Two years ago I, a man who cannot bake, decided to bake every technical challenge from that year’s Great British Bake Off to find out how difficult these challenges really are.
Here's one of my technical challenge bakes: the tennis cake from Victorian Week.
Mine is on the right. Not sure that is worth pointing out.
Anyway, it turns out the technical challenges are hard.
Still, I carried on making them. After finding out the challenge for each episode, I would bake it without help on the Thursday and then ask colleagues to review it on the Friday. Feedback from colleagues – all of this is genuine – ranged from “mate” and “you’ve fucked it” to “I'm sure they looked nice at some point” and “tastes as good as it looks".
Since the last series ended I haven't baked much at all, but then out of nowhere I got an email from Bake Off. They wanted me to come to the Bake Off tent with a bake that Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith would judge.
I got excited, and then I remembered some of my most recent baking attempts.
Fucking hell, I thought. They are going to die.
I had no idea what to bake. After some thinking (and a bottle of wine) I decided to reattempt my tennis cake, the worst thing I have ever done. The reason? I will have improved so much, I thought to myself.
As it will soon become abundantly clear, I had not.
Usually I bake at home, but having lost nearly all the baking equipment I've ever bought, I was offered the chance to bake it at the home of someone who loves baking: Janine Gibson, BuzzFeed UK's editor.
I wanted no stress, so when I got there I decided to weigh out all the ingredients. This took well over an hour, which caused great stress.
Then I blocked the sink.
Later, I needed the oven gloves to get my mixture out of the oven, so I asked Janine for them. “I’ll give them to you in a second,” she said. “I’m just dealing with this shitshow.”
She then asked me: “Why does it smell like melted plastic in here?”
The smell was plastic, coming from the oven. Turns out it was the plastic hook that hangs the tray from the rack at John Lewis. Usually you would take the hook off, without thinking, when you first buy a tray and get it home.
I had accidentally put the plastic hook in the oven at 180°C for two hours.
Next I had to make the green fondant that covers the cake. This was hell. What developed was a hot sticky mess that clung to my hands, the cooking board, and everything that it came into contact with. I had to throw one of my socks in the bin after some burning-hot glycerine landed on it, leaving me with one bare foot.
By the time I was piping, it was hour five. I had started at 2pm. I sent a picture of my bake to someone, only to get this response: “I think last time you did this it looked better.”
Here is the bake (with two blobs to represent the tennis balls):
So, how stressful was baking the cake? This review comes from Janine, who was observing the whole situation: “The bit with the fondant was the most stressful of my life to date. And I've had two emergency C-sections.”
The next day I arrived at Bake Off. And we went straight to the tent.
The most exciting part of visiting the tent? Seeing the ovens with the retractable doors that slide back into the oven. You know, these three seconds of the show:
Yes, I know I am sad. Stop telling me I am sad.
Standing next to one of the empty ovens while being given a tour, I felt that this was the only opportunity I would ever have to open this oven door in my life.
I asked the Bake Off PR if I could open it.
I lunged forward, sprung it open, folded the door back, and let out an excited squeal that I immediately regretted.
I was then taken to meet Paul and Prue, who were in a tent at the far end of the garden.
It was at this moment that I realised I hadn’t actually bothered to present the cake on anything nice. It was in a coffin (aka the largest lasagne dish we had in the house).
And then I met them.
And instead of saying my name, I introduced myself as “I can only apologise”.
Paul immediately locked eyes on the cake.
I was waiting for an immediate reaction: a comment, a laugh, a response.
But he did nothing. His face did not change.
He just stared at it. For an eternity. Like this:
In an attempt to get Paul to react or say something, I said: “This took five hours.”
Prue did a dry laugh.
Paul then finally broke the silence.
“Were you blindfolded when you did this?”
I told him I wasn’t blindfolded.
I thought I should explain what the cake was.
“So you know the technical… You know the tennis bake?”
“I know exactly which one it is meant to be,” Paul laughed.
He was about to eat the thing, but we were then interrupted by the photographer. We had to pose together while the cake was still in one piece.
Lifting would mean a slight risk of it falling out on to the floor.
I started to joke: “If it ends up on the floor then that’ll be the least of our worr–”
“I think it might look better,” Paul interrupted.
After the photos were taken, Paul attempted to cut to the bottom of the cake with one of the sharpest knives I have ever seen. It was bloody huge, like a saw.
It could barely cut through the icing.
