The cast of characters who take part in television phenomenon The Great British Bake Off is as colourful and accomplished as the showstoppers they create. Remember two years ago when grandmother Nancy Birtwhistle got the better of Spanish-inspired baker Luis Troyano and builder Richard (never without a pencil behind his ear and a ruler) Burr?
There was another participant that year, who narrowly missed out on making the final – watched by 13 million viewers – but who made a big impression with her clever use of Indian spices.
Semi-finalist Chetna Makan, who finished fourth, has just published a cookbook, The Cardamom Trail: Chetna Bakes with Flavours of the East.
Makan’s debut is a collection of 100 sweet and savoury bakes, and accompaniments, each with an interesting twist or clever use of spice that has become her trademark. It’s an engrossing – and beautifully produced – book, with the former Mumbai fashion designer’s creative input very much evident.
“ I wanted to do bakes that have got something new to say,” she tells me when we meet in the offices of her London publishers, Mitchell Beazley. “And all of them, because of my background, have got Indian influences.”
The boxes of beautifully decorated cupcakes she bring with her to the publishing house – she’s a very popular visitor – are mini versions of the dazzling pistachio, cardamom and white chocolate cake that adorns the cover of the book.
The photographs inside of extravagant cakes, pies, tarts, breads and pastries have an exotic, otherworldly quality. “I wanted deep warm colours. All the fabrics used in the photoshoot are mine, from my fashion design days. I had a trip to India before we shot and I brought all my scarves and everything back with me. I knew how the end product should look.”
Those trips back to India are recurring sources of inspiration, for Makan is the only member of her family – apart from her GP husband and their two young daughters – who is living in the UK. It is her mother who Makan credits with her interest in food. “The thing that inspires me most about her is she still wants to learn. She comes to visit me with a pen and paper and a diary and when I am cooking, she is writing notes. She is 61, and she knows so much, but she thinks she knows nothing.”
Mother and daughter have collaborated on the weekly videos she makes for her YouTube channel, Food with Chetna. They're really good, and her channel has attracted more than 100,000 subscribers since she set it up last August. On it, she often cooks Indian dishes, rather than baking.
Makan beams as she tells me that all of her 11 Bake Off colleagues (selected from an entry of 16,000) will be at the launch party. "We just jelled. We try and meet every two or three months, and we have weekends at each other's houses. I am friendly with all of them . . . Kate, Martha, Nancy, Luis ... we meet up with partners and kids. One my my closest friends is Iain [Watters, the Belfast baker at the centre of the baked Alaska-gate controversy]."
They seem an unlikely pair, the bubbly, charming Makan and the tempestuous Watters, who threw his bake in the bin when his ice-cream failed to set.
“I don’t know anyone who was calm and quiet, because it is such a pressurised environment. When you are there in the tent, from seven in the morning till seven at night, you forget about the outside world.”
The Cardamom Trail: Chetna Bakes with Flavours of the East
by Chetna makan, with photographs by Nassima Rothaker, is published by Mitchell Beazley, £20