We lured an official judge from The Great Kiwi Bake Off into the offices to critique our cakes, and it was an emotional rollercoaster.
Here at The Spinoff, reality TV is kind of a big deal. So when a new show comes out, we really put our heart and soul into it.
Alex Casey and Sam Brooks once DIYed a Block-esque letterbox, Manu and Pete from My Kitchen Rules have judged our most shameful meals, and I’m pretty sure Henry is organising a trip to the dump so we can make dresses out of old keyboards or something.
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So naturally, in the lead-up to tonight’s first Great Kiwi Bake Off episode, we made some cakes and lured Bake Off judge Sue Fleischl to The Spinoff HQ to critique them.
Fleischl, an accomplished chef who cut her teeth back in the day at the Savoy Hotel in London, has been running Auckland’s The Great Catering Company since 1995. Her co-judge on the show is international baking jet-setter Dean Brettschneider and the hosts, Madeleine Sami and Hayley Sproull, have dubbed the duo #fleischlschneider.
One half of #fleischlschneider arrived at our glamorous Morningside offices on a Thursday afternoon. As I am wont to do, I had been banging on tediously about our bake-off for some time in an attempt to recruit competitors, but in the end, just three of us arrived with cakes that morning. My mild disappointment soon turned to quiet satisfaction: with such a low turn-out, my chances of victory were surely high.
I had baked a devil’s food cake, recipe courtesy of Nigella Lawson. It was a cake I’d first made just weeks before in honour of the birthday of our Dietary Requirements co-host, Sophie Gilmour. Despite a fairly monumental cock-up in the form of a springform tin springing open mid-bake and covering my oven in chocolatey goo, the cake had been well-received — who doesn’t love a chocolatey AF chocolate cake, after all?
So I decided to bake it again for this important occasion, splashing out on a new tin ($8 from Countdown — very good deal) to avoid any mishaps. The bake went smoothly, but the icing/filling didn’t seem as glossy as first time round. I felt the first prickling of unease, but pushed it away, as that’s what I generally do with feelings of all kinds (who needs ’em, amirite?).
I slathered the cake in the not-as-glossy-as-it-should’ve-been icing, perhaps trying a little too hard to make it perfect rather than embracing the rustic look. As I stepped back and surveyed the scene, a second wave of unease washed over me. Was this a bake-off-winning cake? I had my doubts.
Then a brainwave — freeze-dried raspberries. Freeze-dried raspberries make any cake look flash as, and for some reason I had some. On they went. Better. I put the cake in a tin and forgot about it until the morning.
Business editor Maria Slade had gone for simple, nostalgic appeal in the form of a lemon syrup loaf. It turns out she thought this was a bog-standard office bake-off, not realising we had a bona fide baking pro coming in to judge our efforts, but in a brilliant stroke of luck, her recipe was from Chelsea Sugar, who it just so happens is principal sponsor of The Great Kiwi Bake Off. That was bound to impress the first half of #fleischlschneider.
Partnerships manager Mark Kelliher, meanwhile, had pulled out all the stops with a pistachio, elderflower and yoghurt cake made with polenta. Cue a third wave of unease — that sounded like a fancy cake.
Being the humble Kiwi bloke that he is, Mark quelled my fears by talking down his efforts. I nonchalantly glanced at the cake, pretending I wasn’t checking out the competition, and immediately felt better — yet to be iced, it looked nothing special.
Later on, though, I happened upon Mark in the office kitchen. His cake was drizzled seductively in a sophisticated yoghurt icing and he was artfully sprinkling pistachio nuts on the top in a manner reminiscent of #saltbae. It looked good. Very good.
Partnerships editor Simon Day, who pulled out of the bake-off in a scandalous last-minute fashion, commented that just as people often look like their dogs, Mark kind of looked like his cake. “Well-dressed and delicious, but a bit rough around the edges.”
While I don’t really resemble a devil’s food cake, on a deeper level, it me. The cake was perfectly presentable from a distance, but on closer inspection it was clear that I’d half-heartedly tried to clean up the icing that had dribbled onto the plate on which the cake sat, resulting in unsightly brown smears. Similarly, I can appear OK from a distance, even well put together at times, but look closely and you’ll likely find I’ve spilled my lunch down my shirt and smudged my mascara.
