Paul Hollywood’s Kent home is his sanctuary. Life has been ‘crazy’ with the success of The Great British Bake Off, for which he has been a master judge all the way through its 12 years on TV. And as the show’s scope has stretched globally, the baking trend has grown, his fame soaring alongside it.
A professional baker for more than 30 years and known for his no-nonsense approach to contestants and their creations, Hollywood’s life has changed in unimaginable ways since the show began.
Small wonder that his Kent idyll, with the glorious garden he proudly shows me during our Zoom interview, is so important to him. ‘This is home,’ he says, as his camera glides across lush greenery, flower beds and a fabulous outdoor oven.
From his early years living above his parents’ bakery to the stunning home he loves today, he has ‘judged, tested and tasted literally thousands of cakes, biscuits, pastries and puddings, and have probably baked as many myself’.
His latest book, Bake, his first in five years, brings those experiences together into one beautiful celebration of bakery.
He describes the recipes as ‘classics’ because, mainly during lockdown, he refined, honed and updated classic recipes – from bread to baked Alaska, cherry cake to ciabatta, macarons to meringues – to produce stunning results that can be achieved by almost anyone in their own home.
‘I call Bake the lockdown book,’ he tells me, ‘because 2020 gave me a time to sit down and look at recipes and upgrade things, to look at timings and quantities. A lot of the classic recipes are too salty or have too much sugar in them and we are all eating less of that stuff now, so it has been good to revisit and look at things again in a way that works for everyone today.’
Throughout the first lockdown, he was filming Bake Off for two days and then getting two days off in a hotel room, ‘so I had plenty of time on my own to sit down and work on this’.
That sort of ‘time off’ is a rarity for him. ‘The success we’ve had is something you never quite get used to and I’m never happier than sitting in my bathrobe at home, and cooking.’
These latest recipes are for home cooks, created as Paul uses them in his own home, where he is clearly happiest. ‘I’m a solitary creature,’ he smiles. ‘I’ve turned into a bit of a hermit since Bake Off began. I just love the peace and quiet of home.’
He admits he makes a lot of pizza and we chat about that outdoor oven. ‘A lot of people have been buying pizza ovens but you can get one for about £70 in a DIY store – it doesn’t need to be seven grands’ worth of equipment. Lots of people are making their own brick pizza ovens now, too.
‘If you don’t have an outdoor oven, you can still make home-made pizza. You can kill the dough in a frying pan to stop it rising, whack your oven up as high as you can and flash it in there to get that same effect.’
Paul has an Outback grill, a Cypriot Foukou rotisserie, a Big Green Egg BBQ and two pizza ovens – one home and one commercial – all lined up side by side. We don’t all need quite that level of kit but if you want home-made pizza, the best starting point is to ‘buy my new book’, he quips. ‘But seriously, a good recipe is always a good start.
‘And heat in the oven is crucial… It’s important to me to get that message across. They only need to be in the oven for a minute, a minute and ten seconds at most.’
He has worked with top chefs in Naples and the world over, but Paul’s original inspirations came straight from home.
Baking, he believes, ‘is in our very DNA. I was born and raised in bakeries and lived above one as a baby. I used to go missing and they’d find me downstairs robbing one of the cream cakes, covered in flour.
My mum would be like, “Where have you been?” And I’d say, “Nowhere,” but they’d know because I’d have been in the flour bags, poking holes in them.’
The recipes in the book and those he uses most at home when entertaining are often inspired by his father, mother and grandmother. ‘I’ll take an hour doing my gravy for a good roast chicken and I love doing meringues. They’re simple but my nan was brilliant at them and I love them.’
He adds: ‘Sometimes all I have one with is cream. Cream and meringue is a thing of beauty. And you can’t beat a good pie, can you?’
Is he horrified when people use store-bought crust? ‘No. I like to make my own but I do buy filo pastry because that’s a pain to make. But rough puff and puff pastry I make. And it’s so simple.’ There are recipes for both in his new book.
Bake is, at first glance, very approachable but Paul advises those lacking confidence to leave breads alone to start with. ‘Look at timings and, if you are cooking with youngsters, don’t choose something that takes ages.
‘Go with brownies or scones because they are a quick fix. Do something that will be quick and then once you’ve mastered that, move on to things that take longer. Build up the time rather than the complexity of a recipe.’
He recognises that ‘baking is about science, reactions of yeast and warm water, the temperature you’re baking at, the acid and the alkaline, but once you’ve mastered a recipe, make it your own.
‘I might suggest 200 grams of curd but, if you want to add more, go for it. Just get the basics right and then you can play around. You need to walk before you can run.’ The love of baking will quickly follow, he assures me. ‘Xbox, PlayStation or baking? Kids will go for baking every time.’
And you don’t need a plethora of expensive, professional equipment either. There are just two things he highly recommends above all else: a good set of digital scales and your own two hands.
‘You’ll see me in Bake Off getting stuck in myself, because your hands are the best utensils you have. Your hands have a history and they know how something should feel. If you use your hands you’ll get more of an insight into what is happening.’ A clean oven is also a must, he adds.
And when you’re ready for bread baking, Paul is armed with tips and recipes. Sourdough was the lockdown challenge for many up and down the country, and he was making plenty himself.
‘I’ve always made my own bread. I make a bread, which I use every morning for toast. I use very little fat – maybe a little olive oil – and no sugar at all, so I know it’s healthier.
‘And I make sourdough once a week, banana bread less now as I made a lot last year. I also cook lots of focaccias as I make a lot of risotto and often take it if I’m going to someone’s house. I’ll play around with it, play with the elasticity. I’m definitely a perfectionist when it comes to bread.’
One of his favourite recipes in Bake is for sourdough ‘as that took me a while to get right. It can be tricky but I gave the recipe to a few people and they all made good breads so it’s a good starter sourdough for those who want one’.
There is no doubt the pressure is on for Paul, publishing his first book in five years, but he is clearly extremely proud of it, seeing it as a classic recipe book in a saturated market of food fads, quick fixes and one-pan wonders.
‘I’m not one to do a book a year. I don’t have time but also I really took time with this to perfect the recipes, and I’d been thinking about it a lot before I started to write it. It means a lot, this book… five years is a long time to not write anything.’
BAKE by Paul Hollywood, published by Bloomsbury (£26 RRP, hardback)
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