Step into London’s Bake Off tent: could you be crowned star baker? Plus, speed dating meets baking


Have you always wanted to take part in the Great British Bake Off? You’re in luck – a baking tent has popped up in Tooting and you can head down and compete for the chance to be crowned star baker.

As well as baking competitions, the tent is also the setting for something a little more unusual: a speed-dating baking event, First Bakes. It’s a bit like First Dates meets Bake Off, and it’s a laughter-filled evening – much less intense and cringe-inducing than bog-standard speed dating.

You don’t need to be a pro baker to sign up – you’re provided with the recipe, ingredients and equipment, and there are helpers floating about all the time to give you a hand if you need it. The ladies stay at their stations and the men rotate every 10 minutes. While I don’t want to give away too many details, it’s a formula that does work: there are rarely awkward silences because you’re both focused on building a brilliant bake. As you’ve instantly got something to bond over the conversation flows easily and by the time the 10 minutes are up, you’ve also got a sense of your date’s culinary prowess. If you’ve dabbled with online dating apps previously, think of this as a good way to cut out days of swiping/sending introductory messages back and forth, as you can decide straight away whether you feel there’s a connection.


Just like on the television programme, the competition really heats up at the end: time’s up and you have to bring your bakes to the head table for inspection. The judges – sadly no Mary Berry, but some bubbly hosts – sample the delights and pick a star baker. The lady chosen must then pick her best male helper (plot twist!) and both get to take home a lovely little gift. You can taste each other’s bakes and take the rest home. Plus, there’s all of the mess and none of the washing up – whoop.

The love bit: after the judging you submit your scorecard – stating who you would consider going on a date with, who you’d like to be friends with, and who you wouldn’t want to see again. It’s all calculated there and then, and you get a lovely handwritten note with any mutual matches and their contact details.

I headed down for the launch event on Valentine’s Day, and although it suffered the same problem that most speed dating events do – too few men and too many women (8:10) – it didn’t matter too much. Although learning that the organisers had to ship in their housemates/friends to fill spaces was a tiny bit annoying, considering the £47 ticket price. Having a cameraman pointing his screen at you during sections of the evening was a bit unsettling but on the whole it was a brilliant night – and I may or may not have come away with a hot date match and a friend match…

Big London Bake takes place in the garden section of the lovely Castle Pub in Tooting.


Croissant making at Bread Ahead’s baking school

bread ahead london bridge borough market bakery school

There’s nothing more comforting than the smell of freshly baked goods straight out of the oven. I get so much satisfaction in whipping up a batch of cookies or a simple sponge – even if the results are sometimes a little hit-and-miss. It’s with that in mind that I signed on to a three-hour croissant making class with the experts at Bread Ahead’s baking school – so I could enjoy a relaxed yet educational expert tutorial, and come away with a fail-safe recipe for the French pastry.

Arriving at the bakery school, which is located a stone’s throw from the Bread Ahead stall in Borough Market (find it opposite the Fish! restaurant), I was pleased to hear that I wasn’t the only sporadic baker/cook in the enthusiastic class of nine. The lady beside me admitted to living off takeaways every day and being a bit of a baking virgin. Phew, I thought. There were two couples and a few keen mummy bakers in the predominantly female class too.

aidan chapman baker bread aheadWe stuck on our aprons, rolled up our sleeves and got stuck straight in as master baker Aidan Chapman, who has over 28 years of baking experience under his belt, broke down the croissant making process into simple steps. He demonstrated each step, before giving us the opportunity to copy.

Aidan explained that officially it takes a total of three days to make a good croissant – but the class is cleverly designed to cram those three days into three hours. Typically, on the first day the dough is made and left to refrigerate; on day two the “laminating” takes place, where you incorporate the butter into the dough and fold it in. [Side note: it’s crazy just how much butter goes into croissants, they really aren’t very good for you!] A good croissant dough requires three folds to create its flaky layers. On day three, the dough is ready to be shaped before being baked. Aidan explained that as it’s such a long process, it’s often difficult to find an authentic French croissant maker nowadays – the long production time doesn’t justify the cost it’s sold for, so many manufacturers buy frozen batches and bake them to save time.

fresh batch of croissants with jam bread ahead

What was also intriguing to learn is that croissants are specifically shaped according to what they’re made with: so straight croissants are only ever made with butter whereas crescent, half-moon shaped croissants are made with margarine or another sort of fat. Take that, pub quiz buffs.

The class was therefore informative as well as hands-on: everybody had their own work area, with equipment readily laid out, and ingredients provided. Aidan would come around and guide us if we were stuck, and everything was well organised, with assistant bakers bringing us all new ingredients and tools we needed, when we needed them. It also meant that there was no washing up to do all afternoon – winning!

The bakery school “classroom” is located right at the front of the bakery, near the heart of Borough Market, which means you sort of become the entertainment for the people visiting the market. There are always people watching in on the class– and many are armed with cameras to take pictures. I made the rookie error of choosing a workbench facing the window, so I assume I’ve been captured in multiple pictures doing all sorts of weird expressions and actions. TIP: if you’re quite self conscious, when choosing a work bench you may want to choose one with your back to the window.

The three hours flew by – one of my personal highlights was rolling the croissants into their lovely shape – and Aidan made the class engaging, educational and enjoyable – plus we got to taste a few varieties of croissants. The best bit, though, was that we each had a large batch of our own handmade croissants to take away at the end. You definitely need a lot of friends and family on standby to get through the batch you take away with you. Ultimately, hopping onto the Tube and filling the carriage with the aroma of my own freshly baked crossaints was priceless.

Bread Ahead sells a range of bakery products from its Borough Market stall, and has become particularly renowned for its doughnuts and fresh bread. Everything is made fresh at its factory, which is where the bakery school is based, too. So while you’re rolling and kneading, and getting flour in your hair/on your jeans/up past your elbows (just me?), behind the scenes there are bakers coming and going with large loaves of bread, and crates of doughnuts and bread loaves passing by all day. Note that there are no toilets located on site, but students are welcome to use Fish! Restaurant’s toilets across the street. It’s a little rough-and-ready as you’d expect in a factory setting, but it makes for an enjoyable, alternative thing to do in London.

Discover more about Bread Ahead’s baking school here.