.
On Sunday 25th February I'll be pulling on my shorts to raise money for the Sussex Beacon - a fantastic charity that provides care and support for people living with HIV. Sadly, donning sportswear is not sufficient impetus for people to throw money at me. Which is a pity really; if I had a pound for every time someone's smiled at the sight of my pale little legs, I'd be quids in. No, in order to get the cash flowing in, I need to go the extra mile (well, 13.1 to be precise) and take on the Brighton Half Marathon.
It's my first ever proper run, so who knows what to expect. I'm just hoping for an impressive little bulge in the Beacon coffers. Aren't we all?
To help boost this worthy endowment, please donate at my Just Giving page here!
One of the classiest hotels in London played host recently to a fabulous coffee morning for Macmillan cancer support. The Royal Horseguards Hotel opened its perfectly polished doors to offer a little embankment of sweet treats, alongside a virtual river of tea and coffee. Bravely risking their patisserie reputation, the hotel kitchen allowed me to whip up two recipes including my Mochaccino Wafer Cake which I finished off with a cocoa dusting of the hotel group's logo. With a guest appearance from actor Alex Macqueen we raised plenty of smiles along with some much-needed cash. Alex was particularly complimentary about my gingerbread biscuits, which were sparkling and star-shaped to suit the venue's starry status.
Time and again I've told myself, "Do not agree to make another wedding cake". After days (if not weeks) of designing, planning, sugar-crafting... not forgetting the baking, filling, icing and decorating... (oh, and the tasting session to make sure they're happy with the flavours) the big day arrives when the creation has to be boxed, transported and assembled. The pressure is immense - the hopefully happy couple have placed their trust in a man with a reputation for baking disasters. What were they thinking? Every cake becomes a challenge - to prove my worth. So I overcompensate, putting in a few more hours work, and the prospect of a profit dwindles.
And yes I know there are people reading this who will tell me (and do tell me) I should charge more, but I frankly admit I'm not good at business. I hate to think of the newlyweds having money worries. Weddings are expensive enough without me adding to their woes. Which is why, having produced this countryside cake for the lovely Em and Sam, I'm still agonising over the price. Fortunately, I've only committed myself to one more wedding cake this year. Just a small two-tiered one, with ombré hearts... and seventy cupcakes... oh, and individual biscuits for wedding favours. "Of course I'll bag them and tie ribbons on. All part of the service."
If you had the dubious pleasure of witnessing my festive return to the Bake Off tent, then let me firstly apologise. I had every good intention of doing better.
A week before filming, I awoke early to carefully check my timings in an impressively organised spreadsheet. Adding up the time to produce twelve miniature trifles with cranberry compote and crème anglaise, a dozen gingerbread biscuit houses with baked cheesecake gardens and the same number of little stollen, I suddenly felt a wave of anxiety, akin to a bout of Bake Off morning sickness. I pushed my bowl of porridge away, unable to stomach another mouthful. Even if I did away with those individual pots of clementine curd, the candied grapefruit slices, white chocolate snow-capped roofs and gilded pistachios, I'd still be cutting it fine. And by 'cutting it fine', I really mean, 'I actually can't do this in time'. I joked to the production team about needing a Christmas miracle, hoping that someone would say, "Don't worry Howard - these are Christmas specials - you can actually take as long as you need". Nobody said anything so comforting.
On the day of filming, I abandoned the clementine curd, only half-candied my grapefruit and got as far as melting some white chocolate. Still whisking my ten-minute custard after half an hour, my dream of gilding something (anything) in the Bake Off tent remained unfulfilled and the poor pistachios flaunted their disappointment. (Warning - naked nuts may cause bakers to choke back the tears.)
Nevertheless, a little TV exposure - however embarrassing - has drawn an impressive flurry of interest, so it looks like I'll be back on the road again, demoing in my own inimitable way. My perfectly simple Summer Swiss Roll will be making an appearance, but I'm thinking of zhooshing it up with some hand-carved strawberry roses and a little cherry ladybird. I'm sure I can do it in time.
