Every autumn for the past nine years I, along with around nine million viewers, have settled down on Tuesday evenings to watch 12 amateur bakers sweat it out it a bunting-strewn tent, perfecting the rise of a chocolate sponge or crying over their Bakewell tart’s soggy bottom.
“Why are they so stressed?” I’ve wondered smugly every episode, through the scandals (Northern Irish Iain is still smarting from Baked Alaska-gate) and dramas (who could forget the collapse of Louise’s gingerbread church?) that have dominated water cooler conversations around the country. “They’re making a Chelsea bun, not splitting the atom,” I scoffed.
Well, reader, I can confirm that in fact there seems to be an invisible force field surrounding the Bake Off tent which means that once you cross the threshold in to this world of pastel-coloured kitchen equipment, your confidence crumbles.
Ahead of the 10th series, which begins on 27 August, I’m standing behind a workstation, pistachio stand-mixer in place, gingham cloth covering various Kilner jars (containing what, I am yet to find out) and a piece of paper, on which a mystery recipe is printed. Three fellow journalists are hovering nervously behind their own stations. It is eerily silent – akin to being back in the school hall, about to sit an A Level you haven’t prepared for.
“What do you think it is?” whispers one baker, immediately shushed by the rest of us. I have made a quick calculation based on the kit they have laid out for us that it might be scones. “That’ll be OK,” I think. “I’ve made scones before.” The words “famous” and “last” spring to mind.
In walk the invigilators – Paul Hollywood (essentially a walking pair of blue steels with a Scouse accent) and the national treasure that is Prue Leith.
“Right bakers,” Paul claps his bear-like paws. “You have one hour to complete this challenge. One hour to produce at least ten of these items. On your marks, get set: bake.”
The tent becomes a cacophony of clattering and cursing: “Where are the scales?!” “How do you turn this bloody oven on?!” It doesn’t help that it is tipping it down outside. A rainy day in the marquee always looks rather atmospheric on telly. In reality, it is boiling thanks to four ovens blasting at once, creating steam which only adds to the tension. I am a walking puddle within minutes.
“Oh interesting,” says a fellow contestant, peering over. “You’re weighing the butter.” This is war.
I am deep in concentration, attempting to breadcrumb my flour and butter, when I look up and see the blue steels, boring into me from across the tent as I slosh milk into the bowl.
The judges begin their royal tour, each baker receiving the Hollywood handshake (single, not double) and a smattering of those open-ended questions he is so fond of. Last series he managed to make two bakers cry in one episode – a new record. “You’re putting the eggs in now, are you?,” he prods. Utterly panic-inducing.
I pause to quickly tidy my bench. Three years ago I cooked lunch for Prue in her Cotswolds kitchen for another article, and though she seemed to like my food she roundly chastised me for being such a messy cook. The shame of her seeing my slovenly habits haven’t improved is more than I can bear.
“Now, this girl made me lunch once,” says Prue breezily on approach, making me feel instantly calmer. Since taking over from Mary Berry after the Great Bake Off Exit of 2016, she has been the warm heart on the show, putting bakers at ease while Hollywood does his grumpy Scouser routine.
Paul is utterly uninterested in whether or not I once made his co-host lunch (crab on toast followed by risotto, since you asked) and begins his intimidation tactics.
“Is that all your milk?”
“Er... yes that’s all the milk. What do you think…?”
“He’s just trying to make you nervous,” Prue comes to the rescue, taking a pinch of flour from the bag and chucking it into my bowl while Paul looks on, disapprovingly.
“Get yer hands in there,” he says. I plunge in. “Don’t knead it! It’s not bread. It’s a scone.”
Wise words, which I am now considering having printed on a tea towel.
Prue guides him away, and I begin assessing my scone cutters, opting for a fluted number.
“These are scones not biscuits!” Hollywood barks from his corner, like Liverpool’s answer to Father Jack. Meanwhile, someone’s induction hob is going beserk.
I plough on, rolling and cutting until I have 20 slightly wonky scone-like lumps. I find myself on my knees, peering through the oven door, as if willing them to rise might make it so. I’ve seen bakers doing this on TV and always thought them faintly ridiculous. Now it’s my turn to pray at the shrine of the Bake Off oven.
This year’s cohort are, Paul says, “an emotional bunch” – there have already been many tears in the tent in the past few weeks, apparently, and they’re only half way through filming. Here’s hoping I’m not next in line to blub.
Has the show gone all 2019, with vegan recipes and low-sugar bakes, I ask? Paul is incredulous: “One week you can’t eat butter, then it’s marge, then you can’t drink wine.”
The show is the perfect antidote to this ear of faddy eating, argues Prue. “If you look at the [show] over the years, how many obese bakers have there been?” she asks. “And the bakers all lose weight while they’re here, which may be the stress.”
In the weeks since I was in the tent, Hollywood has had a stressful time himself, with details of messy divorce proceedings making daily headlines, followed by a very public break-up with his 24-year-old ex-girlfriend Summer Monteys-Fullam.
He has always presented an odd paradox, fronting the most wholesome show on television for a decade, while his private life has been dogged by rumours of infidelity.
You get the sense the show has been a bit of a constant for him in a tumultuous time. “It’s in my blood,” he tells me, later. “I grew up with it. The passion for it will always be there.” The tough persona you see on TV is, he insists, just a front. “I have got a soft side. I’ve hugged a couple of bakers when they’ve really broken down.”
I’m on the verge, myself, getting to work on my jam and cream, grappling with the stand mixer and struggling to assess what constitutes a “setting point”.
“You’ve got a minute left, bakers!” says Paul, with a slightly sadistic glint in his eye, as whipped cream is frantically dolloped into bowls, hot jam poured into jars, and the motliest crew of scones you’ve ever seen is piled onto platters.
I approach the gingham altar, willing myself not to drop everything.
“Your scone cutter was probably the wrong one,” says Hollywood. Oh dear. “You tend to get the smooth ones when you go to the likes of the Dorchester and the Ritz. The crimped ones you tend to see in bakeries.”
I’m slightly insulted by the inference my scones are rather more Greggs than Fortnums, but we’ll breeze past that.
“The actual cream and jam is perfect. The baking is very good. And actually the flavour is too, just don’t use so much flour.” If I were a pettier person I’d point out it was Prue who added the extra pinch, but luckily I’m not.
Prue has been quietly eating and pondering while Paul yammers on about glazing. “Do you know, that’s a really good scone,” she says finally, “and yours was the cleanest bench, so well done.”
I can’t say I’ve ever been prouder. Bake Off 2020, here I come.
Bake Off returns on Tuesday 27 August, 8pm, Channel 4