Category Archives: Cooking shows

Great British Bake Off: Flour power

I can’t bear to watch the Great British Bake Off in ‘real time’ (not that it’s live of course). Too much tension, too much to go wrong. But I always catch up with it later, on iPlayer, where I can fast forward if it all gets too much. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it’s a big baking drama, held over many weeks, in a tent in the garden of a fancy manor. The weather outside always seems pleasant. The contestants are nice but very intense and competitive, and the challenges are seriously hard. You’re expected to be super competent, as well as innovative, at all things baking-related, including cake, bun, tart, macaroon, quiche and biscuit making. And last night, bread making. And it doesn’t just have to taste good, it has to look good too. And be consistent. And there are all sorts of ultra tricky extra challenges too, such as making a breadbasket out of DOUGH. I fear madness could lie with too much of that sort of thing. And it does get a little like a Victoria Wood sketch at times.

The two judges are strict but (largely) fair. You have baking wide boy, Paul ‘blue eyes’ Hollywood and top cookery book writer and headmistress type, Mary Berry. Both can be nice, but they are strict markers and don’t coat their comments with sugar sprinkles. Then we have the sweet comedy sidekicks of Mel & Sue. Both women I warm to very much, and like me, get great pleasure from eating baked goods. They are there to provide support and leavening to the harsh marking, and cuddles when things, such as a freshly frosted gateaux, go tits up. They also infill the cooking bits with historical sections, about, for example, where cup cakes originated (cos they were made in cups of course. D’uh!). It’s a vastly more palatable version of a David Starkey monologue. With added sugar and without the snobbery and racism. If Mary & Paul are the scary school examiners, then Mel & Sue are the cool but friendly sixth form prefects.

I do like Mary but I’m slightly prejudiced against her because she keeps describing one contestant, Mary-Anne, who is a large woman, rather patronisingly as ‘clumsy’. Well, actually Mary, she’s not ‘clumsy’. The clumsy one, who has got through by the skin of his teeth is Robert, the skinny, pretty boy photographer, who dropped a whole cake (I do sympathise – I’d have chucked flour over everyone and fallen into a tray of eggs within minutes) and whose pastry cases all stuck to the tin last week. Although Robert also shows flashes of cooking genius, Paul is clearly thoroughly irked by his poor timekeeping, inconsistency and overly-laidback attitude. Mary likes him though, and so far, I suspect it’s her that’s kept him in. Continue reading

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The Good Cook: Simon Hopkinson, king of the kitchen

Simon Hopkinson has some mighty fine bowls. A lovely kitchen too. In fact he’s another charming gay cook I’d quite like to move in with (I feel the same way about Nigel Slater, although I now realise it’s not lust at all, it’s pure greed). Both have gorgeous kitchens, and I’m not sure either would welcome a scruffy oik to mess their pans up really. But boy, would I be happy being fed by either of those two.

I knew of Simon, or ‘Hoppers’ as Jay Rayner says he’s known to his friends, through his excellent book, Roast Chicken and Other Stories, widely regarded as (and indeed voted for) the best cookbook ever by his fellow chefs. There’s no photo of him in it and it’s not lavishly illustrated or full of glossy photos. It’s a real, proper recipe book, in which everything you try works perfectly. And he is a self-confessed perfectionist so that figures. But it’s precisely why he is so damned good. Unlike some cooks, like myself, who love food but are also lazy arses, he does bother doing things properly, every time, and with good reason. I’d recommend that book for anyone. He comes across as someone you can trust.  Continue reading

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Come Dine With Me: More cross than dressing

You expect Come Dine With Me contestants to be vaguely (sometimes historically) familiar when it’s the Celebrity Charidee Specials, but it was a bit of a shocker when artist and illustrator Simon Drew rocked up in a series of most extraordinary outfits in an ordinary CDWM last night. He was a sweetheart, but it was one of the mad shows where they seem to have trawled some odd places in South Devon to find the contestants. Frankie seemed mostly sane. I largely liked American Tara, but I was a little disturbed by the later revelation of her vast number of, and sometimes homemade, tattoos. Peter Pyne was the most unpleasant of the lot. A man clearly not secure with himself and scoring zero on the emotional intelligence chart, he kicked off with a series of sexist, racist and generally pathetic jokes which alienated him from the rest of the group. Then, on his night, he decided to reveal ‘Patricia’, his transvestite self. Now, it has been my pleasure to know, enjoy the company of, and indeed fancy cross-dressing men (Eddie Izzard in drag, what a magnificent sight).   Continue reading

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Great British Menu: Scotland

I watch Great British Menu for two reasons. I’m fascinated by the chefs – a few in particular, but more of that later – and I love Prue Leith. What’s irksome about it, like so many programmes of this sort, is how bloody repetitive it is. The voiceover woman must want to slit her wrists after saying the same thing fifty times. I’d be mooning at the microphone and doing random farmyard noises in the sound room just to keep myself awake. I know I’m name dropping, but that’s how Dave Lamb said he came to develop his Come Dine With Me narrator style – by getting more and more silly to stop being bored at reading the script straight. But I digress.

As a viewer of Great British Menu, I feel like I’m being coached the basic concept, over and over, as if I were a slow child. It’s not hard guys. Stop padding it out. Three chefs competing per region, cooking four courses, each judged by a previous winner, with the two highest scorers going through to cook for the formidable judging panel of Prue Leith, Matthew Fort and Oliver Peyton. At which point, what almost always happens is that the menu of the chef who had been awarded top points during the week loses.

