Gardener Joe Swift swapped trowels for trays in an attempt to win praise from Great British Bake Off judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. Radio Times asked him what it was really like cooking under pressure.
You spend most days elbow-deep in mud. Did it take much to persuade you to plunge them into a mixing bowl?
I’m not the world’s best baker, but I am up for all sorts of embarrassment.
Your mum’s the novelist Margaret Drabble – did she teach you to bake?
She baked the odd jam tart, biscuits and birthday cakes. But my Liverpudlian grandma Lily was an amazing baker: she had a two-tiered trolley that she would roll into the room at teatime, which was heaving with cakes, cheesecake, meringues…
Did you use any family recipes?
I got in touch with my aunt as she is the meringue queen of the Swift family, and I’d never made them before. Paul Hollywood, the Bake Off judge, said my meringues were “superb” so I left with my head held high. I even have a photo of my meringues on my phone that I keep showing to people. How sad is that?
Had you practised?
Oh yeah, I really got into it – especially piping the meringues. I was told I had to make a tray bake, meringues and a signature dish. So I got in all the ingredients, shut myself in the kitchen and experimented for three days. I wouldn’t say quite like Heston Blumenthal, but it was fun.
Who usually cooks in the Swift household?
My wife and I do about 50/50. But I tend to cook savoury dishes rather than sweet stuff.
So what did they make of your efforts?
The kids helped me come up with my signature dish: the Swift flapjack. I sat the family down and we decided to put in what we all like: dates, ginger, maple syrup and rum – which wasn’t the kids’ idea but it certainly worked a treat.
Did you have any disasters?
A few: dripped flapjack mixture burnt to the bottom of the oven; meringues that were either really dry or really chewy; and when I decided to dip the flapjacks in melted chocolate it ended up smeared over every possible surface. There were some very funny moments with chocolate and egg whites flying all over the place.
You took part in Celebrity MasterChef in 2009 – how did this compare?
On MasterChef they try to keep the contestants separate to build up the tension, so you can’t relax or enjoy yourself, whereas I found Bake Off more homely and less pressurised. Though there’s still that awful moment when the clock starts and you think: what am I doing here?
Who was the tougher judge: Paul Hollywood or Mary Berry?
Paul. They played good cop, bad cop. Mary’s a keen gardener so we got on well behind the scenes. I was just softening her up really – trying to get her to pick my meringues as the winner!
Will you now swap your spade for an apron?
No way! But it has made me covet more kitchen gadgets and a better oven. I couldn’t bake professionally, but I can totally understand people who become obsessed by it because it’s all about detail – making it both look amazingly beautiful and taste delicious is tricky. I enjoyed that attention to detail, the precision required. It’s very creative – just like gardening.
In what way?
They’re both process-driven: you need to get the stages right and understand the processes. So for meringues you need to know what consistency you’re looking for, what point to turn the oven off, how long to leave it for etc. Like gardening, it’s about having the right combination and aesthetics.
The celebrities have donned their pinnies and cooked up a storm to inspire you to hold your own bake sale for Sport Relief. For more details and top baking tips – plus how to pay in the money you raise! – go to www.sportrelief.com. But here are some useful pointers to get you started:
1 Advertise your bake sale in advance and choose a good day and time (elevenses/teatime).
2 Keep an ingredient list handy for people with allergies. Label those cakes that are nut free to appeal to those with nut allergies.
3 Make batches of small cakes; the more you have to sell, the better.
The Great Sport Relief Bake-Off starts tonight, 8pm, BBC2, and continues nightly until Friday