Why I won’t be cooking lunch on Christmas Day, by Bake Off’s Ian

Great British Bake Off runner up 2015 Ian Cumming in his kitchen with Christmas cake baked for a charity event ANL-151219-204626001
Great British Bake Off runner up 2015 Ian Cumming in his kitchen with Christmas cake baked for a charity event ANL-151219-204626001

He may have come within a spun-sugar strand of this year’s Great British Bake Off crown, but back at home Ian Cumming is unlikely to be trusted with cooking the Christmas dinner.

The only time he tried, it fell a long way short of perfection.

“Two years ago when my parents came for Christmas they bought a wonderful turkey from a farm shop and I overcooked it,” says the professional photographer who was a runner-up in Britain’s favourite baking competiton.

“This year, we’re going to their house in Hampshire – I won’t be cooking the dinner.”

It might also surprise anyone who saw Ian impress the Bake Off judges with his imaginative creations that until this year he had only ever made one Christmas cake.

But the future signs were there because it won first place in a bake-off style contest in his home village of Great Wilbraham near Newmarket.

Now, his cake total is up to three.

“I recently did a charity Christmas cake for EACH – East Anglian Children’s Hospices,” he said.

“It was only the second one I had ever made, and I tried a slice and was quite relieved it tasted OK.”

Don’t tell Bake Off’s Mary Berry, but he based his cake on a recipe by Delia Smith.

He has since made a third for another charity event, but he has still not tried his hand at a Christmas pudding.

Last year Ian was watching Bake-Off, marvelling at the exotic confections produced by contestants and thinking “how on earth do they do that?”

He could not have imagined that next time the show aired he would be one of the final three in the famous tent having survived a succession of spectacular showstopper bakes and fiendishly-tricky technical challenges.

It was while watching the 2014 final with his wife Elinor, a consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, that his Bake Off journey began.

“They have that lovely tea party on the day of the final with all the contestants’ families, and Elinor said ‘I would love to go to that’.

“It made me think, why not have a go, so really I did it so my wife could go to the party.”

Until then Ian’s baking had been limited to wholesome family fare.

“I normally do bread a couple of times a week,” he says. “And because to me no meal feels complete without a pudding I’d make things like apple crumble.

“But I never done any of these big fancy constructions, I just used to bake to provide for the family.

“I was amazed to get the phone call back after I put in my application, and was so surprised at how well it all went.”

Bake Off was filmed in the spring so the result had to be kept strictly under wraps until the final was broadcast in October.

“It meant having to keep secrets all year long,” said Ian, who is not a great television fan.

“I hardly ever watch TV, so it was quite surprising giving over my life to a TV show for all that time.

“I was having to turn down photographic jobs but couldn’t tell people why.”

An estimated 13 million viewers watched Ian battle it out in the final with Nadiya Hussain – the eventual winner – and Tamal Ray.

His final showstopper, a five tier “colossal carrot cake”, was highly praised by the judges but was not enough to claim the title.

“I was not really disappointed I didn’t win,” he says. “I was just so happy at the result I got. It was so unexpected.”

Ian and Elinor have two children Zoe, 8, and George, 5, who were thrilled to see their dad on TV but soon came to terms with his weekly appearances.

“The children were very excited by the whole thing,” he says. “But children adapt very quickly – they just accept that’s what Daddy does.”

None of the entrants are professional bakers but at the start of the contest he still worried his homely baking skills might not be up to the mark.

“I really felt like an amateur going into Bake Off. The most nerve-racking bit I found was the last stage of auditions, where you cook in front of cameras.

“That’s the time I really felt my hands shaking. Bake Off is fun but obviously the tension gets to you.

“The only thing I can compare it to was 20 years ago when I did a parachute jump.

“I was standing in the door of the plane waiting to jump thinking why am I doing this?

“But I was happy and honoured to be part of it.”

The most harrowing moments for contestants are when judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood forensically examine, then taste, their creations.

Mary is known for sweetening criticism with a kindly remark, whereas Paul’s bluntly-truthful comments can be as astringent as a freshly-squeezed lemon.

“Paul can come across as the bad guy,” says Ian. “Yes, if you do something badly he’ll tell you, but there are times when he’s very nice. I’d describe him as firm but fair.

“Mary will always find something nice to say. If she says you’ve done something wrong you think oh dear, it must be bad.

“The presenters Mel (Giedroyc) and Sue (Perkins) are wonderful – such good fun to the point where it could be a problem, making you laugh and distracting you.

“But they lighten the mood and they’re great.”

Ian is now wondering if there is a way to combine his new found baking skill with his work as a travel photographer.

A book, maybe? Or more TV? Who knows.

At the moment his jobs include acting as official UK photographer for the Dalai Lama, who he met in India.

This year when the spiritual leader visited Britain he baked a cake for his 80th birthday.

“Working with him is a huge honour as he is such an inspiring person,” says Ian.

He is happy that charities ask him to bake cakes to help them raise money, saying: “Through the humble medium of cake you can spread some positivity in the world.”

He will definitely be watching the 2016 series of Bake Off. “I will feel their pain,” he adds.