I think about Nadiya Hussain’s win on Great British Bake Off a lot, and about one particular aspect of it: her unrelenting positivity. Think of how often Mary Berry or Paul Hollywood would be a little confused by her flavor combinations, or a little skeptical of how she could pull something off, and how Nadiya never really let that rattle her. That’s not to say she was overconfident—so many of her best faces from that season, which live on in gif form, capture her doubt regarding time limits, technical instructions, or the judges’ whispered comments.
But if Mary or Paul wondered whether she was using too much cardamom, coconut, or fennel? She kept going. If they wondered how a fish curry would pair with buttery pastry vol-au-vents? She kept going. If they wondered how she was going to use boiled-down soda pop to make eclairs? She kept going. That’s why Nadiya’s final win, and her vow to never underestimate herself ever again, hit so hard. And the fulfillment of that promise is what makes her latest Netflix series, Nadiya Bakes, such an exciting, endearing watch.
This is Nadiya utterly unapologetic, fully confident, and totally down with zhuzhing up British classics in whatever way she sees fit. “How can I twist this?” Nadiya says, and as we’ve seen from GBBO to Time to Eat, which also aired on Netflix, Nadiya’s creativity is one of her strongest assets. As Nadiya explains, she didn’t grow up eating a lot of desserts because they weren’t really a culinary part of her Bangladeshi heritage, so all of this work is a way of making up for lost time, and an opportunity for her to channel the flavors she grew up with in different ways. We saw some of this in Time to Eat, in which Nadiya traveled around the UK, researching how some of her favorite foods were produced—mushroom farms, Golden Syrup factories—and sharing quick-meal tips with hassled people who didn’t have enough time to eat well. But Nadiya Bakes swings in the other direction, giving Nadiya all the time in the world to experiment on her own, and the results are delightful.
Filmed during lockdown over two weeks in the south coast of Devon, with just Nadiya and the production crew (who are always invited by Nadiya to chow down at the end of each episode), Nadiya Bakes lets Nadiya take center stage on her own, and this is the strongest sense of who Nadiya is. The kitchen and her outfits are wondrously bright and colorful; in GBBO, Nadiya often wore a black long-sleeved shirt and a black hijab, while during Nadiya Bakes, I don’t recall her ever wearing somber black or plain white. Teal, chartreuse, lavender, fuchsia, magenta, spring green, buttercup yellow—the kitchen and Nadiya’s styling, from her head scarves to her rainbow-embroidered jeans to her manicures, are a riot of color.
Every episode begins with Nadiya writing a word in colored chalk in the kitchen, words like “happy” and “sunshine,” and then diving into a certain theme: “Classic with a Twist,” in which Nadiya amps up strawberry cupcakes by incorporating melted ice cream into the frosting and spices up Yorkshire pudding with kebabs; “Savory Bakes,” with pepperoni pull-apart bread and chicken, cranberries, and brie cooked into a flaky pastry; “Bakes to Share,” with mini pecan pies with clotted cream and a spin on the Scottish cranachan dessert, but with mango puree, toasted cornflakes, and cracked black pepper. And as a nod to Nadiya’s Time to Eat, which also focused on wallet-friendly recipes, the episode “Baking on a Budget” makes space for baked goods you can put together for “under a fiver”: a potato rosti quiche; onion pretzels; chocolate fondant; crushed candy-filled sandwich cookies. These are thoughtful, pragmatic recipes, often incorporating other cultural traditions (like a Lebanese-inspired traybake with turmeric, tahini, and ginger, or her spin on znoud el-sit, filo parcels filled with clotted cream and then soaked in cardamom and saffron simple syrup) and delivered with Nadiya’s down-to-earth approachability.
But Nadiya is intentional, too, about the stuff in this show that isn’t her recipes. She’s loose and funny here (“It’s almost too pretty to cut into, but that never stopped me,” she says when pulling a banana cheesecake, with a hazelnut and oat base and blueberry compote on top, out of the oven), and tells stories about her life. About her husband and how she bakes him a cake each day (which he works off with a 7-mile run), about her kids running into the kitchen to traipse among powdered sugar clouds, about learning from her grandfather how to climb mango trees, about her teacher at school who taught her how to cut butter into flour for scone dough, about the different cooking skills inherited from her parents. They build a portrait of Nadiya that honors her heritage, showcases her personality, and expands our idea of what a “master British baker” looks like. And Nadiya also steps outside the spotlight to invite in other authoritative figures for us to trust, and it’s no coincidence that these people look more like Nadiya than not. French éclair architect Joakim Prat set Twitter on fire this weekend …
… But Nadiya also showcases experts like chocolatier Aneesh Popat, mille-feuille master Ravneet Gill, cake designer Nastassja Lusengo, and doughnut mastermind Lungi Mhlanga. Like Nadiya, they are unapologetic about what they do well, and excited to share it with us, and frankly, it all seems hella delicious. I’m obsessed with the elaborate process Ravneet uses to make her multicolored mille-feuille, and I really want to try my hand at the chicken-stuffed doughnuts Nadiya makes after being inspired by Lungi. My COVID waistline is going to expand, baby!
“For me, baking really is my happy place,” Nadiya says in the intro for Nadiya Bakes, and I love the clarity of purpose there. Nadiya knows who she is, and Nadiya Bakes is a joy to watch because of that self-awareness.
All eight episodes of Nadiya Bakes are streaming on Netflix as of February 12, 2021.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center