I shake my head and laugh wryly and tell them that they have already made their first mistake. Never use coal to bake your cakes. I use a fan oven. Here it is:
After I have made this little joke, people seem less inclined to hear my account of the cut and thrust of competition, but as a homage both to the Inspiring Photo Essays of Dr Robert Hudson, and to Them Apples, who is now, officially, the 35th most powerful food blogger in the UK, I am going to share with you the honest inside story of this weekend's baking competition – the sugar-fuelled highs and the oven-scorched heartaches.
Strap in. We may be here some time.
Many rookies assume that entering a competition means you can throw all your baking tricks at the judges, dazzling them with your elaborate sugarcraft and daring flavour chemistry.
You have to respect the rules. Baking is founded on rules, so how else could competitions like this proceed? So this weekend, we were baking to specific recipes which allow not only for like to be judged against like, but also for confusing typos in the ingredients to provoke a sense of genuine culinary jeopardy among competitors.
This year's categories were as follows:
Boiled Fruit Cake (baking drudgery)
Bakewell Tart (pastry fiddliness)
There were no biscuits. I am good with biscuits. I am the best at biscuits. Apart from when I am second best at biscuits. These four options were clearly meant to dissuade me from entering, after I shook up the competition and swept to a podium finish, twice over, last year, on a one-way ticket from Nowhere Town to Prize Bakingford. A gauntlet had been thrown down, and while I had no option but to accept it, or whatever it is one does with gauntlets, I was left with few options. It is less that we had chosen the categories of Cherry Loaf and Cheese Scones, and more that they had chosen us.
First assemble your ingredients. This is not essential, but I like to have them all there in front of me at the start, and gradually put them away as I use them. I don't know why. That's what works for me, just like the way Colin Jackson would have to stretch out his legs a certain number of times when settling into his blocks at the start of a hurdles race. Colin Jackson and I often laugh together about our competitive foibles, but sometimes the conversation takes a darker turn when Colin gets angry remembering the ludicrous mannequins show dance Erin Boag made him do in the final of Strictly Come Dancing series 3.
Anyway, the ingredients:
You will notice that mine are mostly from Marks & Spencer. This is not a decision based on quality of produce but on sloth, since there is a branch right near work.
We will begin with the cherry loaf. First, you need to rinse and dry 100g glacé cherries. Here we encounter our first dilemma. What to use? Brand-new undyed glacé cherries from M&S [below, right]? Or glowing-with-nuclear-red-food-colouring, been-in-the-fridge-since-the-Christmas-cake glacé cherries from Sainsbo's [below, left]?
It's true to say that the organisers of this contest are a fairly conventional group. Fashionably uncoloured glacé cherries that are not the colour of an old-fashioned telephone box may be literally a shade too cutting edge. These dilemmas, while testing, are vital to the psychology of competition. In the event that you do not win, you can blame your defeat on the judges narrow-mindedly preferring the option you did not choose. Also, they should have been more clear in their instructions.
Forget about the cherries, even though they will be gnawing at your consciousness like fat shiny rats.
Next, mix together 200g self-raising flour and a pinch of salt. I like to sieve the flour first. I am a fan of sieving. Quite apart from the lightness it brings to your baking, it is tremendously soothing and therapeutic, and lets you think about all manner of thorny philosophical questions, such as will I ever fix the damp and alarmingly cracked patch of ceiling in the hallway right outside my kitchen door? What am I going to do with all those home-made sweet potato falafels in the freezer that I neither want to eat or throw out?
It is true. Sieving opens your mind. I went to one of Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurants on Saturday, where he has a range of merchandise with various Jamie logos on. If I were to open similar premises, I would sell an apron emblazoned with the words 'Live to sieve'.
When you have sieved the flour, then dropped the salt on to it, it makes a nice pattern like this:
...like some kind of futuristic moon-crater snowscape in an eco-sci-fi, box-office-busting movie spectacular. But in your own kitchen! That is the magic of baking RIGHT THERE.
Next, add 100g butter to the flour and salt and rub in until you have a fine breadcrumbs effect going on. Then add 100g caster sugar and the cherries, which you will have chopped up, into a size that is helpfully not specified. I have gone for small-ish but still recognisably cherries.
Next, make a well in the centre of your mixture and add one egg, which you have beaten, and half a teaspoon of vanilla essence. That's essence, you will note, not extract. I don't have old-school synthetic vanilla essence. I have smug middle-class vanilla extract, bought at great expense from the speciality section of my largest local supermarket. Are essence and extract the same? I ask the wonderweb. There is absolutely no definitive answer. Honestly, it is almost as if the internet is awash with ill-earned authority, misplaced opinion and guesswork.
I use the same amount of extract as essence and be damned.
Pour about 5 tablespoons of milk into a measuring jug and add some to the mixture, stirring together the wet and dry ingredients. Add more milk if you need to until the mixture is of a 'dropping consistency'. This means if you hold a spoon of mixture upside down over your worktop, the mixture will drop off – not run off, nor stick to the spoon – on to your worktop and, if you are like me, you will ineffectually wipe it off with a piece of kitchen towel.
