How One Woman Is Using Her Oven To Change The Way The World Sees Muslims

Britain has a new baking queen. Nadiya Hussain made headlines when she was crowned the winner of The Great British Bake Off earlier this month — and not just for her skills with a whisk. The 30-year-old mother of three rose to stardom during her time on the popular BBC television cooking competition (think Top Chef but for baked goods), inspiring a fan following of “Nadiyators” who sing her sweet-toothed praises on social media. But some in Britain and beyond are celebrating more than Hussain's delicious desserts. The win by a Muslim woman who wears a hijab was also cast as a victory for tolerance and cultural diversity in the U.K. — one that could help counter prejudice. Hussain took a break from baking to correspond with Refinery29 about her win, what it means, and what’s next.

Congratulations on your big win! It’s been hailed as a “seminal cultural moment” by outlets like The New York Times. What did you make of the response to your success on the show?
“Well, it’s quite interesting to hear the win being described as a ‘seminal cultural win’ in papers such as The New York Times. It felt more like an ‘unforeseen emotive victory’ closer to home. The response that I got from the show was astonishing, to say the least. I have had messages from all directions and through all mediums, all relaying their messages of support and goodwill.”

You have also been called a positive role model for young British Muslims, especially women. What do you hope to convey to women who look up to you after following you on the show?
“To be called a positive role model for young British Muslims is astounding and also very flattering. I am also British, Bangladeshi, a stay-at-home mum, and a wife. I play many roles in my life, and if I can relate to anyone at any level, that, for me, is a massive achievement. It is so flattering to think women look up to me after following the show. I hope my being on the show will allow women to believe that anything is possible. I certainly believe that now!”

I want to do what I love, I want to bake every day, I want to share my skills, and I want to be a role model to my children and people alike.

Nadiya Hussain
Your wit and expressive nature seemed to be major crowd-pleasers. How do you think your humor helped you connect with viewers and build a fan base?
“What seemed like wit and sporadic expression was actually just me being myself. I was so afraid of coming across unintelligent or even boring. But as soon as I got to the final 12, I convinced myself the best way to get through the show was to just be myself. This advice was enthusiastically seconded by my husband. So that’s exactly what I did, and everything viewers saw was exactly what I am like in my own kitchen and around my home. As for the fan base, it's bizarre calling them fans because then I would have to reluctantly admit I’m a celebrity. These lovely people who have supported me through this journey are what we like to call Nadiyators!

Your winning desert, a “big fat British wedding cake,” was seen as an homage to both South Asian and British culture. Tell us about your inspiration for that dessert.
“My final showstopper was an homage to myself. Each aspect of the bake had an element of the people I love the most — from the type of cake, the fondant, the jewels, the flowers, and the decorations. I am a mix of two cultures but also lucky enough to have the love and support of a strong family unit. The homage was to me, from my British Bangladeshi heritage to the individual members of my family, all of which make me who I am.”
A question on behalf of the brides-to-be who read our site: What’s the key to designing and creating an awesome wedding cake for your big day?
“When thinking about a cake for your big day, I think it is important to think about what it means to you and what you want it to represent. The flavors and decorations should reflect who you are and what you like. However, if all else fails and you want to take the thinking out of creating the cake, make sure it matches your color scheme!”

What was your biggest baking disaster?
“I remember many decades ago I tried to make chicken hot pot with dumplings with my cousins. We never had an oven at my cousin’s house so we decided to improvise and cook it on the gas hob [stovetop]. It was safe to say the whole experience was memorable and inedible.”

Your family is from Bangladesh. Is there a traditional Bangladeshi sweet or dessert that you could share with our readers?
“We don’t traditionally eat desserts after dinner. But we do have sweet and savory snacks before meals. My mum makes a delicious tapioca fried dumpling, mixed with coconut and fennel. Quite a family affair — we all still hang around the cooker when she fries these up.”

What’s your favorite dessert?
“I try not to eat too much dessert. With the vast amount that I bake, I couldn’t get away with eating a slice of everything I bake. But if I am to have a full dessert, I love a chocolate fondant with a gooey model, with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.”

It is so flattering to think women look up to me after following the show. I hope my being on the show will allow women to believe that anything is possible.

Nadiya Hussain
You’ve said that your husband’s support was key to your success and was actually the one who encouraged you to apply. You also have three children. How have they reacted to the show and your new fame?
“My husband has been paramount to my success. He has supported me and taken on the role of mummy in my absence. He has been the one to pick me up and dust the flour off on days when I have been exhausted and just felt like giving up. It was my husband who encouraged me to apply, and both my husband and three children who willed me to go on. The kids are not always amused when we are stopped in the street, but they have taken it all in their stride. They have loved watching me week by week and think ‘being famous’ is an actual job title.”

Do they have a favorite dessert from your repertoire?
“The kids love my chocolate swamp cake. So that is a round of chocolate brownie filled with peanut brittle, topped with tempered chocolate shard and served with hot salted caramel.”

What advice do you have for aspiring bakers?
“Baking is tough, especially when you start out. I think the key to being a confident baker is learning new techniques. Once you have learned these techniques, it is easy to apply these skills and create your own little masterpieces. However, the most important thing is to practice, practice, practice!”

What’s your favorite way to fill your time when you aren’t whipping up a delicious confection?
“Although I must admit that baking is my favorite pastime, when I don’t do that, which is not often, I love to read and write. By this, I mean read cookbooks and write recipes. So I never steer too far away from baking or cooking. What can I say: I am obsessed.”

Your emotional and motivational goodbye speech inspired the trending hashtag #icanandiwill. Why is that such an important message for young people — and women in particular — to take to heart?
“I think the audience engaged with me in a way I didn’t imagine they would. The viewers watched me grow in confidence as the weeks passed. Now that I watch that back, I see the same, too. The 10 weeks of filming were emotional, exhausting, thrilling, and at times difficult. So by the time I had reached the end and I made that final speech, I knew and the audience knew those words were real and they came from a deep place. It was empowering for me to go out there and do something that I was deathly afraid of doing, and then I did it in front of an audience of 14.5 million. I hope that women, children, men, and women can take those words and feel empowered themselves.”

What’s next for you?

“If I was asked the same question a year ago, I would have reeled at the thought of listing any of my dreams or aspirations. But today, I would love to do everything. I would love to bake and cook in whatever capacity possible. I want to do what I love, I want to bake every day, I want to share my skills, and I want to be a role model to my children and people alike.”

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