John Whaite: Baking is self-care to me says former Bake Off winner
John Whaite had a tough time publishing his latest cookbook. Claire Spreadbury catches up with him to talk fear, family and food in epic proportions
I'M NOT sure I've ever eaten cake at 9.45am before. But when Great British Bake Off winner John Whaite passes you a slice of his freshly baked spiced pumpkin and whisky loaf, suggesting you slather it in damson jam, it's not something you say no to.
It's been a while since his time on Bake Off – seven years, in fact, and he's recently written about how the show "derailed him from a steady life path". He was a 23-year-old law student at the time, who was thrust into reality TV fame, only to watch his appeal shrink year-on-year, as each new batch of baking stars emerged.
He's since written five cookbooks and set up his own cookery school in a converted barn on the family's farm in Lancaster but, now aged 30, he still battles with his own demons.
It was during the production of his latest book, A Flash In The Pan, when things got so tough, contemplating suicide became an everyday thought.
"I was doing my barrister training in Leeds, so I was getting up at 5am and getting home and 10pm, and for me, that was a really stressful time," says Whaite. "I was going through real bouts of depression and it was really hard."
After developing pneumonia and being forced to drop out of his course, things took a turn for the worse. It was New Year's Day when he realised life had got a bit much.
"I took a break and headed for Canada," he writes in his book. "At times, even the mundanities of everyday life are mountainous and for me, I'm afraid, it was a case of do or die. I had to escape my life, take stock and recover."
He's had depression for years, he tells me, now looking the picture of health on a blustery autumn day when we meet for this interview. "I've just come off anti-depressants and I actually feel quite stable. I think they've knocked things about in my brain and I hope it lasts forever," he says.
But the depression, he adds, can be all-consuming. "It just happens. At first, I don't feel it, I just feel very tired and flat and then, more and more, over the past couple of years, it's become suicidal tendencies and thoughts. And that's why I had to get to Canada," he says, explaining that having these thoughts on such an everyday basis really "scared him".
Whaite is serious as he talks, but his voice doesn't tremble with emotion, nor do his eyes well up, unlike mine. Here is an enormously intelligent, beautiful and kind man who's dragged himself out of some very dark spaces, getting on with his life as we bake and eat cake.
"Canada was really recalibrating," he continues, "and I don't mean that in a poncy way. It reset my values and reminded me of who I am as a person. I grew up on a farm, so I've always been keen on nature, animals and the simpler things in the life – that simple existence. Being around animals and having lives that were entirely reliant on you – if I woke up and thought, 'I can't be ar**d', the cows wouldn't get a drink that day. That responsibility imposed on me is what every human being needs."
The depression slowly subsided on the farm and he talks about it being a very purposeful time, getting up at 5.30am, having breakfast with the family he lived with, respecting them and having that enforced discipline, with very little contact with the outside world.
He's grateful for every day, and for the love and support of his partner Paul (who he might even marry on the farm in Canada), dog Abel and his family. They're a really important part of his life and he's close to them. The renovations on the barn were done by his brother-in-law, who made the chopping boards too, both his sisters have worked at the cookery school, and his mum pops her head round the door just to check how everyone is.
His sister, Victoria, clears up after the bakers on a cookery course, makes cups of tea and chips in as we chat about life and food.
Food is very clearly something that ignites Whaite. His shiny hazel eyes squint as he gets animated talking about it, and he clenches his fist in excitement as he describes browning butter, cracking jokes as he cooks.
When I ask him if baking is his self-care, he nods approvingly. "Baking is very meditative. It's precise – you have to weigh out the ingredients, follow it step by step and focus on everything, so it's just right. It also brings you out of your shell, because if you've made a batch of brownies, you share them and its really sociable like that. Churchill used to build walls for his depression and I find that baking is just as creative an output. It's important to use that destructive energy and turn it into something.
"I think we need to focus less on ourselves and be there for other people. Actions speak louder than words. Act on love. There's too much. 'I love you, darling', and it's all fur coat and no knickers. Actually be there for people," says Whaite.
:: A Flash In The Pan by John Whaite, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Kyle Books, priced £20. Below are three recipes from the book for you to try.
BURNT BUTTER, PECAN AND APPLE MIRACLE GRANOLA
200g jumbo porridge oats
70g pecans, roughly chopped
70g pumpkin seeds
60g unsalted butter
60g maple syrup
60g light brown muscovado sugar
100g dried apple, roughly chopped
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
Preheat a large frying pan over a high heat. Once the pan is hot, add the oats and toast, tossing frequently, for a minute or two.
Pour the oats into a bowl, return the pan to the heat and add the pecans, pumpkin seeds and buckwheat. Toast, tossing frequently, for two minutes, until everything smells wonderfully roasted and the pumpkin seeds have stopped popping violently. Pour into a separate bowl.
Put the pan back on the heat and add the butter, allowing it to melt and sizzle, until the sizzling stops and you have a thick foam made of fine bubbles on top – this will only take a minute or two. It should be burnt, so don't be flapping. Just throw in the syrup and sugar, and heat for a minute, stirring to combine everything well, letting them bubble together. Ensure there are no lumps of sugar lurking about in the pan.
Add the oats to the pan and stir to coat them really well in the sweet, caramelised butter mixture. Once well-coated, allow them to cook for just a minute more, stirring constantly.
Pour the oats onto a baking sheet and allow to cool for a few minutes, then toss together with the toasted nuts, seeds and buckwheat, the dried apple and the cinnamon.
Once completely cool, tip into a large storage jar.
TOFFEE APPLE AND SALTED PRETZEL ROCKY ROAD
250g dark chocolate (60-70 per cent cocoa solids), broken into chunks
100g milk chocolate, broken into chunks
125g salted butter
1tbsp golden syrup
50g mini marshmallows
100g caramel/toffee wafers (stroopwafel), roughly chopped
100g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
100g salted pretzels, roughly crushed
100g dried apple, roughly chopped
Line a 20cm square cake tin with baking paper. Put both the chocolates, butter and the golden syrup into a medium saucepan and set over a medium-low heat. Stirring frequently, allow everything to melt together into a smooth, chocolatey pool.
Put all the remaining ingredients into a large mixing bowl.
Pour the chocolate mixture into the mixing bowl and stir so that everything is evenly mixed and coated in the chocolate.
Scoop into the prepared cake tin, press down to level and refrigerate for an hour or until set solid. Cut into the desired number and sized pieces.
MACARONI CHEESE FRITTATA
50g evaporated milk
1/2tsp English mustard
50g grated Cheddar, plus extra to finish
40g Stilton, crumbled
Handful of parsley, roughly chopped
3 large eggs
1tbsp sunflower oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a medium saucepan of well-salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions - normally about eight minutes - until al dente. Drain.
Return the pasta to the pan and add the evaporated milk, mustard, Cheddar, Stilton and parsley. Set over a medium heat and stir until the cheese melts into the milk and coats the pasta. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for five minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the eggs to the pan with the pasta and beat until well mixed.
Set a small, deep-sided frying or saute pan over a medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add the oil, then the egg and pasta mixture, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover with a lid or a larger pan, and fry for 10-15 minutes, until the frittata is set. Drizzle with Tabasco sauce, scatter over a little extra grated Cheddar and serve.