How Junior Bake Off taught me to be a better adult (and make uglier cakes)

The prospect of a televised competition that pits knife- and blowtorch-bearing children against one another is not exactly a relaxing one. And so, for years, I stuck to the adult version of The Great British Bake Off, for fear of seeing a nine-year-old set themselves on fire or experience the disappointment that was already devastating enough on the face of a 46-year-old banker from Brentwood. But, deep into one of the lockdowns, I gave it a go, and found I had been entirely wrong – this was, in fact, the Bake Off that the format was born for, and it would change my outlook on more than just baking.

Where the adult competition is now populated by quasi-professionals, the bakes in the junior tent (whose latest series concludes on Friday evening) are often hideous, usually inedible, and only very occasionally impressive. The two hosts – Ravneet Gill and former adult Bake Off contestant Liam Charles – deserve some kind of television award for eating them all without gagging. (Then again, they are also responsible for choosing the challenges – you want to eat multiple rounds of glutinous frogs poached in syrup? Cooked by children? Really?) And yet despite the lurid mush they regularly serve up to the judges, these children appear to be made of steel. There are occasional tears, and downcast moments, but they bounce back instantly – they are, as it turns out, far more resilient than their adult counterparts. On coming seventh out of seven bakers in a challenge, this season’s Poppy shrugged and said: “At least I didn’t come eighth!”

Granted, Rav and Liam’s feedback errs on the generous side, but that still doesn’t explain these children’s ability to gesture at a haggard “mosaic biscuit diorama” not even their own mother would eat and declare it to be “excellent”. It’s common for a contestant to stare down the barrel of the camera and declare that, given they came last today on almost every metric, they are resolved to be star baker – the best baker in the tent – tomorrow. No shame, no fear, no humility. “I am making my jam,” one contestant narrated this season, “which is the best jam in the world.”

Yet the more that I think about it, the less surprising it is. One thing most children get in spades is failure – the expected learning curve at age nine is steeper than anything we face as adults. Children attempt things they’ve never done before all the time, such as learning the English language from scratch, or algebra, or whatever “jazz tap” is. They’re used to getting things wrong, and being told they’re brilliant anyway. Yes, children on a baking show might not be representative of their cohort – but if anything you’d think their high-achieving ways would make them more sensitive to the hard knocks of a national competition, where someone has to win and everyone else has to lose.

Perhaps as a result of their cast-iron confidence, the junior bakers are more generous than the adults, too. Contestants help each other, sometimes before their own bakes are even finished. “Don’t worry, you can do this!” rings out across the tent as four children crowd round a bench to finish off someone’s piping. The upper age limit has only recently been brought down from 15 to 12, yet none of the children seemed to notice the unfairness of small children competing against teens twice their height, who could feasibly be their babysitter.

As the children make mistake after mistake, covering themselves in food dye and creating haunting bread likenesses of Captain Tom, I regularly find myself lost in admiration. I love baking, but can easily tip into perfectionism or obsession: it’s a chemistry more than an art. You can’t throw in a pinch of this, or a pinch of that. You have to follow the recipe. Tell that, though, to Charlie, who, on realising he had added “all the salt” rather than a teaspoon, shrugged and said: “Well, this is going to be quite salty now.” Tell that to Fyn, who added a whole pot of chilli power to his bread dough, “gassing out” everyone in the tent, and later told an interviewer he found the whole thing “super-funny”. (“I had to remake it,” he added, in case you were in any doubt.) In this context, it’s more than a little embarrassing that I, as an adult woman, can spend a whole day mourning an unset mousse.

I’m not sure when they teach us to fear failure so much, to give imperfectly completed, insignificant tasks the power to upset us. Maybe it’s in the envelope when they hand out GCSE results. But for the corrective you need, switch on Channel 4 at 5pm. And then whip yourself up a garish, collapsed, enthusiasm-filled cake.

  • Barbara Speed is a Guardian Opinion deputy editor