Watch out for soggy bottoms

‘The Great Irish Bake Off’, starting tomorrow night on TV3, is a celebration of baking and bakers, and people love the UK version of the show almost as much as they love cake itself

There's a scene from The Great Irish Bake Off, which starts tomorrow night on TV3, that perfectly encapsulates the appeal of a programme that has enjoyed such sweet success over the water. As she adjusts the umbrella on her rum-soaked pina colada cupcake, one contestant says: "It's really cake at the end of the day, you can't get worried about it."

Yet there she is, faffing about with miniature parasols on national TV. So you can’t quite believe her when she says the outcome of her bake is nothing to worry about. For some of us, to use footballing parlance, baking isn’t life or death. It’s more important than that.

As a child I complained constantly about my mother's home-made offerings, loudly lamenting the fact that we had home-made buns in our lunchboxes, apple tart at teatime again and brown soda bread with boiled eggs for breakfast. At night I lay awake imagining how Mr Kipling made his boxed-up battenburgs or what a Pop Tart might taste like.

My mother’s passion eventually rubbed off on me.


These days I crave rhubarb sponge and I would do anything for one of my mother’s apple tarts. Her pastry is always so light and buttery. And don’t get me started on her scones.

I’m an old-school baker like her now and I wouldn’t have Mr Kipling in the house if he promised me a lifetime supply of his battenburg.

Three years ago I started to write a blog, “Stuff I make, bake and love” and got my first insight into the Irish obsession with baking. My ramblings about knitting, upcycling or healthy foods were all very well but I quickly realised that cake was what readers wanted most. A duck egg sponge dusted with icing sugar, sandwiched together with jam and cream and scattered with primrose petals was was the kind of thing people really wanted to see.

I didn’t blame them – because I felt the same way. Cooped up in an office, working nine to five, I devoured lots of baking blogs and hungered for bouts of foodie escapism. I didn’t necessarily want to eat the cake but I would gladly stare at it for 10 minutes while waiting to use the photo copier.

My blog led to publishers Gill and Macmillan contacting me, which led to my first book on baking, Make Bake Love. It flew off the shelves like, well, hot cakes. Never underestimate the Irish public's desire for a foolproof recipe for chocolate tart.

Our passion for baking originates, I believe, from those days out cutting turf and picking potatoes. Coming in starved from the fields and eating warm potato farls straight off the griddle and light airy scones smothered in golden butter all washed down with hot, strong tea.

We still nurture the gene that has us reaching for the bread and butter. We nod approvingly when a toddler demands we butter their toast for the fourth time. The tattered piece of bread barely holding together under the insistent chubby fingers that clench it. The force is strong with this one.

An afternoon spent typing on a computer keyboard doesn’t merit the same calorific rewards as hard physical labour but we seem hard-wired to crave those rewards all the same. And we don’t just enjoy eating the sugary delights, there are legions of us who enjoy just as much the therapeutic act of baking.

Baking is a science, but it’s a science anyone with a decent kitchen scales can practise in their own home. It’s a kind of culinary magic.

Treasured recipes are spells passed down through generations comprising pinches of cinnamon, scant teaspoons of bread soda and volatile yeasts.

It’s a form of kitchen witchcraft (kitchcraft?) adding vinegar to baking powder and watching the volcanic reaction when making a red velvet cake. You can feel like a medieval apothecary scraping the tiny seeds from a Madagascan vanilla pod, filling the air with its distinctive aroma, or pounding the seeds from cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar until a pungent dust is created.

Anyone who enters the kitchen becomes entranced with the intoxicating smells wafting from the muffins baking and the crusty fresh bread cooling. You just don’t get those experiences from knitting.

If you can bake then you have the ability to solve that eternal after-dinner quest for “something nice” to go with the tea or coffee. People sit around and talk over tea and cake. A sultana-studded queen cake is, in fact, a highly effective communication tool.

Couples have fallen in love, fought, apologised, and got back together while dunking crumbly biscuits in tea. Bread warm from the oven and spread with butter can make a grown man cry.

Looking for inner zen? No need to go on that yoga holiday or travel the world with only a copy of War and Peace in your backpack. Find instant enlightenment by lining your tins properly and following a recipe to the word. You will be rewarded not only with beautiful cakes and a real sense of achievement but an overwhelming feeling of inner calm. It's no wonder author Marian Keyes wrote about being Saved by Cake.

The Great Irish Bake Off is a celebration of all of this. Over eight episodes 12 bakers will face various baking challenges and only one will go on to be crowned Ireland's Best Amateur Baker. Judging by my Twitter feed, there are thousands of excited baking fans and cake lovers waiting, spatulas at the ready, preheating ovens and sieving flour chanting "only one more sleep until #TGIBO".

Having seen the first episode of the Irish version, I’m certain it has the same ingredients that went into making the UK version such a runaway mainstream hit.

There's the same sense of drama – the medic is wheeled out 10 minutes into the programme, wielding a plaster for an unfortunate bloodied finger – and the first episode is The Cupcake Challenge. There are some beautiful cakes but others that are doughy and tough or slightly undercooked or ridiculously top heavy with sugary frosting. The contestants put their creations in tea cups and glasses, trying to impress with unusual presentation. And as with the UK version, the judges are real bakers who know their macarons from their macaroons.

"That's interesting," says judge Biddy White Lennon (our Mary Berry) after picking at a pink cupcake covered in blue frosting. Paul Kelly (our Paul Hollywood) clearly knows his way around a sponge tin. Former Big Brother contestant, columnist and TV producer Anna Nolan is the perfect presenter for the show. At one stage she touches a contestant reassuringly on the arm and says, "I like burnt," as he stares at his dark brown cupcakes on the cooling rack.

Bakers and non-bakers alike will be enthralled. At the heart of the appeal is the stunning creativity on show with beautifully crafted cakes and breads.

Then there are the dramatic twists when a cake burns or a contestant despairs upon hearing the two most feared words in the baking lexicon: soggy bottom. Not to forget the nailbiting parts when contestants crouch down hopefully at their ovens willing their creations to rise.

I’m hoping the show will not only entertain but encourage and inspire viewers to start baking more themselves. Then as the cold weather creeps in we can take refuge in our oven-warmed kitchens and bake ourselves happy until spring.

Basic baking: Lilly Higgins’ top tips

1. Always preheat the oven. I know it sounds obvious but you'd be amazed how many people forget.
2. Read the whole recipe first and weigh everything exactly. This is a science, people. A tasty science but still.
3. To sieve large quantities of icing sugar just place in the food processor and blitz. Does exactly the same job for no effort.
4. Rub lemon juice inside the mixing bowl prior to beating egg whites to ensure it is squeaky clean
5. Always take the time to prepare your tins or baking tray properly, either with butter and flour or baking parchment.

The Great Irish Bake Off is on TV3 tomorrow night at 9pm.

Lilly Higgins new book Dream Deli is published by Gill and Macmillan next month