Great British Baking Show Judge Prue Leith Shares Her Holiday Baking Secrets

The television star and cookbook author shares the tricks and shortcuts behind her own showstopping desserts.

Prue Leith Portrait

Karen Delahay

In the U.S., most of us came to know Prue Leith as the kind but exacting, colorfully dressed judge of The Great British Baking Show. But her career in food long predates the popular binge watch. She ran a Michelin-starred restaurant in London for three decades; has opened cooking schools in the UK as well as her native South Africa; and has written several cookbooks. We talked to her about her evolving career and approach to holiday baking, including the glory of simplicity.

Q: You’ve had a long career in food. How has your approach to baking changed over that time? 

Mainly, it’s got simpler over the years. When I started out I was dead keen on becoming really professional and I liked making elaborate wedding cakes, multi-layered desserts, consommés, and fruit jellies that took hours to clarify. And I never used shop-bought puff pastry for example. Now, I seldom use anything else, and I’ll make a jelly out of fresh orange juice from the supermarket and soup out of uncleared broth. I’d rather make a quick and easy trifle than spend hours making multi layered entremets. And I have become ever keener to use leftovers. I am the leftover Queen, I promise you.

Prue Leith at Leith's Restaurant
Prue outside her Michelin-starred London restaurant, Leith's, in 1969.

Courtesy of Prue Leith

Q: What’s one dessert you make every holiday season and what do you love about it? 

The almost instant trifle in my book Prue, My Favourite Recipes, published by Bluebird, is made of amaretti biscuits and lemon curd. Even with bought custard it is utterly delicious. 

Q: What are some of your favorite techniques for holiday baking and cooking? 

My favorite trick is to decorate a cake, pudding, or soup with lots of different elements. It takes no skill, just a bit of imagination. Any smooth soup poured into soup plates will look great with any or all of these on top: Little blobs of ground paprika, za’atar, fresh herb leaves, sunflower seeds, halved olives, edible flowers. And cream-covered puddings or cake can be decorated with chocolate buttons, freeze-dried raspberries, green grape halves, pecans, toasted almonds, crystalized angelica, glace cherries, dried fruit pieces, edible flowers.

Prue Leith's Trifle
Amaretti and Lemon Curd Trifle from Prue: All-Time My Favourite Recipes (Blackbird).

David Loftus

Q: What are your tricks for saving time as a baker during the holiday season? 

I make chocolate chip cookie dough, roll it into small balls, freeze them, then cook them from frozen when I need a bake in a hurry.

Q: Do you have a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe?

Yes. Alison Hammond, who came to Celebrity Bake Off one season, did her brownies with chunks of Dime Bar. I tried it with chip cookies and it's brilliant. I’ve also added pieces of caramel, bits of Mars Bar, chocolate covered peanuts, caramelized pecans—you get the idea.

Q: What’s always on your shopping list for a holiday party? 

Pomegranate seeds are generally on my shopping list. You can use them to sprinkle on top of almost any desert, or salad, or savory dish to make it seem exotic and special. And I love the flavor.

Q: Have you hosted any particularly memorable holiday meals—whether they went well or not!— that you really learned from as a cook? 

Once, feeding 24 for Christmas lunch, I put two shoulders of pork in the oven at 8 am. When I opened the oven at 1 pm expecting golden brown crackling and slowly sizzling roast pork, the shoulders where raw and stone cold. My nephew had made his fry-up breakfast and, being well brought up, had cleaned the cooker top and turned everything off. We ended up slicing the meat and frying it! Not good. But we had a great time and a lot of laughing, which, honestly, is more important than perfect cooking! 

Q: What are a few of your best-loved, most-used tools and why?

I have a 40-year-old Robotcoupe, the first domestic blender to come out that heats as it beats as it cooks. The company keep offering me a new model, but the new ones are huge and complicated and I’m too old to learn new tricks. I also love my swivel potato peeler. The design has never been better and whoever thought of a swiveling blade that follows the contours of the potato is a genius.

Great British Baking Show Holiday Judges

Courtesy of Netflix

Q: The show has obviously been a massive hit across the world. What do you attribute its success to?

The production company is called Love Productions and it's truly Love by name and love by nature. In seven years of The Great British Bake Off and two of The Great American Baking Show, I have never heard anyone (not crew, not production team, not security staff, no performers) quarrel, shout, even be mildly rude or sulky. The whole atmosphere is happy and endlessly encouraging to the bakers. I think that’s why the audience loves it—they know they are in a good place and the only stress will be chocolate melting in the heat or a baker not finishing in time. Besides, who doesn’t like cake? 

Q: Is there a moment from the show that you especially remember?

When filming the last series of The Great American Baking Show, Ryan Reynolds and his wife Blake Lively gate-crashed the set with their children. Ryan was filming Dead Pool on another set at the studio, and Blake was in England to promote her new Betty Booze drinks range. Both of them are Bake Off groupies. And of course the whole tent are Reynolds fans so it was a merry mutual admiration fest.

Q: Your statement glasses and necklaces have become a much-discussed part of the show. How would you describe your personal style?

Well, I’d say its colorful, fun, and happy. Others might say loud and vulgar! I don’t see the point in dreary greige. I generally start the day by deciding on the specs or necklace I’ll wear then set about finding the clothes to go with them.

Q: What excites you most about your career right now? 

That I have one at all! How lucky is that? To still be working, and more in demand than I’ve ever been, at 83. And Bake Off has been a sort of launch pad for a host of other things. I don’t suppose my necklaces, spectacles and clothes would sell like they do if I didn’t have the profile Bake Off gives me. And its meant I could do my own one woman show (based on my autobiography, I’ll Try Anything Once) round the UK in the spring, and I will be touring the States next year.

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