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Who else is addicted to The Great British Bake Off? We spoke to Val Stones, one of its best-loved previous contestants, all about her experiences on the show and the joy of gluten free baking.
Q. Have you been watching this year’s show?
A. I love watching each new series of Bakeoff, the bakers never cease to inspire me to try new things. I sit down with a large notebook and write all the bakers names and add comments as each bake is judged, as well as making notes of any new flavours or methods of doing things. I have also for the last three years joined in with a regular Wednesday Bakeoff chat show on Dublin radio, Dublin’s Q102, chatting about the previous night’s Bakeoff episode. Now you know why I take accurate notes watching the show!
Q. Any advice for this year’s contestants?
A. Really, it’s too late for this year’s bakers the series would have been in the can by August. However, for anyone wishing to apply for next year, I would say be yourself, practice lots and stay within the time limits. What people don’t realise is that as you are baking you are being constantly interrupted for interviews and that knocks at least 15 minutes off each bake.
For this year’s bakers, I would advise them to enjoy the experience of fame after the bakeoff - it’s a unique feeling to be recognised as a ‘Bake Off’ contestant and it goes on for a long time. Also, I would welcome them to the Bake Off family and to say stay in contact with their fellow bakers.
Q. What is your experience with gluten free baking?
A. I have been involved with gluten free baking for forty years, as my sister-in-law has had coeliac disease since birth and later when she had her two daughters they too were diagnosed with the same. Way back then there were very few products around for gluten free baking and what could be found were pretty poor compared with the same non gluten free products. Bread was ordered on prescription and it wasn’t really bread as we know it. As I loved my family, I tried to develop recipes using various flours, rice, potato, soya but they were nothing like regular bakes but they were greeted kindly. Some ten years ago came a gradual and then a torrent of new gluten free products on the market and these have become part of my larder. The most useful breakthrough was the gluten free flours now available so that there is very little I cannot bake replacing ordinary ingredients with gluten free ones.
Q. What is your favourite gluten free thing to make?
A. I really enjoy making a Victoria sponge with gluten free flour and baking powder. I do many Food Festivals and baking events and I always take a gluten free bake as there is always someone in the audience who requires gluten free food. I feel very pleased when folk try my gluten free and say it tastes like the real thing - well it should, shouldn’t it!
Q. Any tips for gluten free bakers?
A. Be inventive once you have gained some experience. At first, follow a recipe and when you have mastered it and you know how it bakes in your oven, then you can add your own twist on the recipe. Once you have mastered a bake, see if you can turn it into another bake. I make a chocolate roulade that can be turned into a rectangular desert by cutting into four and layering. It can also be turned into mini cakes by using a plain round 3-inch cutter and sandwiching layers. I don’t waste the cut off pieces - I use them to make a Black Forest trifle. Gluten free products allow dishes to be prepared from a standard recipe by direct substitution, so be brave and experiment.
Q. Do you think awareness of coeliac disease and gluten free diets are increasing?
A. This is difficult to answer simply. I think that over the last 15 years, gluten free products have led to people who have experienced discomfort when eating grains containing gluten to try gluten free products and they have found their discomfort lessened. It is as if our bodies can tolerate gluten for so many years but that over time the digestion tract is irritated until it can no longer tolerate gluten. These people may not be coeliac but improve their wellbeing by transferring to gluten free products. Supermarkets have picked up on this change of preference for gluten free products and most stores carry a good range of gluten free products. I for one am very grateful as I can buy so many products that help me continue to develop gluten free recipes.
Q. What was your favourite moment as a contestant on The Great British Bake Off, and the most challenging?
A. My favourite moment was when Paul looked at my broken gingerbread showstopper and admired the way that I had made the buildings look real, he said the Empire State Building was ‘exquisite’ and asked how I had done it, I explained that I work with children in school and we use various natural tools for making marks in clay and one of these is a square-ended wooden toffee apple stick. I explained how the windows and decoration of the building were made easy using this method. We talked at length, but this was left out of the final cut, but I think it is what saved me from going out on week 2.
All things on the Bake Off are challenging and to add to this, they set unrealistic time limits that make it really challenging but produces good, exciting tv and some pretty innovative new baking methods.
The most challenging moment wasn’t on the first Bake Off but when I appeared in the Christmas Day Bake Off in 2017 (my mum would have been so proud of me being on TV on Christmas Day).
On the Christmas Bake Off we were asked to make 8 identical desserts with the taste of Christmas, each covered with an edible clear dome. I was in New York when the remit came through, so I was in my sister’s kitchen and with no equipment and ingredients geared to American baking. Thank goodness for being able to order next day delivery of equipment and look up things on the internet that allowed me to practice and get the recipes sent in by the deadline!
I tried 3 methods of making domes but they were inedible, it was then that I found Isomalt - a sugar product that is used for all kinds of modelling as it stays clear when it is melted. In the tent, there were 4 of us and each of us made domes using Isomalt in four different ways. It was so difficult making the domes as they shattered like glass so easily. Everyone including the film crew was willing us to make the number we needed without breaking them, also the heat required to shape the domes made it quite dangerous work. I managed my eight and breathed a sigh of relief.