You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Bake Off’s Liam Charles: ‘Cake is the best way to make people happy’

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Zoe Williams
© Ian West/PA Archive/PA Images

“I love most types of food, but it’s my sweet tooth that makes me who I am.” Liam Charles was the youngest contestant on last year’s Great British Bake Off. At 20 years old, he went straight from the show to a ridiculously charming turn as a judge on Bake Off: The Professionals. It didn’t revolutionise the genre – same suspense-building piano music, used exclusively and perhaps invented for competitive cooking, same high tensions generated by the composition of an egg – but it did revolutionise the potential of that genre. Charles has a face of such open-hearted admiration that it takes you straight back to first principles: this isn’t a game! Some of this stuff is really delicious!

He is now publishing Cheeky Treats, a spangly, Technicolor, many-faceted recipe book, whose title completely underplays the intricacy of its ideas. It is distinguished not by the two kilos of icing sugar in the Football Cake (and that’s just the buttercream!), nor the very simple, incredibly effective, domino pattern on his salted millionaire dominoes, nor his vertiginous layering or moments of French patisserie perfectionism, but by the joie de vivre conveyed by all those things, and the rest. “I think I’m a nice person,” he says, in his publisher’s office in central London, “regardless of the cake. I don’t like upsetting people. I just like making people happy. I thought cake was the best way.” Here, then, are his top baking tips.

Get an eight-inch sandwich tin, then you’re solid

By the age of 15, “I could do cupcakes, cakes to a certain standard, I dabbled in pastry and bread. I did biscuits from time to time. I was solid.” Already, Charles’s friends had christened him Cake Boy, a nickname that stuck throughout his time on Bake Off.

Charles went on to study drama at Goldsmiths, University of London two years ago, and will graduate this coming winter. “Over that summer between school and uni, that’s when I developed the most. That’s when I started to do chocolate work, tier cakes. If you make a four-layer cake, there is some kind of drama, you’ve got all this buttercream, and you’re like: ‘What’s inside? What’s inside?’ So there’s suspense there. There are more similarities between baking and drama than people think.”

I am sceptical about the suspense – you are more or less assured that, underneath the icing, there will be cake – but no one could deny the impact of, say, his chequer cake, regally tall and plush. To those mystified by how you could fit it in your mouth: “You’ve just got to pace yourself, and enjoy it.”

Related: 17 deliciously heat-busting ice pop recipes (Chatelaine)

Triple-chocolate ice cream pops: Frozen chocolate cream mixture + chocolate dip + crushed chocolate cookies = this triple-chocolate ice cream pop recipe. 17 Deliciously Heat-Busting Ice Pop Recipes

Dough is not cake

Mother’s day 2016 and Charles wanted to spring some doughnuts on his mother. Although a kitchen enthusiast herself, they didn’t bake together throughout childhood. “I was fixated on cake, I treated everything like a cake,” he says. Without a deep-fat fryer or any experience of proving dough, failure – burnt on the outside, raw on the inside, the texture of a padded cell if you brought yourself to eat it – was inevitable. “I did think: ‘Shall I leave this? Maybe it’s not my thing’. But it’s not in me to do that, so I just finessed it and finessed it. And the day I just bagged it was an amazing experience. But it took me months.”

Charles still lives with him mum and his sister, and has a brother, too. He mentions his dad in passing – he used to take him to play football on the other side of London – but is extremely reticent about his family. The most detail you’ll get is about how many burners the oven has (six). His mum, he says sphinxishly, works in an office. Is it a secret, what she does, or have you just not asked? He smiles: “It’s definitely an office.”

Remember the meaning of buttercream

Goldsmiths, says Charles, was a haven of enthusiasts: no such thing as too experimental, even if that meant taking on a life-consuming TV commitment partway through a term. “They were, like: ‘Do what you have to do, as long as you come back to uni.’” When he finished Bake Off, placing fifth, he returned with three weeks to do his third-year project, a monologue he’d written himself, called The Metaphorical Meanings of Buttercream. “If I was going to go the easy route, it would have been clowning, because I’m apparently a very animated person. But I thought: ‘No, let me just test myself and find a deeper meaning with this piece.’ Most of the time, I’m mad positive, and when you’re really positive and hyper, people think you don’t think about things. So when I did show that level of intelligence, they were like: ‘Woah, he is a deeper brother.’” 

Classic Victoria sponge cake © Getty Classic Victoria sponge cake

Vanilla is the baking version of salt

This is a motto borrowed from one of Charles’s baking idols, Christina Tosi, the US baking entrepreneur behind Milk Bar, and star of a Netflix Chef’s Table. “Because she comes from such a humble background, and her baking is still so humble, she stays true to herself through baking even though she’s on this massive scale now. That’s why people watch other people cook; the interplay between the character and what they’re making. When something goes wrong, or when something’s good, people watching it really feel it.”

Bake Off had been Charles’s dream since school, but even when he applied and got through, he thought it was probably a trial run. “If you’re not surprised to get on, you’re not human. It’s an audition process, there are so many stages, I just kept thinking: ‘If I get to this stage, that’ll be cool, I’ll go back next year. Oh, I’m through to the next stage.’ I cherished every single moment.” During his time as a contestant, Charles insists he had no rivals, “no competitive beef with anyone in that tent”, his worst and only enemy being himself. “I always want to do well, and sometimes getting up in my own head could be to the detriment of that. So I was constantly thinking: ‘You can do this, so shut up.’”

Don’t cry over scrambled egg

Charles’s baking life hasn’t been without its flaws: one time he made a custard tart in a too-hot oven, and ended up with a beautiful looking pastry shell full of scrambled egg. “I haven’t had any training in it. It’s like baking instinct. It’s like Messi and Ronaldo, that’s why they’re so clearly above everyone else. You can have training but you have to have that extra sauce or that extra belief in what you do. I’m not calling myself Messi, by the way.”

The core ingredients of the extra sauce seem to be trial, error and love. “I’d never used shop-bought pastry before, because I’m a purist. I tried making something [using] both, one made in a random factory and a rough puff I’d made myself, and when I was making it with the first, I didn’t have the same care: ‘I don’t know where you were born. I don’t have any attachment to you.’ When you’ve made it, you’ve seen the chilled butter and the folding, you know where it came from, you care more while you’re lining the tin. That’s what brings it to another level.”

Cheeky Treats: 70 Brilliant Bakes and Cakes by Liam Charles is out on 12 July, available for £17 at the Guardian Bookshop. Read Liam’s recipe for plantain tarte tatin in his fortnightly Feast columns this Saturday 14 July.

Related: Food lovers guide to Cote D’Azur, France (Travels With Darley)

Replay Video

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Guardian

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon