Nancy Birtwhistle: How to win Great British Bake Off

Great British Bake Off series five winner Nancy Birtwhistle talks us through her winning formula for baking your way to the title...

Nancy Birtwhistle: How to win Great British Bake Off

Rising to the challenge

While I was watching the Bake Off at home, three years ago, I decided to tackle some of the technical challenges myself. The results were pretty good – so, encouraged, I filled in the application for the next series, and I told absolutely everybody. I got down to the final 50 applicants that year – but no further. I decided to try again the following year, but this time without telling anyone. Only my husband, Tim, knew.

Recipe for successI got through to the first audition, but had already planned a dinner party for that date. So I went to Manchester on the train with my bakes in the morning, got home late in the afternoon and still managed to produce a three-course meal for 10 people without telling anyone what I’d been doing that day! When I got the call saying I was on the show, I told nobody. A cluster of my closest friends knew later on, but they were sworn to secrecy. I used to text them at the end of each weekend saying ‘I’m still in!’. When I got to the third week, I announced: ‘I’m not telling you any more, it will spoil it when you watch it.’ So they all assumed that I’d been knocked out.

Coping with the cameras

Our second audition was in a big college kitchen and we did a technical challenge. As we worked, the production team came round to chat and interrupt us. That is really hard; you’re nervous and trying to read the recipe while someone is butting in to ask: ‘What are you doing? Has it gone wrong? Is that how it’s supposed to be?’ But they need to see how you respond in those conditions. Since the show, people occasionally tell me they would love to apply but are really nervous of the television cameras. All I say is, put yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Try standing and talking in front of a group of friends – that’s worse than public speaking. I was the same to begin with, but it soon starts to get easier.

Practice, practice, practice!

Mixing cakeFilming is every weekend, so I found my weekdays took on a completely new routine. On a Monday, we were given themes for two episodes in advance and had until the following Sunday to submit recipes. On Monday night I’d lie awake thinking of flavours and ingredients. On Tuesdays, ideas would start to flow, and it was only on Wednesdays that I’d start practising. I had to make the most of every waking minute during the week. I made most of my bakes three times, as the first would have mistakes, the second would probably be right, but take too long, and by the third time I could do it. I made sure that I could bake everything with 20 minutes to spare, to allow for questions and interruptions in the tent. There’s not a lot of space in the tent, so I only allowed myself a little workspace at home. You also need to submit a list of every piece of kit you’ll need, to the last teaspoon. So while I was practising, I’d save everything I used and write it all down as I washed up.

Every second counts

You’ve got to use every minute you have. In the final, one of the caramel sails fell off my windmill. As Sue was calling ‘Five minutes’, I frantically reheated my pan of hard caramel and managed to dip my spoon into a patch that had begun to melt. I used my fingers to weld the caramel back on, right up to the final second. The next morning I had blisters from the burning – but at the time I didn’t even feel a thing!

It's all about a fabulous finale

nancy baking

I knew I needed to pull out all the stops for the final, and that it would be exhausting. I ended up with just 24 hours to create recipes, and I submitted an idea for a pièce montée (a decorative, sculptural centrepiece) based on my garden, but the home economist said it didn’t fit the brief. I was so exhausted that I burst into tears, but she gave me a day to come up with another idea. Tim said: ‘Go to your hair appointment, stay calm and  have a really good think.’ On my way I walked past the Hull Fair and thought a helter skelter or windmill shape might be good. Charlie, my hairdresser, knew I was on the show. As I described the brief, she suggested giving it a French twist. ‘A French windmill!’ I shrieked. ‘That is it. Quick, finish my hair, I need to tell them!’ On Tuesday, I started baking, but it took longer than five hours, and I needed to make changes – such as using red dye instead of black in the caramel, which had turned Tim’s teeth completely black! On Wednesday, the crew arrived to film a backstory in my kitchen, and on Thursday I practised it all again – but I still couldn’t finish in five hours. On Friday, I got up at 4am and gave myself until 9.30am to finish it. I managed it with 10 minutes to spare, and got straight on the 11am train.

It's connected me to bakers all over the world

Dusting cakeWhen we left the tent for the last time, it almost felt like a bereavement. We had the final when everyone came back – and the next day the tent had gone! I realised this was never going to happen again. Tim and I went on holiday to France, everything was quiet for a month, and then the first episode was broadcast. It’s amazing the number of people who got in touch after I won, from all over the world.

People contact me to say they’ve been inspired to bake, or ask for tips and advice. I think it’s fantastic that you can talk to people from across the world now. You can never really understand where they live or what their life is like, but they’re baking the same food as you, which is amazing.

Meeting Mary and Paul

Mary BerryThe crew called it the royal visit. You’d see Mary and Paul come into the tent, and watch them at a neighbouring bench before they came over to you. Often the crew would ask us to pause for a minute so there was something interesting for Paul and Mary to talk about. You could be about to take one of your bakes out of the oven and they’d ask you to wait for 10 seconds! But we were all in the same boat.

Looking good in the tent

It might sound obvious, but wearing comfortable clothes was vital. We had to wear the same thing for both days (the men often brought two versions of the same T-shirt). My main advice to contestants this year is to book hair appointments in advance! If you’re there for the full 10 weeks, there’s virtually no time to do anything other than bake at home.

The Great British Bake Off broadcasts on BBC One every Wednesday at 8pm from 5th August 2015.

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