At the end of every episode of Nadiya Bakes, Nadiya Hussain, the Great British Bake Off winner and beloved food personality, sits down with one of her almost-too-decadent creations — a mango sponge cake, a tutti-frutti pavlova topped with candied cherries, a cookie tower filled with candy — as if she’s about to eat the whole thing herself. Then, she offers a piece to someone off-screen. The camera angle shifts, and the show’s crew is revealed: Hussain insists they maintain six feet of distance as everyone digs in. In the first episode, the boom operator takes a bite of his cake without using a fork, the boom still hovering. In the third episode, Hussain jokingly urges the crew to come get a piece of her tomato galette, as if otherwise they were going to leave her to eat it all alone, mukbang-style.
The moment of sharing is almost one of relief; as a viewer, you realize the crew has been creating the loving, glossy shots of these dishes all day, and now they finally get to eat. It’s also a reminder that during COVID, there are no big shared meals with friends or family, as there were in Hussain’s previous series, Nadiya’s Time to Eat. There’s only your fellow essential workers. But instead of feeling bleak, Hussain manages to infuse these final shots with warmth and happiness. There’s a lot of laughter and ribbing, emphasizing the teamy nature of a production, rather than placing Hussain on a star’s pedestal.
Hussain’s 2015 run on The Great British Bake Off was star-making, and since her famous acceptance speech — “I’m never gonna put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never gonna say I can’t do it. I’m never gonna say ‘maybe.’ I’m never gonna say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will” — she’s set about proving it, publishing cookbooks and a memoir, hosting her own cooking shows, and baking a birthday cake for the queen. As a British Bangladeshi who wears hijab, she is the most prominent avatar of the “curious means of change” function, as described by fellow GBBO veteran Ruby Tandoh, that Bake Off has served in the country’s white-dominated food world. Hussain is also clear about her intentions to remake that system from within. In a conversation with fellow Netflix star Tan France during the 2019 Cheltenham Literature festival, she says her motto is “elbows out,” to make room for people who look like her who will follow her into the industry.
Nadiya Bakes is Hussain’s first full-fledged baking show since she won Bake Off, and it’s a pleasure to see her back in her element. The show is not a COVID baking show, but it’s not not a COVID baking show, either. At the very least, it’s a show about finding joy in baking, and maximizing the pleasure of it, in the face of isolation and restriction. Her previous show featured her delightful visits to both cooks in need of advice and huge food factories, and the ends of episodes often included her family; Nadiya Bakes is Hussain baking for her production bubble, with separately shot segments featuring bakers she admires around the U.K.
Hussain describes baking as her “happy place,” and as a means of self-care: “If I’m anxious, I bake. If I feel a little bit sad, I bake. If I’m concentrating on a recipe, I feel like I don’t have to think about anything else.” It’s a bit of a shame that American audiences, or at least those scrolling through Netflix looking for a cooking show, are unlikely to be familiar with Hussain’s work as a mental health advocate, and her openness about overcoming panic disorder. If there’s any food personality I want to hear from about baking as self-care, it’s the woman who participated in a documentary about her own exposure therapy.
There’s also something extra delightful, after a year of crushing lockdown sameness, about Hussain’s particular brand of maximalism, where every element of a recipe is tweaked and amped in the service of flavor. Her opening dessert is a strawberry cupcake with a cookie on the bottom, a whole strawberry in the middle, icing made with melted strawberry ice cream, and freeze-dried strawberries on top. Hussain explains that she loves classic desserts like cupcakes but didn’t grow up eating them (in another episode, she says her mother used the oven for storage), so she sees them as a zone of creativity. “I think, how can I twist this?” Considering how many dessert recipes lean heavily on childhood nostalgia, this is especially refreshing.
The maximalism works wonderfully for television (she’s adding a whole wheel of brie?? She’s frying up chicken doughnuts???), and it also does lead to truly transcendent results. The chocolate episode features a chocolate-chip-packed fudgy caramel cheesecake brownie that Hussain says always raises spirits in her household. On a not-so-spirited day in my household, I made a batch. The recipe was a process, especially because first I made my own dulce de leche; then I made the brownie, then the nut topping, and then a final bake for the cheesecake. The next morning, I was so anxious to try it that I skipped the final step of dusting on cocoa powder. That first brownie tasted too rich, too sweet, and I wondered if I was not up for this level of flavor extremity. Then, I dusted on the thin layer of bitter cocoa and tried it again. This time, the flavors were perfectly balanced. I relished the crunch of both the nuts and the chocolate chips; the orange zest in the cheesecake shone. And much like Hussain’s show, the brownies cheered us up all week.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.