“I’m wasted now,” shrieks Helena Garcia. “I’m wasted here!” The former Great British Bake Off contestant is lamenting the fact all the children on her street have had the gall to grow up and become teenagers – they no longer care for her spectacular Halloween endeavours. “Last year I made a real effort, and not one knocked on my door,” she says, mock despairing.
Unfortunately this year, thanks to the spectre of Covid-19, trick or treating looks to be a total no-go. That doesn’t mean you must forgo the magic of All Hallows’ Eve entirely though. Carve that pumpkin – and then pick up Garcia’s debut cookbook, The Wicked Baker.
It offers many a ghoulish – but tasty – way to celebrate, and features bakes that, without exception, have a “spooky twist”. Some are just plain ingenious, like her Cousin Itt baklava, whose Addams Family shroud of floor-length hair is recreated using Greek pastry kataifi (“Basically shredded filo”), which Garcia constructed amidst a pastry surplus following the making of breadstick broomsticks – because of course.
There’s a haunted Yule log (a tree stump appearing to howl), truffles masquerading as eyeballs, eclairs iced with entombed mummies, and lemon and thyme cupcakes that writhe with (modelling chocolate) sand worms. Don’t expect edible maggots or blood-drenched sponges though; Garcia draws the line at gory bakes. “In relation to food, it really is off-putting,” she says. “I’m not a gore junkie at all.” However, she has stretched her own rule with a batch of cinnamon rolls made to look like brains, as “it was too good [an idea] not to!”
Born in Spain, Garcia went to high school in Las Vegas, ostensibly to learn English, but it was there, surrounded by desert and high rollers, that she picked up her penchant for baking, and for “flavours like cinnamon and maple, pecan and pumpkin puree. I love them.” Living with a family of Mormons, who, unlike many an average American family, would cook everything from scratch, she was swept up in a world of community bake sales, and – already crafty – got utterly hooked. “It was amazing, absolutely incredible,” she says, recalling her Las Vegas school days. “It’s just every scene you see in teenage movies or in sitcoms – [that’s] pretty much the real thing.”
Her interest in Halloween, however, is less the gaudiness of America’s traditional, plasticky blowout and more to do with the history, tradition and aesthetic of “Celtic festivals and paganism, magical plants and anything witchy.”
And while she might like the gothic, slightly macabre side of things, fun and wit run just as strong in her. “I just want to be able to have the best time possible,” says Garcia. “Humour is very important in my life. It’s in my bakes and everything else.” Take her affinity with Bake Off presenter Noel Fielding (“We’re both idiots – I feel like if we had gone to school together, we would’ve been inseparable”) and that time she famously told Prue Leith: “They come to me ’cause I’m dead,” when the judge reached to pluck a fly from her hair. She’s since even made a cameo appearance in US mockumentary horror comedy series, What We Do In The Shadows.
“At the time, when you’re [in the Bake Off tent], you’re like, ‘This is the most stressful thing I’ve ever done and I can’t bear it’,” she continues. “And then you’ve gotten away from it and you’re like, ‘That was the most amazing experience’.
“I was able to take criticism really well,” she says, considering what she learned about herself on the show, but adds with a laugh: “I found that I dealt with the pressure well on the outside, but inside I was melting. I think they didn’t show how nervous I actually was!”
Her Bake Off family have proved one of the most tightly knit yet too. “Every day, there’ll be a couple of phone calls,” she says happily, although Covid has put a stop to their meet-ups, but not to Garcia’s enthusiasm for making and doing. She’s been busy picking blackberries (“it’s like treasure hunting”) and foraging for mushrooms as she did as a child, when she’d look for milk caps in Spain’s pine woods (“I belong to a mycology club where everybody pretty much is retired apart from me, but I love it, absolutely love it”), and growing all sorts in the garden of her Victorian home in Leeds.
She hopes Halloween will be an opportunity for people to get creative, but is adamant there’s no need to restrict spooky baking just to October 31. “Horror movies or mystery movies don’t just come out at Halloween!” she points out.
Having a bit of a lark with baking – be it in the construction or the decorating – is what’s key. “That’s the funnest bit,” she says. “You can bake a cake just to eat it, or make something out of it that you will enjoy and be really proud of.”
The Wicked Baker: Cakes And Treats To Die For by Helena Garcia, photography by Patricia Niven, is published by Quadrille.
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