“I wrote in my journal,” said Ian Cumming, Great British Bake Off finalist 2015. “This could be a pivotal event in my life.” Then with 11 million or 12 million or 15 million people watching, Ian waved that away, told himself to stop being so silly, and got on with baking some iced buns.
Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood had demanded 16 of them in two different batches: simple, until you realised that meant two different doughs, two different fillings and two different icings. Tamal wasn’t flavouring his icing or his dough – was that a mistake, or was Ian making a mistake by attempting two separate doughs instead of one big batch? Was Nadiya gambling by doing one batch as round buns, instead of the traditional torn-off lozenge?
Nobody knew and everyone, aware of the extraordinary situation they were in, was struggling to think straight. Tamal coped by teasing Nadiya about failed bakes in previous rounds, in a way that spoke of a deep friendship forged in the tent. Ian had to make do with a chat with Sue Perkins – I say make do, when most of us 16 or 17 or 20 million fans would pay a week’s wages for afternoon tea with her – about him having come to terms with the fact that he wanted to win.
As the clock ticked down, Tamal put his crème patissiere pan in a bowl of ice, then slammed the mixture in the freezer to try to make it pipeable. Nadiya stared into the oven. Ian wondered why half his buns wouldn’t cook.
He found out during the judging: he’d forgotten to put sugar in the dough, thus creating hot, crispy baps with icing on. Paul Hollywood’s senses become confused when you present him with hot, crispy baps. Also, Ian’s cardamom icing looked like it had fallen on the buns from out of a tree. He was on the back foot.
Anyone who’s ever bought an iced bun from Tesco and thought “Wait a minute, this is just a bread roll with sugar on” was nodding sagely again as Tamal’s unset crème pat meant one of his batches had to go without, which turned them into marmalade rolls instead of iced buns. Marmalade rolls full of amazing homemade citrus marmalade, but still. The royal icing he’d had to throw on without stopping wasn’t right either.
Tamal was crumbling. Ian was wobbling. Nadiya kept her eyes on the prize.
Six raspberry mille-feuilles. You know: that’s the teetering rectangular one, with pastry balancing on fruit and Chantilly cream, balancing on pastry, balancing on the top shelf of the glass cabinet in the Café Revive in Marks.
Mel Giedroyc asked Nadiya if she and pastry were once again on speaking terms. Nads explained that the relationship had been repaired thanks to a bloody good cream horn, which she’d had the benefit of last week. So often the way.
Other than that, nothing funny or witty took place. Nobody looked up from their recipe. It was pure, breath-holding panic. “Whatever happens here today, I have to live with for the rest of my life,” said Nadiya, who then didn't tell herself not to be so silly. Whoever could produce something delicate on instinct, without even knowing how they’d done it, would win the round.
Rough-puff pastry had to be measured precisely, then baked perfectly to produce a flat rectangle. Tamal’s undulated. Ian’s raspberries were too far apart. Nadiya had done it again.
For the last bake: a single-flavoured but multi-tiered cake. You could get away with banging out a simple lemon drizzle, on the small condition that it had to be the best lemon drizzle of all time, with at least two smaller ones on top.
Nadiya took this option, promising to make three lemon drizzles decorated in red, white and blue and wrapped in saris. It was conceived as a retrospective adjunct to her cake-free wedding in Bangladesh. It could also be read as a final, magnificently colourful kiss-off to those sour little people who don’t know what it is to be British, and thought Bake Off had picked Nadiya to fulfil some kind of politically correct quota, rather than because she’s one of the finest, truest, loveliest people on any TV show this year.
As is traditional near the end of a Bake Off series, we were pitched briefly into the bakers’ home lives just to make us love them a little bit more. Newsflashes: Tamal was an incredibly cute baby, Nadiya being away for ten weekends in a row showed her husband how much work she does at home, and Ian has a zip wire for the kids in his back garden.
Nadiya admitted that she makes fondant by microwaving marshmallows and adding icing sugar. It’s cheaper, quicker when you’ve got three kids running about, and produces identical results. Ian was using proper maths with Pi and everything to check he’d got the right amount of mixture to make five dwindling carrot cakes. He corrected his previous calculations, not noticing a bigger snag until later: he’d forgotten to put in a crucial ingredient, orange. Tamal’s icing had frozen in the freezer.
Instinct was taking over again but, gloriously, everyone nailed it at the end. Ian’s carrot cake cascade was exquisite. Tamal Ray’s collection of sticky toffee cakes with spun sugar, intended to recall an abandoned Chinese fishing village (no, really), was art. Nadiya had made the best lemon drizzle of all time.
Tamal and Nadiya predictably had damp eyes when it was all over. But then Ian - who’s given the impression throughout of being a jolly, pampered booby who potters around his lovely Tudor country house saying “… which was nice” with never much to worry about - suddenly dissolved into tears as he spoke about how much heart and effort he’d put into his final creation. The slightly aloof, older, calmer man who seemed to have nothing to lose, giving away that he was as deeply affected as the others? That was the moment when 22 million GBBO devotees started weeping in unison. And some people still say they don’t know why this show is the biggest thing on British telly.
But if you still don’t know why people love the Bake Off, let me try to sum it up: it's nice people under mad pressure doing something that involves a lot of skill, and who want to share that skill but who also want to win a contest, but manage to feel that way without wanting others to fail. As they do so they reveal something of themselves, often to themselves, and this is beautiful.
Nadiya Jamir Hussain’s little speech after she won is worth quoting in full, for ever: “I’m never going to put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say maybe. I’m never going to say I don’t think I can. I can and I will.”
The last and highest unexpected emotional peak, in a show that really did feel like a national celebration: Mary Berry is such a Nadiya fan that when she came to deliver her quick summary of the winner’s merits – the sort of thing talent-show pros knock out without even feeling the meaning of the words – she couldn’t get through it and had to walk out of shot and sob.
And all this in a show about baking buns.