You too can be a Bake Off* contestant!
*Well, as nearly as most of us are ever going to get. Because the clever folk at The Big London Bake have come up with an experience that's as close to the real Bake Off as possible - the tent, the cooking stations, the test-your-skills recipe instructions, the pressure of baking to a deadline and even the heart-thumping judging process. The only things that are missing (thank goodness) are the TV cameras and the beady blue eyes of Mr Hollywood and his colourful fellow judge and presenters.
So how much fun can it be to put yourself in the pressure cooker (pun entirely intended) atmosphere of competitive baking? Turns out the answer to that is - a LOT! True I've always enjoyed baking, which I learnt from watching my mum and licking a lot of bowls, but did I pretty much forget every baking skill I'd ever acquired when faced with the challenge of producing perfectly executed and decorated choux buns (a stacked version of profiter rolls in case you didn't know. Which I certainly didn't)? Of course I did!
In this finger-licking, fun filled, but make no mistake just as competitive, version of Bake Off, you take part in pairs. I went with my two girls and our long-suffering men, and there were four other couples squaring up to the choux bun challenge. I'm afraid I made my poor bloke have a baking test run the day before (competitive? moi?), but in my defence this is a man who had no idea how to switch on his own oven, and when asked what he thought were the ingredients of a cake, replied, with considerable hesitation, flour.......eggs.......and......er, cinnamon. To give him his dues, he produced a more than passable lemon drizzle cake, which it seemed only polite to consume most of whilst it was still warm from the oven.
On the day, your ingredients are weighed and measured for you, but you have to prepare, cook, customise (flavourings, decorations etc) and display your offerings, all of which is a lot easier to say (or type) than it is to do. As any of you who watched Nick Hewer on the recent Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up to Cancer, will know, there are any number of things that can go wrong with choux buns (all of which went disastrously and hilariously wrong for poor Nick. When he tried to fill one of his rock hard, determinedly un-risen choux 'biscuits' and it shot across the tent, I'm afraid I was crying with laughter). Our efforts weren't quite as catastrophic, but it turns out it's quite hard to judge exactly when a choux bun is properly cooked - risen and with enough crunch when you cut through it - and even more tricky to get the buns assembled and decorated when the clock is counting down. Good job points weren't deducted for making a lot of mess in the process!
I didn't think our final effort was too shabby (OK, so there were a lot of embarrassing rejects that didn't make it to the presentation plate, but thank goodness we made far too many). Turns out you can cover up a lot of less-than-perfect execution with, admittedly equally less-than-perfect, decorations.
Ours, flavoured with orange zest and orange cream and stuck together with our own freshly made fruit jam, are the ones one up from the bottom plate on the right hand side, with the icing sugar sprinkled over them (see aforementioned disguise mechanism). The judging process was far less terrifying than courtesy of Paul and Prue, but each effort was carefully and considerately tasted and commented on for everything from texture and flavour to crispiness (no soggy bottoms thank goodness) and presentation. And the prize (a Big London wooden spoon, and a jar of lemon curd (don't ask) for the best buns went to.........my oldest daughter and son-in-law (theirs were the ones to the left of ours). And jolly tasty they were too.
The tent is set up at the back of an excellent pub on Tooting Broadway and we repaired there for lunch afterwards to swap baking tales and eat anything that wasn't sweet.
In case you couldn't tell, I couldn't recommend this more highly. It's a terrific thing to do with friends, family, as an all girls, or all blokes, outing and crucially, for Bake Off fans, it offers a chance to get a tiny taste of what the real contestants go through.