It’s that time of year again – the Great British Bake Off is back. Three weeks in, following successes and mishaps with cakes, biscuits, and bread, and as ever we’ve been silently judging the contestants’ efforts while secretly wishing we were as good as them (I say we….).
When this beloved series started back in 2010 (I know, it feels like much longer, doesn’t it?), it was nowhere near the television phenomenon it is today. For one, there were only six episodes including the final, and ten contestants rather than twelve. Since then the length of the show has doubled in size and the challenges tackled each week have become increasingly harder, but it was that very first little series on BBC2 that rekindled the spark. Suddenly, baking wasn’t just something for stay-at-home mums and WI battleaxes. Suddenly, baking could be something for anyone and everyone to enjoy.
I was one of these people; the ones bitten by the baking bug. The first series coincided well with me starting at university, but unfortunately I had no stove for that first year, so I was limited to daydreaming up recipes and making five-minute-chocolate-mug-cakes in the microwave (seriously, do it. They’re actually really good). My second year was better, and my third year even more so, because then I had my own flat and no housemates to moan about me getting flour all over the worktops. That was the year I really got into my stride with my baking – I had a lot more time on my hands because I’d finish work at half past one every day – and now with my blog things just keep getting better.
But of course, I’m not the only one who’s been influenced by the Bake Off and the rising popularity of baking in general. The British baking industry is now worth around 3.4 billion pounds, and sales of everything from flour and eggs to piping bags and multicoloured sprinkles have increased significantly within the last few years. We’ve even got our own National Baking Week, which encourages people to get baking and help raise money in aid of Great Ormond Street! Britain has always been known for its baking traditions – every county seems to have its own signature cake, bread, or pudding – but now everybody seems to be trying their hand at it.
And why shouldn’t they? It’s an enjoyable pastime that so many different people can enjoy, no matter your age or gender, if you have years of experience or just a few ideas and a mixing bowl. It can even save you money if, for example, you bake your own bread each week instead of buying a new loaf from the supermarket. You can easily buy a 1.5kg bag of bread flour and a pack of fast-action yeast for less than £2, which will get you at least three loaves of bread, and when you’ve baked your own loaf and bite into that first still-warm slice, you’ll wonder why you never did it before. Home-baked breads, cakes and biscuits just taste better than their shop-bought equivalents; you’re bringing them back to their roots, their basic ingredients, without any artificial preservatives. When I made my first successful loaf of bread, I was genuinely surprised by how different it tasted – I’d never realised how sweet shop-bought bread was before! Why would anybody want sweet bread? Are we just so used to consuming sugar in our daily diets that we don’t notice?
Anyway, if you’re still wondering “How can I get involved in baking?” and you don’t really know where to start, fear not! I’ve got three recipes for you, baking basics that I think anybody can have some degree of success with, which coincide nicely with the Bake Off’s episodes so far. Why not try your hand at one over the Bank Holiday weekend?
A lot of people believe that a Victoria Sponge is difficult to make, but I find if you follow one simple rule it’s easy. That rule is this: half as many eggs as there are ounces of everything else. For my recipe, you’ll need 8oz/225g each of butter, caster sugar, and self-raising flour, and 4 eggs. You can also add a bit of vanilla essence if you like.
Take the butter and eggs out of the fridge about half an hour before you do anything else; softer butter and room-temperature eggs are easier to mix. Preheat your oven to 200°C conventional/180°C fan/Gas Mark 6, grease the inside of two 8 inch/20cm sandwich tins with a bit of extra butter, and then mix the sugar and butter in a bowl until smooth and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring in between, then add the flour and fold it in. Here is where you add the vanilla, if using – about half a teaspoon should do it.
Pour the cake batter into the prepared tins, and smooth out the tops with the back of a spoon. Bake them for around 20-25 minutes, depending on your oven (I’ve found you can’t always rely on cooking times, so to check if the cakes are done, insert a skewer or knife into the centre. If it comes out clean, the cakes can be taken out). Leave the sponges to cool in the tin for five minutes, the turn them out onto a cooling rack.
When the sponges are cold, you can spread them with strawberry or raspberry jam, whipped cream, or buttercream, and stick them together, then dust with the top with icing sugar.
This is the easiest recipe of the lot, as it only needs three ingredients; 150g butter, 60g caster sugar, and 200g plain flour. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper, and coat it with flavourless oil (like sunflower oil) so the biscuits don’t stick. Heat your oven to 180°C conventional/160°C fan/Gas Mark 4. Combine the butter and sugar in a bowl until smooth, then add the flour bit by bit until you have a thick paste.
Work the paste into a ball, then place the ball on a lightly floured worktop and roll it out – flour the rolling pin, to stop it sticking – until it’s about 1cm thick. Cut out shapes with a small cup or a biscuit cutter, as many as you can, until the dough is all used up. Place the biscuits on the baking tray, refrigerate for half an hour, then bake for 20 minutes until golden brown. Lift the biscuits off the tray using the paper and place them onto a cooling rack, where they’ll firm up and become crisp after a few minutes.
For this you’ll need 500g strong white bread flour, 10g salt, 7g dried yeast, 320ml water, and 40ml olive oil. Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl, then add the salt on one side of the bowl and the yeast on the other. Make a well in the middle and pour in the oil. Give it a bit of a mix with your hands, then add the water bit by bit until you have a smooth dough. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead it for about 5-10 minutes. You can tell if the dough is ready by poking it with your finger – if it springs all the way back, it’s ready for proving.
Put the dough back in the bowl and cover it with a clean tea towel, then put it in a warm place to rise. After an hour or so, take it out, knead it gently again for a few minutes, then shape it however you want. To make a bloomer, press the dough out into a rough rectangle, fold the short sides in, then roll
it up and put it onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, with the line hidden underneath. Cover it again for another hour, this time at room temperature, then preheat your oven to 220°C conventional/200°C fan/Gas Mark 7.
Uncover the dough, then with a sharp knife slash diagonally across the top four times, but not too deep. Sprinkle the loaf with a little bit of water, and an extra bit of flour – this helps to create a nice crust. Bake for about half an hour in the centre of the oven until it’s lovely and golden. To test if the bread is cooked, pick it up and tap the bottom; if it sounds hollow, it’s done.