Our columnist Emma Freud treats national baking icon Nadiya Hussain to afternoon tea and compares notes about competing in the Great British Bake Off.
Nadiya Hussain is unlike any 32-year-old I’ve ever met. She’s just presented her own series Nadiya’s British Food Adventure and the new BBC prime-time cooking show The Big Family Cooking Showdown. To celebrate, she came to my house for tea, and reader, it went ridiculously well – until the very end...
Life since Bake Off
Nadiya was a full-time mother from Leeds when she won Bake Off in 2015. Her life now is remarkable – in a few weeks she’s off to Saudi Arabia to make a film about the pilgrimage to Mecca and her second book, Nadiya’s British Food Adventure, was recently released.
'I do pinch myself some mornings and can’t believe where I am today,’ Nadiya told me. ‘When I was practising for the last week of the Bake Off, I kept calling it week 10 and my husband kept saying “It’s the finals.” I said, “Don’t call it the finals because I don’t want to lose – but I am scared and don’t want to win.”'
‘But then you won,’ I replied. ‘In front of 15 million people, brilliantly and memorably.’ She went a little quiet. ‘It was surreal. After they announced my name, I gave the trophy back to Paul (Hollywood) and said, Are you sure you haven’t made a mistake? Don’t you want to give it to one of the others?’ He looked at me like I had come down in the last shower.’
The importance of heritage
As the country’s most high-profile Muslim, Nadiya had to stand tall in the face of prejudice right from the start of her public career, and she’s clearly now on a mission.
‘Your new book has a lot of soul... it’s a cookbook about multiculturalism in British food, but it reads more like story-telling, using food to tell the tales of your life,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ she replied with pride, ‘ I dedicated it to my grandparents because I certainly wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them. You hear of the children who flee from Syria and not all of them make it. My grandparents made the decision to send their children to Britain from Bangladesh in the hope that they would have a better life. It took very strong stomachs to be able to do that. I don’t think I could have done it. What I have to constantly remind myself is, it’s not just my grandparents that did it. It’s all the families that have created the colourful rainbow that is Britain today. Their grandparents made those sacrifices too. We forget that.’
The effects of fame
‘Do you think the fame of the last two years has changed you?’ I asked. She drew herself up to her full height of 4 foot 11 inches. ‘If Paul turned up now and said, “Give me my trophy back”, I would turn around and say, “No, that’s mine, I won it fair and square.”’ She’s changed, in a really good way – and then we had tea.
So what do you cook a woman deemed the greatest baker in Britain, 2015, and who was asked to cook the 90th birthday cake for Her Majesty, the actual Queen, of not-even-joking, England. Do I tempt her with my children’s favourite ‘The Curtis Classic’? I can’t pretend it’s a complex recipe. Make up your preferred packet of chocolate cake mix and lightly whisk in a bag of Revels and a bag of Wine Gums, some Smarties, Haribo, Munchies, a few M&M’s (not peanut) and a chopped up Mars Bar. Bake as per instructions and eat once the sugar content has stopped being a temperature technically classified as ‘molten’. No? I thought not.
I considered the cake I made when I WON THE BAKE OFF. Oh, I’m so sorry, did I say that too loudly? It would give Nadiya and I a chance to banter over our common experiences on this hallowed show... although admittedly I only competed in the Comic Relief 2014 version, spent a total of two days in the tent, and was pitted against Michael Ball (famed for his musical theatre skills – not so much his baking). She was chosen from 16,000 applicants, spent 10 weeks in the marquee, and was so masterful that when she won the final in front of 15 million viewers it made Mary Berry emit visible tears of pride.
My most celebrated recipe was bacon, bourbon & black cherry brownies – a traybake I invented myself, mostly because I enjoyed the alliteration. Nadiya’s famous peacock cake was described by Paul Hollywood as a ‘work of art’. Paul said mine ‘tasted great but it looked like s**t’. So maybe that wasn’t the cake to offer her either.
A cake for Nadiya
What I could offer her was a cake she could eat without worrying about the gluten, fat or sugar content. I have never yet found a tasty ‘free from’ cake which didn’t feel like a lead weight in your stomach afterwards; so I experimented. I found a basic recipe and then swapped the butter for apple sauce, processed sugar for maple syrup and flour for ground almonds, then made six different versions before I got the balance right.
What emerged was shockingly delicious; light, moist and satisfying, but each ingredient so healthy your body virtually thanks you for every bite. It was my humble offering to a woman for whom I have real admiration – who had greatness thrust upon her and accepted it with grace, integrity and bags of courage. You can imagine my sadness, therefore, when I offered Nadiya a big fat slice only to discover it was Ramadan and she was fasting. I was mortified as obviously I should have known that, so I couldn’t call it my finest hour, but as it was my finest cake to date, I’m picking myself up, dusting myself off and giving the recipe to you, my favourite reader, instead.
- Try making Emma's apple & almond cake.