Each week the 20 finalists face themed challenges and the pressure of being judged on their 'expert finesse' and basic skills. From adapting recipes to making up their own, each episode holds a fresh and delicious challenge.

At stake is not just the coveted title of New Zealand's best amateur baker, but a potentially life-changing experience. We catch up with two of last year's contestants who have used the series as a springboard to greater things. We also meet a new-season contender, a Rangiora-based mother of two, hoping to follow suit.

Mum-of-four Paula Midgley is overjoyed that she didn't let the pressure get to her and walk out during the filming of the first episode of last year's hit TV3 cooking series New Zealand's Hottest Home Baker.

Motivated by her teenage daughters' good-natured ribbing – 'We don't like losers in our family' – Paula, 42, went on to win the 2011 crown and says it's been life changing.

The wedding dress designer now has a booming cake design business, Paula Jane Cakes, is finalising 50 recipes for her first cookbook and has even found time to whip up a VIP morning tea for the Prime Minister.

'John Key sent me a handwritten letter when I won,' says Paula, who makes a surprise guest appearance on this year's eagerly anticipated show.

'He'd just been to the royal wedding and now he had to eat my food!' Paula laughs. 'I was just a mum and suddenly my world changed forever.'

Sitting at her country-style Kumeu hideaway, 20km northwest of Auckland, with her gorgeous family – husband Darren, 44, and their children Courtney, 17, Kelsey, 16, Hayley, 13, and Fraser, 10 – swiping her scrumptious brownies, Paula can't stop smiling.

She says the cake business she runs from home has taken off beyond her wildest dreams. 'It's wedding cakes, dessert cakes, cupcakes – everything. Darren says it's not real work because I love it too much.

'I did a shoe cake and that had to match the real thing exactly – from the tread to the laces. And last week I did a 1959 Cadillac Coup de Ville, and a giant meat pie cake complete with tomato sauce.'

Paula's fondest memory of the 2011 series was when Darren joined her to bake, on their 20th wedding anniversary, despite his baking talent being non-existent.

'She told me I could do the easy things like whipping cream,' Darren says. 'But I had to cover my microphone and ask, "How do you whip cream?"'

As for advice for the current crop of contestants, Paula urges them to make the most of the opportunity. 'It's stressful but enjoy it, don't let it undermine your confidence.

'I'm so happy. I always see myself baking, it will always be about sugar and butter.'

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