Paul Hollywood Talks Christmas Baking And His Favorite Desserts - Exclusive Interview

Many, many bakers on "The Great British Bake Off" over the years have been thrown into a cold sweat by the steely gaze of Paul Hollywood's icy-blue eyes. But he's really not that scary — in fact, in person, he's actually quite delightful. In his chat with Tasting Table, he chalked up his intimidating reputation to the magic of TV editing. Not that he doesn't take baking very seriously, of course — he's passionate about the art form and likes to see it executed well.

Viewers will get to see Hollywood pal around with a grab bag of stars in The Roku Channel's "The Great American Baking Show: Celebrity Holiday" special. Much to the shock of Hollywood and his fellow judge, Prue Leith, the celebs didn't completely crash and burn when tasked with completing difficult bakes. We talked with Hollywood about his experience filming the special, which seemed like a lot of fun for everyone involved. We were also able to get seriously useful holiday baking tips from him and gain some insight into his own personal holiday baking rituals.

His experiences filming the special

You gave out three handshakes to the celebs. Do you think you might be becoming a less stern judge over time?

Good question. No. In the main "Bake Off," the standard has gotten better every year. What caught me unaware with this particular one was how good the celebrities actually were. You can tell that because they'd practiced — all right, Marshawn Lynch didn't — and the celebrities that practiced are always going to bring their best. They're going to bring their A game to the tent, and they did. Therefore, the handshake followed because they were very good. I can't argue with the fact that they were good. In fact, I said to Prue, "That's one of the best celebrity specials that we've done," and I still stand by that. They were really talented.

What did you think of Liza Koshy's "Paulywood" nickname for you? Do you think you're going to start using that?

I've heard worse, honestly. But it was a great experience. I got to know each of the celebrities. Weirdly, I didn't know a lot of them, because I'm over in the U.K. and I didn't know what they were working on in America. I'd heard of Marshawn because I'm a fan of American football. I like watching the odd game, so I knew who he was, but a lot of the other guys I didn't know, so they were just normal bakers to me. Everyone was on a level playing field.

You have an intense poker face when you're making your rounds during the competition. How did you learn to control your reactions so well?

They're doing something that I love, and I love baking. I love evangelizing about baking and trying to get everybody to bake. That's the point of the "Baking Show." It's more of an intent look. I'm trying to see what they're doing, so the camera often picks up on the fact that I'm trying to zoom in to have a quick look at what they're actually getting up to. Sometimes I'll be smiling in one take, but they'll edit that little bit out, but they'll keep the bit when I'm looking quite stern to keep them worrying, keep them on their toes. I think it's down to the editing rather than me.

The Christmas baking he's planning

Do you have any holiday baking plans?

I do. In the U.K., we have mince pies. Mince pies for me are a big thing, and I often make them with a shortcrust pastry, which is quite buttery. In fact, it's the first of December today and I haven't started. I've been busy doing some PR. So [the] next thing I'm going to do — I'm probably going to do it [on] the weekend when my friends are down — I'm going to make some of my mince pies, which are basically mincemeat, but it's got mandarin in there; it's got apple in there. I put a little bit of cognac in there. I put a little leaf onto the top, so when they come out of the oven, they're still beautifully warm. Then I pour some cream over it and have that. They are absolutely delicious. It's a real taste of the Christmas period.

Christmas pudding is the other one. I love Christmas pudding — Christmas pudding with custard. I always have custard with mine because I'm from the north of England, from Liverpool. I love the table on Christmas Day with the traditional fixings, whether you're having goose or turkey. I think it's the best time of the year.

Paul Hollywood's holiday baking tips

Speaking of the mince pies, pie crust is something that trips up a lot of home bakers. Do you have any tips for people who are struggling?

Ultimately, there's two different types. You can go for the shortcrust pie, where you've got to bring [the pastry] together but not overwork it because then it gets too rubbery. You've got to barely bring it together. Or you make what's called the hot water crust pastry, which has got lard in it, and it's a great sealant inside. I traditionally use that for a pork pie.

A good recipe and good ingredients are key, and that goes for all baking. Don't scrimp the money on ingredients. Always go for the best, and that will make sure that your baking is going to taste great as well. It's all about planning; it's about getting a great recipe and cleaning out your oven as well to make sure that your oven achieves the temperature that it's saying it is.

Are there any holiday baking recipes that give you any trouble?

I've done a few Christmas cakes in the past, and they're normally a heavy fruitcake that I surround with marzipan, apricot jam, and then royal icing, which is the traditional way. Sugar paste is used a lot nowadays. Sometimes I've started my fruitcake too late, and I don't [get] a chance to feed it with alcohol, so you don't get that real depth of flavor. It's because my schedule's gone crazy. Sometimes I'll overfeed, and then people have a load of alcohol in a cake — which is not a bad thing, but again, it's about planning.

Is there a Christmas dessert you'd recommend for inexperienced bakers to try?

I like trifle. And you think, "Where's the baking in that?" [But there's] actually the sponges that go into the base for the trifle. My nan used to make amazing trifles. Now, you can play with lemon curd, you can use meringue in there, sponge, and then top it with more lemon cream onto the top. It is the best thing. At Christmastime, it's nice to have something slightly different, away from a pudding, and you want something like a trifle. A trifle is not just for summer; it's for Christmas as well.

Working with Marshawn Lynch and his favorite American pastry

Going back to the holiday special, you brought up Marshawn Lynch. Was working with him as wild in person as it seemed on camera?

Yes. Marshawn is a real handful. When we finished filming, he left me a note to say, "I wanted to give you this," and the hoodie he was wearing he actually left in my trailer. I've still got it upstairs somewhere. It's his hoodie from when he was filming. It was very kind of him to leave it. Yeah, it was great. I was watching some of his rushes, actually, when he was in the tent, and I went and had a chat with a few of them about it afterwards, and he was like, "Oh, yeah, I remember that." It was lovely catching up with him, speaking to him one to one, quietly having a cup of tea. It was fantastic.

When you're going to America, is there any baked good that you have to try?

To be honest, doughnuts. I love doughnuts. I'm a big fan of doughnuts. I traveled from New York to LA on a big chopper, like an "Easy Rider" bike, and it took me three weeks. We were filming it for a program, and I went via New Orleans, then up to Amarillo, Texas; New Mexico; Nevada; and across to LA, and I was exhausted at the end of it. It was a long, long way, but every time I stopped, I was looking for a doughnut shop. My weakness is doughnuts. The doughnuts in the States are amazing. And the bagels in New York are spectacular.

Is there much bagel culture in England?

Yeah. It's huge in London. It is huge, and it's a growing thing. They're in all the supermarkets, and I do like to make my own bagels as well. There are a lot of companies now producing bagels, and they are beautiful. I think bagels are amazing, but the best ones I've had have been in New York, for breakfast, with everything fully loaded, with a nice coffee. I was happy.

Differences between British and American bakers

Do you see any big differences in the baking culture between the U.K. and America?

I don't see much difference. What's nice about the States is they'll celebrate whatever ingredient they've got, and they put that in a pie or whatever they're going to bake, from pecans to banana. Anything they've got locally goes into their baking. Their influence, their original bakes — a lot of them came from Europe, from Italy or Germany or Britain, Ireland, or whatever. They came over to the States, and then they utilized the ingredients that they had over in the States, so it's changed over the last two or three hundred years. I think it's changed for the better. Some of the stuff is very, very good. 

It tends to be a little bit sweeter than I'm used to; they tend to use a little bit more sugar than I would like, but nevertheless, there's some amazing baking. Apple pie from the South was mind-blowing; I thought they were amazing.

What do you think about the fact that lots of American home bakers still measure by volume?

