Rise to the challenge: my very own bake off

Emma Beddington
·9-min read
<span>Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

An acquaintance speculated recently that we would only realise after the fact what kind of mad we went during the pandemic, but I already know: I became Bake Off mad.

I used to love baking, especially the showy kind where you produce something slightly flashy to a chorus of coos of admiration. Mine almost never elicited that reaction – I lack skills, attention to detail and artistic flair – but for a few brief, glorious years when my sons were little, I was a cake magician to them. Anything a bit creative filled them with wonder. I made dragons, cartoon characters and even a giant spider crab.

But children grow up. About five years ago, my younger son asked for “a plain cake, please”, for his birthday and it was game over; a dagger through my heart. The elder is mainly vegan now and they are both extremely health conscious; more likely to reach for cashews than cupcakes. I can’t even enjoy the smug glow of producing warm scones with a domestic goddess flourish. It’s empty carbs to them – “not worth the calories”, as Prue Leith would say.

My cupboard of cake tins, colouring and edible glitter has lain untouched for years and, barring an unsatisfactory flirtation with sourdough and perfunctory birthday brownies, I hardly bake now. I haven’t missed it exactly. It is a time-consuming faff and there’s a brilliant bakery down my street. Even so, I feel a nostalgic twinge sometimes – your children growing up is a marvel, but it’s also intensely melancholic. You are becoming surplus to requirements and no one wanting my muffins is another reminder of that.

For these reasons and more (does anyone want to risk their health for a homemade cake I have definitely breathed on in 2020?), it made absolutely no sense for me to bake along with the Great British Bake Off showstoppers this year – but I really wanted to.

Like so many, my spirits soared when the credits for the first episode rolled in September. I adore Bake Off, the gentle camaraderie, the low-stakes drama as a cast of good sorts battle hot water crusts and crème pâtissière; the bottomless baked goods. I love it so much I’m currently watching not only the UK, but also the French and Flemish versions. The French one lasts two hours and every challenge is absurdly difficult – last week a man named François-Xavier made a cheesecake Golden Gate bridge as a warm up. The Flemish one cements the Belgian reputation as surrealists – someone once put mozzarella in a trifle and there was a regrettable incident with mussel-filled eclairs.

In the dregs of this year, in phoney lockdown, watching endless baking shows with little else to do, I thought trying the GBBO showstoppers would be fun. I had not made any personal achievements in first lockdown; maybe I could now. How hard could it be? Reader, it was – and continues to be – very hard. I thought I was a fairly decent baker, but the past eight weeks have taught me how wrong I was. Let me elaborate.

Cake week

The bakers had to make a cake bust of their heroes. Most struggled, creating a Freddie Mercury reminiscent of Frank Sidebottom, insults to the memory of David Bowie and the living deity that is Lupita Nyong’o, and an unholy Louis Theroux/David Bellamy hybrid. Watching it unfold in tears of laughter is one of my happiest 2020 memories.

I wasn’t laughing when I started making my own Ruth Bader Ginsburg cake. What more fitting memorial to a feminist icon? Almost anything, up to and including that Mary Wollstonecraft statue. I’m calling it: cake is a terrible material in which to sculpt a bust. You cannot make a structurally sound neck from sponge. Ruth’s tiny lemon-flavoured head rested precariously on her black fondant-covered body like a misshapen marble. I was quite pleased with the judge’s collar detail – a doily; the rest looked like a bored child’s scribble in flour and sugar.

“Do you think you’ve… honoured her?” asked a smirking son, contemplating the craggy, buttercream-smeared, earless effigy of the Supreme Court justice. The other repeatedly asked me, “Why she’s so small?” “She was small. It’s historically accurate,” I hissed. “Also, there are only four of us and you don’t eat cake.” Improbably, RBG was my high point… Things got far worse.

Biscuit week

Challenged to create a biscuit “place setting for a memorable meal”, I attempted to fashion the table from a Jules Verne-themed surrealist dinner I once attended, which is a pretentious way of saying: “I made a biscuit plate and cup that looked like stone age relics excavated from a field, and a single biscuit octopus tentacle”.

I also attempted to make a biscuit crayfish on a cookie volcanic stone; truly a fool’s errand. I sent pictures to my friend Tom for advice at various stages. I reproduce his commentary here verbatim: “Oh God, a desiccated, crenellated Johnson” (PM or penis, it was unclear). Then: “Is it a naked mole rat sacrificed on a cowpat altar?” Annie, a food historian friend who has definitely seen some alarming edibles, was more succinct: “Is that a penis with flippers?”