You will probably be ready for a cup of tea at this point.
In addition, it may be helpful to listen to some soothing music. I am using a compilation CD given as a favour to all the guests at my friends Nick and Channy's wedding a few weeks ago, in particular this , this and this. Oh and this.
Put the mixture
into your mouth into a loaf tin of highly specific dimensions, level the top and put it in the oven (preheated, obviously; 180C/GM4 if you must be exact, and I'm telling you, you must) for about an hour and 15 minutes until it is golden brown, firm to the touch and – now pay close attention to this next bit because I will be bitterly invoking it later – well risen.
At around this time, I start to worry that my cakes and scones will have an unmistakeable taint of Lincolnshire sausages, which was the last thing that was cooked in the general area of my oven.
Baking is full of the unexpected. In this case, your cake may already be golden brown after 30 minutes, forcing you to improvise wildly using whatever resources can be found around you. I am the Bear Grylls of baking, and I wrap the cake in a tin foil blanket to stop it burning.
Still, when it comes out of the oven, it is still on the brown side of golden brown.
Never mind, it's late and there's still work to do. It's all to bake for, etc. Let's press on. Scones next. Turn the oven up to 220C/GM7. This is officially hotter than hell. Hell is only 218C. There are no Gas Marks in hell. Satan prefers an electric oven, as he finds it cooks things much more evenly.
First, mix 225g self-raising flour and 'a pinch of teaspoonful of salt'. What does this mean? I have no idea. This doesn't bode well, scones-wise.
Then rub in 40g butter. What is it with all the 'rubbing in'? First the cake, then the scones. The bakewell tart also calls for rubbing in. This is clearly the key skill of this year's competition. It's probably the case that this competition attracts an older class of entrants, and rubbing in may well be a recommended exercise to guard against arthritis. Alternatively, the common occurrence of arthritis in the elderly may be a direct result of too much competitive baking.
It's worth pointing out that if you don't have at least some flour on your trousers at this point, you're probably doing something wrong.
Next, finely grate 75g cheese (what kind of cheese? Philadelphia? Stinking Bishop? Call me old-fashioned, I plumped for Cheddar), and stir half of it in, along with a level teaspoon of dried mustard. Let us take a moment to salute a true design classic of packaging:
And also to remark on how, in contrast to, say, a bag of Walkers crisps, Colman's really offer their customer value for money when it comes to jamming the product in. Although slightly less so when you've spilled a quarter of it on the floor as the tin bursts open.
Finally, stir in 1/4 pint of milk, or enough to give a fairly soft, light dough. Now roll the dough out to 3/4in thick, and cut out using a 2in plain cutter. Here is mine. I measured it with my Kew Gardens souvenir ruler.
Then I measured it on the back of the ruler to see which common British bird it equated to. The answer is the magpie.
Cut out the scones and put them on a greased baking tray. Locate your pastry brush from the Kitchen Drawer Of Doom. Good luck with that.
Brush the naked scones with milk and sprinkle with the rest of the grated cheese. Bake near the top of the oven (preheated to 220C/GM7) for about 10 minutes. Here they are before...
Not bad, yes? I learnt that from Gordon Ramsay. Yes? That's what he says at the end of a sentence, yes? He also calls everyone 'big guy'. The ladies of competitive baking are not really into being called 'big guy', I have found.
Anyway, while your scones are cooking, you might like to tidy up a bit.
It's important here to point out that under no circumstances should you attempt to eat any of the leftover raw savoury dough.
Then you will have to go to bed because it's about half past midnight and you are by now exhausted because you are a busy thirtysomething woman trying to juggle work and homelife, and you have to be up at 6.30 to take your baking to the competition tent because you then have to go to Bath for the day and 6.30 is pretty much the earliest you've been up on a Saturday in YOUR WHOLE LIFE.
Still, taking your baking to the competition tent at a ludicrous hour in the morning is quite exciting as you get to see all the nearby fair rides asleep.
However, when you return to the tent the day after, post-judging, to find out the results of your endeavours, the world stops turning.
Firstly, your scones are not placed. They are next to the first prize-winner. They don't look dissimilar.
Your cake is not placed either.
WHAT THE F*CKING F*CK?
But look at the winning cake (centre). IT LOOKS LIKE A HOUSE BRICK. IT IS NOT 'WELL RISEN'. THIS IS AN ABSOLUTE OUTRAGE.
Again, your cake is next to the one that is placed first. Coincidence? I don't think so. I think the judge had some ocular and spatial disability which resulted in him/her inadvertently placing the first-place sticker on the wrong dish on two separate occasions.
I'm joking of course. You cannot win a prize every time, and there is a lesson to learn from this. A genuine, character-building lesson, particularly relating to grace in defeat.
That lesson is that sometimes the judges just get it wrong. They are stupid. But deep down inside, you can be proud because you know that you were QUITE OBVIOUSLY the best.
Come on, everyone. Buck up. I have. I raised my spirits by buying some peonies from the nearby flower tent.
It got me thinking that I might enter a flower-arranging contest next year. I think you can tell from this picture that I have quite the raw talent.