If there was one stand out moment from The Great British Bake Off, it would be Howard Middleton and his stolen custard. With #custardgate and #poorhoward trending on twitter, despite not winning the show, Howard has become synonymous with the trials and tribulations of the bake off. All things custard aside, I was keen to sit down with Howard and find out more about his gluten-free cook book, his show stopping secrets and his time on the show. Living proof that one mistake in the kitchen doesn’t mean your baking days are over, if you’ve ever needed the motivation to dig out that apron and learn the basics, read on.
So Howard, we all know you from the Great British Bake Off, but have you always been an avid baker?
I learnt the basics from my mum as a child – bread, cakes and pastry. I’ve also always enjoyed creating things for others to enjoy. There’s a bit of a secret showman in me too – it’s a lovely feeling to be able to impress people with a skill.
What led you to first apply to be a contestant on the show?
It was basically the encouragement of family and friends. I’d started to fill out the application the year before, but never completed it. Then at the end of 2012, I went out for drinks with work colleagues and we started talking about New Year’s resolutions. I said I was going to complete the application form for The Bake Off, so I did, never imagining that I’d really stand a chance. Once I’d made that first step into the audition process, I really wanted to go on to the next one and the one after.
What was the highlight of being on the show for you?
Oh, there were lots of highlights – just that first day filming, when you first line up outside the tent and the wonderful camaraderie of being with the other bakers. And of course there were the highs and lows of the individual challenges!
And the custard…?
Yes – people still talk about my missing custard and other disasters, but there’s so much affection for the show and those of us who’ve been on it.
In retrospect, what advice would you give yourself if you were on the show again?
I’d tell myself to relax more and enjoy the experience. People say that I came across as being very calm, but my stomach was churning with nerves all the time!
Is it really as high pressured as it looks on the TV?
Absolutely – because you want to do so well, but there are so many things that are out of your control. From the weather conditions which affect your baking in the tent, to the technical challenges that are often things you’ve never heard of, let alone baked before. Also, baking against the clock with cameras and a crew around you is very different to baking in the comfort of your own home. That said, it’s a fantastic challenge!
What are your secrets to getting a show stopping bake every time?
It’s virtually impossible to get things right every time, but it’s about learning what went wrong and why, so you can avoid making the same mistake next time. I’ve done countless demos since being on the Bake Off and there’s nearly always something that goes wrong, but people seem to love that because it shows you are human!
Where did the inspiration for your book come from?
It was partly my love of unusual ingredients – experimenting with alternative flours and so on, but it was also about responding to people’s requests for things like a good gluten-free toasted teacake or a decent doughnut. My first cake on the Bake Off was gluten-free and when the programme first went out, the response was overwhelming with people asking for more and more gluten-free recipes. But I also wanted to make sure that the recipes work for everyone, whether you eat gluten-free or not.
As someone who has been coeliac (allergic to wheat and gluten) since I was two, I find baking with wheat-free flour to be impossible. What are your secrets?
It’s all about understanding the different qualities and properties of gluten-free flours – which ones are starchy or absorbent, for example, and how to combine them. Many different cultures and cuisines use flours made from gluten-free grains, grasses and pulses, so it’s a case of learning how best to use them for what you’re baking.
What advice would you give to bakers of all ages, hoping to take a short course and follow in your footsteps?
I was quite naive when I went into the Bake Off tent because apart from learning from my mum, everything else was self-taught. Other bakers had been on courses to brush up their skills and to learn new things, which is such a sensible thing to do! It's worth giving yourself the best advantage you can.
Finally, what’s your signature bake, and why?
I don't have a sweet tooth so it would definitely be a savoury bake - perhaps my Stilton and walnut biscuits - cheesy, nutty, crackers - sounds like a perfect description of me!
Perfect answer – thank you very much Howard!
If Howard has persuaded you to get back into the kitchen and learn all there is to know about baking, we’ve got over 800 courses to get you inspired. Be sure to let us know how you get on!
Photo credit - Kirsten Johnson