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Chetna Makan discusses ‘The Great British Baking Show’

Chetna MakanNassima Rothacker/photo credit Nassima Rothacker

As a contestant on “The Great British Baking Show,” Chetna Makan became known for adding Indian spice to traditional British bakes, often to the surprise of the show’s judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood. Makan won the judges over and baked her way to the semifinals of the show’s 2014 season. After appearing on the wildly popular amateur baking competition, Makan has launched a career as host of her own YouTube cooking channel and author of the new cookbook “The Cardamom Trail: Chetna Bakes With Flavours of the East.”

Makan grew up in India and worked there in the fashion industry before moving to Britain a decade ago. She was taken immediately with English baking. “I have a very sweet tooth. I started seeing all these cakes and then I discovered Victoria sponge. I think nothing beats well-baked Victoria sponge with fresh cream,” she says of the layer cake that she went on to make as her first “showstopper” in the competition. Makan lives in Broadstairs, Kent on the east coast of Britain with her husband and two children.


Q. What did your family bake in India?

A. I’ve grown up watching my mum cook everything from scratch. She wasn’t interested in baking. None of our family or friends had [a full-size ] oven. I think the biggest cake she could make was a 10-inch round. She had a portable oven that you could just plug in and move around from room to room. She would plug it in in her bedroom and we would make a cake in that. No tarts or pies or anything.

Q. How did you begin baking?

A. I would make my birthday cake with her and I really enjoyed it. So I would make birthday cakes for my sisters, friends, just different sponges. Then I left home for studies and all those things stopped. When I moved here and had the kids, I started to want to get into baking again. I became more experimental. I started baking cookies and going into tarts — a bit more British baking. I’ve been baking for five or six years now.


Q. So you were pretty new to baking when you appeared on “The Great British Baking Show.”

A. The reason why I applied was I started making lots of cakes for friends and stuff. People who love to bake like to bake for others. The [show] had started airing here and my friends said you must try and apply for this. I thought maybe I should give it a go. I applied and got through straight away.

Q. Have you always used Indian spices in your baking?

A. No. It was only when I finally found out that I was going to go to the show, I thought “Oh my God. Where do I start?” They say work out 20 recipes for these 10 episodes. I thought what I know well is the Indian spices and Indian food. That actually helped me stand out and made the flavors great.

Q. Were you surprised that it was such a hit with the judges?

A. Sure. I know for a fact that Mary [Berry] is a very kind of traditional baker and she likes her classic combinations. I thought maybe Paul [Hollywood] would like them. I was surprised, pleasantly, that she quite enjoyed them.


Q. What Indian spices work well in sweets?

A. There are so many amazing spices, but cardamom is my favorite, like in the rose and honey cake. I’ve added fennel to the cream and it makes such a big difference. I put star anise in the profiteroles. I have tried to throw in the spices which you usually associate with savory food like cloves in the cookies with cinnamon. It was quite intense to come up with combinations that were kind of really, really exciting but new and people wouldn’t think of doing it.

Q. Unlike on American cooking competition shows, everyone on “The Great British Baking Show” appears to get along. Is that really the case?

A. Oh yes. Everybody is really nice and sweet. That is the secret of the success of the program. It is genuinely quite a nice atmosphere in the tent. Even the crew and the team behind the production, everybody is so helpful and lovely. Mel and Sue the presenters are so amazing. You kind of bond really well when you’re there all day from say 7 in the morning until 7 at night. It’s quite intense for so many days of being together. Nobody was really competitive. Genuinely, no one came there thinking, “Oh God I have to win this.” They came for the love of baking.

Q. Do you stay in touch with other contestants?

A. I spent such a long time with those bakers. We’re really, really close friends even now. We meet every two, three months. In fact, half of them are meeting tonight, but I couldn’t make it as I’m working.


Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.