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London - Light-headed from exhaustion, I opened the oven door for what I hoped would be the final time and extracted the two little vegetable pies.
Yet despite my careful chopping of the ingredients, the meticulous rolling-out of pastry and the gently-dabbed wash of egg across the top to make them shine, it appeared that something had gone badly wrong.
One was leaking cheese sauce from an inexplicable hole, and the other had listed sideways drunkenly in its tin. I almost wept. It was 3am and I had spent the past seven hours trying to create a dish to carry me triumphantly through my audition for the Great British Bake-Off. Instead I’d produced my worst dish ever.
As well as disappointment, I felt disbelief. Last year I spent the series driving my family mad every time someone produced a less than perfect scone for those doyennes of the kitchen, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.
“It’s just baking,” I’d say, “anyone can do it, even in front of TV cameras.”.
Like millions of other viewers, I suspect, I thought it was, well, a piece of cake. But now just the thought of the programme had turned me into a wreck in my own kitchen.
Usually I find baking soothing and creative. Nothing makes me happier than producing a feather-light sponge cake, or kneading my frustrations out on a sundried tomato loaf.
I have always baked, ever since my mom taught me how to make jam tarts aged eight. My idea of a restful Sunday is crafting a four-course dinner party for six, pootling happily between my ancient Kenwood Chef and the oven.
Like more than four million other people, I am a huge fan of the Great British Bake Off, which has 12 amateur bakers frantically producing focaccia loaves and macaroons, before being picked off one by one by Paul and Mary.
Last October, when the theme tune faded out on winner Jo Wheatley and her triumphant stand of beautiful and intricate cakes, I felt bereft. I rushed to the website to see when the next series would be, and read: “Would YOU like to take part in the next series? Apply now!”
I could only imagine how marvellous it would be to have Mary gently praise my banana loaf, or see Paul’s piercing eyes assess my perfectly iced buns.
I filled in the form, reasoning that having seen the stumbling efforts of some contestants to whip up a muffin, it couldn’t be that hard to get on the show.
And a couple of weeks later a woman from the TV company rang to quiz me on my baking knowledge. I correctly identified the ingredients of a scone and the perfect oven temperature for a Victoria sponge.
But it wasn’t until the second phone call that I became nervous when a TV researcher asked me to bring my baking to an audition. At this stage we’d get nowhere near a TV oven - or Mary and Paul, he told me. “But it’s very good to get to this stage!” he added. “Good luck!”
It was a few weeks to the audition, and of course, I should have spent every night practising.
“You’re being very casual about this,” remarked my husband Simon, as I slumped in front of the TV, rather than piping rosettes on to a tower of choux buns.
“Oh, it’s fine,” I assured him, “it’s not like MasterChef.”
I waited till the day before the audition to decide that instead of making boring bread for my “savoury bake”, I’d make my signature vegetable pies.
It didn’t occur to me that by the time I got them from my home in Manchester to London for the audition, they’d be stone cold, with damp courgettes coagulating within.
I baked a Moroccan orange cake first - as expected, it turned out perfectly well. I’d done it many times before, what could go wrong? Looking at it, however, it was rather flat, and brown.
I decided I’d caramelise some oranges and decorate the top, but I hadn’t factored in my lack of caramelising knowledge. I ended up with some shrivelled orange slices that resembled a festive pot pourri, but by now it was too late - I had my pies to worry about.
I started cooking on Saturday afternoon, assuming I’d be in plenty of time to perfect my offerings by Sunday’s audition.
The first two attempts went wrong. The pastry fell apart - which had never happened before. I made a new batch. The third and fourth attempts didn’t look quite right. By 1am, I’d run out of filling, and was reduced to poking it out of the previous, failed pies and adding it to the new ones.
I hoped it would all look better in the morning. But after a long train journey clutching my Tupperware box, all jolly positivity melted away.
The cake wasn’t too bad, but the pies had bashed against the box, knocking pastry from their sides. I had an image of Mary Berry wearily shaking her coiffed blonde head. My confidence was in shreds.
The auditions were held in an old community hall in London. I was ushered to a bland room with ten other nervy people - and along one side was a long trestle table, groaning with what looked like preparations for an 18th-century feast.
There were five-tier cakes of descending sizes, iced in trellis work and piped with sugar roses, a layered “opera cake” that could have been designed with a set square, its chocolate surface shining like a newly-sprayed Bentley; loaves with intricate patterns set into their crusts... if someone had wheeled in a life-sized sponge mermaid covered in gold leaf, it wouldn’t have surprised me.
I felt like a karaoke singer who’s suddenly found themselves headlining at the O2. I tucked my wizened efforts at the back and looked at my fellow auditionees, who included an osteopath, an accountant and a friendly photographer called Ryan.
Soon it was my turn to be interviewed. Two pleasant ladies asked me why I enjoyed cooking. “And is this pie your own recipe?” one asked.
“Yes,” I admitted, “but it went a bit wrong, and the pastry went crumbly, and...”
“Why do you think that happened?” she asked. My mind went blank. “Not enough water, perhaps?” she suggested, kindly. I nodded, before scuttling out, burning with embarrassment.
Unsurprisingly, it was bad news. “The standard was very high,” said the kindly researcher. “Thousands applied this year.”
I collected my decimated pies and left, having realised that never again would I apply for anything just because it looked easy on TV.
From the comfort of the sofa, it’s the easiest thing in the world for keen bakers like me to criticise the sunken cakes or uncooked dough of the contestants, convinced that we know better. I am proof that we most definitely don’t - unless we have nerves of steel as well as a love of producing something delicious.
But it hasn’t stopped me from tuning in to this series - and I was pleased to see that Ryan from my audition had made the cut. I’ll be following how he gets on, and all the others.
After my disastrous attempts, I take my apron off to all of them. - Daily Mail