Former Bake Off contestant Michael Chakraverty shares his lockdown baking tips with Gill Sutherland.
Where are you in lockdown?
I am on my own in my house in Stratford. I can only tell how long I’ve been in lockdown by how many seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race I’ve watched. I group-watch with some old friends from Scotland and we all press play at 6pm on the dot every night – we are on season six, so it must be over six weeks!
How else are you staying connected with the outside world?
We do an extended family quiz at the weekends. With my friends from Bake Off we do a pub quiz and a catch-up every Friday night. I also do a body balance class with Alice from Bake Off over Zoom.
At the beginning of lockdown I thought I must connect with everyone so I’m not lonely and was talking a lot with people, and it actually became quite overwhelming – I over-committed with scheduling phone calls. So I’ve relaxed it a bit.
You’re in the centre of Stratford. Is it a bit weird when you go out and it’s relatively empty?
I actually avoid going outside as I have anxiety and I find it makes it worse. There are lots of people who don’t follow the social distancing rules and I find that difficult to cope with.
Tesco have done a great job of trying to control how many shoppers go in, and that two-metre distances are clearly laid out, but some people still just march around quickly brushing past you. Speed is not the issue, but contact.
So I find that hard and really stressful, and when I do go out I make it early in the morning or late, when it’s quiet.
You’ve been very open about your anxiety. What advice can you offer for those who might be struggling with their mental health during lockdown?
At the start of lockdown there were a lot of people declaring that we should use this time wisely: “If you’ve been furloughed, learn a language!” That puts so much pressure on. If just getting up and pottering around the house is all you can cope with, then that is fine – more power to you. And don’t feel obliged to be connected all the time. It’s OK to unplug and just quietly exist. Take the pressure off and find a balance that works for you.
How is the baking in lockdown going?
I’ve got a wish list of things I’ve wanted to bake that I’m working through – things like an opera cake, bath buns, various other cakes and biscuits.
I also make sourdough bread every week. Luckily I managed to buy a massive bag of bread flour as lockdown started.
By way of distraction, I started an Instagram live series of me cooking, which other people are welcome to cook along to. I also get friendly public figures on to share recipes that make them happy, or we just have a natter. Tom Daly shared his muffin recipe with me, and comedian Suzi Ruffell came on and we did some watercolours together.
What would you say was a good starting point for novice bakers to tackle in lockdown?
If you’re going to make bread, a good place to start is soda bread because you don’t have to do all the proving time. Then start with basics like shortbread and Victoria sponge.
Once you’ve mastered the basics you can start playing with them: with soda bread try adding cheese and onion or chocolate chips; add orange and honey to shortbread; and with Victoria sponge try adding lemon zest or cocoa.
What happens with all the stuff that you are baking – are you able to share it?
I’ve been donating some of it to key workers. But I do get anxious – I don’t want to be the Bake Off contestant who made a bad cake.
More generally, what lessons do you hope mankind will take from the coronavirus situation?
I wish people would be a bit more considerate. It would be nice for people to recognise how their actions impact upon others – whether that’s stockpiling toilet rolls or not following social distancing. Also to think about how the vulnerable in our community – those in care homes, for instance – need people to reach out with kindness. There’s been some amazing initiatives, like the NHS clapping, and we need more of that.
It’s also important that we recognise how much all the key workers give – not just doctors and nurses but bin men and shopworkers too.
What will be the first thing you do when this is over?
Actually I’m not sure we will know what the world will look like when this is over, so I don’t want to make a promise that I might not be able to keep. I just need to take things as it comes.
Travel has always been something I would like to do more, but goodness knows what the new normal will be and if that will be possible.
We’re sharing a showstopper recipe from Bake Off (see below). Have you got any advice for how to approach an ambitious baking project?
Take your time. Showstopper cakes are absolutely achievable for every cook, but the pressure comes with time.
You wouldn’t normally make a two-tier cake in less than a day. Now when I bake a cake I’ll make the cake on day one and just leave it to cool. Next day I might do a crumb coat and put it back in fridge. Then on the third day I’ll do the icing and assemble it. So absolutely take your time and chill out.