In the history of The Great British Baking Show, there’s never been a formidable baker quite like Steph Blackwell, who took home not two, not three, but four Star Bakers for her stunning creations this season. However, just like an overcooked custard turning into scrambled eggs (and not in a fun Frasier way), Blackwell didn’t walk away from the tent as the ultimate winner, thanks to an underwhelming final two episodes that found her on the brink of tears: Her last showstopper was so poorly received, it led to Paul Hollywood hugging her after his criticisms.
Still, the 28-year-old shop assistant’s zest for baking was a joy to see unfold, and we’ll likely be thinking of her virtuosic mirror bombe for a long time. (If not trying to replicate it. Emphasis on “trying.”) Earlier this week, Blackwell was nice enough to pick up an international call from Vulture to discuss her Baking Show jitters, why she auditioned in the first place, her superstitious outfits, and her preferred brand of eyeliner. Rimmel, give her a damn call!
In the finale, your mom mentioned you weren’t exactly in the best place in the year leading up to Baking Show. What made you turn to baking during that time?
After university, I had a difficult few years. Last winter it got the worst, especially since it was so cold in England. I was feeling pretty deflated. For about 18 months, I used baking to distract myself. It’s really therapeutic — and great for a social life as well, because you can share your bakes. I baked purely to have something to do and to have something creative in my life.
What gave you the push to switch from baking therapeutically to auditioning for the show?
I was watching the spinoff show last year, Extra Slice, and at the end of a particularly good episode there was an open call for auditions. I was sitting on the sofa at home and just thought, Well, I might as well Google it. It was a great Friday night, creating that account and filling it in. I then actually forgot about it for a few weeks and finished it the day before the deadline. I truly didn’t think it was going to lead to something great, and I didn’t give it much forethought. I’ve only done stuff out of pleasure or to get a better headspace. I didn’t in a million years think it would get me anywhere.
How would you define your baking style?
I keep things relatively simple and traditional, which was the essence I brought to the show. And trying not to overcomplicate things!
I have to admit that I was pretty bummed watching you in the last two episodes, because there was a palpable shift in your baking. It looked like you lost a lot of confidence, too. What do you think happened?
I’m a perfectionist. I felt so honored and privileged to have been selected by the show. For no reason other than it being self-inflicted, I felt a massive responsibility to say “thank you” back to them — a pressure to produce something amazing each week. As things went further, the element of “the further you get, the more fatigue you receive” set in. The challenges definitely get harder and more complex as well. Other elements contribute to that, too, like the tent getting warmer in certain weeks. Pastry isn’t something I worked with a lot in the past, so that week was a significant challenge to me. Walking into the tent each weekend, I’d always think to myself, As long as I turn something in, I’ll be happy. So at least the bad stuff didn’t happen until week ten. [Laughs.]
Did watching the finale give you a different perspective about what happened?
I was quite nervous to watch it back because I knew what happened, obviously. I’m not sure if watching myself made me feel any differently, because I went into the final and still felt I had the weight of the world on me. Only a few people knew I was on the show, but of those people, I really wanted to make them proud and do right by them. Everyone in the tent was so supportive, too. I really wanted to produce something that people would be proud of me for. I don’t know if that was wrapped up perfectly in the final for me, but I was a real victim of it not going my way. That can happen with baking. As you make mistakes, you learn more than when everything goes perfectly. I sure learned a lot! It was a tough pill to swallow at the time, but I’m not ashamed at all at how it played out.
What did you learn most from the experience?
Certainly that you need to put hot water in a water bath when you put it in the oven! [Laughs.] I don’t know what part of me thought cold water would be okay. I feel I can work a lot more creatively with lemons, too.
What about non-baking lessons?
For all of my bakes, I managed to come up with a good structure in my head about how they were going to pan out. It highlighted how important it was having a proper plan. There was quite a limited amount of time to practice for the final signature and showstopper, which wasn’t well-executed for me. [Laughs.] I learned to know what I’m doing before I’m doing it. David was brilliant at being able to adapt, and I definitely wasn’t that person.
I talked to David last week and he told me that he would often finish his bakes an hour before the clock ran out, but it was left out of the show to keep the suspense up. Do you recall any fun moments that transpired behind the scenes but never aired?
My favorite memory came from the first week. Jamie tried to soften his butter — that we had to use in a cake batter — in a proving drawer. It’s kind of normal to do that because there’s heat in the drawer. Jamie put it in a bit longer and when he opened it, it was a puddle of butter. Just oozing everywhere. It was just before the cameras started rolling for the first time. We were just preparing our ingredients! It made us all laugh, and really set the tone for how lovely the show’s environment was going to be.
You’re the only baker in the history of the show to win four Star Bakers, which is a remarkable accomplishment. When you look back, what else are you most proud of?
Oh, gosh. It doesn’t have to do with my performance, but rather what I put myself forward for. I’m someone who’s usually been introverted, and I don’t like putting myself in a position to be judged. I never challenged myself that much, aside from baking in any capacity. I used to compete in athletics, but it was a pretty sheltered environment and many years ago. This is completely different. My biggest achievement is putting myself out there and not quitting. I kept going and I’m so proud of that. Don’t let anything hold you back — that’s the motto I want to take away.
I must conclude by asking what your go-to brand of eyeliner was throughout the season, as many of my friends were impressed at how smudge-less it remained in the tent.
Have you heard of Rimmel?
It’s a Rimmel eyeliner and it’s called Scandaleyes. I’ve given away the most guarded secret there, haven’t I? I became quite superstitious. I had to wear the same things every day, so I didn’t change my eyeliner, my earrings, my shoes, and my pair of jeans. I washed the jeans, don’t worry. [Laughs.]