James gets a taste for the united cakes of America
If you think Britain is obsessed with baking, then take a look at how they do it in the US. TV chef James Martin gives Diana Pilkington a taste of his sweet American adventure.
Britain may be in the midst of a baking boom, but James Martin reckons we can learn a thing or two from how Americans approach the cake industry. “We’vea better history and certainly have some better dishes, but we don’t promote and market it as much as these guys, and that’s the big difference,” says the host of Saturday Kitchen during a break from filming scenes in New York for his new show, United Cakes Of America.
The series sees Martin drive along the east coast of the States, trying out authentic sweet dishes along the way, meeting the characters behind them and marvelling at their methods.
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“We went to the Hammond Pretzel Bakery, where the oven is proper old-school. It’s got this massive stone block, it still uses all the wooden boards and the pretzels are made by hand,” he says.
“They’re in this shack in the bottom of the garden, but they’re shipping pretzels all around the world so they are very business-savvy.”
He was also impressed by the famous Magnolia Bakery in New York. “It was only on (the TV show) Sex And The City for 10 seconds, but they’ve got queues round the block for their cupcakes,” he says.
When I meet Martin, it’s also in a bakery that appears to have nailed its market. Make My Cake in Harlem is a girly pink paradise, piled high with mouth-watering red velvet cakes with pictures of its many famous fans, from Tina Fey to Jay-Z, adorning the walls.
“In the UK we’re contemplating things such as, ‘Do we do Facebook? Do we do Twitter?’ In America, they’re all over it. You go to a tiny bakery and they’ve got all these gadgets and are selling hats and aprons and T-shirts,” says Martin.
Despite being an experienced pastry chef, Martin has come across dishes he has never tried before, such as butter cake, whoopie pie, the syrupy Amish dish shoofly pie and the calorie-laden Pumpple Cake, which incorporates a pumpkin pie, chocolate cake, apple pie and vanilla sponge.
“My favourite thing was probably the icebox cake we made at Magnolia,” he says. “I’d never heard of it, but it is well known in New York.
“It’s made with ready-made cookies, whipped cream and a few strawberries or raspberries. You make it in three minutes, then stick it in the fridge for 24 hours.”
Throughout the trip, Martin has been picking up tips and figuring out ways to put his own twist on the dishes back home. “You can’t translate an exact recipe from America to the UK because the flour is different and the butter is different. They use a lot of corn oil, which we don’t use, and we have far better chocolate in Britain.
“But certain things are better in the US, particularly the fruit. I went to a peach farm and you can’t compete with the peaches there. They are fantastic.”
Martin may be full of admiration for the American way of doing things, but he’s pleasantly surprised Britain has fallen back in love with baking.
“I’ve always been interested in it myself, but when I did a series about desserts about 10 years ago, I never dreamed baking would become what it is now.
“It’s particularly good on television because there’s the element of not knowing. Once it’s gone in the oven, the failure is much more visual than just burning a bit of fish, for example.
“And you’ve got to get the ingredients right. There’s no cheating with baking. It’s either right or wrong. You get these people working for six hours and it can be a disaster in 20 minutes.”
The baking trend goes hand in hand with the success of The Great British Bake Off, and Martin is thrilled for its judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, both friends of his.
“I’m godfather to Paul’s sons so I’ve known him for about 15 years. He’s a great guy, an amazing baker andat bread making. I’ve known Mary just as long. She’s in the same agency as me and, when I first started out, she used to give me advice. Both have been around for a long time and they are a good mix.”
But with all these cakes around, the chef, who turned 40 last year, admits it’s time to pay attention to his weight.
“I suppose I have to now. I am racing this year – I race cars as a hobby – and have been put on a diet,” he says.
“You are what you eat. Simple as that. But you have to exercise, too. I spend a lot of time working in restaurants and I think if I stopped my weight would balloon!’’