Bread week

Hollywood demanded a tableau of breads depicting what the bakers were grateful for. My elder son, probably in a spirit of mischief, suggested I should be grateful for breathing, so I made a red wine and walnut bread in the shape of a lung (it was a strange week, OK) and a focaccia decorated with a sketchy robin, representing my gratitude for backyard birds. The robin looked like a vengeful Mayan god and my focaccia didn’t rise. I could blame dodgy lockdown yeast, but I know it was simply incompetence. The focaccia went to the birds, which was at least fitting. My husband and I grimly worked our way through the lung over many depressing lunchtimes.

Chocolate week

The less said about this the better. I hated the white chocolate showstopper challenge and sulked for days, before grudgingly constructing a wonky gateau with homeopathic amounts of the gross baby goo.

Japanese week

This seemed to play to my strengths. Watching Lotte et al fashion amazing kawaii creations, my sons reminisced about the various Pokémon I’d baked for their birthdays. When it actually came to it, though, I hit a cake wall. My chocolate miso butterscotch flavour was OK, but the idea of creating a yellow fondant Pikachu filled me with bleak torpor. I was saved by my best friend’s suggestion I switch to the soot sprites from My Neighbour Totoro: genius, they are just shaggy circles with eyes. The sprites looked the part, but my family’s sixth sense for ingredients they won’t like meant they lay untouched for days. When my husband suggested throwing them out, I became furious and ate 2½ sprites for lunch.

Pastry week and beyond

My ordeal is far from over. I gave the “tart in a cage” pastry week challenge a cowardly swerve and must tackle it. If you too, ever wish to try and make a tart in a cage, a few pointers: do not start your project when your spouse is in the middle of an all-tools-blazing caffeine-deprived, attempt to perform CPR on his beloved coffee machine. Do not use shortcrust pastry, which shatters into a million pieces. Or puff pastry, which slides off your cage shape to form an oily puddle at the bottom of the oven (my husband described the resulting mess as a “cage sauvage”, which was kinder than it deserved). Do not think this is the time to attempt “mirror glaze”, that fancy shiny finish beloved of French patisseries. Actually, you know what? Don’t make a tart in a cage. It’s an absolutely stupid idea, a Prue and Paul fever dream of a challenge.

I still need to eat enough fishfingers to squeeze an 80s-week ice-cream gateau into the freezer. As I write I’m contemplating the alarming prospect of trying to balance a jelly full of plastic dinosaurs on top of layers of cake and mousse for my cheat’s take on the quarter-final “jelly art” showstopper – I was going for a Damien Hirst vibe, but I accept it’s a far cry from Hermine’s exquisitely delicate poppy version. Everything in the house is sticky and my husband just said, provocatively, that my génoise is “too sweet”. Meanwhile, my younger son came home, surveyed the kitchen carnage and said, “It’s been downhill since week one, hasn’t it?” despite the whole dinosaur jelly thing being his idea. He’s not wrong: somehow, I am even worse at baking than when I started. God knows what new horrors the final will bring.

Even so, I have loved the process. At a time when my frazzled brain struggles to settle to anything except doomscrolling, baking, albeit badly, gave me some of that elusive “flow”, the feeling of happy absorption in a task. It has also reminded me how therapeutic baking can be. Years ago, signed off work with severe anxiety and barely able to eat, one thing that coaxed me back to a degree of normality was deciding to bake. I made a lemon drizzle cake one afternoon and the structured, absorbing process of creaming butter and sugar, then adding eggs; the smell of grated lemon rind and the particular warmth of a winter kitchen with a cake in the oven helped me remember that life can be joyful, frivolous and generous. In very different circumstances, it is helping me remember that now, too.

Because we’re all as stale as my soot sprites this winter, anxious and impatient for change. My sons are part of the generation dealing with cancelled exams, bogus grades and adult disapproval, starved of fun and freedom. This idiotic project gave them and me a little fillip every week. They might not want to eat the results, but they’re enjoying the gratuitous silliness of the process. I’ve been genuinely touched, too, by my husband’s sustained enthusiasm for the whole ludicrous endeavour and his – admittedly usually unhelpful – engineer’s suggestions for building techniques.

Do I have what it takes to be part of the next Bake Off? Emphatically not. The thought of those implacable Hollywood eyes on my cake-wrecks makes me shrivel with mortification, When even the mighty Hermine was defeated by the satanic semi-final “cube cakes” challenge, it’s definitely time for me to hang up my ganache-spattered apron. But will I be baking along with Laura, Dave and Peter this week? I will, and it will be absolutely horrible. I can’t wait.

The Great British Bake Off final is on Tuesday 24 November on C4 at 8pm