Prue Leith: Sex, custard and chopping people up with an axe
A chat with the ‘indiscreet’ Bake Off judge and cookery writer can take surprising turns
Prue Leith. Photograph: David Loftus
Writing sex scenes, that your children will read, and eating Ambrosia custard from a carton: things I did not expect to be discussing with Prue Leith, writer of cookbooks and of novels, TV personality, and queen of the statement necklace.
But little about Leith is predictable. The South African-born 78-year-old has been a restaurateur, winning a Michelin star for the eponymous Leith’s of Notting Hill, which she opened in 1969. She has set up, and sold, a cookery school and a contract catering company. A former UK businesswoman of the year, she has been involved in commercial, cultural and educational endeavours at the highest level, and is a campaigner on a variety of issues from sustainability to end of life care.
And yes, she conducted a secret affair with the husband of her mother’s best friend for 13 years, before marrying him. She says she fell, “completely, thunderously and irredeemably”, for the writer Rayne Kruger, though she believed and still believes, “adultery is wrong”. She and Kruger were together more than 40 years, until his death in 2002, and have a daughter Li-Da and a son Danny. Li-Da, who was born in Cambodia, was adopted as a toddler and is six months older than her sibling.
Leith had to do two auditions for Great British Bake Off. ‘I thought they’d want to change the formula, they wouldn’t want another old lady, they’d probably want a young trendy’
Two years ago, at the age of 76, Leith married her Cotswolds neighbour John Playfair, a retired fashion designer and manufacturer. It is he, she says, who is now responsible for finding her signature jewellery, at least the more affordable pieces – “if anything is over $12, it’s out of the question”.
Despite her long career in the food industry and in business, and an 11-year stint on TV as a judge on Great British Menu, Leith is now perhaps best known as Mary Berry’s replacement on Great British Bake Off. She has also has just written her first cookbook in 25 years, Prue. My All-Time Favourite Recipes.
She breezes into the tiny meeting room at her publisher’s offices in London, where we meet, in a blaze of colour. It’s a bright, royal blue theme today – necklace with matching bracelet and earrings, silk scarf and those signature blue, green and red spectacles. Her necklaces, which she has been collecting “forever”, stretch across two walls in her home, where they hang on hooks, three to a peg. Soon, she will launch a website selling accessories that she has personally selected.
“I’ll take these off because they’ll rattle,” she says, removing the bracelet, and later in our conversation the earrings will come off too. But the gobstopper-sized balls, knotted twice around her neck, remain in situ, and she strokes them absentmindedly as she talks. “This comes from a company in Italy called Balls Mania, what a name,” she reveals.
“My God, you’ve had homework,” she says, spotting her racy, no-holds-barred memoir Relish and the new cookbook in front of me. It’s the cookbook we are supposed to be talking about – a bright, zingy compendium of 100 of her favourite recipes.
But first I want the inside track on Bake Off, Britain’s favourite TV show, and a strong performer here in Ireland too. Leith joined the cast last year, when the show moved from BBC to Channel 4. Paul Hollywood’s co-judge Mary Berry and presenters Mel and Sue refused to make the move, and were replaced by Leith, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding.
She has just come from the launch of the current series, a preview for TV critics, hosted by her and her co-judge Paul Hollywood, so I’m hopeful she will spill the beans. After all, wasn’t it she who famously tweeted the winner of last year’s show, hours before the final was televised.
“Oh, dear . . . that was awful. I still have anxiety feelings, as if I might do it again, and of course I won’t, because it was a mistake. I am quite indiscreet and spontaneous and I don’t watch every word I say. But I’m certainly not going to tweet the next winner,” she says, attributing the social media gaffe to confusion about the time difference in Bhutan, where she was holidaying.
Despite her popularity as a judge on Great British Menu, Leith had to do two auditions for Bake Off, and she was not hopeful. “I thought they’d want to change the formula, they wouldn’t want another old lady, they’d probably want a young trendy.”
But she got the role, and the Mary Berry mantle was handed over. “When I took the job I thought, Oh lovely, eat cake, what’s wrong with that? I hadn’t realised that Bake Off was the nation’s most treasured possession and that its fate was in my hands.”
Leith had the last laugh when, during filming of the final, she attempted to lighten the tense atmosphere by wearing an apron emblazoned with the words “What Would Mary Do?”
“I put it on when nobody was looking. We were about to announce the winner, and I walked onto the set wearing the apron. Nobody noticed, until of course the camera were suddenly on us. There was a shocked second, then a huge burst of laughter from the crew and the bakers. But I knew they’d never use it, it never made the cut.”
The series is filmed at weekends, between late March and the end of June, at the Puxley family’s Welford Park in Berkshire. “We arrive on Friday night and we stay in a local hotel, a very nice five-star hotel, couldn’t be more comfortable. We all have dinner together – Paul and Sandi and Noel. Actually since Noel had his baby, he tends to turn up a bit later because he has baby duty, and we stay until Sunday afternoon or evening.”
