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On my plate: Baking is trial and error for laywer turned cookie maker

© SYSTEMHannah Miles.
Hannah Miles.

When Hannah Miles applied to be on BBC’s MasterChef, she had just one goal – to write and publish her own cookbook.

Now, 15 years after reaching the series three final, it’s safe to say the dedicated foodie has achieved her dream, having authored 38 cookbooks on everything from potatoes to pies, co-written 10 more, and had 33 recipe collections adapted into foreign languages.

“When I went on the show, that was all I wanted to do, write a cookbook, just one,” said Miles with a laugh. “I still work full-time as a lawyer, so it is a bit mad to have now written so many. But when my publishers give me a deadline, I treat it as a legal deadline, so I’m always in before the due date!”

The writing process, Miles said, is something of a creative outlet, with much of the inspiration for new recipes coming from travelling abroad, where she often takes cookery classes to learn new techniques and flavours.

However, the years of experience aren’t her only weapon – when it comes to recipe development, her friends and family are the secret ingredient.

She said: “I enjoy the process of coming up with ideas then baking and tweaking recipes before having people come around for the taste test. I usually have a whole parade of friends from my village pop over of an evening to try out what I’ve made. It’s a community project, really.”

Her latest book, published last week, is one for those with a sweet tooth. It features 365 recipes – one for every day of the year.

The Ultimate Book Of Cakes And Cookies covers everything from classic sponges, tortes, cheesecakes and gateaux to biscuits, brownies, flapjacks and even wedding cakes, helping home bakers to brush up on basic techniques as well as more complicated methods.

Miles said: “People often say to me, ‘Oh, I can’t bake at all, I’m rubbish at baking’. But I always tell them they can do it because baking is such a good, easy process – you just need a little confidence and experience.

“Knowing whether a cake batter looks right or whether cookie dough is slightly too wet, all comes down to practice, and I truly do believe that baking is something absolutely everybody can do. My best advice for new bakers is just to start by practising a basic cake recipe.

“Once you can do a Victoria Sponge, you can then start playing around, adding things like buttermilk, yoghurt, ground almonds and other substitutes.

“The other important thing is to get to know your oven, too. So often a recipe will say ‘bake at 180 degrees’ but your oven may cook better at a different temperature, and you could be standing there for 20 minutes and it’s still going. Once you know how long your oven takes to bake a basic sponge, it allows you to change all recipe times to suit.”

MasterChef judge Gregg Wallace described Miles as one of the best pastry cooks he’d ever met (“She managed to knock up the best-tasting cheesecake I’ve sampled on MasterChef, in less than 12 minutes,” he said), so I have to ask – if The Great British Bake Off was on TV back then, would it have been her first choice?

With a smile, she said: “When we were on the programme, people kept saying to me, ‘Hannah, if this was MasterBaker rather than MasterChef, you would be winning hands down’.

“But things can often go wrong in baking, so it probably would have been just as stressful as MasterChef!”

The Ultimate Book of Cakes and Cookies, Nourish Books, £14.99, is available now