WITH a solo TV show and new book to promote, her schedule couldn’t be more jam-packed. But The Great British Bake Off judge Mary Berry always tries to make it home to cook supper.
As the nation’s favourite home cook, Mary Berry has a reputation to uphold. So before a dish can grace the pages of her books — which numbered 74 at the last count — she tries it out on her most discerning critics.
“I’m very lucky to have a family, because they’re rude,” says Berry, smiling. “Everything is tested until we think it’s right.”
The author and TV cook, known to millions as a judge on The Great British Bake Off, enlisted the help of her five grandchildren for her latest cookbook and BBC Two series, Mary Berry Cooks, in which she shares her favourite meals for family and friends.
In the show, the youngsters — who range in age from three to 11 — help their grandmother, who turns 79 this month, make treats for a tea party and enjoy a Sunday lunch she has prepared.
“They were like little television stars,” says a proud Berry, who regularly receives letters and pictures from fans whose grandchildren have replicated Bake Off cakes.
Family is clearly at the heart of Berry’s life. Despite her busy schedule, the Bath-born cook does her best to get home to Buckinghamshire in time to cook supper for husband Paul (the other Paul in her life being fellow Bake Off judge Mr Hollywood).
“I’m boringly traditional. It’s very important to me,” she admits. “Although tonight, we’re going to the village pub, because I’ve been out for two days.”
Traditional she may be, but Berry isn’t afraid to admit to the occasional kitchen time-saver, from stock cubes and shop-bought pesto to ready-made filo pastry.
“I don’t mind taking shortcuts, because everybody else does.”
Nor is Cordon Bleu-trained Berry precious about holding on to treasured recipes. “Life is all about sharing. If we’re good at something, let’s pass it on. That’s the pleasure I get from teaching, whether it’s TV, books or radio. It’s sharing what I’ve learnt to do.”
Along with the delicious cakes with which her name has become synonymous in recent years, Mary Berry Cooks contains plenty of ideas for mouth-watering main meals, from Asian belly of pork to butternut squash and spinach lasagne.
Still, it comes as a surprise to hear the Bake Off doyenne reveal: “I really think I like doing the main course or first course best.”
That’s not to say that Berry doesn’t love a good Victoria sponge or moist chocolate cake — but only in moderation.
“I try to stay a reasonable size,” says the slight and slim cook, who confesses she was concerned about putting on weight when she signed up for Bake Off in 2010. “I hope I’ve shown people, have a small slice of cake, enjoy every bit, but don’t go back for another one.”
It’s hard to believe that Berry — who is sporting a trendy faux fur gilet, vintage pencil skirt and candy pink nail polish when we meet — is approaching octogenarian status. “I think I’m lucky with good genes,” she says, blue eyes sparkling.
As for her impeccable dress sense, Berry explains simply: “Mum always used to say you should be bright and cheerful.”
And with that, the eternally bright and cheerful Berry heads back to Buckinghamshire, for that date with her husband at the pub.
Here are some tasty recipes from Mary Berry Cooks for you to try at home...
Thai-spiced tomato soup (Serves 6)
1tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped
1tbsp grated fresh ginger root
1tbsp red Thai curry paste
1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes
1 x 400g can coconut milk
1 lemongrass stick, bashed with a rolling pin
1tbsp tomato puree
1tbsp light muscovado sugar
2tbsp Thai basil leaves, chopped, plus extra leaves to decorate
Heat the oil in a saucepan over a medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrots and red pepper and fry for three minutes. Add the ginger and Thai curry paste and fry for 30 seconds.
Add all the remaining ingredients except the Thai basil and water. Bring up to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer for 20 minutes until the vegetables are soft.
Remove the lemongrass stalk, add the Thai basil then place the soup in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.
Return the soup to the pan, add about 200ml of water to thin the soup down, and reheat to serve. Decorate each bowl of soup with fresh Thai basil leaves.
Mediterranean all-in-one chicken (Serves 6)
1kg main crop potatoes (such as King Edward or Maris Piper), peeled and cut into 5cm chunks
3tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, cut into wedges
2 garlic cloves, crushed
6 rashers of smoked streaky bacon, snipped into 1cm pieces
6 chicken thighs
6 chicken drumsticks
5 preserved lemons, cut into quarters (or one sliced lemon)
3 courgettes, thickly sliced
1 x 200g can anchovy-stuffed green olives, drained (or plain green or black ones)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan/Gas 7.
Place the potatoes in a large roasting tin with two tablespoons of the oil. Toss well to coat them.
Add the onion, garlic, bacon and chicken pieces and toss together.
Add the lemons to the roasting tin. Season everything well and sprinkle with the paprika. Roast for 40 minutes.
In a bowl, toss the courgettes in the remaining tablespoon of oil and season with salt and pepper, then poke them in among the chicken and scatter the olives over the top. (Don’t overcrowd the roasting tin, you need everything to be in a single layer or it will not cook evenly - divide between two tins if necessary.)
Return to the oven for a further 20 minutes, until the chicken and vegetables are golden brown and tender.
Plum and marzipan tarte tatin (Serves 8)
75g light muscovado sugar
About 7-9 large firm plums, roughly 500g in total, halved, stones removed
1 x 320g pack ready-rolled all-butter puff pastry
You will need a 23cm round, fixed-base cake tin, at least 5cm deep. Preheat the oven to 220C/200C fan/Gas 7.
Sprinkle the sugar over the base of the tin in an even layer. Arrange the plums on top of the sugar, cut-side down.
Roll out the marzipan to a round slightly smaller than the tin and place on top of the plums.
Roll out the pastry just a little bit bigger so that it’s the width of the cake tin. Place the cake tin on top of the pastry and, using the tin as a guide, cut around it to make a circle.
Lay the pastry over the plums and tuck the edges of the pastry down around the fruit. Make a small cross in the top of the pastry to let the steam escape during baking.
Bake for 25-30 minutes until the pastry is crisp and golden and the plums are tender. Loosen the edges of the tarte, then turn out on to a plate and serve.