This season, The Great British Bake Off is really going all-out with challenges – from making a fruit cake that won’t just quietly be laid to rest in your granny’s freezer, to 3D biscuit sculptures and a prohibition cocktail cake that gin-loving ex-judge Mary Berry would be dying for a nibble of. There will be fiendishly complicated treats from around the world to bake including a Moroccan Pie made from warka pastry, Sicilian Cassatelles, milk-based Indian sweets known as Mishti, and kek lapis Sarawak, a traditional layered Malaysian cake.

But while the new batch of bakers are sweating and kneading and decorating for three hours, judges Paul Hollywood and South African-born Prue Leith, along with hosts Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding, have plenty of time on their hands. Prue took some time out to chat to us about what they’re getting up to in the tent, and more.

Judges’ corner

“Paul is mostly watching motor racing. He is mad about fancy cars and motorbikes and stuff like that. And he watches a bit of football. I am mostly writing, usually a novel but sometimes a cookbook or an article or journalism. Sandy is knitting because she knits wonderful little animals that she dresses, and she then gives them away for charity. They get raffled and auctioned and they have a little label on them that says ‘made by Sandy Toksvig’. Noel sketches because if you ask Noel what he is, he’d say he’s a painter, an artist. You should look on his website – fantastic art. So we all do different things,” reveals Prue.

Her time in the tent has given her an inside look at the show’s toughest character. “Paul is lovely; I’ve really gotten so fond of him and I think the press has given him such a rough ride. The tabloid press are just disgraceful. They’ve decided that Paul is a wicked womaniser and he’s not. He’s a lovely guy. I’ve certainly learnt a bit about baking from Paul. Paul is a much more knowledgeable baker than me, especially on bread. He’s a joy to watch. He’s just so good at it,” she says.

Baker’s dozen

But Prue insists that the hosts and judges are just side characters in the Bake Off drama. “The thing that nobody realises when they talk about Bake Off is that it’s the bakers who make the show. The bakers who dictate the atmosphere. They just are remarkable,” she says. “I suppose we shouldn't be surprised, because thousands and thousands of people apply. I think last time (S9) 17,000 people applied. And they have to get that down to 12, 13? Of course they’re very good bakers and by the time they (the production team) get the whole crowd whittled down to a couple of hundred. First of all, it’s all about baking. And then they (production) start to think about whether they can bake and talk at the same time. Most people, if they are doing something and you start talking to them, they stop. And they must be able to keep baking or they will run out of time. And the other thing is you want a mixture of diversity and age and personality. And they must be interesting, they must either have an interesting past or an interesting attitude because you can’t have someone, however good a baker they may be, if they only answer in words of one syllable or they are frankly boring. They can’t be boring,” Prue says.

Bench test

Prue takes off her chef’s toque to the brave bakers who do make it through all the way to the show – even this season’s relatively hapless Jamie. “The biggest challenge is the tent, It’s bad enough to be in a competition because that’s tense anyway. But the first time you walk into that tent, and it is enormous and it’s so iconic. That doesn’t quite come across on television – they walk in and they can’t quite believe they’re in it. But then they can’t find anything and it’s all unfamiliar and they don’t know how the oven works. Of course they get a little lesson and quite quickly they know exactly how it works, but at the beginning it must be absolutely terrifying,” she sympathises. “And then they have me and Paul looming over them. It must be horrible.”

Prue shudders at the thought of being a contestant herself. “I think it would be absolutely dreadful. I would hate it! Because they’re under time pressure and it’s very carefully worked out. The bakes are done over and over again by good bakers to make sure that it’s possible to do it in the three hours or the two hours or whatever we give them. Paul is always trying to shorten the time, because we discuss how long it should take. He always says, ‘They could do it in half an hour less.’ And I tell him, ‘Paul, you could do it in half an hour less.’ I’m always trying to give them more time. But I think that the worst thing must be ‘the curse of the tent’. Some people go to pieces when they’re in the tent and things that they’ve done perfectly well all their lives they suddenly can’t do. They’re making a sponge cake, which they could do in their sleep, and they suddenly leave out the flour!”

Something sweet

Despite the challenges, though, Prue reveals that every care is taken to make sure that it’s the baking itself that is challenging the contestants, not the show. There’s none of that “just one ice-cream maker and six people who need it right now” malarkey. “They’re very well equipped, and everybody on that set is there to help them. You never, ever hear anybody say, ‘That’s not my job.’ It doesn’t matter if they ask a cameraman or a producer or a girl who’s brought the crew a cup of tea or anyone else, ‘Can I have a bowl?’ They will get a bowl very, very quickly because we don’t want them to lose time. And then they have Noel and Sandy cheering them up when they cry. They are very well looked after. And they love it. They absolutely love it. Even the ones who get chucked out say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done and they made the best friends. They’ll be friends for life. It is a life-changing experience,” explains just Prue.

Even Prue herself has to be pulled back from trying to lend a hand! As a life-long and someone who runs her own culinary institute, it goes against her every instinct to stand there watching someone go wrong. “It’s so, so difficult not to interfere,” she admits. “And sometimes I do, and Paul hauls me back with, ‘Don’t help them!’ But sometimes you can’t resist. Like when they’ve folded something (a mixture like a batter) in and it’s enough and they keep on doing it and they’re knocking the air out. You go, ‘Stop! Euhhhhh’ It just drives me mad. It’s difficult. Paul is correct, I shouldn’t help them. But it’s only been a couple of times in three years that I’ve had to be pulled back.”

Surprise ingredients

Prue admits that she really only knows the show from being on it. “I can’t remember anything! I cannot remember a single bake from this season. We filmed it over a year ago, and I don’t watch them. I am so vain that all I can think about is, ‘Do I look right?’ And so I am watching myself thinking, ‘Why?’ And just lecturing myself like, ‘You shouldn’t put your chin down, you’ve got 18 chins there,’ or, ‘Why is the cameraman round the side when I look much wider from the side than I do from the front?’ And it’s ridiculous! I should be looking at the cake and following the story and I’m not. I’m just thinking, ‘God, I look awful.’ But I’ve never watched it. I didn’t watch it before I was on it, just because I am very busy and we watch terribly little television. John watches it more – my husband. Occasionally he says, ‘Go on, watch this one, it’s really good’. And I’ll watch it for a bit and then I’m off to the kitchen to do something else.”

A South African challenge

Behind the scenes Prue has snuck in at least one South African classic recipe into the challenges with her Malva pudding. But going forward, she has a couple more standards that she wants to challenge the bakers to make. “You know, I suggested koeksisters to them. It’s not technically baking, it’s deep frying, isn’t it? But we do quite a lot of that. I don’t like koeksisters, they’re too sweet. They have to be soaked in syrup. And even if you put some ginger and lemon in the syrup it’s still too sweet for me. But it’s quite a nice challenge to get them all looking beautiful. Melktert, I thought, would make a good challenge. It’s a little bit like an English custard pie but it’s different because there’s less egg yolk in it, so it looks really milky rather than custardy,” says Prue.

And even if they do make sticky, sweet koeksisters, the contestants shouldn’t give any thought to Prue’s personal tastes. “I’m so greedy I like everything,” she smiles. “I remember once we had some sort of middle eastern biscuit which had a very strange resin-based (mastic) biscuits, maamoul. They’re filled with figs or dates and they have been flavoured with this resin. I didn’t like them at all. But I had to just forget the fact that I didn’t like that taste because that’s not their fault, they had to put it in. But generally if it’s nicely done, I love it.”

Watch The Great British Bake Off S10 on Mondays on BBC Lifestyle (DStv 174) at 20:00 from 25 May

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