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GBBO winner Peter Sawkins on baking gluten free

At just 20 years old, Peter Sawkins wowed the judges with his gluten free baking and became the youngest person ever to win Channel 4’s The Great British Bake Off.

We caught up with him to discuss his tips for success, and that famous Hollywood Handshake.

Congratulations on your win! What made you apply to be on the Bake Off?

I’ve loved the show for the longest time and I wanted to be a part of it since I was about 12. It’s what inspired me to get baking seriously, so of course I had to apply.


Why did you choose to bake gluten free for some tasks?

My brother is gluten intolerant and has been gluten free for about 12 years so, lots of my baking knowledge and experience is gluten free because I didn’t want to leave him out.

On the show I thought, why not incorporate that into my bakes? I think about half of the recipes I created were gluten free. The bakes you share are meant to reflect your personal baking style, and gluten free is a big part of mine.


Can you tell us a bit more about your brother’s experience of living gluten free?

Changing to a gluten free diet was quite challenging at the start. Luckily my mum got a lot of help from the dietitians at the hospital, who gave her a wee gluten free recipe book, and slowly we started trying new things. We just sort of learned along the way, and it's now very normal.

There’s definitely been a huge improvement over the past 12 years in terms of what’s available in the supermarket, and the price of gluten free food, which is great. Most places we go to eat out are also quite good at making sure everything's done properly, and we feel comfortable going out with my brother to eat.


What do you wish you could improve for people living gluten free?

We do resort to chain restaurants quite a lot because you know it's going to be safe and that they've got the protocols in place. I would love it to be easier for us to pick something up from a food stall or a small independent restaurant that we've never seen before. A lot of them do great stuff but you've got to be more careful – you can’t just walk about and find somewhere random for dinner, you've got to plan ahead.



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Going back to Bake Off, what was your favourite bake in the series?

I think my favourite bake had to be the Christmas ice cream cake that I made for my showstopper during 1980’s week. It combines two of my favourite things – ice cream and Christmas! I make the ice cream every year, so I enjoyed sharing a recipe that my family love.


You got the Hollywood Handshake for your savarin in the semi final, that must have been a pretty special moment too.

I knew that they were nice but I wasn't expecting that kind of feedback! It kind of bowled me over, but it was great.


In the third week you struggled with a gluten free loaf that didn't quite impress the judges. Was that the most challenging gluten free bake for you?

Yes, I think it was, but I knew that was a bit of a risky one going in, because the texture changes quite a bit when you make something like that gluten free. In things that have got a good amount of fat, the texture doesn't differ too much because you are preventing gluten formation anyway.

My brother absolutely loves the recipe, but the judges sadly, did not!


Were there any bakes you would have liked to make gluten free but couldn’t?

I think a lot of them would have been quite easy to do, apart from the bagels and the doughnuts which might be a little bit tricky. Everything else would lend itself quite nicely to gluten free baking.


How did it feel to win? What was going through your mind when they said your name?

It was crazy, and a bit overwhelming. I was just excited to be on the show in the first place, and took each week as it came. I thought I’d keep going for as long as I could and enjoy the ride, and then, yeah, I won and I was just giddy and excited and couldn’t stop smiling! It was really great.

Life has settled down into more of a normal rhythm again but I do think back every once in a while and go, wow, I achieved a really big dream, and that's a really nice thing.


You’re currently studying for an accounting and finance degree at the University of Edinburgh – have you managed to keep up the baking?

I’m as busy as I've ever been with university and baking, but I feel really lucky because I'm doing stuff that I love. I’m not always baking as much as I'd like, but definitely still getting it in – it’s a good way to relax and be creative. There's lots of fun opportunities around the corner and I look forward to seeing where they take me.  


Finally, what top tips would you give to someone starting to bake gluten free?

Just keep on trying. Sometimes, it doesn't quite work, but just keep going and eventually you’ll figure it out.

Personally, I like to keep things quite simple. There's lots of resources on using different types of flours and how you can combine them, but if you're starting out, just go to the free from section, get your gluten free flour and get stuck in. I also think starting with cakes and biscuits is easiest, because you get really good results with not many changes in technique or ingredients.


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