It's been a busy baking year! Travelling the length and breadth of the country, I've stirred my stuff from the southern coast of Milford on Sea to the northern hills of Ingleton. My general sense of direction may be no better but I'm on the verge of intimacy with a Midlands-ish swathe that's been kind enough to invite me back time and again - from Ludlow to Kettering - and a popular patch around Cheshire.
Foodie events are full of lovely people (ignoring a startlingly aggressive woman who thought I'd pushed in to the pizza queue) and it's no surprise I left my heart in places like Southam. Sadly, I also left two baking trays in Rugby and four whisk beaters in Liverpool - I do wish I could be more organised.
By now, the 'season' was due to have finished, but it feels like we're all in need of a little festivity. So Northampton's first Winter Food Festival saw the debut of this little robin, perched wistfully on a chocolate, chestnut and cherry Swiss roll. Friends have commented that it looks a little too round to fly - frankly it's hard enough even walking with a cocktail stick up its bum. As for me, I'm back on the road for yet more baking before winging my way south for Christmas. Then a little hibernation would be very welcome.
I'll be showing you how to make this festive roll (and robin) at two special events in London on Saturday 10 December. If you'd like to join one of the classes, just click here.
Isn't 'legume' a lovely word? It sounds languid and louche and not at all like a prim and proper pod dweller. Anyway, as 2016 is the international year of pulses (I kid you not), I've 'bean experimenting'. The legume family has been pulverised for centuries, producing gluten-free flours that are at the heart of Indian, North African and South European cuisines, but despite being a nation of green and pleasant land lovers, the nearest the UK has come to such culinary crushing is mushy peas.
Not any more - British company Hodmedod's (another lovely word that means curled up like a snail or hedgehog) now has its fingers on the pulse, producing homegrown pea and bean products that includes a range of flours.
I'm particularly partial to their finely ground green pea flour - the perfect partner for fishy dishes, it's ideal for thickening a parsley sauce or to add creamy substance to a piscine pie. Unsurprisingly, it's also good company for vegetables - particularly peas. Experimenting with a minty petits pois vibe, I baked a verdant shortcrust in tiny barquette tins for these perfectly petite canapés. The recipe is here on the Great British Chefs website.
Oh, and if the mention of fava beans only conjures up the cinematic spectre of Lecter, try my lip smacking flatbreads. The chianti is optional.
The sun rises on a beautiful Oklahoma morning, where the corn is as high as an elephant's eye. Having never been to the States, I source this information second-hand, albeit from the reliable source of Rogers and Hammerstein.
This sunny crop has been popping up quite a lot in my baking recently. Though Brits are familiar with the starchy thickener we call cornflour (an invaluable gluten-free flour itself), I've been mixing things up with the golden variety. Sometimes called maize flour or fine cornmeal (think crushed polenta), bags are cropping up in major supermarkets and health food stores. An impressively versatile flour, I've tipped my stetson at its culinary heritage to produce chocolate chip cookies and cornbread muffins - the latter studded with nuggets of frazzled bacon and laced with maple syrup. Not forgetting Golden Hummingbird Cake - a southern belle that really needs to be sliced and proffered with a tray of mint juleps and a hospitable drawl.
If your corn experience is limited to a liaison with a jolly green giant, then prepare to be a-maized.
It's been a very dry January. After the excesses of 2015, Peter and I decided to bin the booze this month. You can't ignore the horror stories about red wine's calorie content for ever. I'm not reaching for the calculator but I reckon we'd been regularly consuming the equivalent of a moderately busy branch of Burger King.
The results were plain to see. In an Edinburgh changing room in November, I distinctly heard the mirror tutting with an incisive Scottish brogue. By December, the annual outing of my dress shirt saw the top button literally shooting through the bathroom door in disgust.
Not one to do things by halves, Peter also suggested that we should eat more 'healthily'. So, in our alcohol-free quest, we took no solace in takeaways, pasties, chips and any number of other things that make life worth living. Instead I sought inspiration from unusual ingredients and hoped the creative juices would flow. Generally, it's been successful - I've discovered that baby kale is very tasty, blueberries, red cabbage and dill make a winning coleslaw, and skyr (Iceland's take on yogurt) makes a dreamily creamy low fat dressing. The jury's still out on buckwheat as a salad grain but you can't win 'em all.
