Liam Charles: It was about time I showed some people I'm not just a baker
Former Bake Off star Liam Charles chats to Lauren Taylor about overcoming insecurities, exceeding expectations and showing his savoury side
ALMOST no graduates land a glittering dream career straight out of university, and Liam Charles can't quite believe his luck.
But it probably comes as no surprise to many others. The Great British Bake Off quarter-finalist – smiley, humble and a natural in front of the camera – instantly won hearts on the show in 2017, and at just 19 was one of the youngest contestants the series had ever seen.
The former drama student only graduated from Goldsmiths University last December, yet he's had more TV work since Bake Off than many of the show's winners – being a judge on Bake Off: The Professionals two years running ("insane") and Junior Bake Off this year, as well as hosting his own six-part series Liam Bakes, last year. Now, he's published his second cookbook – Second Helpings.
"What the hell is going on? I'm only 22, you know!" he exclaims with a laugh. "Combining food, which I love, and performing and presenting myself to people, that's another love, and being able to combine that straight off the back of uni is probably one of the best things," the London-born foodie adds.
Publishing cookbooks is a bonus – and while most will know Charles for sweet treats, his new offering is split down the middle: 50 per cent savoury, 50 per cent sweet. "It's pretty much a reflection of how I eat on a daily basis," he says. "I thought It was about time I showed some people I'm not just a baker."
So Second Helpings is packed with comfort food, generous sharing meals, lighter salads, soups and juices and, of course, loads of pudding – yet almost always with a creative twist. There's a cottage cheeseburger pie, a chicken katsu doughnut, and a dessert lasagne.
It's also written exactly how Charles comes across in real life – so laid-back he's almost horizontal – with plenty of personality: "Eye-ball the quantities", "Cut a naughty wedge", "All the party-goers are going to come to you for that doner".
He says: "My style's pretty laid-back when it comes to savoury stuff, but when it comes to sweet treats, it's expressive and it's very personal. Every recipe that I try to make has to have a personal connection because if I don't have that, there's no point in doing it. It's like a baby – you see it grow and you have a genuine attachment to it."
One (What came first, the lemon or the egg?) is a cake he designed for his uncle's birthday, prawn x waffles is a take on a dish his nan ("a massive inspiration") regularly makes, and the kofta focaccia is a nod to the Turkish community in his east London Hackney hometown.
His rice pudding holders – rice pudding inside a sponge, with a jammy dodger base and topped with rice pudding buttercream and jam – are an elaborate take on a childhood favourite. "I love bakes and dishes that are very nostalgic, that revert me back to my childhood." So did he make rice pudding with his nan? "Oh no, straight Ambrosia! Straight out the can, jam or cinnamon – I loved it so much.
"My earliest memory is going to my nan's after primary school and seeing her make dumplings and ackee and saltfish – especially dumplings which are essentially bread, and you're not going to not measure anything, but she never did! And it always came out the same."
After starting to bake at 16, he hosted some sell-out cake sales in sixth form college, where he made five different types of cupcakes, two different types of cheesecakes, blueberry and apple crumble muffins. "People asked, 'Who made these?', and they all pointed at me and they thought it was absolute b******s!" he recalls. "But I think I found myself at a young age. I knew what I wanted to do."
That reaction of surprise, that a teenage boy would want to spend his spare time whipping up cake batter and delicately decorating biscuits, is something he wants to see shift.
"I remember when my bio from Bake Off came out, and it said basically that I want baking to be acceptable for everyone, and someone commented saying, 'Isn't baking acceptable for everyone?'
"No, it's not. For me, being 22 now, being black, and because from a certain background – if you mix that with baking it's like, woah! Depending on where you come from, you might get, 'That's a bit weird'.
"When you reach certain accomplishments, that's when they think, 'Oh, he's on to something'. Which is very annoying because it's almost like you have to paint a picture because everyone starts to see it. But hey, that's life innit?"
He says the variety of people on Bake Off has helped changed perceptions about the type of people who bake. But, as he's discovered, being a somewhat public figure means everyone has an opinion – no matter how nice you come across on TV.
