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The CLS Geography Teacher that went on Bake Off

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

It’s been the story reverberating around the walls of CLS for weeks. In an exclusive for pupils newspaper The Citizen, Louis gets the lowdown on Miss McFarlane’s Bake Off journey…

First published 15 November 2019
Louis, Junior Sixth

Miss McFarlane lived six months of her life with a hugely sweet secret under wraps. She was a Great British Bake Off finalist. The only people she told were very close family, friends and teachers on a “need-to-know basis”. “The more people knew, the more pressure there was to do well”, she recounts to me on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. She has just been in contact with the New Yorker magazine regarding an interview, but as she values high-quality, reputable media, she was obviously far more excited for her Citizen special. A one-on-one chat in room 402 is a far cry from the Bake Off tent for Miss McFarlane, who was a hugely popular and talented contestant, as her run to the final would suggest.

However, the excitement built by her near-celebrity status closer to home, amongst the City boys, is not lost on her. “I loved it when boys took an interest in it, because when I watched the show, I wanted to know all the secrets!”. An abundance of legal documents and NDAs meant she couldn’t reveal all the secrets to me, but she did give me a fascinating insight into her passion for baking and geography, ranging from apple pie to HDI, as well as some juicy insider information on the workings of the Bake Off Tent…

From Megafan to Pots and Pans

A prolific watcher of Bake Off since its inception, Miss McFarlane never believed she would be good enough to make it on the show. “I applied a couple of times, for a couple of series,” she tells me, “as did quite a few of the contestants this year. I was making so many cakes and everyone I know said ‘oh, you should apply for Bake Off!’”. Encouraged by family and friends, the prospect of trying something new appealed. In fact, it was far from a “calculated thought process” – on the contrary, Miss McFarlane claims she “just went for it, never actually expecting it to come to fruition”. However, before she knew it, the application process was underway.

She recalled how the application process involved a number of audition bakes, as well as a vigorous technical knowledge test. Naturally an expert in exam technique, she passed with flying colours – but, as one of the reserve contestants for the show, she didn’t actually find out she had made it on until the day before filming started in April! “It was very last-minute,” she laughs, “so I hadn’t practised very much, hence why week one was a little bit sketchy”.

Sketchy or not, it was the first step on a road that would see her last all ten weeks on a journey to the final. Week two saw the first of her two ‘star baker’ triumphs, but topping the class was never actually on the agenda. “Each week I felt no pressure to win, it was always about staying in. It was such an amazing experience that I wanted to experience it all.” As it is judged week-by-week, Miss McFarlane claims that she didn’t want to get too carried away despite some very strong performances. “There were some very hairy weeks for me! A couple I thought I was going home, or halfway through I thought I was going home, but I’d save it at the end”.

There were certainly a couple of ‘bake or break’ moments, but she ‘proved’ herself to be far from a cookie rookie and made many of the challenges seem like a piece of cake. That painful tirade was inspired by one of Miss McFarlane’s vaguely geographical jokes. “Why did the farmer win an award?” she asks me, which I meet with a wince and a shrug. I know what is coming. “Because he was outstanding in his field”.

A Baker Since Day Bun

Raised by two dentist parents, it’s somewhat surprising that Miss McFarlane has found fame in the confectionery industry – in fact, her first showstopper was a sweet shop cake, a cheeky jibe at her parents’ profession. However, she says they “never stopped her”, and in fact they “try everything” that she bakes! “People assume that with both parents as dentists you’re going to have no sugar growing up, but that’s not the case at all”. Nonetheless, the irony of her recent Pre-U lessons on obesity and sugar-rich foods does not go amiss. “I hadn’t actually thought about that!” she smiles, “But yes, I should be promoting beetroot and carrot cakes, rather than going on national TV to make showstoppers with kilos of sugar in!”.

The British Dental Association may not be too proud, but her family certainly are. In fact, Miss McFarlane was first introduced to baking by her grandma. “We used to call her six-pudding grandma because she would make at least six desserts every time we went around to her house, so she helped to teach me”. Baking was an outlet for her creativity, and after a major back operation when she was sixteen, Miss McFarlane invested a great deal of time in the kitchen. “I missed a lot of school and I couldn’t do sport, so I channelled my energy into art and into baking”.

The years of honing her technique certainly paid off. She won two technical challenges, one of which was in week six – dessert week. “That was my favourite week. Everything was delicious, everyone was in a good mood because everyone did well. There was so much good food around the tent”. The next thing she told me piqued my jealousy – “we all try each other’s bakes!”. The other contestants were fortunate to be able to try Miss McFarlane’s tiramisu bombe. That week’s showstopper was her favourite bake, and quite rightly – it won her ‘star baker’ for the second time.

Bright Lights and Egg Whites

“At the end of the day, we’re just people baking in a tent in a field” Miss McFarlane tells me, bemused by all the media and tabloid attention surrounding Bake Off. In fact, during the actual process, she says that “you start forgetting the camera is there, as you have to be so focussed on what you are doing”. The filming is completely natural, and she tells me that the bakers are always quizzed on what they are doing and how everything is going. “Obviously, you never see that on-screen, so it looks like you are talking to yourself!”. None of the contestants knew the edits or what made it onto the show, and so every Tuesday night a viewing party was held with family and friends in attendance. “Lots of my friends enjoyed being on the journey with me – I would always give them the lowdown each week on what had happened”.

A lot happened behind the scenes that didn’t make the cut – host Noel Fielding was apparently “so inappropriate that they had to cut 90% of it out!”. But Noel was one of Miss McFarlane’s favourites – “he was so lovely”. Paul Hollywood, a figure who sometimes comes across as the harsher judge, is “very professional, knows what he is talking about and gives very wise feedback”. Miss McFarlane admits that he is “there to do a job, and he does it really well – but he did terrify us!”.

One funny moment involved young baker Jamie, who only lasted two weeks. “Jamie put his butter in the proving draw because it was rock solid, and he completely forgot about it. When he opened his proving draw, there was a complete pool of butter!”. That really broke the ice in the first-ever week, and it would turn out that Miss McFarlane would be in it until the very last.

She never thought she’d win, or dreamt of winning, but was delighted to have lasted the whole experience, and ultimately gave winner David a very close run for his money. The fact that she knew she wouldn’t be sent home “released the stress a little bit”, and the moment of walking out to a huge crowd of people at the end of the final “was just incredible the best feeling”. Whilst Miss McFarlane says that her signature bake in the final was her worst bake – “it was a bit of a disaster, it was so wobbly, and I was so embarrassed about it!” – and a touch-and-go flight back from Dublin meant she wasn’t sure if her parents would make it in time (they did), it was calling time on the last bake that made her most sad. “I was thinking about my bake and dealing with the stress without thinking about the end, so when it came it was really sad – especially the thought of never doing it again”.

A final element that all TV contestants have to deal with is media attention, which Miss McFarlane took into her stride. “There’s good publicity and then there’s bad publicity – I try not to read everything because everyone thinks they should have an opinion on everything and it’s not always positive”. Despite frustrating tabloid stories that are “made-up and I can do nothing about them”, Miss McFarlane developed an admirable knack of “taking everything on the chin, ignoring the silly things and taking notice of the good things”.

She’s emerged with a superb group of friends who have a “WhatsApp group which pings all day every day” – she’s particularly close with Michael, Henry and Steph, and sees them all the time still. “Probably the best thing about the tent was the people”, she says. “I made some really lovely friends and I’m excited for what everyone is going to do now”.

Both Desserts and Deserts

The return to the classroom sees Miss McFarlane’s other passion come to the fore – Geography. “I did it at school and went on to do it at university”, she explains. “I’ve also always loved travelling – I’m very much a human geographer and I absolutely love looking at different cultures”. Geography, therefore, seemed a fairly obvious choice, and after working in a pastoral capacity at schools she took the decision to move into teaching. “I’ve always really enjoyed working with students that have a passion for something – that’s why I love this school. Everyone wants to learn.”

That curiosity naturally extended to Bake Off questions, and whilst students were all incredibly supportive, everyone kept badgering Miss McFarlane for a results leak. “I had a stock answer which I must’ve said about twenty times a day” – at least five of which must’ve come in my Pre-U class. We’ve lucked out, though – we’ve been promised volcano cakes when we study tectonics! “But make sure you tell everyone reading The Citizen to do Pre-U Geography!” A cheeky self-promo.

As Bake Off was filmed each weekend, it made life very full-on for Miss McFarlane at times. “I would be up until midnight practising all week! A lot of sleepless nights, but it was all worth it.” Summer term exam leave made things a little easier, but it was still an exhausting few weeks. However, Miss McFarlane recalls that “lots of staff would see me on Friday with a big suitcase with lots of baking equipment and asked where I was off to. I always told everyone I was visiting friends for the weekend, but every week I needed to make up more lies which got harder and harder!” In fact, she suspects that both Mr Gregory and Miss Stanley cottoned on and realised that something was up…

Keen on making more geographical cakes with her new free time, Miss McFarlane has exciting plans for the future. “I’m hoping to continue to tie education and geography to baking,” she tells me. “Other than that, I’d really like to write some recipes, get some recipes published and see where that takes me!”

It has been an incredible experience for Miss McFarlane, one she will always treasure and remember, and she wouldn’t change it for the world. “I couldn’t believe I got that far. It was more than I ever imagined.”

The Big Quick-Fire Questions

  1. Is a Jaffa Cake a biscuit or a cake? [long pause] A biscuit – it goes in the biscuit box!
  2. Favourite Cake: Coffee and walnut
  3. Favourite Biscuit: I don’t know, I eat too many of them! Pink wafers.
  4. Favourite Judge or Host: Noel
  5. Favourite Contestant: All of them!
  6. Favourite Landform: A wave-cut notch – I’ve made one out of cake!
  7. Favourite Tectonic Plate: Why not.
  8. Favourite Ocean Current: The Southern Ocean current. Why not.
  9. Favourite Pre-U Student: Michael Clayton-Jolly. He once baked an Armenian honey cake for Cake Thursdays.
  10. Tell us a Joke: What did one tectonic plate say when it bumped into the other? It’s not my fault!
“Paul is there to do a job – but he did terrify us!”

Miss McFarlane

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