My mum says I look 'gaunt' (which means I've lost weight) and 'sad', which is not surprising having been forcibly separated from my dear friend Tempranillo. But abstinence has been rewarded with some unexpected culinary delights. Come February, I'll drink to that.
Our kitchen is not well ventilated. Despite the noisy extractor fan and wide-open windows, a tiny patch of paint on the ceiling is now about to yield and flake. Not surprising really, as the past week has seen the steaming of no less than four plum puddings. Charged with the task of creating a traditional but gluten-free Christmas dessert, I sought inspiration (and solace) from a large bottle of Armagnac. With its notes of prunes and vanilla it was already suggesting ingredients.
Pudding number one was boiled in a beautiful Victorian-style ceramic jelly mould. I anticipated it would bring something different to the table. What it brought was a damp, shapeless mound, unable to conform to its castellated casing.
Pudding two fared better – with tangy forced rhubarb and fresh orange zest, a plastic pudding basin ensured good heat conduction and a shapely finish, but the taste was a little astringent – and a handful of crushed cardamom pods contributed nothing at all.
For pudding three I reduced the quantities of orange and rhubarb, added mellow date syrup and swapped the cardamom for Chinese Five Spice. Boiled again in the plastic bowl, it is the pud you see before you – firm, but still light in texture, subtly-spiced and frankly delicious. I’m proud to see this in the festive recipe collection of Great British Chefs. You may think it's a faff to boil or steam something for so long, but believe me when I say it’s worth it.
So what of pudding number four? The twin of its predecessor, it sits patiently waiting for its final steaming - destined to take a train to Brighton for this year's Christmas feast. Such a shame it can't be a steam train.
I've never learned to drive. Two lessons with Maureen Birtles’ School of Motoring – a wool shop that had diversified into providing driving lessons (or was it the other way round?) – was enough to convince me that I am not cut out to be behind the wheel. Well, that and the traumatic childhood memory of a nasty bump in a dodgem car in Bridlington.
So most of the time I walk, often hauling cake tins in a well-travelled bag-for-life. I've been known to make a Twitter follower's day when they've spotted me, on foot with bakes in transit. #lifemade
When the stakes are high and the cakes are higher (a five-tier wedding cake, for example), we hire a car. Peter drives, of course, and I, ahem… navigate. Did I mention that I struggle with left and right?
The recent reshoot of seven bakes for the cover of my upcoming book, called for a taxi. En route my raspberry and rhubarb roulade got smacked by a wooden pizza board. The photographer and I attempted to revive it like a small animal on the road. It survived long enough to make it the back cover. When the book's published, you'll be able to decide if those strategically placed raspberries are fooling anyone.
But my favourite mode of transport by far is the train. I can track my baking journey by rail - from the complex birthday cakes of my nieces (apologies to Lola for the sugar pavilion that didn't quite endure Sheffield to Brighton) to cross country auditions for the Bake Off. And last month, I ferried nearly 200 gluten-free biscuits by train to Harrogate for a demo at the Cake and Bake Show. On the return journey, I was recognised by another Twitter follower and handed out the leftover biscuits. Next time you travel, just check who's pushing the buffet trolley.
Last weekend's Sheffield Food Festival thrilled with fresh delights. Invited to cruise through the stalls on local radio with Rob, the charming (and surprisingly very tall) winner of The Big Allotment Challenge, I discovered the delights of the black carrot. This somber veg is apparently an original hue of our familiar orange variety, allegedly then cultivated to match the Dutch flag. Actually more purple than black, I chomped on this tasty root and committed to come up with a recipe for my regular slot on Radio Sheffield. Picking up some wonderful cheeses along the way, including a vintage 3-year-old called Knuckleduster, I also discovered a delicious wild garlic pesto. This ramson-rich relish was so captivating that I managed to mention it three times in 15 minutes! So this week's culinary offering was a black carrot and Knuckleduster tartlet with wild garlic pesto (there, I've said it again), which is now in the recipes section. And what next for the black carrot? Well, I'm picturing a carrot cake fit for Donnie Darko. Hop over to the dark side Bugs.
