You know how you have really, really good days? Thursday was one of those days.
About a month ago a friend emailed me and said - effectively - "I'm in the final of home baker of the year, would you like to come to Manchester and support me?"
Firstly, it's Hester, so I couldn't very well say no. Secondly, in Manchester which is all of 50 minutes by train, so ditto. Thirdly it would be in the Poggenpohl showrooms, and fourthly it was about cake. And there was a fifth excellent reason: Jane Asher. Now, I realise that many people born after 1980 may not get just how big an impact Jane Asher had on kids birthday parties, but it was huge. She demystified cake decoration for a generation of mums, and (I think) every single birthday cake I had from age six to thirteen was from one of her books.
Anyway, without wanting to gush too much, the opportunity to meet all kinds of people from the baking trade, Jane and Hester at the same time was enough for me to book a day off work, and take a stack of T&C business cards with me. Yes, I networked like mad at this event on behalf of T&C.
The showrooms are lovely; Poggenpohl kitchens are very modern with very well hidden whizzy gadgets and plenty of hidden spaces, with drawer inserts I didn't understand and induction loop cookers (very safe and look great, but I'm not sure they're much cop for, well, cooking on). First prize was a £25k kitchen from them - I'm not sure I could fit a £25k kitchen in my house unless there's an amount for building work included in there - and it would be a fantastic kitchen, no doubt about it.
On entering the showroom I met the parents of the owner (who I think were John and Mary, but please correct me if my memory is faulty) and had a very nice chat to them about the competition. Then I met Hester and her Mum, who were calm and unflustered, and H had been baking for about an hour by that point. Champagne was flowing (good stuff, too, and I found the 'fridge they were keeping it in. Poggenpohl have a range of bottle inserts for fridges, and drawer fridges designed for bottles of fizz. Win +1), and as Hester was using wild strawberry liqueur (Italian, Toschi Fragoli) people were flocking around her wondering what this pink stuff was, and then (on invitation) adding a splash of it to their fizz.
The judges were an interesting bunch; a journalist, some people from the Co-op, someone from Victoria Foods, Andrew Nutter, Jane (ob), Lucy Cooks, and another Lucy who I swear I've met before but I can't quite remember where from (person in the middle below). (ah! I have just been informed that it's Lucy Meacock, erstwhile ITN reporter and presenter!)
What about the competition? Well, Hester's cake was Strawberry Silk Cake; not my tale to tell, and I hope Hester reports on her day out (there were some very funny moments), but...
Note the rose peals and orange zest arranged to look like strawberry flowers on the top! Stunning icing, exceptional flavour and texture, and I thought it was the best "traditional" cake there, and I'm not just saying that because I know Hester! The strawberry liqueur brought a lovely extra dimension to the moistness, and replacing some of the sugar with jam is an inspired move. (I shall be commenting on the other cakes before we get to the end of this entry!)
Clockwise, from the strawberry cake; a Bakewell tart made with raspberry & passionfruit jam; "ultimate" carrot cake with glazed carrots, marzipan carrots and sugar spikes, profiteroles with parkin ice cream, and a wheat-free chocolate and orange cake.
L-R: Helen, Toni, Jodie, Hester and Magda.
The judges took a while to decide, so we had lunch, and eventually there was a result, apparently after near fisticuffs. The winner was Helen, with her profiteroles and parkin ice cream (prize: kitchen!). Second place was Jodie and her carrot cake (prize: a trip to Lucy Cooks). The remaining three got one-day courses at Slattery's, which is where I learned my chocolate craft, and a pretty nifty prize. No scores were reported by the judges and nobody would say where the argument lay, so I shall just report my own opinion.
After the announcement the remnants of the cakes, apart from Helen's profiteroles, were brought out for tasting by us lot, and a scrum ensued; Hester's cake is the first to be demolished, closely followed by Toni's Bakewell.
There was an opportunity for me to have a quick chat to most of the competitors afterwards.
Helen was over the moon to win; she was wearing her Dad's cap for luck, and it obviously worked! The parkin recipe was her Grandmother's and the family is from Blackburn, so geographically authentic. The ice cream came from a christmas pudding ice cream idea she saw, and she'd been making choux pastry for quite some time, and was very skilled at it. I'll happily go along with this; Hester's mum found a spoon and the remnants of those profiteroles and ice cream, and they were outstanding. A well deserved win, I think. Anybody who can make choux in an unfamiliar kitchen and have it taste like that - light, fluffy, perfectly textured with excellent ice cream and chocolate sauce - deserves the very highest of plaudits.
Jodie was going to take her mum with her on the trip to the Lakes. She has been making carrot cake for years and added a wow factor with sugarcraft, and those very nice honey glazed carrots. She's made cupcakes for a friend's wedding, but is not interested in cooking professionally, it's just a hobby. I thought the cake was ok, but a bit overspiced - not quite scented candle territory, but a close thing. The icing, unfortunately, was a bit grainy and a little lacking in flavour. Texture-wise the cake was very good, held the moisture well but the real stars were the sugar spikes and carrot decor.
Toni entered the competition after seeing details on the back of a packet of Smarties cupcakes from the Jane Asher range of packet mix, making the cakes for her little brother. She drove her mum mad making biscuits and cakes from a very early age and having a go at washing up afterwards, but not a very good go. My opinion of the Bakewell? Excellent pastry, short and crumbly with a hint of sweetness. Brilliant jam - a raspberry and passionfruit jam she'd made as part of the competition - but unfortunately slightly underdone almond filling that hadn't set properly in the oven; tasty almond filling, but too gooey.
I didn't get a chance to speak to Magda; her chocolate and orange cake was interesting, a cake I've had before in another form. The cake itself was moist and had a different texture to usual, there was a layer of orange cream on the top and then the whole thing was painted in chocolate. She could have stopped there, but added chocolate butterflies, glitter, orange sprinkles, airbrushed (edible) gold paint and gold sugared almonds, as well as extra chocolate decor. It was a little OTT. Flavour-wise it was ok, but the texture detracted sufficiently to make it a little too odd.
Jane, bless her, was signing copies of one of her books, so I got one! So did Hester, and Hester also got a hug.
Anyway, after all that Hester and I went for coffee and a sit down; I don't think H is getting over the whole "making cake for Jane Asher" thing anytime soon, and that's a great thing, to be cherished. All too soon it was train time, alas. It was a brilliant day, and I hope I've made some contacts that T&C can help out in the future. Even if nothing comes from the networking I'm still privileged to have met Jane Asher, and had an awful lot of fun at a cookery event. The day was just full of win, and that's a great thing to be able to say.
So, thanks to all the competitors, Hester especially for inviting me, Poggenpohl for having a great showroom to host the competition in, Victoria Foods for sponsoring and organising the whole thing and everybody who spoke to the odd chap wearing the "bake" badge in lieu of a nametag. It was lovely, and thank you.