Martha Collison was a breakout star in season one of the Great British Baking Show (that’s the American PBS broadcast of the BBC’s Great British Bake Off, of which Collison appeared on the fifth series). Even among a sea of polite contestants, the then-17-year-old—the youngest-ever GBBS contestant—was among the most endearing as she grappled with her pastries and bakes.
Collison fans will be glad to hear that Martha is still at it in the kitchen. Last year she released the bestselling cookbook Twist, and this year she follows up with Crave, a cunning guide divided into seven categories—citrus, fruit, nut, spice, chocolate, caramel, cheese, and alcohol—for recipes as quick as a Lemon Cheesecake Pot to an elaborate Caramelized White Chocolate Cake.
Collison started in the kitchen as an 8-year-old, as her parents “gave me and my sister quite a lot of freedom to try out hobbies and find out what we enjoyed and what we’re passionate about. And food is something that I loved.” She remembers, “I had a few kids cookery books and that went from there, and got my love of food through teaching myself a lot of techniques. I found that through the learning process, I learned to love each thing a lot more when you know how something is made.”
Those early years of early cooking led to Collison creating her own food blog when she was 15. “No one read it, and that was totally cool, but it was just good for me to get my ideas out there.” Then she landed on the Great British Baking Show, and the rest is good bake, no soggy bottoms history.
As an aspirational baker myself, I wanted to take full advantage of getting to talk to such a famous baking expert. Collison shared her tips for those of us who aspire to be as creative and skilled with the oven one day as she is.
Rule 1: Start with what you love
“A good place to start is with the thing that you like eating the most,” Collison says. “Often, people start with a bake that is easy but not necessarily something they enjoy. So, go for something that you love, within reason, making sure that it’s achievable.”
“When I started out baking, I used to be really overambitious and be like, ‘I’m going to make a huge layer cake with all these different components of custard and jam’. When actually, if I had gone for something a bit shorter, I would have been able to master the skills to cook it without having to put in loads of time. There’s nothing more demoralizing than spending a really long time baking, and it not going 100 percent to plan. So I say start with shorter recipes and build your way up to the longer ones.”
Rule 2: Practice
“It’s all about practice. For everyone, stuff doesn’t always work the very time you try it, but it’s about not just giving up and going, ‘Oh, that’s not for me. I can’t do pastries.’ I remember in my Bake Off days, pastry was something I wasn’t very experienced in. But the more I practiced and learned more about it, the better I’ve got.”
Her experimentation continues with some of the recipes in the new book. “I spent a long time testing pancakes for my lemon and poppyseed pancake stack,” Collison says. “I just wanted to get a really fluffy, perfect pancake, and it’s harder than you think to get the ratio. So I just kept trying different things. Do I use buttermilk? Do I use yogurt? Do I use two eggs? One egg? There’s so many things that you can vary until you land on that perfect one. But it’s definitely worth the time.”
Rule 3: Follow recipes to the letter
“It’s also about following recipes closely,” Collison says. “The thing with baking is it’s a science. With cooking, you can throw a few ingredients into the pot and see what happens, and it just changes the flavor of it, not the structure. [In baking,] if you miss out an ingredient or you put in double the amount of butter or something, it will change your result quite heavily, because the chemistry of the recipe will be off. It’s really important just to make sure you read through everything properly, have the right ingredients, so that you have a good start. There’s nothing worse than finishing a recipe and realizing that you did something wrong right at the beginning with the weighing or something like that.”
And not just with the directions, but with ingredients: “Sometimes you go, ‘Oh, it says butter, but I’ll use this,’ or ‘it says dark chocolate but I’ll use milk chocolate,’” Collison says. “When that happens, recipes don’t reach their full potential. Especially the way I’ve written the book, I’ve spent quite a long time trying to perfect each recipe and get the thousands of ingredients right. And then, for example, if you just chuck in a different kind of chocolate, it will throw off the sweetness levels, and that can cause a recipe to not be its best, which is always a bit disappointing.”
To make sure that disappointment doesn’t happen, check your list before you start: “I often do it where you start a recipe, and then you get halfway in, and you realize you haven’t got any eggs or something like that. And I’m lucky that there’s a little corner shop down the corner from me to provide for my needs when I forget things. But if I didn’t have that, I think I’d need to make sure I was checking a lot more.”
Rule 4: Be patient...
One of the things that kept Collison away from pastry was that she thought that the process took a lot of time. “And it does,” she points out, “but a lot of that time is just while it’s relaxing or chilling in the fridge. When I originally started learning pastry, I didn’t get on with it well, because I used to try to rush it, and that would mean it would fail, or it would shrink, or it would melt. If you treat it properly, then it doesn’t let you down.”
Rule 5: ...but you can also go for instant gratification
“I love the time and therapeutic nature of doing long bakes like a babka or a layer cake,” she says, “but part of the point of Crave is I wanted to debunk some of the myth that all baking takes ages and is really complicated, because it is possible to create really nice things like doughnut muffins and crumbles really, really quickly if you need to. I wanted to show that it’s possible to do things quickly, and there are some recipes that lend themselves really well to being kind of a quick, instant bake, but there are other things where it’s really lovely to take the time and get the best possible result.”
And a few final tips:
- “I recently picked up from another cookery school day that I went on where you can use cling film (what Americans call Saran wrap) to line your pastry case (American translation: tart or pie crust) as long as it is non-PVC. As long as it’s not a meltable film. And it lines into the pastry and it sits perfectly. You can fill it to the top with rice or beans or anything like that to hold the pastry down as bakes and get that crisp bottom. And then it just lifts out really easily. There’s no mess, no breakage.”
- “Use a permanent marker to label the bottom of your cake tins and cake pans with their measurements. Bakes can fail easily when cooked in the wrong sized tin, and this will save you from measuring them every time.”
- “Weigh both dry and wet ingredients on a digital set of scales. Accuracy is key in baking, so I weigh everything and be vigilant!”
- “Use ice-cream scoops for everything! My set of scoops is my best friend in the kitchen, perfect for even-sized cookies, cupcakes and even dividing batter between tins. Invest in a few sizes.”