“But best of all, the Puxleys are so generous – they let the four of us have their library for a green room, so when it’s really cold, in March and April, we have a log fire, really good coffee machine, nice sofas and books all round.”
Books are important to Leith, who has written eight novels as well as the cookbooks. She says she “would like to be thought of as a novelist and not as a romantic fiction writer”, although romance, and sex, figure largely in her rather raunchy stories.
“Raunchy? Are they? Well they’re not 50 Shades,” she says. Her late husband had concerns that part of her writing. “He suddenly said, ‘It’s not going to have any sex in it, is it?’, and I said of course it is, it’s a love story, how do you have a love story without any sex in it? It’s quite an important part of love. And he said ‘You can’t do that, the children will be so embarrassed.’ I said, the children are 27!”
So she gave them an extract to read – “what you’d call a raunchy chapter” – she says, giving me a stern look from behind those peacock spectacles. “And I was quite nervous that they would say this is toe curling, it’s ghastly. But they actually said ‘It’s absolutely fine, though it’s a bit odd that you know this stuff. But you know what, Dad’ll never be able to handle it’.”
When asked if she finds the sex scenes difficult to write, she says: “If you feel it, it works, you’ve got to feel it though. If you’re a writer you can get into people’s heads. I don’t write thrillers but I can imagine writing a scene where somebody is chopping somebody up with an axe, and try to get into that feeling of power and viciousness. I think I could do that.”
Write about it, I hope she means.
PRUE LEITH ON...
Her Bake Off co-judge, Paul Hollywood He’s like a cookie, hard on the outside and squishy in the middle. He has got a real soft centre.
Her decision to write another cookbook, after 25 years I decided that it would be ridiculous to be on Bake Off and not profit by the fact that there’s this whole new audience of young people.
The go-to recipe in her new book Pink peppercorn and chocolate mousse cake. I was pretty resistant to the pink peppercorns but we tried it and it is absolutely delicious. And it’s an easy cake to make. I believe in easy.
A recent culinary revelation A carton of custard, it has got to be Ambrosia; a squidge of that in the bottom, then a layer of rosepetal jam, then a layer of cream and yoghurt mixed, and a bit of muscovado sugar and caramelised oranges on top.
Wearing bright colours Quite lot of women write to me and say I’d love to wear the colours you do, but I wouldn’t dare, and then I feel absolutely duty bound to say to them – don’t be ridiculous, just do it.
Recipe writing and teaching a men-only class in the 1970s We used to get them to make a chocolate mousse on their first day and the first line of the recipe is “Separate the eggs”. This guy put one egg on one side of the table and one on the other, and it really taught me something. When you write recipes, you have to know your audience.
A TRIO FROM PRUE: MY ALL-TIME FAVOURITE RECIPES
ULTIMATE COTTAGE PIE WITH BLACK PUDDING
Cottage pie can be a sorry affair: grey, wet mince under watery mash, neither with much flavour. Or it can be sublime: rich, dark mince with creamy mash and a crusty, cheesy top. It’s all in the frying, so follow the instructions below and never mind if the cooker top ends up a mess.
Cooking oil for frying
500g lean minced beef
100g black pudding
3 rashers of rindless streaky bacon, diced
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 celery stick, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 400g tin chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato puree
a pinch of dried or 1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
salt and pepper to season
For the mash
250g Maris Piper potatoes, cut into 5-6cm chunks
500g sweet potatoes, cut into 5-6cm chunks
about 50g butter
2 tbsp grated strong Cheddar cheese
1 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a heavy-based frying pan. If the mince is in a lump, flatten it on a plate. If it is in a supermarket pack, keep it flat. Press the slab of mince into the really hot pan using a fish slice, and leave it there, without fiddling with it, for 2 minutes or more, then sneak a look to see if it’s really brown. Flip it over and repeat. When both sides are brown, break it up to brown all the meat. Lift out with a slotted spoon and drop into a saucepan. Cook the black pudding as you have the mince, then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the saucepan.
Deglaze the frying pan by adding a splash of water and loosening the stuck-on bits with the fish slice. Tip onto the cooked meat. Turn down the heat under the pan and, using more oil as needed, fry the bacon, onion, celery and garlic until just turning brown. Stir in the tomatoes and bring to the boil, still stirring, then pour into the pan with the meat and black pudding. Add the tomato purée and thyme, and season. Simmer gently for 45 minutes, or until the sauce is thick and syrupy.
If the sauce is too thick, add a little water; if too runny, simmer until it is thick and barely liquid, stirring now and then to stop it sticking. Season well, then spoon into a pie dish deep enough for the mixture to reach 2-3cm (1in) from the top. Smooth the top, then allow to cool a bit and form a skin.