He was also cutting near the edge of the cake.
“I think the middle of the cake is the best bit,” I said.
“So we have to cut in the middle?” asked a slightly confused Prue.
I thought to myself, It doesn’t make any sodding difference where the hell they cut this cake, Scott. Face your failures.
Paul bit into the cake.
The silence returned.
So instead of saying encouraging things about my bake in this silent interlude, I just offered a long list of all of the things that I had fucked up.
The icing was wrong, the baking was all wrong, this didn't work and that didn't work.
Prue then said these words, which at the time weirdly destroyed me: “You know, I don’t think you’re going to win Bake Off.”
“Oh no!” I responded. I was, bizarrely, really quite disheartened to hear that review.
Then I remembered what I had actually just presented to them.
“I think you might have known that,” said Paul.
Prue reviewed the cake first. She said it tasted like her wedding cake.
I didn't know whether this was a compliment or a criticism, having tried wedding cakes only twice in my life as I prefer the cheese at weddings, but I felt like I was floating.
Then Paul asked me: “When did you make this?”
I responded: “Last night.”
I laughed, thinking that this was a joke.
He was being serious.
Prue's verdict on the cake? “The cake is definitely better than the icing. It actually tastes very nice.”
Paul agreed. “The cake is actually alright. You’ve slightly overbaked it, because you had that darkness on the base and darkness on the top.”
(This is an OFFICIAL request: When I die I want the words “‘The cake is actually alright’ – Paul Hollywood” next to my name on a plaque on a nice park bench.)
“The icing, however, is fascinating,” he continued. “This is meant to resemble a tennis court, with piping which is a millimetre thick around the delicate edges of the cake, with the nice green Wimbledon finish with a net across. Delicate piping round the outside. It is all about the movement of the piping bag... Were you on a train when you iced this?”
“No, I wasn’t.”
He then elaborated, in intricate detail, on how I needed to pipe round the edge first and the importance of consistency in my piping work.
Here’s a flashback to my piping work the previous night:
Paul said: “Your nozzle was wrong to begin with.”
Prue interrupted: “Paul, Paul. Paul. Give the guy a chance. I mean…”
“I have!” he said. “I’ve eaten it!”
(Actually, you know what? Scrap that park bench idea.)
“What I want to say is that I actually don’t think you should be giving him the finer tips of quite sophisticated icing,” said Prue. “What he needs to be taught is how to use a piping bag to start with and how to make a simple icing.”
“Smaller nozzle. I think you only had one-nozzle-fits-all,” Paul clarified.
Sure, the piping work is the only improvement I need, I thought.
Then things escalated. I told them that I had done this technical challenge before, 18 months earlier, and in fact I had done every single one in 2015 and 2016.
“Do you have pictures with your older bakes? He says with dread.”
He says with dread is not me describing Paul's tone to you; he actually said that.
So I whipped out my phone and showed them my article from two years ago, starting with my technical challenge tennis court cake from the first time round.
“This was the first time I made it,” I told them.
Paul and Prue could not stop laughing.
I then showed them the mokatines, which I made another week.
“No uniformity,” I commented.
“No,” responded Paul.
I then showed them these arlettes.
Paul's verdict: “Wow. Wow. That’s interesting...”
His review of all of the different bakes I tried in 2015?
“I hope you write better than you bake.”
“Well, I think you’re very original. I think it is good fun,” said Prue.
“And it’s definitely one of the worst cakes I’ve seen,” said Paul.
“Absolutely,” followed Prue.
Then, out of nowhere, Paul offered me a wager.
“I think you should carry on making these until you get it right. I’d be happy to see you again when you think you’ve got it right. No point phoning me up when it looks like that. Phone me up when you think it looks good. Look at the worst one that was on that year, the tennis cake, and if you think it’s good then I’ll come and see ya, alright?”
Here is the worst tennis cake from that episode in 2015, which belonged to a contestant called Mat, who accidentally put his icing in the oven instead of the freezer.
It still looks better than mine, even though in the episode Paul said that Mat's cake looked like “a tennis court from Hades” and Mary Berry said it was raw.
Can't wait to speak to you, Paul, when I have perfected this in the year 2047.
And then suddenly he reached out to shake my hand.
I was rather taken aback.
What the fuck?
But it wasn’t the classic Hollywood Handshake – the one that he gives when the baker has absolutely smashed it out of the park and the bake cannot be improved any more.
No, it was a handshake from him to me to him, meaning this: