Questions from Neff
What do you love about Neff?
I love Neff for many reasons. First of all, the cleanliness of the actual product. It’s got clean lines (no bobbly bits here and there), everything pushes away and it’s streamlined. As a baker who’s conscious of kitchen fashion, that’s very important for me. But most importantly, it is the functionality of the Neff appliances – you can rely on them. The ovens have Circotherm tech that help them bake very evenly, and the slide and hide door disappears into the bottom of the oven when it’s opened, meaning you have a safe environment to get food in and out. So, I’m in love with Neff, I really am!
How would you say the slide and hide has improved your baking?
With Slide and Hide, I can get the door out of the way to ensure the cakes are rightly placed in the oven for the best bake. But it’s the Circotherm tech that’s also great. Hot air is blown underneath the shelving, and sucked back over the top of the cakes, so I can be sure that my cakes are getting the right heat, constantly. This gives a perfect rise and a perfect result every time.
What is it about baking that brings people together?
Baking is a very traditional British thing, it’s something we’ve always done in this country, and I think because it’s a cheap thing to do, it means you can do things with the ones you love. You can learn how to bake with your family members, as I did with my mum. It’s about that sort of togetherness in food. It’s very comforting – the smell of warm bread cooking in the oven or a cake that’s just been baked is just the best antidote to anything in life.
Questions from AO
How did you initially get into baking?
I got into baking when I was a teeny, tiny little boy – it was one of those things that most families do, they bake. It’s a cheap thing to do and it doesn’t depend upon the weather, so me, my mum and my sisters would all be together in the kitchen on rainy weekends, and I think that became very comforting for me. So, then went I went through life and became, y’ know, a perpetually stressed out student, it meant that I could find solace in baking. I’d bake and make myself feel better and happy. So, I decided to be a baker.
What made you apply for the Great British Bakeoff?
I applied because I was in the middle of my exams and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something to take my mind off this,’ so I just filled out the application form thinking, ‘I might not hear back, I probably won’t.’ 6 months later, I was in a field baking for Mary Berry. Things happened all of a sudden, and seemingly, for no reason, but I’m glad they happened, that’s for sure.
What’s the hardest recipe you’ve ever had to make?
Probably my heaven and hell cake which took something like 17 eggs, 4 A4 pages of instructions, so many ingredients – a whole book of gold leaf went into that thing - It was hard, but it was more time-consuming and it required really fastidious planning. It was a good one, but yeah, it was really difficult.
How do you find your inspiration for your recipes and what you bake?
The inspiration for my recipes really comes from… I eat out a lot. I buy a lot of other people’s baking in food markets and I read a lot around the subject. I always say you are standing on the shoulders of giants, so you can’t really come up with an idea completely yourself. But, what you can do is try combinations of what you’ve tried - flavour combinations - and put them into something else. Baking really is exhausted – there’s really only so much that can come from the baking industry, so it’s a case of reinventing the wheel. Which is good because then you know you can rely on the tradition that works, as well as the more modern evolutionary flavour combinations.
So if you could only have one cake for the rest of your life, what would it be?
If I could only have one cake for the rest of my life – and that would be a DIRE situation, let me tell you that – I think it would have to be a very perfectly done Victoria Sponge. There is nothing better than a good cuppa tea and a slice of Vicky sponge – ooh.
AO is a brand all about happiness – so what makes you happy?
Not a lot… but cake. Cake makes me happy. My family, my friends and food. The 3 F’s – the most important three Fs you’ll ever find in life. And good appliances!!
Questions from the public
Over to the fan's questions!
What’s your best baking tip?
Get everything prepped before you start - there’s nothing worse than trying to bake while hunting for the vanilla that’s still in the cupboard. Tip two, don’t make the recipe up. Do exactly as the recipe says, and once you’re quite proficient in baking, then you can start messing around with things and fiddling.
What's your favourite thing to bake?
Things that you know work, like scones… I really love scones… and Victoria Sponge. My favourite recipe at the minute is my Bundt cake, and that really is a thing of great beauty - it’s in the second book, John Whaite Bakes at Home.
You recently started a chocolate (??) plans going with that?
I did the 9 month diploma at Cordon Bleu, so it was really intense of patisserie, chocolate, bilangerie (??) and I realised I absolutely loved chocolate work. I loved tempered (?) Temporary (?) chocolate, I loved eating chocolate – I really love eating chocolate – and I love to make truffles because I really think you can get a real burst of flavour in one tiny little bit of chocolate that you might not necessarily be able to translate into a cake – so for example, where I have Guiness and Black cake in the book of Battenburg, I’ve got a Guiness and Black chocolate called the Black Dog – so literally Guiness and Black Current puree and a bit of chocolate inside of a chocolate shell. And when you eat it, the first thing you get is this sort of tangy kick of black current on the jaw and all of a sudden the chocolate comes through and then finally that really dark haunting mellow Guiness flavour. And do you know what? I think it’s a taste sensation. So I love doing chocolates and I’m trying to expand that at the minute and I’m trying to make that into a really big chocolate company because I want to be able to supply more people because currently it’s limited edition and while that was my intention to get it off the ground and to understand the ethos of The Hungry Dog – because the brand is called The Hungry Dog Artisan Chocolates. And where that comes from is my granddad who passed away the day after I won the Bakeoff (in real life, not on the TV) he always used to say to me, ‘The hungry dog hunts best’ so that means to want something in life, you’ve got to be hungry for it, you’ve got to strive for it and when you are hungry and you’re ready to strive for it, you’ll do your damned best to get it. It opitimises that in the sense that these chocolates are luxury products, it’s all hand made by me, even that last flourish of finishing gold leaf on top is put on by me and so I really believe that the products is one of the best chocolate products available because it’s all completely handmade, there are no machines involved and so I really want to be able to continue making it by hand but on a bigger scale. So when I move into our cookery school because I’m opening a cookery school in Wigan in the Manchester area, when I’ve done that, we’ll have a production kitchen there for the chocolates too and then my family, my sister and my mum want to take a bigger role in the chocolate production as well and so it will also be handmade from the very beginning to the very end of the production. So that’s what we want to do.
It’s not even formally announced yet the cookery school! I need to announce it on Twitter!
Ultimate comfort food?
I think if I’m in a really bad mood and I’m really in a rush then I think a mini chocolate mud cake. So you make a mud cake batter and you put it in a cup or something into the oven for 5 or 10 minutes and you’ve got a gorgeous sort of oozy pudding – like a molton cake. But also, I don’t think you can beat making bread when you are stressed out. Because you have so many processes to put into it, you don’t even have time to think about what you’re feeling – I think when you work through any recipe, it’s a constructive thing so from destructive energy you turn it into a constructive thing by reading through a recipe, weighing ingredients out, being really wholly focussed on the recipe then that is only a good thing and that creative process really helps to take away any negative thoughts. Unless the cake sinks in the middle and if you are already in that mood, you might want to end it all so tread carefully! *laughs*
So will you do classes at the school?
I think if I’m in a really bad mood and I’m really in a rush, then I think a mini chocolate mud cake. So you make a mud cake batter. Then pour it into a cup and put it in the oven for 5 or 10 minutes. Then, you’ve got a gorgeous oozy pudding – like a molten cake.
It’s nice that you’re doing it near your home, rather than London.
Yeah, I didn’t want to do it in London because back up North is my true home. I mean, I love London and I love living in London, ya know I’ve got my flat there but what I really love is my family and my home and it’s gonna be on my family’s farm – we’re having the cookery school on my family’s farm and in the future what we want to do is use their milk to make cheeses – so Hungry Dog cheeses and then I also want to branch out into Hungry Dog Brewery and start doing a micro brewery. There’s gonna be John Whaite’s Kitchen and then Hungry Dog Chocolates, Hungry Dog Cheeses, Hungry Dog Brewery… my family have always had businesses, they always had the farm, they had a laundrette, hairdressers and the chip shop. And I’ve grown up working, with my family but from a young age, I always had a job with my family and that’s one of the things that’s so important to me that I can spend that time with them… after the bake off when my granddad past away – I hadn’t seen him for 10 weeks because we were filming – it was sort of like, that puts it in perspective. And he wasn’t an old, old man, you wouldn’t have expected him to die… but it was sort of like you’ve got to do as much as you can with your family because that’s all that really matters, ya know? London life is great, but really, my life is at home.
Who is your baking or cooking hero?
I think Richard Bertinet is one of the best bread book authors, if not THE best bread book author, on the market. I think the way he explains bread is so tangible, you can really get a sense of what he’s on about with his book, and he does it in a way that is quite continental. So, he uses the more French continental or Italian continental methods of making bread, which actually are more successful than British bread recipes… and I know I shouldn’t say that because I’m all wholesome Britain, but I think methods that you can adapt from different countries work so very well. So his bread is amazing. In terms of chefery, I take a great deal of inspiration from Nigel Slater. He likes to diarise his food and he’s got such a beautiful way of writing about it. But then I also like to read plenty of blogs, because I think a lot of top chefs have ideas, but those ideas often emanate from somewhere else. On blogs you can actually see the true origins of those things.
So what’s your favourite blog then?
Well, my favourite blog is… I do like Brit’s blog, I have to say. The recipes on there are very good – you can give me a fiver later on Brit. But also, Ed Kimberly – I know he is now in the ‘celebrity chef’ realm, but he still is very humble with very good recipes. There are craft and cake blogs out there, I just like all sorts of different blogs.
Do you still watch The British Bake Off?
I do, I do. Watching it now is good because I can enjoy it for the entertainment value.
Do you get nervous watching it?
On my series, yes, but not so much on other series. I can really enjoy it when it’s not me on the telly, because I’m not involved in it.
Do you ever get nervous cooking for people?
I used to get really nervous cooking for people because you project all of yourself onto your food, it’s a very personal thing, so I did used to get nervous cooking for people. But, then I watch my ol’ mum cook - she can make a few bits but she’s not amazing - if I watch her cook, I don’t think ‘oh she must be feeling nervous cause she’s not top of the game’ I think, ‘I’m gonna learn something from this woman who knows this recipe off by heart.’ So, I just think there’s nothing to be nervous about with food, because if things do go wrong, it goes wrong and that’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
Any advice you would give to people who do start baking and maybe it does go wrong?
I’d just say, think about what you’re doing, take a step back and establish what it is that is going wrong. It’s a matter of reading around the subject, go online and look at these blogs and people’s tips, because although I learnt so much from my Cordon Bleu education, I’ve learnt tips from bloggers and food writers. Making mistakes in food is an important thing, that’s how you learn, that’s how you grow.
What’s your process of making a recipe, from the inspiration to the execution?
When I’m writing in a book for example, I write down the chapters – so what’s the slant or what sort of thing do I want to write in this book? - Let’s take my second book ‘At Home,’ I thought, I’ll do a chapter on lunches and brunches, a chapter on breakfast, a chapter on picnics and one on cheese and patisserie. So then in Picnics, ‘what do you need at a picnic?’ Well, it has to be portable – so I thought, ‘okay I will do trail bakes because you can portion them onsite, crumbles in jars, individual Stromboli buns - these are things you can take away in a hamper and they won’t get all mushed up. So then you think, ‘what flavour do I want to put in those buns?’ and it’s a case of making a skeleton - adding the muscles and then finishing it off with all the skin - and then you’ve got a book, or a recipe.
What about food combinations – anything you think really work?
So, like salt and caramel? Cheese and chocolate go so well together, believe it or not. My friend Paul Young, he’s a chocolatier in London who’s been doing it for a very long time. He does a Port and Stilton chocolate, and you know what, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted – it’s just so so good. So yeah, I think there are some unusual flavour combinations around.
How do you decide what works then?
Well, there’s a great book called the Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, and that’s a brilliant for getting ideas for flavour combinations. A lot of the time, it’s just a case of eating out. To develop recipes, you have to taste things and you have to eat out to take ideas from other people. It’s not stealing, it’s just blending one idea with another, and that’s how we evolve as a sort of food society. Otherwise, we’d just be stagnant. Eating scones. No actually that’s a good thing! *laughs*
On the flip side of that, do you ever make something and think, ’this is gonna be awesome’ and then it comes out…
I have definitely made some horrendous things in my time. I can’t think of one but I have made a lot of stuff that I thought, ‘that is awful.’ But I’m not afraid to say that! That’s the thing, you’ve just got to move on if you do make a mistake, you think okay I learned from that, put it in the back of my mind and don’t fixate on it.
How developed was your baking passion before you went on Great British Bake Off?
Before I went on, I thought it was quite good, but having done the Cordon Bleu course now, I realise that I knew nothing. I knew absolutelynothing about baking. I learnt on the show, but I mostly learnt in my education after the show. That’s the good thing about it (the show) – it allows bakers who are just home bakers, who don’t have to have qualifications, to enter.
What would you say to
younger people going to the market and getting things that are already premade
– you know, cake mixes that you just add water?
I think it’s about education, it’s important to teach children how to cook. I mean, Jamie Oliver has gone into great detail about it. If children grow up in an environment where it’s commonplace with their parents to shove a microwave meal in, they’re never going know any different. And the parent was probably subjected to that as a child too. I mean, occasionally, I’ll have a pizza from Dominos, I’ll have a McDonalds, I’ll have an Indian takeaway – I’m human. But I also like to cook with good, local produce where possible.