Heat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4 and start on the mash. Boil the potatoes and the sweet potatoes in separate saucepans of lightly salted water for 15-25 minutes until tender enough to mash.
Drain well and return to the pans. Add one or two thick slices of butter to each and mash well with a hand masher or stick blender, until light and smooth. Combine the two purées and season with salt and pepper.
Top the mince with spoonfuls of the mash, starting around the edges, until covered. Gently press down with the back of a fork. Mix the cheese and crumbs together and sprinkle on top of the pie. Bake for 25 minutes if the meat and mash are still hot, 45-50 minutes if they are cold.
HOMITY PIE WITH SOUR-CREAM PASTRY AND CAVOLO NERO
Basically a potato and cheese pie, this is very rich, but it makes the perfect lunch after a morning hike or doing something really energetic. Or when badly in need of comfort food and you don’t mind the calories.
For the sour-cream pastry
175g plain flour
Tiny pinch of salt
150g butter, diced
90ml soured cream
1 medium egg, beaten
For the filling
350g floury potatoes, peeled and sliced
150g cavolo nero, roughly chopped
3tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
400g leeks (roughly 2 large), finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Pinch of mustard powder
125ml double cream
Small handful of parsley leaves, chopped
100g mature Cheddar cheese, finely grated
Salt and pepper to season
For the pastry, put the flour, salt and butter in a food processor and pulse until the butter is fully incorporated through the flour. Alternatively, put in a large bowl and rub the butter into the flour using your fingertips. Then add the soured cream and pulse for 2-3 seconds, or stir by hand until just mixed. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry to form a round big enough to line the base and sides of a 26cm (10in) flan dish or loose-bottomed cake tin. Carefully lower in the pastry to form the pie base. Crimp the edges of the pastry, brush with some of the beaten egg and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4.
Meanwhile, put the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 8 minutes. Add the cavolo nero to the pan and cook for a further 5 minutes. Drain once both potatoes and cavolo nero are perfectly tender. Allow them to steam dry in the colander.
Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat and add the onion and leeks. Sauté until really soft. Add the garlic and mustard powder and continue to cook for a minute or two. Remove from the heat and add the potatoes and cavolo nero to the pan. Stir in the cream, parsley and half of the cheese, then allow the mixture to cool slightly. Season to taste.
Remove the pastry case from the fridge, line loosely with a sheet of baking parchment and fill with baking beans or rice, pushing them to the edges. Bake ‘blind’ (i.e. without the filling) for 20 minutes, until the edges begin to colour. Remove the baking paper and beans then put the pie case back in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until golden and crisp all over. Brush the inside of the pastry case with the remaining beaten egg.
Spoon the potato mix into the pastry case. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and bake for 25-30 minutes. If using a loose-bottomed tin, cool for 10 minutes then lift out. Serve in slices - hot, warm or completely cold. All are delicious.
DEVIL’S FOOD CAKE
This is simply the best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten. It was given to me by Rebecca, who works behind the scenes for Bake Off. She is a brilliant baker. She says the recipe is her mum’s. So thank you, Rebecca’s mum. It’s so lovely that recipes get passed along, spreading joy to the world.
For the chocolate frosting
200ml double cream
450g dark chocolate, finely chopped
For the sponges
75g cocoa powder, sifted
150g light brown sugar
2tsp vanilla paste
335g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
200g butter plus extra for greasing
225g caster sugar
3 large eggs
For the decoration
150g dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids)
For the chocolate frosting, pour the cream into a saucepan, add the butter and heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter has melted. Bring to just below boiling point, then remove from the heat. Add the chocolate and whisk until smooth and glossy. Pour into a bowl and leave to set at room temperature, whisking occasionally.
Heat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4 and grease and line three 20cm (8in) loose-bottomed sandwich tins with baking parchment.
For the sponges, put the cocoa powder, light brown sugar, vanilla paste and 375ml boiling water in a bowl and whisk together until the sugar has dissolved. Set aside. Sieve the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda together into another bowl.
Cream the butter and caster sugar together in a separate bowl until pale and fluffy, then beat in the eggs, one at a time, mixing in a tablespoon of the flour mix after each egg. Add the rest of the flour, a third at a time, folding well to disperse any flour pockets.
Fold in the cooled cocoa mixture, then divide between the three tins and bake for 25-30 minutes, until risen and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.
Remove from the oven, leave to cool in the tins for 5 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks to cool.
For the decoration, melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. Meanwhile, grease the underside of a baking tray with oil and pour the melted chocolate onto it. Leave to set, then drag a cheese plane over the surface to create curls. Keep these cool.
Place a cooled sponge on a cake stand and spread with about a quarter of the frosting. Place another sponge on top and spread with another quarter of the frosting. Place the remaining sponge on top, then spread the remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake, swirling with a palette knife. Arrange the chocolate curls on top of the cake.
Prue: My All-Time Favourite Recipes is published by Bluebird, £25