"I've tried my hardest not to look at any comments," he adds. "It seems like I'm a happy person all the time, and 95 per cent of the time I am, but in the first year (of presenting Bake Off: The Professionals), some people were like, 'He's great on Bake Off but he's s**t at this', or, 'He's kind of rubbish at this, his time's passed'.
"Honestly, it did fully [get to me]. I had these weird moments with my mum when I was saying, 'Am I actually good enough to do this stuff?' But it's always good to talk to other people about how you're feeling, and it's easier said than done, but to ultimately get over your stresses and insecurities you have to find it in yourself. If you're self-motivated no-one can tell you anything. "
:: Second Helpings: 70 Wicked Recipes That Will Leave You Wanting More by Liam Charles is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £22. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.
CAULIFLOWER SHOW SALAD
For the blue cheese dressing:
100g soured cream
140g blue cheese, crumbled
2tsp fresh lemon juice
1tsp garlic granules
For the nugget sauce:
130g gochujang (red chilli paste)
65ml dark soy sauce
3tbsp runny honey
For the cauliflower nuggets:
Sunflower oil, for deep-frying
180g plain flour
1tsp fine sea salt
1tsp cracked black pepper
1/2tsp cayenne pepper
1/2tsp smoked paprika
2 large eggs
1 large cauliflower head, cut into nugget-sized florets
3tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
3tbsp chopped chives
For the salad:
4 bunches of romaine lettuce, chopped
4 carrots, julienned
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
150g walnuts, toasted
Blue cheese dressing: Put the mayo, soured cream, buttermilk and 100g blue cheese in the bowl of a food-processor or blender, add the lemon juice and garlic and blitz until smooth. Transfer to a squeezy bottle or bowl and chill.
The nuggets: Combine all the sauce ingredients in a saucepan, place over a low heat and heat until it starts to simmer. Remove from the heat and keep warm.
Pour sunflower oil in the deep-fat fryer up to the safety markers and heat to 170C. In a large bowl, whisk the flour, salt, pepper, cayenne and smoked paprika together, and in another bowl whisk the eggs. Dip some cauliflower florets into the eggs, then toss them in the flour mixture until well coated. Place on a plate and repeat with the rest of the cauliflower. Line a large tray with kitchen paper.
Deep-frying: Working in batches, fry the cauliflower nuggets in the hot oil for about seven minutes, until golden brown. Remove the nuggets using a slotted spoon and put them on the paper-lined tray.
Toss: Transfer the cauliflower nuggets to a large bowl, pour the nugget sauce over them, toss until well coated, then sprinkle with the sesame seeds and chives.
Salad assembly: Combine all the salad ingredients in a large bowl, give everything a good mix, then set aside until ready to serve.
Assemble: Place the salad on a serving dish, top the salad with the cauliflower nuggets and a generous squiggle of blue cheese dressing, then sprinkle over the remaining crumbled blue cheese.
NO CHURN-BUT-FIRM KEY LIME PIE ICE CREAM
90g white chocolate, chopped
800ml double cream
500g condensed milk
Grated zest of 4 limes and juice of 3
300g lime curd
200g ginger biscuits, crushed
100g ginger biscuits, roughly broken
50g white chocolate, melted
Grated zest of 1 lime
Melt the white chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water (making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water). Let it cool.
Whisk the double cream and condensed milk in a bowl until the mixture forms soft peaks. Fold through the melted chocolate, the lime zest and lime juice gently with a metal spoon until well combined.
Pour half of the cream mixture into the loaf tin and dot half of the lime curd on top. Using a skewer or spoon, swirl the curd through the cream so it is rippled with streaks of curd, then sprinkle half the crushed ginger biscuits over the mixture. Top with the remaining cream mixture, ripple through the remaining curd, then top with the rest of the crushed ginger biscuits.
Cover with cling film and freeze for at least seven hours, or ideally overnight. Once you're ready to serve, place the roughly broken ginger biscuits on top, squiggle with melted white chocolate and sprinkle over the lime zest.