Britain takes star baker in a headscarf to its heart


In sweet-toothed Britain, the hottest entertainment sensation is a televised baking contest in which amateur pastry chefs battle it out over cakes, tortes, trifles and flans. And in a country roiled by questions of immigration and identity, "The Great British Bake Off" has produced a new heroine – a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman who's a genius with sugar, eggs and flour. Nadiya Hussain was crowned winner of the contest on a programme on Wednesday night that was watched by 13.4 million people, a fifth of the British population.

The 30-year-old student and mother of three from Leeds in northern England beat two other finalists with her enticing iced buns, perfect raspberry millefeuilles and a lemon drizzle wedding cake wrapped in a sari in the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.

Hussain told the BBC on Thursday that winning the show – pre-recorded in June – was "one of the best moments of my life."

Hussain said she made her winning creation – which she dubbed her "big fat British wedding cake" – because she didn't have a cake when she got married in Bangladesh 10 years ago. "Just because I'm not a stereotypical British person, it doesn't mean that I am not into bunting, cake and tea," she said.

Millions of fans followed Hussain's progress through the series, wincing as she cried over her failed vol au vents and gasping at her resplendent chocolate peacock cake. Her victory in the final over 41-year-old photographer Ian Cumming and 30-year-old doctor Tamal Ray was hailed by fans as an inspiring symbol of 21st-century Britain.

Since it first aired in 2010, "Bake Off" has combined old-fashioned Britishness with a diverse roster of contestants – gay and straight, male and female and from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Its fans include Prime Minister David Cameron, who backed Nadiya to win and in a speech Wednesday called Britain "the proudest multi-racial democracy on Earth."

But immigration and its effects have become a troubling issue for Britain in the last decade, as newcomers – many from Eastern Europe – have arrived in the hundreds of thousands. The anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party has gained millions of votes in local and national elections. And the country's interior minister, Home Secretary Theresa May, said this week in a heavily criticised speech that mass immigration was incompatible with a cohesive society.

The spread of violent international jihad, which has seen hundreds of young Britons join the Islamic State group, has also put the country's 2.7 million Muslims under an unwanted spotlight. The Muslim Association of Britain said Hussain's victory "has demonstrated the connection that young British Muslims have with British society. The hijab that she wears has not deterred her from participating and winning the show."

Homespun and slightly hokey, "The Great British Bake Off" seems an unlikely cultural sensation. In surroundings reminiscent of a village summer fair – a marquee tent on the grassy lawn of an elegant country house – contestants toil over baking challenges, then offer their creations for judgment to gimlet-eyed cookbook writer Mary Berry and bluff master baker Paul Hollywood.

Two hosts, comedians Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, add encouragement and saucy, innuendo-laden humour. Unlike most reality shows, the tone is supremely good-natured – there are no "Apprentice"-style insults here. The show had a modest start, but ratings rose from about 3 million viewers for the first series to 10 million by the fifth. Now its weekly micro-dramas regularly set social media alight, and sales of baking books and cake tins have soared.

The format has been copied in other countries, including Australia, Sweden, Turkey, France and the United States. But in the U.K. it has become a phenomenon, attuned to the "do-it-yourself" spirit of post-Great Recession Britain. Josh Abrams, a lecturer at Roehampton University who specialises in food and performance, said it was perfect fare for "an age when we're all digitised and spending so much of our time in front of screens."

"The idea of getting your hands dirty – whether physically in the dirt of your backyard or mixing things in a kitchen – speaks to a nostalgia for a notion of a simpler time," he said.    (AP)

Visit's dossier on The headscarf controversy