Nadiya: “Baking has always been therapy for me”

Since Nadiya Hussain was crowned champion of The Great British Bake Off she's gone from success to success. But in her darker moments, it's still baking that gets her through.

“It’s never really been about the cake"

“When I started to bake it was a distraction... and I fell into it without realising that I enjoyed it or was good at it. It’s been the ‘thing’ ever since to help me [when I’m sad or anxious], especially in the last five years. Baking’s always been about therapy... It’s never really been about the cake."

Between testing recipes, writing cookbooks, raising a family and filming, stress can build up.

"I step back and bake banana bread and feel a moment of calm. I love that baking has that effect, and I know a lot of people out there will share the same sentiment.

“It’s so methodical, and when you’ve got a recipe you’re following, it almost forces you to come out of whatever kind of emotional trance you’re in. It allows you to think about something and only that. It’s such an inclusive activity, and I love that as a nation it is an important tool for our socialisation and mental health, especially now, when we’ve been through lockdown”.

“Bake, make mistakes, improve”

Nadiya wasn't always a star baker. Practice transformed her interest in baking into a skill, and she didn't let a few disasters stop her. “When anyone says, ‘How do you improve in the kitchen?’ I reply, ‘Bake! Make mistakes, improve, and you come out the other end feeling much more confident!'”

“Other than baking at school, the first thing I baked was a cake for my husband. I literally threw food colouring at it thinking it would be really cool, and I made this horrible red cake in which you could absolutely taste the food colouring. I didn’t know that then, but I know that now!

“The oven temperature was really uneven, so the cake climbed up one side of the tin and was really thin on the other side, so it baked on one side but not the other. But my husband ate the whole thing. Then I ventured into cupcakes and did strawberry and cream, and over-mixed the batter so they were like hockey pucks. They were disgusting, but again he managed to eat them.

“I used to really struggle with macaroons too. I remember there was a night I refused to let go, and I was like, ‘No, I’m gonna get this right, this is gonna work!’. Buying ground almonds is not cheap, so I remember literally crying over my bin with these failed attempts. Mind you, because of the pastel colours, it was the most beautiful bin I’ve ever had and it smelt beautiful. But I was so upset because I couldn’t make them work. Then, when it was really early into the morning, on the eleventh attempt, I got it. And I was like ‘yessssss!’.

“Once you’ve made all those mistakes, that’s when you really find confidence in the kitchen, because you learn how to correct them."

Beginner recipes to try

“Be brave”

“Baking isn’t something that we grew up with. I almost have this disregard for tradition because we never had that concept of having tea and cake. So, I don’t find it difficult to take a recipe and say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that, I’m taking it out,’ or ‘I’m doing this instead’.

“Who says I can’t switch strawberry jam to mango? Why can’t I add flavours that I grew up with or the things that I really enjoy?

“Of course, we should totally honour recipes we’ve grown up with or been shown by our elders. But there’s nothing to say we can’t change them up a bit. I grew up in a Bangladeshi house, and I take recipes my mum made, and I say ‘I’ve done this’ [made changes], and honestly, the look of disappointment on her face is unreal! There’s a moment I think, ‘Oh, it would be really nice to just leave that recipe alone’. And then do I listen to myself? Absolutely not!

“Recipes are there to be mucked around with, and that’s what I encourage everyone to do – take a recipe you’re confident with and give it a twist, make it yours.

“Be brave and think about what makes you happy and what you like to eat. I love Victoria sponge, but I make a mango and coconut cake with yoghurt and it’s light and has a freshness to it, and then it’s sandwiched with a German buttercream that is really simple, made out of custard. Then I put mango in it and toasted coconut, and fresh mango in the filling. So it’s all the flavours I grew up with, with all the rules of a Victoria sponge – almost.

Nadiya's flavour twists to try

Nadiya’s take on the traditional Victoria sponge.

Make the most of what you have

“I don’t want a million ingredients, but I’m a firm believer in whatever you use, know how to use it and respect it. Whenever there’s something new – a new spice, a new vegetable, new ingredient – I ask myself, ‘How do I get the best out of this?’. It might be something simple like roasting it, toasting it, grinding it or pulsing it. Think about how you’re going to extract all that flavour, because it doesn’t take much.

“Things like nuts, it’s great they add texture, but remember they’ve got this delicious creamy nutty oil, so toast them. It’s the little things, the little steps, that make all the difference to your bake. If you’re using spices, toast those spices before you grind them, whether you’re making a savoury or sweet bake.

“I think that’s where people are slightly afraid of cooking or baking – where they think they have to throw 15 ingredients into it. You don’t have to have all the best ingredients, you just have to know how to extract the flavour from them, and I hope that’s what people get from the show. Not only do they get a lovely recipe, but also I hope it gives them the confidence to believe that, ‘If she can do that, I can do that’. That’s what’s really important.”

Simple recipes with a little extra

Blueberry scone pizza, from episode one of Nadiya Bakes.

Be grateful, be confident

With life so unpredictable, Nadiya's taken to appreciating the twists and turns.

“I think children are the stopwatch of life. As they grow, you feel like everything just speeds up. In five years their lives have changed so much, in a way nobody had planned because none of this was planned. This wasn’t meant to be my job, my career. But my goodness, I pinch myself every single day and I can’t quite believe I’m doing it.

“Over lockdown I had to teach myself that luck has a certain role, to a point, and you should feel grateful. But luck can only take you so far – you have to actually be good at what you do, and I have to constantly tell myself that and believe it. The more I believe it, the better I am. This is something I encourage whenever I speak to anyone: feel confident in your own abilities.”

Recipes to build your confidence

Nadiya Bakes, Nadiya's Time to Eat and Nadiya's American Adventure are on BBC iPlayer.