John Whaite whips off his jumper, rolls up his shirt sleeves and prepares to work his magic. We are in the well-appointed kitchen of a London townhouse so he can share his four favourite Christmas recipes with Mail on Sunday readers.
Ingredients and equipment have been laid out. Pristine utensils are at hand. The state-of-the-art oven is warming. But, then… ‘Hmm, how am I going to get by without baking parchment?’ John wonders, turning to me.
Oh no! It was my job to bring everything on John’s shopping list and I have – idiotically – forgotten the baking parchment.
But this is the winner of BBC2’s The Great British Bake Off. The contestant who used architectural plans to whip up a miniature version of the Roman Colosseum from dark treacle gingerbread. The baker who cracked 15 eggs into a show-stopping ‘Heaven and Hell’ cake, before finessing its chocolate coating with a hairdryer and applying gold leaf with the delicate touch of an artist. This is not a man to be easily discombobulated.
‘Don’t worry,’ he grins. ‘I can do without.’
He gets to work on his first creation, Christmassy Strudels, while we chat. Despite daydreaming throughout the show about a move to Paris to learn more about French patisserie, John has now decided to stay in England. ‘I don’t want to run away to Paris because I don’t want to leave my partner Paul at home,’ he says. ‘Relationships have to come first.’ Instead, in January, he starts studying patisserie at Le Cordon Bleu in London. ‘The course is only 15 hours a week, so I will be able to commute from Manchester at first. It’s a fantastic place – I am so excited.’
Meanwhile, the 23-year-old is looking forward to spending Christmas at the family farm in Wigan, with Paul, a 27-year-old graphic designer. ‘Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without family. Many people go travelling at this time of year but I’ve got to be at home. I couldn’t be anywhere else,’ he says. He will, of course, be baking non-stop. ‘I try not to bake the same thing more than twice but at the start of the festive season my mum’s friends all put in orders for my sticky toffee pudding. This year I have to make ten and I’ve had lots more requests – for birthday cakes and so on. But that’s not really my thing – I just want to do my patisserie. Actually, what I am most looking forward to is creeping downstairs, in the dead of night, with Paul, to raid the fridge and make a giant Christmas sandwich with the leftovers of my mum’s special ham.’
As John sets to with the electric whisk, I ask him about the accident on the show when, mid-strudel, he caught a finger in the blades of the mixer. He was carried off set, bleeding and feeling faint. ‘Fingergate,’ John sighs. He shows me his finger. ‘It’s still intact – there’s a tiny scar on the end. It wasn’t that bad. Television makes things look much worse. When you’re making dough you have to be tactile, so I felt it while it was in the food processor. But I forgot the blade was there and just squeezed. I tried to carry on, but we’re a nation mad about health and safety now so I had to get it checked out. Also, it wasn’t very hygienic to make strudel with a bloody finger.’
He douses today’s strudel filling with whisky and drizzles melted butter expertly over his filo pastry as conversation turns to other cooks. John loves Fanny Cradock, but saves his real praise for Nigella Lawson. ‘I think I’d turn straight for Nigella,’ he confides – although he does mention Paul again in the very next breath. ‘I think I must have baked every day of my life. And I do all the cooking at home. Paul can’t even heat up a can of beans.’
Strudels in the oven, John limbers up for his second creation. ‘When it comes to Christmas, I am a total traditionalist,’ he announces, poised to make a two-tone, candy-cane Swiss roll, oozing with raspberries. He whips up the mixture, adds the colouring and grimaces, saying it tastes of paprika. No one is eating this, he insists, somewhat dramatically. Needless to say, when it emerges from the oven later it smells like all our Christmases have come at once. And tastes like it, too.
John grew up on a farm near Wigan with his elder sisters, Jane and Victoria, and his mother, Linda. ‘I got into baking when my parents divorced,’ he says. ‘It began when I was five – just me, Mum and my sisters in the kitchen. Since then it’s become inherently comforting. I used to have the washing-up job but I’ve worked my way up the kitchen hierarchy at home.’
At school, John’s natural intelligence took him to the top of his class, and he won a place at Oxford University to read Modern and Medieval Languages. But missing home – and Paul – he left Oxford for Manchester University, switching to study law. He was sitting his finals at the same time as filming The Great British Bake Off.In October, seven million viewers tuned in to see him triumph in the show’s first all-male final in which John went cake-to-cake with the favourite, 21-year-old Scottish medical student James Morton, and 63-year-old baking veteran Brendan Lynch.
Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood crowned him winner and, shortly after filming finished, he graduated with a first. John’s mother, who had been opposed to him pursuing a career in baking, finally accepted that it wasn’t such a bad idea. ‘I was all set to start a job in banking and I was losing sleep because I didn’t want to do it,’ says John. I was going to be a commercial banker in an asset finance division. It was a fantastic job, I was very lucky but it wasn’t where my heart was – and you have to follow your heart.’
