LONDON, UK - Over the past few years, public interest has steadily built up around Johanna Konta's baking skills - so it was only fitting that the British No.1 was finally able to put them to the test in the famous Great British Bake Off tent for a special charity episode of the UK show, The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up To Cancer.
Konta's run to the 2017 Wimbledon semifinals was famously powered - for her team, anyway - by a supply of homemade muffins (first chocolate chip, then white chocolate and raspberry as she got deeper into the tournament). None other than ATP World No.1 Novak Djokovic has since requested a taste - albeit with a list of dietary requirements that gave Konta some pause.
But how would Konta's reputation stand up in what she described as "the Wimbledon Centre Court of baking" under the unflinching feedback of judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith - and against the unknown quantities of her celebrity rivals, actress Caroline Quentin, comedian Joel Dommett and Queer Eye's fashion expert Tan France? The five-part series - in which four contestants participate in a stand-alone episode each week - was recorded prior to the COVID-19 outbreak but screened last night, and served as a rare opportunity to see a WTA star in competitive action this month.
Spoilers follow below.
The Signature round traditionally eases the bakers in with a tried and tested recipe from their repertoire, and their task is to produce eight topped choux éclairs. Joel seems to have elbowed his way into Johanna's territory with his alarmingly fitness-focused 'Pro-Fit-A-Joels', which contained more protein powder than any sweet treat really should: both in the vanilla cream within and the chocolate on top.
But keen followers of the tennis representative's kitchen philosophy will be aware that she has no time for diluting the indulgent essence of baking. Ahead of the show, Johanna declared: "If I bake, I bake proper. I will use the sugar, I will use the butter, I will use the eggs. I haven't tried any healthy alternatives. I do like my baking to do what it says on the tin." To this end, she's decided on white chocolate éclairs filled with passionfruit crème diplomate. Meanwhile, Caroline has opted for an apple and blackberry combination, also featuring her homemade medlar jam - while Tan attempted a craquelin topping for his pistachio and cardamom éclairs.
Tan's ambition doesn't pay off: far from taking his éclairs to another level, the craquelin has instead prevented them from rising. Moreover, the filling is "soggy and wet", says Prue. Caroline doesn't fare much better. Johanna displayed delicate touch on her feathering - maybe all the dropshot practice during the 2019 claycourt season helped - and largely impresses with her baking, but dark rather than white chocolate, Paul informs her, goes better with passionfruit. Which leaves the door open for an upset in the first round: the healthiest option taking top marks in a baking competition is a bit like an unheralded qualifier taking out the top seed, but Joel's baking and balance of flavors draw the most praise.
Johanna has settled into her groove, though, and keeps her head down and gets on with the job. During the Technical round - a traditional Battenberg cake in the Stand Up To Cancer colors of black and orange - Caroline even accuses her of being a "secret chef" rather than a tennis player (this suspicion is bolstered when Johanna somehow loses a tennis rally across the baking top against host Sandi Toksvig!). Once again, Johanna scores a top-two finish with neat squares and a light sponge, only just losing out to Tan.
There's all to play for in the Showstopper round - and Johanna is arguably in the lead at this point. She skirts around the theme somewhat, though: asked to create a 3D cake based on the contestants' greatest fear, she opts to base it on her beloved one-year-old dachshund Bono on the basis that she's terrified of losing him. It sounds delicious: pulling out all the indulgent stops she can, Johanna will be sculpting Bono in chocolate cake filled with a hazelnut liqueur cream and topped with chocolate ganache.
Caroline, lagging behind her fellow contestants, has opted for a rat-shaped lemon sponge and raspberry jam cake, while Joel is manifesting his fear of heights in a diving board shortbread biscuit tower above a lemon sponge swimming pool filled with curaçao jelly "water". Tan, though, is shaping up as Johanna's biggest threat: undeterred by overreaching in the Signature round, he's attempting to make his own fondant to decorate a cinnamon and nutmeg cake in the shape of a wrinkled face to signify his dread of the ageing process.
This challenge for Johanna is the decorative aspects of the cake. "It's like a bad kid's birthday cake," she laughs as she slathers ganache over a cake which has burst from its mould. But as any baker knows, taste trumps any misshapen looks - and Johanna garners top marks on that front, with both judges visibly smacking their lips. "Looks terrible, tastes amazing!" declares Paul - exactly the right way round if you're only going to get one right!
Caroline and Joel can attest to that, as both impress with their presentation but less so with their baking - pretty points for the highlights reel, but a loss overall - but this time, Tan's technical ambition has ended up coming through for him. His cake is finely spiced, but the judges are in raptures that anyone has attempted, and pulled off, homemade fondant. Despite Johanna arguably turning in the most consistent performance across all three rounds, Tan is crowned Star Baker - while Johanna has to content herself with a third second-place finish in the past year to go with her runner-up showings in Rabat and Rome last year!