Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Bake Off’s Kim-Joy: ‘If I make a pizza, I still like to do faces’

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The former Bake Off finalist tells Ella Walker about the need to make mistakes, and what the inside of her brain looks like.
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You may have bumped into 2018 Great British Bake Off finalist Kim-Joy Hewlett on a train and proceeded to chat to her for quite some time, knowing her from somewhere, but unable to pinpoint exactly where. This happens a lot to the Leeds-based baker these days.
“People think I’m a friend they haven’t seen for a while,” says the 28-year-old, who became beloved for her positive, soothing presence in the famous, bunting-scattered tent. She “just goes with it”, eventually nudging people with a well-placed: ‘Do you watch baking shows on telly?’
You see, Kim-Joy is all about ‘feel-goodness’ – she’d never cold-shoulder a chatty stranger. Her debut cookbook, Baking With Kim-Joy – tag-lined: ‘Cute And Creative Bakes To Make You Smile’ – epitomises that ‘feel-goodness’ factor; from its burnished yellow cover (her favourite colour) to the motivational quotes and puns strewn among its pages. Take her woodland cake recipe, bolstered with the note: ‘Don’t always focus on how mushroom you have for improvement – remind yourself of the things you are already good at!’
The woman streams pure sunshine. And the book, she says, matches the inside of her brain, which she likes to think is also “yellow, with frogs hopping round it, and little creatures”.
And there are many a delicately wrought creature to make and then scoff: Sugar paste space turtles, pigs as profiteroles, cat-shaped buns, koala macarons, bear madeleines, meringue ghosts, and cookies in every cat, deer, bunny and honey bee form. It’s like stepping into a fairy tale world, one that miraculously avoids being too cutesy.
Perhaps it’s because these critters have a fleeting joy to them, rather than a contrived adorableness. Kim-Joy likes to try new things all the time, so although the base might be a tried-and-tested staple, when it comes to decorating a biscuit or a cake, “I want it to be different each time.”
Her savoury cooking gets anthropomorphised too. “If I make a pizza, I still like to do faces,” she says, and her tarka dal? “I probably wouldn’t decorate that… I could probably think of a way to decorate it…” Get her on kid’s TV immediately.
Surprisingly, aside from textiles at school, Kim-Joy has no real art background. Born in Belgium to a Malaysian-Chinese mother and English father, she moved to the outskirts of London aged five, and none of her family are arty or bakers. In the book’s acknowledgements, she notes that one of her brothers hasn’t even watched all of her Bake Off appearances yet. “I’m going to tell him everyone’s read it and they’ve told me that it’s outrageous!”
Her desire to decorate, and patience for it, come entirely from within. “I’m just focused on what I’m doing, and that’s what’s so therapeutic about it,” she says of piping and the peace it brings.
“The worst time for being anxious is when you’re not doing anything, and I think that’s why people find it hard to fall asleep, because that’s the very time you’ve got literally no distractions, no sound, nothing, in the dark – there’s no stimulus.
“But when you’re decorating a biscuit, you’re just busy doing that, so you’re not thinking, until afterwards when you’re like, ‘Oh my god, the kitchen’s a mess, I’ve got to tidy up now’, and I’m like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do that, I just want a nap.’”
She is not militant about decoration though. She doesn’t expect everyone to find escape in festooning baked goods with intricate icing like her, and is clear that it takes repetition, practice, and mistake-making to get the knack.
“When I say things come out of mistakes, I genuinely mean that,” she says, tracing a picture in the book of liquid glucose coral atop a huge whale cake, which pretty much exploded in the oven.
While some aspects of baking are a science, even when things go wrong, she’s adamant they’re still salvageable: “Like if you make choux pastry and it’s under baked, it tastes so good!”
And cracked meringues are just an opportunity to fill in the ridges and crevices with gold – “which is actually a Japanese technique called kintsugi,” she explains. “When their pottery breaks, instead of gluing it with invisible glue, you glue it with gold to highlight the cracks. It’s all about things that are broken being made more beautiful because they’re broken.”
Bake Off is now back for its 10th series, with a whole new roster of bakers hoping to wow judges Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood. Kim-Joy pauses when asked what advice she’d have given the newbies before entering the tent.
“People always say, ‘Just be yourself, believe in yourself’, but that’s really hard to do in practice,” she muses. “What is ‘myself’? We all have work selves, personal selves… party selves! Haha.
“I’d say that it’s going to be tough, and to expect that it’s going to be tough, but it’s worth it. And however well you do, however far you get, you’ve done well just to be on there,” she adds.
“A lot of the advice I got was, ‘Just enjoy it’, but I don’t know if I really found that helpful, because sometimes you feel pressure to enjoy it, and you feel like, ‘Oh, am I not enjoying it?’ And there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Maybe just let it be – whatever you feel, you feel. Just accept it.”
And on that note, she hands me a pink cardboard gift box containing a perfectly decorated alpaca biscuit. It’s iced in pale turquoise with yellow dotted flowers, and it’s smiling.
Baking With Kim-Joy: Cute And Creative Bakes To Make You Smile by Kim-Joy, photography by Ellis Parrinder, is published by Quadrille, priced £18.99. Available now.
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