John kept his win a secret and he and his friends tuned in to the show each week to watch. ‘It was awful watching it because you had to start again, emotionally, from day one. ‘You watch yourself put salt in a load of rum babas and make an underproved stollen.’ There have been no such disasters in our little bake off, which is completed with John’s pristine mince pies. He dusts them with icing sugar, one-handed.
What is the best advice he could give any future contestants of The Great British Bake Off?
‘A great tip – that James developed and I had to steal – was to swear like a sailor if things went wrong, because then they couldn’t put it on TV,’ he says. ‘I wish I’d learned that sooner.’
And with that, his work here is done and he is off into the night. Looks as if I’m doing the washing-up.
Frangipane? Check. Guinness? Check. Ready, steady — bake!
My idea of cooking is boiling tortellini in a saucepan and putting a fishcake in the oven, so John has his work cut out. Still, he seems convinced he can make a baker of me …
Candy cane swiss roll – with raspberries and cream
John beats eggs, sugar and vanilla bean paste in a large bowl. He whisks the mixture vigorously until it triples in volume. Then he folds in flour. He divides the mixture in half and colours one batch red, leaving the other white. He decants each of these mixtures into separate piping bags. John snips off the end of each bag with a pair of scissors and begins expertly drawing red and white lines, alternately, down the baking tray.
He makes piping the mixture look easy. It isn’t. My Swiss roll doesn’t have stripes, it has wiggles. And don’t even get me started on the next step…
John whips up a Swiss roll filling, using raspberries and double cream. His perfect baked stripes are removed from the oven. When cool, he slathers the raspberry filling on top and carefully rolls up his perfect rectangle of thin, striped cake to make a scrumptious Swiss roll. He neatens up the ends – et voila! I, however, am confronted with a collapsed roll of raspberry mush. John says you can always spike the cream with a seasonal shot of Framboise liqueur. I console myself with a swig.
Emily’s difficulty rating: 9/10
Mincemeat and frangipane tartlets
The brilliant thing about John’s mince pies is they are at least three times the size of your average mince pie. And they come with an orange-infused frangipane topping. Plus, he serves them with a dollop of brandy butter. John follows an old French recipe for his pastry. I copy him, placing sugar and egg in a mixing bowl and whisking until aerated.The flour is tipped in – resembling sandy breadcrumbs. Then the butter is added. The mixture clumps together and kneads easily into a smooth ball. After dusting down the rolling pin, it all rolls out smoothly and can be placed in the heart-shaped tartlet tins.
Unfortunately, I forgot the baking beans. John needs to blind-bake the pastry, so improvises with screwed-up bits of greaseproof paper.The next step is to spread mincemeat across each baked pastry case, and then pipe on the frangipane.
Again, John makes piping look easy but when our tartlets are baked until brown and puffy you can’t really tell the difference. To make sure, I douse mine with even more icing sugar. It wouldn’t fool Paul Hollywood.
Emily’s difficulty rating: 4/10
Christmassy Strudels – with sweet apples, cranberries and grated marzipan
John dices up eight apples into 1cm cubes and mixes them up with cranberries, walnuts and caster sugar. He then adds a liberal dose of whisky to his mixture – which makes it distractingly delicious. John promises that if I concentrate I can have the leftovers afterwards, so we get to work grating marzipan. Luckily, this recipe doesn’t require making Mary Berry-worthy pastry. You use frozen filo pastry from the supermarket. At least I have remembered to defrost said pastry – John is grateful for such small mercies.
He unrolls the sheets on to the worktop, carefully. He paints each sheet with melted butter and plonks a helping of strudel innards on. He then tucks the whole thing up into a fat sausage shape. I follow his example and soon get the hang of it. John’s strudels may look much more elegant than mine – but with a liberal sprinkling of icing sugar on the finished product, no one will be able to taste the difference.
Emily’s difficulty rating: 3/10
Last-minute Christmas Cake – with sweetened cranberries, Guinness and dates
With John’s encouraging words ringing in my ears, I decided to bake the Christmas cake at home. It is billed as a last-minute cake but it takes several hours to make, and John didn’t have the time to take me through it on our Great Christmas Bake Off.
On perusing the recipe, I see John admits that ‘some of us do not have the time to make a cake until a few days before the big day’. I last made a cake in the Nineties. Still, there is Guinness in it, so it must be good.
I get cracking and the cake does not disappoint. You simply take cranberries, prunes, cherries, currants and dates and put them in a large saucepan with the Guinness.It smells delicious, simmering away on the stove for five minutes.Then you add brandy, sugar, butter, eggs, flour, walnuts and all manner of festive ingredients.Then you bake it. Success at last.
Emily’s difficulty rating: 1/10