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London - Puffy clouds of icing sugar drift through the warm air of Anneliese Giggins’s kitchen as the deliciously heady scent of homemade biscuits, hot out of the oven, fills the room.
On the hob, chunks of dark chocolate melt into a glossy pool, while sitting on a cooling rack is a tray of blueberry muffins, their golden tops begging to be split open and devoured.
Fighting for space on the worktop is Mary Berry’s best-selling cookbook, the Baking Bible, which Anneliese has propped open at page 143, a recipe for a three-tier American chocolate wedding cake. As she cracks 30 large eggs into a bowl — the cake will feed 100 people — her two-year-old son Isaac watches, spellbound.
It’s a heartwarming scene being repeated, in one form or another, in kitchens all over the country, as baking enjoys a spectacular renaissance. This is thanks largely to Mary Berry’s hugely popular TV show, The Great British Bake Off, which is now back on our screens for its third series.
But Anneliese’s own love affair with baking is more intense than most. For 18 months ago, the 29-year-old challenged herself to bake all 218 recipes in the Baking Bible. She’s stuck rigidly to her schedule, baking two or three times a week, even while on holiday and, most impressively, while her kitchen was being dismantled and refitted.
Now she’s on the brink of completing her epic project — and, understandably, is feeling a little emotional about it. Because, for Anneliese, there is more to baking than watching eggs, flour and butter transform into pillow-soft cakes, perfect meringues and crunchy biscuits.
Baking was her way of rebuilding her self-confidence, which took a battering after she became a stay-at-home mum. At home alone with a baby, removed from the hustle and bustle of her job as a school receptionist, Anneliese felt isolated — an emotion many new mums will relate to — and found herself becoming depressed and tearful.
“I’m very traditional and knew that once I had children I wanted to be at home with them until they were at school, just as my own mum was with me,” she says. “But although it was everything I wanted, I felt my independence and identity disappear.”
Baking helped Anneliese to rediscover her identity and rebuild her self-esteem — one perfectly risen confection at a time.
The idea that such a simple pastime can have a powerful therapeutic effect on serious problems such as this seems unlikely, yet Mary Berry herself has spoken in The Mail of how baking helped her cope with the enormous grief she felt at the death of her son in a car accident 20 years ago.
And last year best-selling novelist Marian Keyes revealed that she baked herself out of one episode of the dark depression that has plagued her throughout her adult life.
For her part, although Anneliese loved being a new mum, she found that her days could be lonely at home with her young son in a village near Banbury, Oxfordshire, while husband Neil, 35, was out at work as a web developer.
Naturally shy by nature, Anneliese frequently spent days without seeing another soul. Even walking into the local coffee shop, popular with other young mums, was too daunting for her to contemplate.
Her confidence also took a knock: the simplest domestic setback, such as running out of nappies, left her fighting feelings of inadequacy.
“I remember sobbing one day when Isaac was only a few weeks old because I’d put his nappy on back to front, the house was a tip and I’d managed to burn Neil’s dinner,” she says.
“I felt that as I’d taken on the role of housewife and mum, I should be a domestic goddess, and got very upset when I didn’t feel I lived up to these standards.
“I knew I needed to address my dwindling self confidence, but I didn’t know how.”
That was until one evening last year, when she found herself flicking through the Baking Bible, which had been a birthday present from her sister Victoria two years earlier. She felt suddenly ashamed to find that the book was pristine, without a single turned-down corner or buttery fingerprint.
“And that’s when the idea came to me. I needed a challenge. I was going to try to bake all 218 recipes in the book.”
It wasn’t the first time Anneliese had found comfort in the kitchen. As a shy little girl, baking had been her solace, only back then she was working from her mother’s favourite cookbook, Quick and Easy Cakes — written by a certain Mary Berry.
“I remembered the pleasure of seeing my family enjoy the cakes I’d baked. Now, two decades on and with my confidence shaky once more, I was turning to Mary’s recipes again.”
Husband Neil was happy to be chief taster and washer-upper, and helped Anneliese set up a blog, on which she has charted her adventure and posted photos of everything she’s baked.
In week one, she tackled head-on a rack of scones, a loaf cake and a Swiss roll.
“The Swiss roll was a complete disaster,” she laughs now. “It didn’t rise, wasn’t cooked and went straight in the bin. It was a lesson in following Mary’s advice. I’d used a flimsy tin even though she stresses in the recipe that a good tin is essential, and a balloon rather than an electric whisk. It required muscles like Popeye, so I cut corners and didn’t whisk it for long enough.”
