When it came to finding an expert to talk baking with, my mind instantly wondered back to the nerve racking final of the nation’s favourite TV series. The village fete style baking competition that hit the big time, 8.4 million of us held our breath as Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood chose between Frances, Ruby and Kimberly in the final bake last year. As she held up her cake stand crown, we all agreed that amateur baker Frances, with her innovative designs and show stopping cakes, really was in a class of her own.
As a big bake off fan, I was thrilled when Frances agreed to find time in her schedule, (which really is more jam packed than a Victoria sponge, with a new book and baking treats for Wimbledon) to chat to me about her journey and the advice she would give bakers hoping to follow in her footsteps. Frances was easily one of my favourite interviewees, wishing she had baked me a birthday cake to give with her answers; her infectious energy also inspired me to buy a recipe book and try a cookery course for myself. Although I may need a few more lessons before entering The Great British Bake Off, Frances’ story is well worth sharing.
Let’s begin with the obvious question, how did you get into cookery?
I always loved food; eating, talking and thinking about it! The kitchen was always a space I felt comfortable and never intimidated in. It was like an extension of the living room to play, explore and eat in. Also being the youngest of five, I had ample opportunity to bake away in batches knowing there was always plenty of people to eat what I created.
How did you progress from there?
I studied English lit, sociology and art A Level and went on to do an Art Foundation course at Loughborough. I had always intended to go on and do an illustration degree; after growing up in my family’s independent bookshop and being inspired by the likes of Quentin Blake, Shirley Hughes, Allan Ahlberg and Lauren Child, becoming a children’s book illustrator was always a dream. However it was through doing my Art Foundation course that I discovered printed textiles and how it embraced both my love of drawing and colour. Not forgetting texture, which is one of the reasons I love designing with food now.
Completing a textile design degree at Nottingham Trent confirmed this passion while doing lots of placements at companies from Orla Kiely, Liberty and Accessorize through to Peclers and Red magazine, which gave me an insight into the industry. Following my degree, I spent a year living in Vancouver working as a children’s designer, before returning to the UK and working as an in house designer for a children’s wear graphic and textile studio in London. I then went on to be part of the children’s wear design team at Joules, where, before going on The Great British Bake Off, I was responsible for designing the baby toddler collections.
So how did you go from designer to Great British Bake Off contestant?
It was actually my work colleagues at Joules that put the application forms on my desk! I’d always had a love of baking, but it was when I started working at Joules it took off creatively. They were looking for someone to put recipes on the Joules blog and I’d started getting a bit of a reputation for creating bespoke bakes for selection meetings and birthdays. My secret squirrel cake was initially made for my friend and work colleague Suzie, whose nickname was squirrel and while pregnant the baby was referred to as the secret squirrel – Hugo (aka secret squirrel) just turned two and I made him his own biscuit squirrel to celebrate!
That’s adorable and who would have known that your fun office bakes would turn you into a Bake Off winner! We know the show was fun too but it looked pretty nerve wracking too, in retrospect, what advice would you give yourself in week on of the show?
To try and enjoy the whole experience more despite the inevitable stress of it all and to have more faith and confidence in my baking. I remember doubting and questioning my recipe choice and even the amount of eggs going into my giant sandwich cake!
You quickly became known on the show for your creative cakes, what are your top tips when it comes to designing and decorating a cake?
Think outside the baking box, bowl and kitchen and be inspired by both the ingredients and ideas going into your design. Less can also sometimes be more and a simple cake or bake can be turned from ordinary to extraordinary by the way you both cook and look at it. Think shortbread Jenga...
I’m going to try and recreate that in the office tomorrow! What would you say was your most memorable moment on the show?
A certain biscuit tower collapsing was certainly a moment, but one I’d probably choose to not remember! Getting a Hollywood handshake for my cauliflower cheese scones was a highlight, together with both the bakers and production team’s reaction to my Jenga Banoffe Millionaire Shortbreads. It was deemed by Glen as being the best thing he’s eaten in the tent and I can vouch for his Rocky Road tray bake being mine.
What are some common mistakes most people make when baking?
Not having all the ingredients to hand and not weighing them properly. A good set of digital scales are a must in my kitchen and I even took my own with me in my suitcase to use on Bake Off! Tasting your own food throughout the bake is also key and although following a recipe is important, follow your own taste palette too. But most of all try and enjoy the experience – embrace and eat your mistakes and learn from them!
Eat burnt cakes, got it. What skills do you think you need to make it in this industry?
A strength of character, determination and staying focused on your goals and food despite the inevitable ups and downs. Being a lover of sport and a keen runner, I tried to approach each bake with a sportsman frame of mind while on the Bake Off. For example even if I’d done badly in the signature and technical, I still had the showstopper to dig deep and pull it back. In other words, it wasn’t over till it was over.
What advice would you give someone hoping to follow in your footsteps and be crowned Bake Off winner?
To try and stay true to your own baking style and tastes, while at the same time being inspired and learning from others in and outside the industry.
What is in the pipeline for you in 2014?
I am busy working on my first book with my published Bloomsbury, together with constantly working on lots of collaborations within both the baking, design and music world. My inbox currently looks like a rainbow of flags, from all the variety of requests and opportunities! I have also got lots of festivals coming up where I will be demonstrating, including Wilderness where I am part of the cookery school line up.
Sounds exciting! Finally, if you have a free afternoon, what is your favourite thing to bake?
Although a cinnamon bun is my favourite bake to eat, I really love baking and eating the humble scone. Whether made plain and served with good cream and jam or given a banoffee twist, you really can’t beat it and they’re so quick and simple to make.
And with that Fran was back to her baking and I was left counting down the minutes till lunch. If you too find yourself itching to get creative in the kitchen, why not look at all the different cookery courses of offer and get mixing.