The Great Irish Bake Off begins

I AM frantically whisking my sabayon (egg yolks, sugar, wine) over a hot bain marie but it absolutely refuses to thicken. “Come on, guys, you need to finish this now!” barks Ann!. Sebastian, my cooking partner, isn’t happy. “Did you prick the bottom of the tarts before putting them in the oven?” I have easily baked a thousand tarts in my life up to that point. It’s straightforward, I know the drill. I flush. “Christ, I forgot!” Ann comes over to investigate. “My sabayon won’t thicken,” I wail. “That’s because the pot isn’t properly over the induction ring,” says Ann.

The Great Irish Bake Off begins

I’d never seen an induction hob before today but I already hate it. Induction is for Moonies, give me gas. My stomach churns, panic rising. Just an hour in and I’m already looking for the exit.

Last September, after a gap of nearly three decades, I returned to education to do the BA in Culinary Arts & at CIT, a course designed for senior chefs. My daily working life revolves around food and I have close to a decade of professional cooking experience but despite learning much under some excellent chefs, I’d never received any formal training. I was keen to fill in the gaps.

The advanced pastry module, though, was a bit of an afterthought. Like so many chefs, I thought pastry just wasn’t for me. Baking, they say, is a science, cooking, an art. Finicky, restrictive, I reckoned, the antithesis of the sturm und drang that comes with manning a hot stove in a frantic kitchen. When I first spoke to my tutor, Ann O’Connor, one of the most respected pastry teachers in the country, I made no bones about my ineptitude. I may even have cracked a joke about Jusrol pastry. But within ten minutes of starting my first class, I realised I was way out of my depth. Without a lifebelt.

The Great Irish Bake Off is Ireland’s take on the phenomenally successful Great British Bake Off, a format now replicated in 11 countries. Twelve amateur bakers compete over eight weeks in a variety of culinary challenges under the watchful eyes of judges, Merrion Hotel executive pastry chef Paul Kelly and actress-turned-food writer, Biddy White-Lennon.

White-Lennon was initially sceptical. “I’m normally in the habit of saying no to reality TV but I caught up with the British version and saw that it was a lovely idea: gentle, informative and it doesn’t set out to humiliate anyone. The bakers are the real stars.”

Some older viewers may be surprised to find Maggie Riordan popping up on a cookery show for White-Lennon remains an icon to generations of Irish people thanks to her former starring role in Irish soap opera, The Riordans.

“I learned to fend for myself very early in the kitchen,” chuckles White-Lennon. “I had a mother who couldn’t and wouldn’t cook. Then, when I was a young actress, ‘resting’ between jobs, I’d work in restaurants. I had one job, waitressing in The Old Soup Bowl on Molesworth St, that paid £1 a night from 6pm til 2am, but you could make £40 a night on tips which was a fortune at the time. I was already in The Riordans and I’d wear a wig to disguise myself but it never worked. I got out of waitressing and then started a Cordon Bleu correspondence course. I had been writing for the radio as well by this stage so I got a regular gig with the Farmer’s Monthly.”

To date she has written or co-written over ten cookbooks including The Best of Irish Baking and this year’s very popular Wild Food (with Evan Doyle) and is a co-founder of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild.

Despite adhering strictly to the original’s format, White Lennon is confident the Irish version will find a life of its own: “It is cleverly designed to leave the personality of each country shine through. There is a lot of joshing, sending each other up. That kind of Irish warmth is going to come across well.

“Paul, myself and [host] Anna [Nolan] are the enablers; it’s the bakers that make it because we really just do the gig we’re paid for, try and educate them, try and encourage them, but their skills develop amazingly. It’s not just entertainment. People will learn an awful lot just by watching — and it’s not just cakes.”

After a month, Ann O’Connor noted I’d smiled in class for the first time. I finished the year as I’d begun, easily the worst of my peers but with a wealth of knowledge and a serious appreciation for the art of baking and patisserie. I even passed my final pastry exams, a seven-hour ordeal. And, these days, I really do make a mean pastry.

* The Great Irish Bake Off starts on TV3 tonight at 9pm.

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