Nancy Birtwhistle: The Bake Off was ‘more beneficial than a face lift’
15:47 14 August 2015
We caught up with last year’s winner of The Great British Bake Off, Hull-born baker Nancy, to find out why
Retirement was a brief affair for Nancy. Formerly a GP practice manager, she worked in the NHS for 36 years before retiring in 2007. But since winning the hugely popular BBC cookery show, life in Barton on Humber, where she lives with husband Tim, has picked up pace. These days, growing fruit and vegetables in the garden, plus looking after several chickens, guinea fowl and Christmas turkeys is fitted in around a packed schedule. Viewers will remember the Yorkshire grandmother’s sense of humour – her reference to silver fox Paul Hollywood merely as ‘the male judge’ a particular highlight. Crowned star baker in the first week of series 5, before going on to win the show with a memorable red windmill showstopper, Nancy’s baking prowess has been further recognised with a recent appointment as Bake Off correspondent for The Telegraph. We chatted to her about life as a Bake Off champion and discovered some top culinary tips in the process.
How has life changed for you since winning the Bake Off?
Life after the Bake Off has been a wonderful roller coaster of invitations and experiences I would never have dreamed of. I would describe it as being more beneficial than a face lift – I have been brought out of retirement which is great. Today I visited a local school, a long standing promise to bake with a group of children from Year 2. Together we made 60 strawberry and cream cupcakes then sold them at the school summer fayre. Then I judged their cake competition comprising 40 or so cakes.
What was the response like from your local community?
Coming from the North, people from my part of the world are not always that demonstrative. However, so many local people – men, women and children of all ages – have congratulated me and said they were rooting for me whilst the Bake Off was being aired.
This time last year filming had already finished for the Great British Bake Off – what was it like having to keep it all a secret?
Keeping it a secret was easy from the time Bake Off finished for me, up to the time it was shown on the TV. Once it went on air at the beginning of August until the final in October was the difficult time. People who knew me were constantly asking how I got on and obviously I couldn’t tell anybody. I think I was quite good at fooling them though because no-one suspected I had won.
Was it as stressful as it looked in the tent?
Bake Off was the most stressful thing I have ever done in my life, but equally the most rewarding.
What would your advice be for the bakers this year?
My advice for bakers this year is to enjoy it because they have been given a fantastic gift. It is over in a flash. Enjoy the tent, enjoy the other people and embrace the experience.
Are you still in touch with the other bakers?
Yes, we all keep in touch via a Whatsapp group and social media. We have also had several reunions over the year – they are a great group of people.
Where do you get the inspiration for your recipes from?
I get inspiration when I least expect it. Sometimes it is from a glimpse of a beautiful piece of work in a patisserie, from seasonal produce or from books and pictures – not always of food. Colour combinations inspire me in my decorations and I read recipe books like other people read novels. I particularly love French cookery books.
What are the items you just can’t live without in the kitchen?
I love my electric hand whisk. I use this most of the time rather than a table top mixer. An angled palette knife is also handy. My grandmother gave me her old fashioned weighing scales which always have pride of place in the kitchen, but have had to become an ornament now as since Bake Off I use digital weighing scales.
What is your favourite thing to bake?
People I talk to say they find pastry the most difficult. I adore a pastry lined tart decorated delicately so that it looks really top-end. In actual fact it has cost so little to produce, but with a little attention to detail it looks and tastes exquisite.
What ideas would you recommend for fruit and veg patch owners, like yourself, to use up an excess of home-grown produce?
1. Make excess tomatoes into a thick tomato sauce and freeze in washed out 300ml cream cartons.
2. Courgettes can be made into ratatouille along with home grown peppers, onions and aubergines and of course some of the tomato sauce above.
3. Soft fruit freezes very well as long as it is not overripe. If you have any damaged, over ripe or misshapen fruit blitz it with a hand blender, press it through a sieve and freeze in plastic containers and use the puree later on in icecreams, glazes, jellies, cheesecakes or raspberry and white chocolate muffins.
What would your top tips be for our readers who want to take their creations to the next level?
Practise, practise, practise and take your time. Attention to detail is so important in baking – it is very precise – so don’t do any guessing. If you have a cake that your family and friends love then spend time thinking about how you are going to decorate it. It’s the decoration and presentation that give it the ‘wow’ factor.
If all this talk of baking has got you running for the kitchen, head over to Great British Life to find the best baking accessories.
Words: Daisy McCorgray