By Rosie Fittler
The rides are pumping, the crowds pour in and the aroma of freshly-baked cakes wafts under your nose as you walk into the Arts and Crafts Pavilion at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.
Following the scent aroma, you arrive at a table laden with beautiful cakes. Three judges crowd around the trestles, examining each cake.
It is the Victoria Sponge class. The sponges must be as pure white and as light as possible. Rich red raspberry jam oozes out between the two layers. Each cake is meticulously tested for presentation, flavour and texture.
For the judges it isn’t as easy as having your cake and eating it, too. “Judging the Royal can be a very long day on your feet,” says Jan, a weary Royal Easter Show legend who has been judging for over 25 years.
Contestants hover around, waiting to hear the judges’ verdict. But it’s not just the competitors who are watching; many in the audience are home bakers wanting to absorb the advice.
The baking competition is one of the great traditions of the show. Meetings are held every year to discuss the various classes and it is rare for a new class to be added. The most recent addition, added this year, is the ‘gluten-free cake’ class.
The cakes section is more popular than ever, says judge Jan, as novice bakers and old hands flock to ‘ohh’ and ‘ahh’ at the blue-ribboned winners.
“People enjoy baking, and love the pleasure that home-baked goods bring to family, friends and colleagues,” Jan says.
Australians are baking themselves happy as they invest more time and love into baking. The All Women Talk Survey, conducted by Australian Consolidated Press in 2011, showed that over three quarters of all women surveyed said they ‘like or love baking’, contributing to increased bake-ware sales.
“People are in love with baking,” says Melanie Steel, of Accoutrement in Mosman. “The most popular baking item is the brownie tin. We sell around 25 a week.”
Accoutrement also runs a cooking school and the staff have found it is the baking classes that are booked out first.
With over 20 years food experience, Kathy Knudsen, a Sydney-based chef, recipe developer and cake decorator, says people are returning to home because they want to know exactly what they are feeding their families. They are keen to use more unprocessed food, they want to take control and learn about the ingredients they are eating.
A growing emphasis has been placed on teaching Australian children the importance of being active and learning about the food they eat, according to Kathy. B She says baking with children is a communal activity for the whole family. The All Women Talk survey showed 86 per cent of supermarket customers with children will bake with them.
Cooking shows that are inundating television programming are encouraging Australians to cook at home. Channel 9 is about to launch the highly anticipated, The Great Australian Bake Off and is expecting record numbers of viewers to tune in.
“Masterchef has certainly impacted on the general public’s interest in baking and cookery in general. The show helped launch a number of celebrity chef cookery books. The Great Australian Bake Off should have a similar impact and we would expect a further surge in baking,” says Ashleigh King, of Random House Australia.
In the publishing world, one area of sales that hasn’t shown a downturn is that of cookbooks. Masterchef maestro Adriano Zumbo’s cookbooks, together with his television appearances, have given him an international profile. The same can be said for Merle Parrish, with her popular cookbook Merle’s Kitchen and her television appearances.
Pamela Clark, the Food and Editorial Director of The Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbooks, has had a part in producing over 400 cookbooks, her most famous being The Children’s Birthday Cake Book. Originally published in 1980, it has been reprinted 18 times.
“We have experienced an increase in sales with results showing our books are at their strongest. This week we have three cookbooks in the Top 10 for food and wine. They are all about baking, including the re-release of our vintage collector’s edition, The Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits, originally produced in 1982,” she says.
Currently nostalgia is a common theme associated with the rise of baking. People are in love with all things retro, things reminiscent of simpler times. Home wares stores are stocked with old-fashioned cookies jars, biscuits tins, pastel coloured kitchen-aids, cake stands and measuring cups. Pamela Clark says the re-release of The Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits and The Children’s Birthday Cake Book have sent people on a trip down memory lane.
“Everyone tells me about the cake they had from The Children’s Birthday Cake Book and it is the same with The Big Book of Beautiful Biscuits. We have had readers desperate to get their hands on the books after lending copies to neighbours and never seeing them it again.
“Baking has always been a popular topic. Now we are finding busy people craving the pleasure of cooking for friends and family without the pressure of producing an entire meal. Baking a cake is the answer,” she says.