Your ANZAC biscuits won first prize in the Junior Baking section in your first competition when you were just seven years old. Do you still remember the recipe and is it still a winner?
I do. And I haven’t changed the recipe since then!
How have baking shows changed in the years since you first started competing?
It’s much more sophisticated now and you have to be much more exact than when I first started, which was just over 70 years ago.
What is it you love most about competing – the thrill of the win, mastering new techniques or the community spirit?
The thrill of winning. Still, even as old as I am, I get a thrill out of every one I win.
Knitting, pickling and baking – the so-called nana trend – have come back into fashion. Why do you think they have reignited people’s interest?
I think a lot of it has to do with the cooking shows on television. And I think quite a few young people are watching those television shows and they realize that perhaps they could do it, too. At least by doing it, they’ll know what they’re eating, won’t they?
From competitor, you moved on to being a judge. What were some of the things you looked for in a winning cake?
If it’s a sponge cake, for example, the first thing you have to do is look at the presentation of it. Then, you cut it right through the centre – each half of the cake must be exactly the same size. For the baker, the only way to do this is to weigh each half on scales before baking, so that each one is exactly the same weight.
Taste is very important, too. You usually cut a little triangular piece in the middle of the cake and taste that (it’s only a very small piece). It’s hard not to eat it all, but then you think about how many cakes you have to test and eat the same way! Sometimes, there are 80 or 90 cakes.
Why do you think CWA is an important institution?
Years ago, when CWA first began, it was to help women and their children who live in the country. Even though the country is more populated now, the need is still there. The CWA does a tremendous amount of work that most people never hear about. For example, we have a fund at head office to help when there’s a disaster. We also help with scholarships for students going on to university. We had a bit of a slump a few years ago, but I think CWA is undergoing a resurgence.
You wrote that you never looked up recipes before you wrote your first book – how many would you say you have in your head?!
I don’t actually know! A lot of those recipes were passed down through my grandmother and mother. I think I was able to remember so many because in my younger years, I just did such a lot of cooking! I had a husband and three children, and other children that would join them after school, and I had to be cooking all the time.
Do you have an all-time favourite recipe?
Peach blossom cake - it’s from my first book [Merle’s Kitchen]. It’s a little bit different to an ordinary butter cake and has always been a favourite with the family.
You’ve become somewhat of a celebrity since your debut on MasterChef. Tell us about the experience.
Absolutely wonderful! It was a wonderful experience that I never ever dreamed of. At the time, in 2010, MasterChef rang the then-group president of CWA and asked her if she would go on the show and she said, “Definitely not.” MasterChef asked her to suggest someone else from the Central Western Group and she said: “Merle will do it!”
My family had been at me for five years before MasterChef to do a cookery book, and I used to say I would but never ever did. Being on MasterChef finally prompted me to. I’ve just turned 81.
Lastly, some words of advice to budding bakers?
Always know your stove well, follow your recipe and don’t change it.
Merle Parrish is the author of cookbook Merle’s Country Show Baking and Other Favoruites (Random House Australia, $39.95). Check out our Readable Feasts cookbook review, plus three recipes, here.