What is it with me and eggs? Long after the nation had forgotten about the Bake Off and my missing custard, eggs continue to cause me problems. Most recently, demoing at the Big Cake Show, I was ably assisted on stage by the lovely Glenn Cosby, who separated three eggs for me and whisked the whites to peak perfection. I cracked on with the rest of the ingredients, twittering away as I spooned the cake batter into the prepared tins. At this point, an observant audience member shouted out, "egg whites!" Yes, true to form, I'd neglected to fold them into the mix. With a calm, slick professionalism rarely seen since Laurel and Hardy, we scraped the mixture out of the tins and tried again. It's not the first time. At a show in Liverpool, I popped a chocolate and ginger bread and butter pudding into the oven and proceeded to whisk eggs for a demo of gluten-free French toast. As I did, a feeling of downfall descended... the pudding in the oven should have had eggs in it too! Explaining my plight to the audience, I realised that their view of a good demo may not be the same as mine. Success is secondary - for sheer entertainment, they like to see me with egg on my face.
Demoing with fab friends, Christine Wallace (who kindly provided the photo) and Glenn Cosby
Marigolds - I've had a thing about them recently. No, thankfully it's not the return of the washing-up glove fetish - I'm talking about the flowers.
It started with a big bag of dried petals that I bought to shine a little summer sun into the gloom of my winter kitchen. Following the serving suggestions on the packet, I first tried adding them to fish dishes, pepping up a kedgeree with a scattering of this poor man's saffron.
This week, wracking my brain for a seasonal theme to my Radio Sheffield baking slot, I considered how we're probably in the most posy-filled time of the year - sandwiched between Valentine's and Mother's Days - and this thought somehow morphed into two recipes for floral biscuits. Well, I say 'biscuits', actually the Marigold melts are more like a cross between a biscuit and a flat cake - soft like a pancake (but appropriately seasonal too). My second recipe, for Rose-scented raspberry biscuits, makes use of another floral discovery - rose extract. More potent than your common-or-garden rosewater, this fragrant addition also includes geranium for a wonderfully rounded bouquet. Use it sparingly... or risk an attack of culinary hay fever.
I have put on weight. OK, so I'm not morbidly obese, but the process of writing a cook book has played havoc with my diet. The past months have seen our surfaces groan under the weight of a volume of cakes, biscuits, tarts, etc, tested and retested. Most have been gratefully ferried away by my mum and dad for neighbourly distribution, but I obviously had to try some of the stuff myself... and sometimes did indeed literally stuff myself. In among the recipes was a little menagerie of baked 'creatures' - chocolate bear buns, sugar penguins, whose sweetness I needed to counter with something salty, like a 150g bag of crisps. Too tired to cook properly after a day's work, we rediscovered the delights of the Chinese takeaway, and Nando's and chips. Getting up to write at 5.30am, I'd regularly have no time for breakfast before dashing to work - thankfully the canteen does bacon sandwiches. Wearing my velvet tux for the first time in a year, I was reminded of another one of my recipes - pigs in jackets. Now the book is finally with the publishers and we should be able to get back to eating normally. Well, maybe after Christmas.
Confession time – I haven’t come up with a recipe for everything. Well not yet. I don’t have a recipe for success, nor thankfully do I have a recipe for disaster (though I have had my fair share of disastrous recipes) and until recently I didn’t have a recipe for a gluten-free, dairy-free Victoria sandwich. But one of the lovely (but sometimes pressuring) aspects of baking in the public eye is that people ask you for recipes and, if I don’t have one up my sleeve already, I feel obliged to roll up my sleeves and invent one. So, several months ago the lovely Julie gave me fair warning of her desire to bake said cake for a friend. And then a couple of weeks ago she kindly reminded me that I had yet to deliver. Actually Julie only wanted a gluten-free recipe but I liked the added challenge of making it dairy-free too. Turning to classic recipes for a fatless sponge, I discovered that many already include cornflour, which is gluten-free, so I started with this and set about tweaking. What I ended up with is now in the recipe section here…
Hardly a classic Victoria, this delicate creature is so light it cries out for a substantial filling to stop it floating away. Actually, one of the tips I read about fatless sponges is that you should drop the freshly baked cake, still in its tin, from knee height onto a hard floor. Apparently, this ‘shocks’ the cake and stops it from sinking on cooling. I tried this. I wouldn’t do it again. I swear that cake looked up at me with disdain – a Victoria that was not amused.
