“When I was a headteacher I baked ‘Friday treats’ for all my staff,” says the 2016 Great British Bake Off contestant, who is originally from Conisbrough, Doncaster.
“I let my lovely colleagues know that I could never repay them for all the care they gave to the children, but I could say thank you to them with my bakes.
“Not content with having a bake each week, they decided to set me a challenge. The challenge: I must not repeat a bake!
“With the challenge accepted and over the next five years, I went through my repertoire of traditional bakes: Victoria sponge, scones, tray bakes, pastries, biscuits and even puddings.
“However, there are 52 weeks in a year and, with taking out the holidays, that left me 38 weeks without being allowed to repeat a bake. And so, my twists on traditional bakes were born!”
Val – a traditional baker who claims she can make the classics with her eyes closed – stole the hearts of the nation with her innuendos, exercises in the kitchen, and penchant for ‘listening’ to her cakes, before she was eliminated on week five of the popular baking show in 2016.
Here, the Cake Whisperer offers her baking tips and twists on traditional bakes, just in time for the Christmas season.
Val adds: “I put twists on my Victoria sponge, so they became coffee cakes with either coffee buttercream, or a decadent coffee liqueur Chantilly cream. I turned a sponge into a honey cake and a maple syrup cake too.
“I created a lemon drizzle cake layered with luscious homemade lemon curd, and I also mixed the lemon sponge with an orange drizzle too.
“Then, there was chocolate cake, with its endless extra flavours. Adding three tablespoons of homemade mincemeat created a light, but chocolatey, fruit cake.
“To make sure everyone got a taste of my traditional bakes with a twist, I turned the above into cupcakes.
“And I couldn’t forget scones in my baking challenge. I made plain, sultana, apple, followed by prune and almond, and pistachio and lemon. I tried maple syrup, and honey. Can you see a pattern emerging? Whatever I added to the Victoria sponge could be added to a scone.
“Finally, there were cheese scones. Over many years I have picked up hints and tips from various places, but here are some never-fail recipe tips...
“When I make a Victoria sponge, I use the ‘all-in-one method.’ I weigh my eggs first so if four eggs out of their shells weigh 260g then into the bowl I weigh the same amount of caster sugar, then margarine. Lastly, I sift in self-raising flour, with an added 15g of baking powder. The order is important as the sugar on top of the egg begins to dissolve the sugar. The margarine comes next with the flour on top, so the air doesn’t get knocked out.
“I use a stand mixer, but don’t start beating the mixture on full power straight away. Firstly, pulse on low until the mixture is combined - mostly so that you don’t get covered in flour. Beat for one minute and leave for two minutes whilst you grease the baking pans. I grease my pans with a propriety (600) cake release spray, but a little sunflower oil will do too. Continue to beat the mixture for two minutes only.
“During any moments when you are waiting to start your next baking step, even if only for a couple of minutes, is where you do a little exercise, side steps and stretches are good. Whenever you are stood, waiting for the kettle to boil or stirring a pan, move or dance, it’s good for your body, and your soul.
“I listen to my cakes to hear whether they are baked. The cake should not be silent, if it is, it is over baked. Instead it should crackle a little. If you take the cake out at this point the heat in the cake will continue to bake it for a further two minutes which is why you should let a cake stand for 2-4 minutes, in order for the cake to come to rest.
“My tips for the lightest scones ever? Pre-heat a baking sheet so that it is good and hot before you place the scones onto it to bake. If you do, the scones will begin to rise straight away.
“Have all your scone ingredients at room temperature, this will speed up the rise. Use bread making flour as this gives a good structure to hold the scones as they rise. Instead of milk I use half double cream and half plain yoghurt, the lactic acid in the yoghurt activates the baking powder and gives it a boost for beautiful well-risen scones. Sweet scones are given a beautiful colour and vanilla flavour by adding a tablespoon of custard powder. Lastly, adding the zest of a lemon really adds zing.
“There is one thing that makes baking even better, and that is baking with my grandchildren.”