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I adore ABBA, I adore musicals and I adore Meryl Streep. But for some reason I just couldn’t adore Mamma Mia (most likely because it’s awful). By the same token, I love cooking, I love reality shows and I especially love Sue Perkins, but I could never really get into the first two series of The Great British Bake Off. Then, last year me, my partner and two of our good friends sat down to watch the first episode of the third series, and something changed. Maybe it was the glossier production values, maybe it was the increased popularity of the show, or maybe it was just being able to see Paul Hollywood’s soul-piercingly blue eyes in glorious HD, but within the first 15 minutes I was hooked.
From the very first episode I developed a bit of a soft spot for contestant John Whaite. He was a fellow North West boy like me, he was gay and he had nice hair – a triple threat. As the series continued, he became the one I found myself rooting for – sure there were challenges where other bakers were better, but John became my favourite. When he got through to the final, along with fellow baking boys James Morton and Brendan Lynch, I was ecstatic for him, even though I suspected the seasoned Brendan might just pip him to the post. But he didn’t – John won, got a bear-hug off Paul Hollywood (the lucky bastard) and promptly got himself a two-book deal with Headline Publishing.
His first book, John Whaite Bakes, was published last Thursday, and it almost definitely won’t be his last. The recipes themselves are fantastic, and I’ll come to those later, but it’s the way they’re written and presented that really marks this book out as a stellar debut. I read a hell of a lot of cookbooks – my mum is a chef and has dozens and dozens – and I own a complete set of the books of Our Lady of Perpetual Indulgence, Nigella Lawson. A great cookbook isn’t great simply because it has great recipes in it but because of the writer’s ability to convey their passion and enthusiasm for those recipes. When Nigella waxes lyrical about a cheesecake, and then includes “Apply to face” as the final instruction in the recipe, I immediately want to do just that.
It’s a hard trick to pull off, being passionate, sincere and funny about food all at the same time, but John Whaite Bakes manages it admirably. His writing style is friendly, conversational, at times almost confessional – you get the recipes but you also get to know more about their inspirations, their development, and the way they will make you feel when you make them and, more important, when you eat them. Several times in the book, John talks with a candid honesty about his experiences with depression, and how he turned to baking “to find salvation and solace”, and even includes a section of recipes specifically to make dark days a little bit better. It’s a refreshing honesty I’d be surprised to find even in the autobiography of an accomplished chef, so to find it in the first cookery book of a 23 year old reality TV show winner was a pleasant surprise.
The book has a fantastic mix of savoury and sweet recipes, including some great simple dishes for beginners, and more complicated bakes for the more experienced. On my first leaf through I picked out the Pesto, Balsamic and Garlic Bread and the White Chocolate and Raspberry Melting Cake out as things I immediately wanted to make and put in my face, but other than a few particularly pistachio-heavy recipes, I sort of want to make everything in this book. There are some wild and wonderful flavour combinations and ingredients in some of them that really intrigue me – like the lemonade John uses in his Cheese and Chive Cornbread Buns (helps the bicarbonate of soda along, evidently), or the Worcestershire sauce in the Chocolate and Cassis Cake. Breads, doughnuts, cakes, madeleines, macaroons, pies and puddings, it’s a brilliantly varied range of recipes.
There’s food for parties (accompanied by a wonderful cocktails section), food for rainy days, romantic days, lazy days, stressful days – and I’m determined to make as much of it as I can over the coming months. Watch out Nigella, somebody’s gunning for your crown.
I was also lucky enough to be able to interview John last week about his experiences on The Great British Bake Off, the new book, and what the future holds for him. Keep your eyes peeled later this week to give it a read and find out what Mary Berry is really like when the cameras stop rolling…
John Whaite Bakes is out now, in print and as an e-book, published by Headline Publishing Group.