Each year there is a theme for the chefs to create their dishes around, which is generally poorly understood by the chefs and judges (they also disagree and/or are entirely inconsistent in the way they pass judgement on what’s put in front of them compared to the original brief). This year the theme is a ‘People’s Banquet’, which means a ‘sharing menu’, which some have interpreted as a picnic, others a kids’ tea party, or some kind of vast, trestle-tabled feast. It’s a totally unclear brief obviously inspired by the ghastliness of the recent Royal Wedding, a theme well past its sell-by date by the time judging has finished.

And the cheffier chefs, the ones with Michelin stars, are struggling to release themselves from the discipline of producing fine dining platters and do proper ‘sharing’dishes (whatever they are. Frankly sharing food reminds me of the horrors of childhood meals and my big brother nicking my chips. I want my own bloody food at a banquet thank you very much, not to be fighting over the largest pieces of lobster with a sharp-elbowed old lady). Continue reading

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Come Dine With Me: Royal Wedding Special

I like Come Dine With Me as a rule, but the ‘specials’ are generally a bit strange and unsatisfactory and the Royal Wedding Special was no exception. Celebrity Specials have had their good moments (Christopher Biggins and his Waitrose-own pate cheating was excellent), but also some seriously weird shit (John Fashanu and Michael Barrymore both made me shudder, for different reasons).

So I’m writing about the Royal Wedding show, not, to be clear, because I give a rat’s arse about the monarchy or the ghastly, overwrought public spectacle that comprise most matrimonial carryings on, but rather because one of the contestants lives up the road from me. As a consequence of this, I interviewed Dave Lamb about it for a local magazine, since he lives conveniently nearby – and discovered that he is both utterly unassuming and entirely lovely. But since he has nothing to do with the putting together of the shows, I feel at perfect liberty slagging this programme off.      Continue reading

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MasterChef: Dougal fluff hats & other sweet surprises

MasterChef lost me as a regular viewer this year because of all the X Factor style nonsense early on. Plus my cooking show viewing quota is currently being diverted watching too many suckling pigs get slaughtered on the altar of the Great British Menu. But I caught last night’s MasterChef, and I’m glad I did, because there was a guest appearance by Michel Roux, the daddy of both lovely Michel Roux Jnr and pastry cooking in general. He was giving the remaining four contestants a masterclass in making the ultra-tricky croquembouche. But here all my (probably fantasy) credibility as a foodie deserted me, because in my eyes, this towering French choux ball structure looked like a heap of Pizza Express doughballs piled up into the shape of a wizard hat with a load of hairy fluff from Dougal (the Magic Roundabout dog) scattered over the top with random almonds stuck on for no reason I could discern.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore puddings and I adore Michel Roux, and eating any of the wonders that come out his legendary kitchen would make me a very happy woman indeed. I just didn’t quite get why a croquembouche is held in such high regard.

Actually, I blame Iceland (the frozen food manufacturer, not the country that produced Björk). Their ghastly Kerry Katona/Jason Donovan pile ’em high ‘party’ ads have ruined the joy of choux pastry as a luxury item for me. I can’t look at profiteroles with respect any more, and essentially, a croquembouche is a monster pyramid of profiteroles minus the melted chocolate that is my favourite part anyway. With heaps of spun sugar. Life, in my view, is too effing short to spin sugar. Continue reading

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Heston’s Mission Impossible: The Navy Lark

I find it fascinating that Heston Blumenthal admits to once having had a serious problem with anger, because I keep witnessing him demonstrating the patience of saint in the current Mission Impossible series. This three Michelin starred chef, whose Fat Duck establishment has been voted ‘best restaurant in the world’, has taken on a series of challenges that seem frankly insane (hence the title), and put him in situations where he repeatedly gets bitch-slapped by ignorant, arrogant fools. I have vowed never to step over the door of Cineworld after watching how vilely money-grabbing and unpleasant their management team seemed to be. The British Airways one was more interesting, but it left me wondering why it took his presence for them to realise that food tastes different in the air than on the ground. He’s a smart chap, Heston. Excellent little grey cells under that self-inflicted bald head (he shaves it so no hairs get into his cooking). Undoubtedly eccentric, but also a brilliant national treasure as far as I’m concerned.

This week he went down on the aptly named HMS Turbulent, a submarine that usually goes on 90 day missions, during which time the fresh food runs out rapidly, and the men are left eating three vast, carbohydrate and fat drenched meals from tins or the freezer. Now I know the job of cooking for 100 men three times a day in a tiny galley with no fresh air must be bloody hellish. My heart went out to the hard-working cooks. It was the officers I wanted to slap round the face with a cod’s head (which Heston actually deep-fried into ‘scampi’ one lunchtime). And the entire management of the Armed Forces come to that. Why did it take Heston to question why men who are doing no physical exercise, but are required to have huge mental focus at all times in their work, are eating a diet not unlike Homer Simpson? And the budget per person is pitiful – the same amount of money per day as a prisoner (£2.35 since you ask).

Why do we spend a fortune on developing and maintaining new weaponry and high-tech equipment and jack shit on taking care of the men (and women) whose skills are required to make the damned equipment work properly? I was genuinely shocked by this. I can see that 3 months under the sea leaves a crew in need of routine and comfort, but why that should equal a fried breakfast plus massive, heavy lunches and dinners I cannot imagine. And these are men surrounded by fish, but apparently they’ll only eat them dipped in batter and fried with chips. Continue reading

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