Anyway. Sue arrived and she wasn’t even slightly scary, which was a relief. We introduced our cakes, something I really should’ve given more thought to. When my time came, she asked me why I’d chosen to bake this particular cake. I said people liked it and it was easy, immediately realising I’d made a fatal error. That was not a bake-off-winning way to introduce a cake.
Maria was modest, referring to her creation as “just a lemon loaf”, while Mark, ruthless and shrewd competitor that he is, talked up the difficulty of his cake, then, feigning humility, said he had no idea how it had turned out.
Sue said we should all have more confidence in our cakes, as they looked fabulous — it seemed like she meant it too.
Then it was time to taste. Sue had seemed incredibly nice up until this point, but was it all a ruse? Would nasty judge emerge and tear us and our baking efforts to pieces? I was in a somewhat fragile state on account of going to three separate free-booze events the night before (wot, it’s my job), and didn’t think I could handle a Gordon Ramsay-esque dressing down.
In a scene eerily similar to one in the office just today, albeit with the cake-laden bake-off table in place of JLR’s press conference, our colleagues crowded around in anticipation.
Sue began with Maria’s “lovely classic lemon loaf”, first flipping it over and praising the even colour of its bottom. She tried it and was just as impressed with the moistness and lovely lemony flavour. “A very nice cake.”
Next she moved on to Mark’s fancy cake. “I’m a bit nervous — I’ve only done it once before and I just kind of fluked it,” he bluffed in an impressive display of faux modesty, no doubt knowing deep down that he had dominated.
Sue smelled the cake first and could tell the flavours were good. Then she tried it, and I knew it was all over. “I’m very impressed, you’ve gone all out. Lovely moist crumb and lovely colour all the way through. It’s perfectly cooked. It’s a good cake. It’s a very good cake.”
I tried Mark’s fancy offering and had to agree, it was good. It was a bloody good cake. I’d secretly hoped that because it was pretty much gluten-free (apart from the non-GF baking powder Mark had used), it might be a bit shit. He had also been shady about the recipe’s origins — allegedly it was from a Jamie Oliver magazine from some years ago, but was not a Jamie recipe. (I later discovered the recipe was by English vegetarian food writer Anna Jones, who is a stone-cold legend, so no wonder it’s a damn good cake.)
Anyway, I stood my ground as Sue sliced into the devil’s food cake, despite temptations to throw in the towel in the wake of Mark knocking it out of the park. “That is a chocolate cake and a half,” she said. “That is beautiful.”
Hold on a minute! All was not lost. “This cuts incredibly well and has a great texture,” Sue went on.
Maybe Mark didn’t have it in the bag after all…
A few minutes later, I was to discover that yes, Mark did have it in the bag. Sue let Maria and me down gently by saying that the three of us had produced “three really well-made cakes”, each perfect for a different occasion — Maria’s for morning or afternoon tea, Mark’s for dessert, mine for a celebration.
But there could be only one winner, and that was Mark for taking a risk. “I think these are equally good cakes, but it’s just being a bit more adventurous,” concluded Sue.
Mark, bless him, was chuffed, calling his win “my greatest moment at The Spinoff to date”, and looking forward to telling his mother.
We bade Sue farewell and promised to tune in (I have had a sneak preview of the first episode and can reveal that it’s quality viewing).
Our colleagues then attacked what remained of the three cakes like the sugar-crazed vultures they are. Still clinging on to the slim hope of redemption, I insisted they choose a favourite. Surely the basic b appeal of my devil’s food cake would win out with this lot.
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Sadly, I was wrong. Blame the time of day, the delicate constitution of media types who can’t handle anything too rich (looking at you, Alex Braae), or perhaps a religious conspiracy of some sort, but Maria’s lemon syrup loaf was the resounding winner. (Jihee Junn, however, did say “I feel like the devil is in me” when she ate my cake – you don’t get those sorts of reactions from pistachios and elderflower).
I skulked off home, taking the bulk of my cake with me. I devoured it that night in a Bruce Bogtrotter fashion, consoling myself with the fact that though it may not contain hand-foraged elderflower or pistachios shelled by 100 maidens under the light of a full moon, it was bloody delicious.
The Great Kiwi Bake Off airs on TVNZ2 every Tuesday at 7:30PM, starting tonight. The Spinoff will be doing its patented power rankings weekly, so stay tuned for those.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.