Claire Gardner: Competitive bake-off a recipe for failure

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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WHAT’S not to love about a big fat slice of home made cake? Well, apart from hours spent mixing and whisking and tasting and spreading, the finished product, still slightly warm from the oven, is a joy to behold.

Indeed, since cookery writer and national treasure Mary Berry stepped on to our screens in the hit BBC2 programme The Great British Bake Off, even the most reluctant of bakers have been dusting off our aprons and lunging for wooden spoons to cook up a spongy storm in a cake tin. It’s not just the delight of cramming calorie-laden slices into one’s mouth either, it’s being able to say to guests in a rather superior way: “Do have a slice, it’s home-made, don’t you know.”

But the simple act of cake-making is not that simple, especially when you have some mummies adding a huge dollop of competition into the mixing bowl. Take the endless rounds of coffee mornings that many mums subject themselves to. In a desperate attempt to break the boredom that comes with looking after small children, a select gathering of like-minded mums and their snotty-nosed brats often sounds an appealing option.

However, a survey shows that rather than feed their guests a range of supermarket biscuits and cakes, mothers are coming under increasing pressure to serve up self-styled soft sponges to appear the perfect hostess.

In what has been termed “The Great British Bake Off Effect”, research commissioned by a coffee machine maker revealed that 32 per cent of the 2,000 women asked said they attempted home-made cakes and biscuits to impress their friends. Well, trying to score points off another mum for superior stirring skills is one thing, but add into the mix mummies making cakes for a school kids’ baking competition and the knives are really out.

I had a glimpse of just how powerful the competitive parent syndrome could be when our school sent back notes asking kids to take part in a “Fantastic Fairtrade Cupcake Competition”. Not just any old cupcake, a blasted Fairtrade one. It’s not that I’m against supporting Fairtrade, because I do. And I try to shop local, grow my own veggies, keep hens and only smoke menthol cigarettes.

Normally when these sort of notes appear in my kids’ schoolbags, I do what most sensible parents do: moan and groan, then rustle a few chocolate crispy cakes together sometime between hair brushing and packed-lunch making on the morning they need to be handed in.

However, with my inner Mary Berry crying to come out, I decided we should rise to the challenge and get baking. Little did I realise that I was joining the Magi-mixers at dawn brigade of competitive mums determined their child should take home first prize. Casual playground conversations became an intelligence gathering activity. My child, however, was sworn to secrecy under pain of death to reveal our own Fairtrade master plan.

Then came supermarket wars as a host of us clogged up the baking isle grabbing bags of Fairtrade sugar and cocoa powder as well as organic flour and eggs.

The night before the big day and the cooking began. My daughter was allowed to stand and watch as I mixed and poured and tasted and then created my, I mean her, cupcake.

Our plan was to make a Fairtrade hedgehog, using only Fairtrade or organic products and decorated in the Fairtrade colours of green, blue and black. Genius I thought. The next morning I carried the spectacular creation into school (in case she dropped it) and handed it rather smugly to the teacher. Then I stood back and chatted to other mums and discovered how amateur my efforts were.

One admitted to having employed the services of a professional baker to create a cupcake the size of a small dog. Another told me she had wheeled her mother out of retirement to bake and decorate what she hoped was winning entry. One told me she had brought a spectacular cake from Greggs the bakers, licked the icing off the top and simply piled on her own creation.

The more I heard, the less sure I became about taking top prize. I was right, too, and my child came out of school with a scowl on her face. In the words of my son, it was an “epic fail”.

So next time there is a request for cakes, I’m going to ignore my inner Mary Berry, turn my back on the Great British Bake Off Effect, and revert to rustling up few chocolate crispy cakes sometime between hair brushing and packed-lunch making on the morning they need to be handed in.