But instead of ripping another hole in Anneliese’s confidence, the setback served to make her more determined. Eight of Neil’s colleagues were roped-in to bolster the tasting panel — and save her waistline — as she upped her game.
“I always try what I’ve baked, and could easily polish off much more, but I’d be the size of a house if I did,” adds Anneliese. She swelled with pride, however, when Neil’s boss described her banoffee pie as “so good he’d pay for it in a shop”.
The Swiss roll wasn’t the only disaster: joining it was a runny marzipan which turned a Battenburg cake into a disaster, a batch of buns she forgot to add sugar to, and an apple tarte tatin which leaked through the loose-bottomed cake tin in the oven and set off all the smoke alarms in the house.
Also getting the definite thumbs down was the singing hinny — a large scone-type cake that hails from Northumberland — and a batch of potato scones. She describes those two recipes as being “not worth the calories”.
But she also enjoyed great successes.
“My greatest achievements have been Mary’s chocolatines, which looked like something you’d buy in a patisserie in Paris,” says Anneliese, who loves to involve Isaac in the simpler tasks, such as sprinkling poppy seeds on bread rolls and placing decorative sweets on biscuits and buns.
“Even the Parisian choux pastry speciality Gateau Saint Honore, named after the patron saint of bakers, was a triumph — despite me being scared stiff that the recipe spanned three pages.
“I was also chuffed with my brandy snaps. I’d seen on The Great British Bake Off how tricky they are to get right, so I was expecting mine to be a mess — but they were absolutely lovely.”
In addition to the blog on which she charts her adventures (risingtotheberry.blogspot.com), Anneliese now has almost 3,000 people following her progress on Facebook and Twitter. She writes about each recipe and posts a photo of the results, something that’s proved particularly popular with readers.
“Like a lot of cookery books, the trouble with the Baking Bible is that there are a huge number of recipes without photographs,” she explains. “It’s like baking with your eyes shut. Lots of my followers have commented how helpful it is to see my photos.
“For the first few months, I had just 20 followers, all of them family and friends, but then word spread and suddenly strangers were interested in my project too, which was a huge confidence boost.
“I started a weekly vote on Facebook, asking my followers to choose their favourite from three recipes. People have posted the loveliest comments and messages of encouragement on my page.”
One comment in particular caused Anneliese’s pride to soar. Mary Berry, having got wind of her challenge, sought out her Facebook page and wrote a message of good luck.
Anneliese also met the doyenne of baking at the BBC Good Food show in Birmingham last November, and Mary’s signature now sits amid the smudges of chocolate and butter on her now well-thumbed copy of the Baking Bible.
“Mary said to me: ‘If you have any problems with any of the recipes, then get in touch with me, because I’m not perfect.’ She was just as lovely as she appears on TV.”
And now that Anneliese has almost completed her epic challenge — she’s saved the ambitious chocolate cake until last — nobody is more impressed than Mary.
“This is a wonderful achievement and I’m impressed that Anneliese managed to stick with her challenge,” says Mary. “I’ve always said that baking is a therapy. I remember being at home with my own children when they were little and baking being something to get my teeth stuck into when we couldn’t go outside.”
As Anneliese smoothes rich, gooey chocolate icing expertly over her three-tiered wedding cake, it’s clear her confidence has risen like a perfectly executed souffle.
“I’ve realised that I am capable of baking things I didn’t imagine ever being able to pull off,” she explains, clearly thrilled at the impressive confection before her.
“And that’s transferred to other areas of my life. A shared love of baking has led to five of us amateur bakers becoming friends via my blog, including Jo Wheatley, who won the Great British Bake Off last year. We met up last month and had the loveliest weekend chatting, laughing and indulging in lots of baking and eating, something I’d never have been confident enough to do a year ago.
“Neil and my family say I seem much more relaxed. If something goes wrong, be it a soggy meringue or a domestic crisis, I laugh instead of getting in a flap and beating myself up like I used to.
“I have so many happy memories of baking with my mum as a child and a big part of doing this challenge was wanting Isaac to know that homemade food tastes far better than anything you can buy in the supermarket.”
Her baking challenge will be complete once she has decorated the chocolate cake with fresh flowers as Mary recommends, and thrown a party for friends and family to indulge in a slice — which is probably timely. For Anneliese has a little bun in the oven of a different kind: she and Neil will welcome a new baby in the autumn.
Thankfully, she has long since perfected the sponge christening cake in Mary’s Baking Bible. - Daily Mail