Caramelising garlic last weekend I reflected on how often this ingredient has made an appearance in recent times. Two years ago, visiting our friend Liliane, who lives in a tiny village in the hills of Languedoc, I offered to make lunch. Now Liliane assures us that she is currently well on the way to having a proper working kitchen, but at that time the only 'work surface' was the top of the washing machine. However, little things like that don't bother me (I made bread on an upturned cool box last year, but that's another story). So, taking inspiration from Yotam Ottolenghi's book 'Plenty', I caramelised three whole bulbs of garlic, added local herbs and goats' cheese and made a huge tart. Frankly delicious, it established a reputation that means I can never again have a holiday there free from baking.
Early 2013 saw the return of the caramelised garlic and goats' cheese combo, this time as the topping on a rather significant focaccia. As one of my offerings for the very first round of auditions for the Bake Off, it accompanied me (and a blackberry and semolina tart) on a train journey from Sheffield, a savoury aroma making its presence felt at regular intervals.
So when challenged to perk up a gluten-free baguette at the Allergy & Free From Show, I turned again to this faithful retainer. Caramelising garlic gives it a wonderfully sweet and gentle flavour - a soft squeezable whisper of its heavy breathing former self. At the risk of repeating myself, I think it will be around for some time. Oh, and talking of time, it also goes perfectly with lemon thyme.
Last weekend I was back on the demo trail, baking gluten-free biscuits with a little added banter. Arriving early at Harewood House, the beautiful but muddy site of the Great British Food Festival, I squelched my way to the demo tent, dumped my gear and went off to find lunch. Joining a queue for pulled pork sandwiches, I was suddenly interrupted by a panicking steward who'd tracked me down to tell me that it was 1.30pm. "Someone should have told you - you're meant to be judging the Cake Off - they're all waiting!"
Now it should come as no surprise to those who know me that I always favour savoury over sweet, but duty calls. Battling through the crowds I arrived to see a catwalk of cakes labelled A to Q - a grand total of 17 chocolate concoctions rising to the occasion. My heart sank.
Ominously, the Cake Off venue shared its space with 'Man vs Food' - something that involved seeing how many cream crackers you can fit in your mouth. A task probably more suited to me than the one before me.
Clearly a lot of effort had gone into these cakes, but so had a lot of chocolate. Personally, if I don't fancy a one way ticket to Migraine City, I take my chocolate in moderation. Oh, and I like it very dark and fine. A couple of Paul A Young's creations would definitely get the thumbs up, but I'd rather have a scotch egg than a creme egg any day.
By the time I reached Q, I was begging for that licence to kill. Having successfully avoided dishing out any heavy criticism so far (even of one which had all the appeal of a deep 10-inch disk of solid lard) I looked at the final cake, and thought that the decorations on it reminded me of plastic flowers. And then in a strange chocolate induced bout of honesty, I heard myself say just that! The cocoa solids had reached a critical mass and I was channelling Sophia Petrillo.
After handing out the prizes it was time to beat a hasty retreat to the relative safety of the demonstration tent. High on a sugar rush, I probably gave my best performance yet. Witty, confident, informative - I had won the crowd over. Except perhaps for one woman. At the end, she approached and with a deadpan expression and a voice as flat as a northern cap (yes, I know I'm a fine one to talk) she asked, "Is is part of your quirky stage persona that you sometimes come across like you don't know what you're doing?"
Ouch! A prize observation. Give the lady a rosette.