Queen of cakes Mary Berry reveals all about the new series of The Great British Bake Off on BBC Two, and shares her thoughts on the unstoppable popularity of baking in the UK, the show's recent Bafta win and why she'll never be a nasty TV judge.
By Diana Pilkington
If you haven't caught the baking bug yet, chances are you haven't seen The Great British Bake Off.
Since 2010, sales of bakeware - cake tins, muffin trays, wooden spoons and the like - have risen by 39% at Sainsbury's, and in the last year alone sales of Union Jack cupcake cases at the supermarket have shot up by a whopping 2,050%.
The TV baking contest, which is returning for a third series, is thought to be one of the driving forces behind our love affair with all things doughy.
"I think it's lovely," says cookery expert Mary Berry, who judges the show alongside master baker Paul Hollywood.
"Everyone who enters is an amateur, so people at home look at them and think 'I could do that'.
"Mothers and fathers are baking with their children, and uncles, aunts and grannies are doing it. Lots of schools and offices are having bake offs now and it's all to do with the show. It's stimulated Britain to bake."
The programme, fronted by Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, sees 12 amateur bakers battle it out to produce the best cakes, breads and pastries.
This year the varied batch of contestants includes 20-year-old medical student James, from the Shetland Islands; Irish-born company director Brendan, aged 63, and 28-year-old vicar's wife Sarah-Jane from West Sussex.
"The show's getting bigger and better and the standard is marvellously high this year. Higher than ever before," says Berry.
Tensions regularly bubble over on the programme, as the bakers anxiously watch their ovens, and Berry is careful to be as constructive as possible in the judging process.
"I'm extremely fair. I want to encourage them to bake more and don't want to frighten them off. I don't want them to cry if they don't do it right."
Despite her years of cooking experience, she insists she learns "all the time" from the contestants.
"They're very modern with their colourings. One used freeze-dried raspberries the other day - I'd never seen those before - and they use the internet and come up with all sorts of creations.
"I learn so much from Paul too because he's a brilliant bread maker. He's taught me to always make a wet dough."
With so many tempting treats to sample, Berry has a small mouthful of each. "But the next day I'm pretty careful," she adds, when quizzed as to how she manages to stay so trim.
The 77-year-old is adamant she will never resort to cosmetic surgery, but admits she worries about her appearance in front of the show's millions of viewers.
"Obviously I want to look good," she says. "You'll always see me blonde, I'll tell you that much, and I bother about my nails. The rest looks after itself."
A word from last year's winner
Mild-mannered mother-of-three Jo Wheatley says winning the 2011 show changed her life "massively".
Wheatley, from Essex, now runs her own cookery school from home and has released a book of baking recipes.
"It's been a wonderful experience and a huge confidence boost," she says.
"It's so nice to have a job where one day I might be doing a demonstration, another I'm at home writing recipes and another I'm teaching. It's such good fun."
She can fully understand why the rest of the nation seems to have cottoned on to the hobby she's been enjoying for years.
"With the recession, baking is something everyone can do. It can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want it to be.
"As long as you've got some eggs, flour, sugar and a couple of basic pieces of equipment, you can bake.
"And if you bake yourself there are no E numbers or preservatives so you know exactly what you're feeding people."
Here are some recipes to get you started...
Mary's Queen of Puddings
600ml full-fat milk
25g unsalted butter
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
225g caster sugar
3 large free-range eggs, at room temperature, separated
75g fresh white breadcrumbs
For the jam:
200g mixed summer fruits (raspberries, blueberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants) or 500g frozen mixed berries
200g caster sugar, or to taste
You will also need 1 x 1.4 litre capacity shallow ovenproof dish, buttered; a roasting tin; a piping bag fitted with a plain or star tube (or a disposable piping bag with the tip snipped off)
To make the custard base, very gently warm the milk in a small pan. Add the butter, lemon zest and 50g of the sugar and stir until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved. Lightly whisk the egg yolks in a large heatproof mixing bowl, then gradually whisk in the warm milk mixture.
Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the base of the buttered dish, then pour over the custard. Leave to stand for about 15 minutes so the breadcrumbs can absorb the liquid. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas 3.
Carefully set the dish in the roasting tin and pour enough hot water into the tin to come halfway up the side of the dish. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the custard base is firm and set. Remove from the oven and lift the dish from the roasting tin and leave to cool for 15 minutes.
Leave the oven on, but reduce the temperature to 150°C/300°F/Gas 2.
While the custard base is cooling, make the jam. Put the mixed fruits into a pan and warm over low heat until they have softened and released their juices. Add the sugar and continue to cook gently, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes until you have a jam-like consistency (if using frozen berries, they will release more liquid, so will take longer to cook to a jam-like consistency).
Put the egg whites into a large bowl and whisk with a hand-held electric mixer on full speed until stiff. Whisk in the remaining sugar a teaspoon at a time, still on full speed, to make a very stiff and glossy meringue. Spoon the meringue into the piping bag fitted with the plain or star tube.
Spread 4-5 tablespoons of the fruit jam over the custard base, then pipe the meringue on top to cover the jam completely. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the meringue is pale golden and crisp. Serve immediately, with a jug of pouring cream.
Here are two recipes from Jo Wheatley...
Chocolate, cherry and orange friands
85g plain flour
150g icing sugar, plus extra for dusting
1 tsp baking powder
100g ground almonds
5 egg whites, lightly whisked
50g dark chocolate, melted and cooled
200g unsalted butter, melted
Zest of 1 orange
100g dried cherries
You will also need a 12-hole friand or muffin tin, buttered and lightly dusted with plain flour
Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/Gas 3.
Sift the flour, icing sugar, baking powder, cocoa and ground almonds into a mixing bowl and stir to combine. Next, stir in the egg whites.
Fold in the chocolate and melted butter, using a metal spoon or spatula, then stir in the orange zest and cherries until thoroughly combined.
Spoon into prepared friand tins, and bake for 20 minutes or until the mixture springs back when touched.
Cool in the tins for 3-4 minutes then turn out onto a wire cooling rack and leave to stand until cold. Lightly dust with icing sugar to serve.
Carrot cake traybake
For the cake:
300g soft light brown sugar
250ml sunflower oil
3 large eggs
150g self-raising flour
2 tsp ground mixed spice
A pinch of salt
250g carrots, coarsely grated
125g pecans, chopped
Zest of half an orange, finely grated
For the orange syrup:
Juice of half a large orange
20g caster sugar
For the frosting:
400g full-fat cream cheese
100g icing sugar
Finely grated zest and juice of half an orange
100g pecan halves to decorate
You will also need a 25 x 20cm baking tin, greased and lined with baking parchment
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas 4.
Mix together the sugar and oil using either an electric hand whisk or in the bowl of a free-standing mixer. Add the eggs and mix until smooth.
Using a large metal spoon, fold in the flour, mixed spice and a pinch of salt.
Add the grated carrot, chopped pecans and orange zest and mix until thoroughly combined. Spoon into the prepared tin and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 30-40 minutes until golden and a wooden skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
Prepare the orange syrup. In a small saucepan, heat the orange juice and caster sugar until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has reduced by one-third.
Brush the warm cake with the warm orange syrup and leave until completely cold.
To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese, icing sugar, orange zest and orange juice until smooth.
Once the cake has cooled, spread over the frosting with a palette knife and scatter with pecan halves to serve.
:: The Great British Bake Off returns to BBC Two on Tuesday, August 14
:: Mary's Queen of Puddings is taken from The Great British Bake Off: How To Turn Everyday Bakes Into Showstoppers by Linda Collister, published by BBC Books, priced £25. Available now
:: A Passion For Baking by Jo Wheatley is published by Constable, priced £8. Available now exclusively from Sainsbury's