I do find that very odd. The whole cup thing took me a while to get used to because I don't understand why. You've got scales out there [so] you can use grams. Just use grams. There's no difference. It's just a scale, whether you are weighing a gram, an ounce, a kilo, a cup. The cup thing is odd. I didn't understand the different cups because there's so many different sizes, but I sort of got used to it. But I think everyone should go to grams. In the U.K., we had to go from ounces back in the '90s and turn [them] into grams. I think grams is easier.

What's your pitch for weighing ingredients to people who are stubbornly clinging to the cups?

Listen, you can move from grams to cups. You can do it, but there is more room for error when you do it with cups, and grams are more of a precise tool, because baking is a science, and when you're doing science, you have to be accurate. If you use grams and milliliters, then that's more accurate, and therefore, your baking should improve.

Paul Hollywood's thoughts on the most recent season of Bake Off

The last season of "The Great British Bake Off" featured some really intense skill challenges. Do you think the difficulty of the show has increased over time?

The difficulty of the show has increased, and that's down to the fact that the bakers have gotten better, so we need to challenge them. They're called challenges for a reason. We want to challenge them to see how good they actually are. 

There's an argument to say we need to go back to basics on a few challenges, which I think I might do next year — change them, make them a little bit more approachable. But the problem is, the bakers wouldn't even have to think about it. It'd be second nature, and they'd do it without even thinking, although you will get a difference in their bakes, regardless of how difficult they are. It's finding that balance. Where do you go? Do you go really extreme, or do you keep it basic? It's quite difficult to choose the challenges.

Syabira won the most recent series, even though she's only been baking for five years. Did it surprise you that she did so well, considering her relative lack of experience?

Amazing. She brought a lot of Malaysian flavors and that style of baking into the tent, which I found amazing. Some of her flavors were incredible. [She's] a really talented baker. 

I've seen it before. Last year we had Chigs, who had only been baking for two years, which really shocked me. We've had other bakers who have been in the tent ... Henry, I think, was in the tent a few years ago. He came to see us when we were filming 12 years ago; he saw me as a kid and he came over and said hello to me. Then, 12 years later, he was in the tent as a contestant, and I went, "Wow, I'm getting old." Over the years, we've had so many different people in, bringing in their interpretation of a bake and celebrating where they're from. It's a good thing.

It shows that the meaning of "British" can be expanded.

It's baking, really, rather than British baking, because we've encompassed so many things over the years.

What it's like to taste all those pastries

Has there ever been a dish on "Bake Off" that you were afraid to taste?

Not afraid to taste. I've got my favorites. I have certain flavors that I like, and if it's not one of my favorites or [it's] something that I don't particularly like, then I'll be reticent about trying it, but I have to try [it]. It's my job. I judge it on its baking rather than the flavor, what I like, and what I don't like. There's been a couple of times when people have swapped salt for sugar or sugar for salt, and they've been too salty. I had to stop Mary from eating something many years ago because they had made the mistake of putting too much salt in. It was disgusting.

Do you have to do any preparation for tasting that much pastry in a short amount of time?

You get used to it. Your stomach expands.

Paul Hollywood's new cookbook

You released a cookbook called "Bake" this year. The concept was going back to basics. Why did you decide that was what you wanted to write about?

I changed the classics inadvertently over the years by saying, "I think it needs a little bit more of this or a little bit more or less of that, or let's change this for that." I didn't realize I was doing it over the years, and I'd made little notes. During lockdown, I had plenty of time when I was filming "Bake Off" to write another book. Everything was there; I just needed to bring it all together. I realized how much had changed, since I've been in the industry now for 40 years, so I thought, "I need to write this down." That's where the concept of the book came from. It is the classics with a slight twist, and I think it's made them a little bit better.

What do you do to try to modernize the classics?

It's what you like. I like lemon meringue pie. It's one of my favorites. I love all citrus flavors, but I flipped it around by adding lime instead of lemon. It's little things like that. Changing the flavor [from] one to the other along the same style gives you a slightly different kick at the end of it. It was little things that make a big difference.

You can watch "The Great American Baking Show: Celebrity Holiday" now on The Roku Channel.

This interview has been edited for clarity.