Unlike his fellow contestants John Simpson, who has yet to master boiling an egg, and Samantha Cameron, who is a stranger to the whole baking lark, it seems as though Ed Balls, the former Shadow Chancellor and MP for Morley and Outwood, functions rather well in the kitchen. What’s more, cakes are a bit of a speciality.
“Every year, I do a birthday cake for each of our three children,” he says. But not any old sponge with some candles bunged on, like the rest of us manage. The Balls canon includes cakes resembling iPads, pirate ships, bouncy castles, hamburgers and (slightly stomach-churningly), a blue Converse trainer. He really gets into it. He raves about making cakes with buttermilk. He is evangelical about making cakes with double cream, replacing butter in the mix. He gushes about the creative potential in a Curly Wurly. “For me, the external appearance is the thing.” Is this a good idea for a politician?
“Ha ha ha,” laughs Balls, who perhaps is finding how delicious life really tastes when you are outside the Palace of Westminster. “If you are a politician, it’s always good to do something else that requires your attention. Otherwise you don’t relax. You have to focus on the recipe and the quantities, and not let your mind wander.”
When he was an MP, did he cook much for colleagues? He sighs. “There were bake offs in the Commons, it’s true.” His ambitions went a bit further, however, than just handing out cookies in the lobby. “In 2009, when I was Secretary of State for Education, we published a cookbook which went to every year seven pupil in the country, full of recipes designed for 11-year-olds. We had lots of letters from parents saying it got them back cooking again. Food tech is all very well in schools, but you want kids to cook simple reci- pes. It’s a passion of mine.”
Not that appearing on Bake Off is a breeze for the former Labour bruiser. “It’s definitely outside my comfort zone. I’m a mere mortal compared to most of the brilliant home bakers who appear on the proper Bake Off.” He agrees, however, that some might be surprised to see what a whiz he is à la cuisine.
“Politics is always about caricature,” says the man who has had rather a lot of it, all things considered, over the past decade. “People see you being pushed into tough situations on the news or in cartoons in the papers, which always accentuate the size of your nose or your chin.”
He actually seems quite cheerful about having been portrayed in a variety of dramatic guises including a bulldog, a streaker, Henry V, a dwarf, Gromit and Edward Scissorhands. “The thing in politics is that you simultaneously have to have a thick skin, but not so thick that you stop being a normal person. There is no training for that. You learn it over time. The one thing that is hard is that people will react to you in a very personal way even though they don’t know you personally at all. There are some politicians whom people get on with very well, through the TV screen.” Was he one of them? “People will see what I am really like when I’ve been on Bake Off for an hour,” is his gnomic comment.
So what will he delight the nation with on this special show in aid of Sport Relief? (Balls is up against Victoria Coren Mitchell, Chris Kamara and Girls Aloud’s Kimberley Walsh in one of four heats) His signature dish, an array of banana and raisin muffins, demon- strates a personal passion. “I have chosen a football theme.” Involving his beloved Norwich City, of which he is now Chairman? The very same. “It’s Norwich v Chelsea. And each muffin is a footballer. I was going to do Norwich v Arsenal but a) I ran out of red dye, and b) Arsenal are doing rather well at the moment. We are neck and neck with Chelsea right now.”
Norwich is of course a bit of a foody club, what with the magisterial Delia Smith a majority shareholder. “She keeps a close eye on standards,” says Balls proudly. “We were voted the club with the best catering in the Premier League. I honestly think when she was choosing a Chair, she was thinking about someone who was a fan, but also someone who would think the quality of cater- ing was important.” It seems to be a match made in heaven. “Delia’s Complete Cookery Course? Just the look of it, that serious hardback with no pictures, puts it up there with the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare.”
The Balls Bake Off Showstopper seems quite fun. “We had to produce tiered cakes represent- ing an extreme sport. I went for ski jumping. I used fondant icing for the first time in my life.” And quite a lot of confectionery. “My Eddie the Eagle jumper skis on KitKats. There are jelly bean supporters cordoned off by Curly Wurlies. The Olympic rings were represented by Fruit Polos.” He pauses. “It was a classic dad’s cake, but perhaps not one which represented the true ethos of Bake Off. I think Paul took a rather dim view of it. But Mary’s reaction was amazing. I can’t tell you any more, because it will spoil it, but it was the best cooking moment in my life. Ever.” Ever? “Ever. I had to sit down.”
What does Mrs Balls think of all of this? Yvette Cooper is clearly a busy politician, but does she interfere in the kitchen? “I don’t think she has cooked for 15 years,” says her husband briskly. Balls is no one-trick pony. In the past five years he has taken up the piano and has run the London Marathon three times. But these are recent developments. This is a man who has always been found in the kitchen, whether at parties or normal weekdays.
“I always cook for Christmas and New Year, but this year I had a bit of time on my hands [a rueful laugh] so I did Christmas puddings for the first time.” Indeed, a big dinner party does not faze the strategic Balls. “I’m great at doing big logistical multi-course meals for dozens of people. I have offered to do a 14-hour pulled- pork barbeque for George Osborne. Every year we have one of these in Yvette’s constituency, and I also held one in my former one. George hasn’t taken the offer up yet, but I hope he will.”
How about cooking for the PM? “Well, perhaps we should swap cakes. I could cook him a Norwich City cake and he could make me an Aston Villa one.” And for the Leader of the Opposition? “Ha ha ha! I know you are trying to draw me out to say lemon drizzle, but I won’t fall for that one. Actually I think I would make both David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn my double cream sponge with strawberries and they would enjoy every bite of it. After all, ‘let them eat cake’ is a phrase used against and by revolutionaries for centuries.”
Ed Balls takes part in The Great Sport Relief Bake Off on Wednesday 3rd February at 8pm on BBC1