As Frances, Kimberly or Ruby don their oven gloves in preparation to take his crown, I’m celebrating the last episode of The Great British Bake Off with some top baking advice from reigning champion John Whaite. John passed on these handy tips – and some secrets from the Bake Off tent – while teaching me to make cupcakes at last month’s Cake & Bake show. He might not have made a ‘Star Baker’ of me yet, but there’s always hope!
1. Don’t worry about curdled cake mix
‘When you’re making cake batter and you put the eggs in, it can curdle. In fact, more than likely, it will. All that’s happened is that the fats from the egg yolk and the fats from the butter haven’t been able to emulsify because they’re not the same temperature.
‘Now, people have these big secrets about throwing in a bit of flour, but although it will look as though it’s sorted it out, it hasn’t – it’s just thickened it. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. As soon as it goes into the oven at 160ºC it’s going to emulsify anyway. You won’t have a cake that looks like cellulite – that’s a load of nonsense! It might look like cellulite now, but it’s going to go through a very quick slimming process in the oven.’
2. Never overwhisk your eggs
‘If you incorporate too much air to a cake and then add a chemical raising agent such as bicarbonate of soda, then it’s going to rise too much in the oven and then fall in the middle and sink when you take it out.’
3. Cook at a lower temperature
‘Another thing that causes that over-rising and sinking is too much heat. It’s quite common with a slab cake or a loaf cake – and while that dip might be a nice place to put cherries or fresh fruit, but it won’t have a good structure.
‘The trick with any cake is to cook it on a low heat, slowly, allowing everything to rise slowly. If you cook anything at too high a heat, the sugars around the edges will cook first. They’ll crisps up, caramelise and stick there, while the raw bit in the middle rises too much to compensate, forming that big volcano.’
4. Pipe, don’t scoop!
‘I‘ve always piped out my cake mixture into tins. That whole thing of scooping it out with spoons is nice and nostalgic but it makes a real mess doesn’t it? Just use continuous pressure on the piping bag and go from case to case counting ‘1-2-3-up, 1-2-3-up, 1-2-3-up’. You’ll get a more even distribution and will be left with some at the end to go round and tidy things up. It’s just so much neater and quicker.’
5. Save time on proving dough
‘If your oven doesn’t have a special proving function, I’ve got a little trick. Put the oven light on and put a tray of hot water at the bottom, then add your dough. It speeds up the proving process never try this or use any other oven-based proving function on laminated doughs, such as Danish pastry or croissant dough, as this will melt the butter layers and ruin the dough.’
6. Decorate the perfect cupcake
‘Using a piping bag, start with a star in the middle to get the peak. Now, standing over the cake so that you have a bird’s eye view, follow the edge of the cupcake case keeping a continuous firm pressure and without ‘dragging’ your piping bag along. I like to use a mix of mascarpone, cream, icing sugar and a tiny bit of vanilla so it’s not cloyingly sweet like buttercream. Buttercream can be nasty, but this mix is lighter and tastes like it could be good for you!’
Next, here’s that Bake Off gossip!
Girl About Tech: We often see the contestants struggling with some of the gadgets and appliances on GBBO in the first few rounds. Do you get any training on how to use them?
John Whaite: You do get training. Lynne from Neff comes into the tent and tells you how to work the induction hobs and Slide&Hide ovens. Of course, it is a different oven and it takes a bit of getting used to. But when you read the manual and see the demonstration you realize how easy they are. Also, they’ve got a really gorgeous new-oven smell. Every time I walked into the Bake Off tent and caught a whiff of the Neff ovens, I’d think ‘I’m home’.
GAT: So did the oven ever catch you out?
JW: You do make mistakes when you’re in that tent – you forget things you‘ve been taught because it’s such a pressurised situation. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, thinking ‘I was meant to put the oven 20 degrees lower’ or ‘I should have put the cake on the first shelf’. I did pick up one trick, though. If you ever go on Bake Off and something goes wrong, swear like a trooper, as then they can’t broadcast it on the BBC!
GAT: What’s your view on cupcakes?
JW: There are all these trendy people that claim they hate them, and when I’m in a bad mood on a Friday night I’ve been known to say: ‘I’m sick of cupcakes, get me a bottle of wine and a curry’. But one good thing about them is that you don’t have to think about the rest of the cake sat in the cupboard, waiting for you to eat it. You can also freeze them, get one out at breakfast time, come back to it in the evening and you’ve got a cake to eat after your tea.
GAT: How do you rescue a bad bake?
JW: You can make almost any rubbish cake into something quite pretty. Get it out of the tin, trim it to make it neat, then slice it into very thin, Swedish cake-style layers, and pile them up on a cake stand with cream, mascarpone, maybe some cherries and chocolate here and there, and you’ve got a very tall, impressive cake. Redcurrants always look great –they are quite tangy, but if you add them to a sweet icing they taste so good.
GAT: Do you have a routine to get your hands ‘TV ready’?
JW: Are you asking if I buff my nails? Do I heck! I’m a farmer’s lad, so if I buffed my nails I’d get lynched. I don’t even have time to moisturise these days. I use cakes to moisturise – doughnuts moisturise you from within!
GAT: What was your most terrifying Bake Off moment?
JW: The scariest moment was when I cut my finger open and I had to go to hospital. I wanted to finish my strudel but that didn’t happen. I do have a tiny little scar – it’s like a war wound!
GAT: Mary or Paul – who’s your favourite?
JW: I love them both in different ways, for different reasons. Mary is the queen of baking – well of everything, really. There’s nothing she can’t do.