Bake Off's Liam Charles: People from urban areas bake too – and I want to represent that
Bake Off star Liam Charles believes that a swathe of people who bake aren't represented in the media – something he tells Ella Walker he wants to change
LIAM Charles does "cool things now". The 20-year-old, who despite not winning last year's Great British Bake Off was the stand-out contestant of the series, gave hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig serious screen-time competition, and had that certain 'we love you' factor Mel and Sue used to rake in.
A year on and the London-born drama student has landed his own telly gig, co-hosting Bake Off: The Professionals, and has written his debut baking book, Cheeky Treats ("It's just crazy!") – plus, he's still set to graduate from university in December.
The book packs in decadent cookies, colossal layer cakes (more of which later) and savoury bites too, like his pattie quiche and curried goat pie. "Shout out to Nan," says 20-year-old Charles, "because she inspires my savoury bakes. Being from a Caribbean background, [eating] curried goat, jerk chicken, ackee and salt fish, I try to combine the two – my modern 'hipster' side [he says this wryly, with air quotes] and then my foundation of being Caribbean."
Frustratingly, there aren't many high-profile Caribbean bakers out there, but he's hoping to change that: "That's the plan."
Charles's fascination with baking, fuelled by food shows on TV, kicked in four years ago, when he was 16 and began to think, "I can do this myself", when faced with Sainsbury's ready-made cheesecakes and microwaveable apple crumbles ("I started off with those, I'm not gonna lie").
He'd sketch out bakes on a whiteboard in his kitchen – and still does, Cheeky Treats is scrawled with his analytical doodles – drawing cross-sections of cupcakes ("So I could understand how it all worked"), and bring his cakes into school on Mondays. A teacher asked if he wanted to do a bake sale and he "went all out, it was absolutely mad.... We sold out in stupid time," he recalls.
You'd have wanted to be in his year at school too. Nicknamed 'Cake Boy', for sixth form prom he baked every person in his year a customised cupcake with biscuit initials. But what is it like, being 16, and a lad, baking? "It's all right!" Charles says with a grin. "But obviously, some people don't really understand it. It's [usually] either football, music or girls. I had an element of all those things, but baking definitely was the main one for me."
Wanting to overcome that lack of understanding was part of what he put in his Bake Off application. "There is a broader range of people that bake," he says. "There are people in urban areas that bake as well – and I know quite a few – but I felt there was no-one representing that voice, so, I'm trying to be part of that."
Refreshingly, he's frank about the fact that baking from scratch isn't cheap – often, a microwaveable apple crumble actually makes more financial sense. "I've always looked after my money well," he says, explaining how he saves money from birthdays and Christmas so he has a pool to buy ingredients with. "When the student loan comes in, yeah, it's the best thing ever. Some people are prone to get drink – whatever, by all means – but I'm like, 'Yes! I can buy ingredients, I could buy that new food processor I want!'"
It's a balancing act, he says: "Because obviously you don't want to skimp on quality of ingredients, but you also want it to be feasible."
Just buy what you need, "then build up, build up, build up". He's currently building up to entremet – that's "fancy" concoctions of sponge, jelly, creams and mirror glazes, for those still in the Victoria sponge stage.
Building is something Charles takes literally – he's obsessed with layer cakes. Take his salted nutter layer cake, a tower of chocolate, nuts and salted caramel ("Everything good").
"Anything to create drama in a cake, I'm down for," he says, explaining that a two-layer cake is fine but, really, "every time you have a cake, it has to be an occasion, because you can't really have cake all the time. So, it's like, go for the four layers!"
There's just something special about slicing through a quartet of sponges, he adds: "You can feel, by the knife, the textures when you cut into it, and lift it up and you see one, two, three, four and what's in the filling – it's like a massive story."
As we begin gearing up for the next series of Bake Off, set to air at the end of summer, Charles says he feels he has almost recovered from his experience in the tent. "Getting there, 80 per cent," he reasons with a grin. "I had post-traumatic bread disorder – ha ha – bread is obviously not my strongest point."
Immediately after the show, he stayed away from the stuff, "but I gradually got into it; start with the loaf again, try the enriched doughs again, just slowly recovering, but I'm getting there – baking rehab. I've got some pretty sick bread recipes."
:: Cheeky Treats by Liam Charles, photography by Haarala Hamilton, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try at home.
(Makes about 30)
For the chickpea crumb:
1x400g tin chickpeas, drained
1tsp rapeseed oil
1tsp smoked paprika
1tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground turmeric
1tsp dried mixed herbs
For the scone:
720g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
3tbsp baking powder
1/2tsp fine sea salt
200g unsalted butter, cold, cubed
A small bunch of chives, snipped
A small bunch of parsley, leaves picked and chopped
300g feta, diced
15 halves of sun-dried tomatoes, diced
4 large eggs
160ml whole milk
Preheat oven to 180C/Gas 4. Make the chickpea crumb. Chuck the chickpeas into a large bowl with all the other ingredients and mix until the chickpeas are well coated. Tip on to a baking tray and bake for 16 minutes. Rotate the tray and bake for a further 16 minutes. Leave on one side to cool. Drop the temperature to 170C/Gas 3 and line a baking tray with baking paper.
