Paul Hollywood Recounts His 'Baker's Life,' From Ginger Biscuits To Fancy Cakes

Nov 11, 2017

Paul Hollywood is all about the bake. He grew up in a flat that always smelled of bread, above his father's bakery in Merseyside; became a baker in his teens, then head baker at five-star London hotels, then off to resorts in Cyprus, and ultimately became a judge — the one with a twinkle in his piercing blue eyes — on The Great British Bake Off. His new book is Paul Hollywood: A Baker's Life.

He says he didn't start out to be a baker — initially, he followed in his mother's footsteps and studied sculpture at art school. "I did that for a couple of years, and it was only then that I thought, hang on, I need to earn some money. And my dad had a chain of bakeries, so I did speak to him," Hollywood says. "I had long hair at the time, I remember, I was about 18, and he said, I'll give you 500 pounds — which was quite a lot of money in the '80s — if you got your hair cut to join the family business. And that's exactly what I did."


Interview Highlights

On what he likes about baking

I quite liked the early morning work. ... And it was lovely looking back on the bakery, and looking at all the croissants and the afternoon tea, the breads, and looking at everything you've made, and thought, do you know what? I'm proud of that. And actually, when I used to go home at about midday to sleep, everyone was in work still, so it was very quiet. So I liked the fact that I was almost like a bat, you know, a vampire bat, coming out purely at night and disappearing when the sun came up.

On the importance of touch

In this world of health and safety ... they try to encourage the bakers to wear gloves, rubber gloves when you're kneading bread. I mean, what? This is one of the oldest traditions in the world, and to get bakers to wrap up their hands so they can't feel the dough — it's that touch that you cannot teach, it's something that you have to practice, practice, practice and get used to. And once you have that touch, you can make anything.

On his mother's ginger biscuits

The thing about those ginger biscuits is, it was very early. I must've been 6, possibly 7 years old, and my mum used to make them quite a lot, actually, mainly over the weekend. But they were so delicious. A bit cookielike, and what I mean by that is, there's syrup in there so it bakes fairly quickly, leaving moisture. So when you cook this mixture out in a pan — which is what you do — so you heat it up, and then you roll the little balls in your hand, flatten them down, bake them off, and they're absolutely delicious. ... They really were the first time I ever baked. ... And that, with a cup of tea, is difficult to beat.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Paul Hollywood is all about the bake. He grew up in a flat that always smelled of bread above his father's bakery in Merseyside, became a baker in his teens, then head baker at five-star London hotels, then off to resorts in Cyprus, and ultimately became a judge - the one with a twinkle in his eye - on "The Great British Bake Off," seen in the U.S. under the name "The Great British Baking Show." His book is, "Paul Hollywood: A Baker's Life From Childhood Bakes To Five-Star Excellence."

Paul Hollywood joins us from the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAUL HOLLYWOOD: Hello. Hiya.

SIMON: Now, some kids who grew up over a bakery would want to get as far away as possible from bakeries.

HOLLYWOOD: Yeah, true.

SIMON: What happened with you?

HOLLYWOOD: Well, I guess, initially when I left school - my mother is an artist, and she went to art school. So I actually followed in her footsteps first and went to art school myself, studied - I looked at fine art photography. I ended up studying sculpture. I did that for a couple of years. And it was only then that I thought - hang on, I need to earn some money. And my dad had a chain of bakeries, so I did speak to him. And he said, come and join the industry. And that's exactly what I did. I had long hair at the time, I remember. I was about 18. And he said, I'll give you 500 pounds - which is quite a lot of money in the '80s - if you got your hair cut to join the family business.

SIMON: (Laughter).

HOLLYWOOD: And that's exactly what I did and never really looked back from there really.

SIMON: Yeah. What did you like about it? What do you like about it?

HOLLYWOOD: Actually, I quite like the early morning work because I don't - I'm happy in my own skin. I quite like solitude. I don't mind spending time with myself. But I think what it was is it was going to work when there's no one on the road. So I could drive to work, no one on the road - very quiet - go to where - the team were there. We had a lot of work to do. I was very proud of what I did, and I picked it up very, very quickly. And it was lovely looking back on the bakery and looking at all the croissant, the afternoon tea, the breads - and looking at everything that you've made and thought, do you know what? I'm proud of that.

And actually, when I used to go home at about midday to sleep, everyone was in work still, so it was very quiet. So I liked the fact that I was almost like a bat - you know, vampire bat - coming out purely at night and disappearing when the sun came up.

SIMON: One of the important qualities in baking that you talk about in this book is the importance of touch.

HOLLYWOOD: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in this world of health and safety, I remember - there's a lot of, you know, they try and encourage the bakers to wear gloves - rubber gloves when you're kneading bread. I mean, what?

I mean, this is one of the oldest traditions in the world. And to get bakers to wrap up their hands so they can't feel the dough - it's that touch, which you cannot teach - it's something you have to practice, practice, practice and get used to. And once you have that touch, you can make anything because it's all about consistency - baking - whether it's consistency in a sponge, in a great pastry or, indeed, a good bread.

SIMON: Your mum's, which I guess you call - for obvious reasons - my mum's ginger biscuits are a recipe here. What memories do the ginger biscuits bring back?

HOLLYWOOD: The thing about those ginger biscuits is it was very early. I must've been 6, possibly 7 years old. And my mum used to make them quite a lot actually, mainly over the weekend. But they were so delicious - a bit cookie-like. And what I mean by that is there's syrup in there, so it bakes fairly quickly and leaving moisture. So when you cook this mixture out in a pan - which is what you do to heat it up - and then you roll the little balls in your hand, flatten them down, bake them off - and they're absolutely delicious. So they're slightly crispy on the outside and a little bit chewy on the inside, so it's almost cookie-like.

And they, really, were the first time I ever baked, certainly baked in my life with my mother as well. It was fantastic. My mother was very much a good - she was a very good pastry chef. My dad was a professional baker. So between the two of them, they had, you know, a lot of information they could pass on to me. But the initial baking - that's where it all started really - in the - with the ginger biscuits. And that, with a cup of tea, is very difficult to beat.

SIMON: I've got to thank you, Mr. Hollywood, for a phrase you uttered on the air once that has worked its way into our family. And we use it as kind of a funny phrase between each other now.

HOLLYWOOD: Yeah.

SIMON: You once said to (laughter) a contestant - I wonder if you even remember it. I'm going to do my bad Paul Hollywood imitation now. (Imitating accent) Your ganache lacks shine. So...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLLYWOOD: Yes, I do remember that.

SIMON: Every now and then in the family, if we want to gently or comically upbraid each other, we go, (imitating accent) your ganache lacks shine.

HOLLYWOOD: (Laughter) Yeah, I mean - it was something. It was a few years ago, that. And it was to do with, obviously, with the outer coating on the cake. And the ganache is basically just chocolate cream. Normally, when you're dealing in a plain chocolate, so you can do 50-50. So 50 percent cream, 50 percent chocolate and just leave it to melt - and then pour it all over a cake. It sets, and you get a beautiful shine. You've got to be careful when you're setting it, and that's where it came from.

SIMON: My next question that I'd penciled in was, how do you give a ganache shine? I think you've answered it.

HOLLYWOOD: It's not forcing it to cool quickly. Let it cool naturally in an ambient temperature.

SIMON: "Paul Hollywood: A Baker's Life From Childhood Bakes To Five-Star Excellence" - thanks so much for being with us, sir.

HOLLYWOOD: My pleasure, my pleasure. Thank you very much indeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.