For the scones, sift your flour, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Add your butter and, using your fingertips, rub the butter into the flour until there are no clumps left. Stir in the fresh herbs and mix until evenly distributed. Finally, add the feta and sun-dried tomatoes and stir again.
Crack three of the eggs into a jug with the milk and beat lightly. Pour this into the bowl, stirring as you go. Bring the mixture together to form a rough dough.
Dust your worktop and rolling pin with flour then roll your dough into a 25 x 25cm square about 3-4cm thick. Dip a 6cm cutter into flour then cut out about 18 scones. You want to use one swift motion when cutting, they say it helps the scones to rise. Re-roll the offcuts of dough and cut out more scones until you have a dozen. Place them on the baking tray.
Beat the remaining egg and, using a pastry brush, slather the top of your scones with the egg wash. Blitz the cooled chickpeas in a food-processor to a fine crumb and sprinkle this over the scones. Bake for 20-25 minutes until well risen. The base should be a deep, golden brown and they should sound hollow when tapped.
CARROT CAKE COOKIES
For the filling:
150g full-fat cream cheese
150g icing sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
For the dough:
350g plain flour
1/2tsp baking powder
1tsp ground cinnamon
1tsp mixed spice
1tsp ground cloves
150g unsalted butter, softened
100g soft light brown sugar
50g soft dark brown sugar
1 large egg
200g carrot, finely grated
For the decor:
Zest of 2 oranges and juice of 1 orange
4tbsp walnuts, finely chopped
Mix the cream cheese, three tablespoons of the icing sugar and the vanilla in a large bowl until combined, then pop in the freezer for 30-45 minutes. Meanwhile, measure your flour, baking powder and spices into another bowl. Beat your butter and both sugars together in a third bowl until creamy. Beat your egg into the butter mixture, then tip in your carrot. Mix together well. Tip your dry ingredients into the carrot mixture and mix slowly to form a dough.
Preheat oven to 200C/Fan 180C/Gas 6. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Weigh your dough and divide by 15 – this is how much each ball should weigh. Then flatten them slightly into thin discs using the palm of your hand.
Add a generous teaspoon of the cream cheese filling to the centre of each disc and wrap the dough around the filling to seal. Pinch the top and roll it back into a ball, making sure no filling leaks out. Pop the balls on to the tray and flatten slightly. Place in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.
Bake the cookies for 20 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave on the tray for a few minutes to firm up, then transfer to a wire rack to cool further.
Sift the remaining icing sugar into a small bowl and mix with the orange juice – you're aiming for a drizzling consistency. Flick the icing over the cookies and top with the orange zest and walnuts.
TOFFEE APPLE CRUMBLE LAYER CAKE
For the sponge:
750g unsalted butter, softened
600g golden caster sugar
150g light muscovado sugar
12 large eggs
750g self-raising flour
1tsp baking powder
180ml whole milk
1/2tsp vanilla extract
For the crumble:
225g plain flour
135g soft brown sugar
1tsp fine sea salt
150g unsalted butter, cold and cubed
For the cinnamon buttercream:
900g unsalted butter, softened
1.95kg icing sugar
2tsp ground cinnamon
180ml whole milk
11/2tsp vanilla extract
For the filling and topping:
350ml shop-bought salted caramel
Apple crisps (optional)
You will need 4 x 25cm cake tins
Preheat oven to 180C/Gas 4 and grease and line the cake tins. Cream your butter and both sugars together in a large bowl with a freestanding or hand-held mixer until light and fluffy. Crack the eggs in one at a time, mixing after each addition. If the mixture begins to curdle, just pop in a couple of tablespoons of the flour to bring it back together. Turn the speed down very low and add your flour and baking powder. Finally, add the milk and vanilla and give it one more blast. Divide your mixture evenly between the cake tins and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes in the tins before turning out on to a wire rack.
Make the crumble. Line a baking tray with baking paper. Tip your flour, sugar and salt into a large bowl and give it a good mix. Take the cubes of butter and begin to rub them into the flour. Tip the crumble onto the baking tray and bake for 25-30 minutes, until deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Smash it and tip into an airtight container, ready for later.
Make the buttercream. Measure your butter into a large bowl and beat with your free-standing or hand-held mixer until light and pale. Sift your icing sugar and cinnamon into a separate bowl, then add it to the butter in three stages, beating after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl from time to time. Add your milk and vanilla to loosen the buttercream and give it one more mix.
Use a cake leveller or sharp knife to trim the top off all the cakes so they are level. Spread a small amount of buttercream on a board that is slightly bigger than your sponges and place your first layer of sponge on top. Place that board on a turntable, if you have one. Place half the buttercream in a piping bag, snip the end and pipe a circle around the edge of the first layer of sponge, leaving a 10cm circle in the middle. Fill that circle with apple compote and sprinkle with crumble. Spoon the caramel into a piping bag and cut the tip off, then squiggle the salted caramel on top.
Repeat until all the sponges are stacked. Your last sponge should be placed upside down on top.
Using a palette knife, cake scraper and a turntable, coat the outside and top of the cake with a thin layer of the remaining buttercream. Place in the fridge for at least an hour to set.
Remove the cake from the fridge and apply another layer of buttercream around the sides and top of the cake. Use any leftover buttercream to pipe around the top edges of your cake. Finally, place apple crisps on top with more crumble and – yes – more salted caramel.