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It is sometimes said that while cooking is more of an art, baking is more of a science. For Nirali Chauhan, a medical school student and a contestant on the new season of The Great American Baking Show, it’s a little bit of both.
“Baking absolutely is that perfect way to bring together the scientific and creative sides of me. I really enjoy making something out of just a few ingredients. It's so fun to see that transformation,” Chauhan says.
Chauhan, 29, has loved baking since she was a kid, but she got into it more in recent years when she returned to Chicago. She grew up in the northwest suburbs and went east for college and graduate school.
Chauhan is now a medical student at the University of Illinois Chicago, hoping to specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R). She suffered a traumatic brain injury herself seven years ago after she was struck by an SUV, and had to undergo a long recovery. She hopes to give others the same kind of treatment that she received at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, which had a big impact on her.
Baking has been a healing space for Chauhan, too.
“I find baking to be meditative as well. So even though I'm in motion, it feels like it's a fulfilling type of motion and almost restful in a way,” Chauhan says. “It just feels like it's out of your head, and into your hands. It feels so nice.”
Sharing her baking with others is also what keeps Chauhan motivated. Sometimes, she says, she gets up at four in the morning to bake something so it’ll be cool enough by the time she needs to leave. Her fellow medical school classmates, friends, and family are often the beneficiaries of all that hard work.
But Chauhan also likes to bake for strangers. She says baking became more of a “serious hobby” following the police murder of George Floyd, when she found an Instagram account called Bakers Against Racism. She began holding bake sale fundraisers for various groups, and still does so today. She continues to donate her bakes to the South Loop Community Table or to Love Fridge Chicago.
“Whenever there's something that I'm like, ‘What can I do all the way from over here?’ I'm like, ‘I can bake.’ That's the one skill that I have. And people seem to enjoy that, and I can share that with other people and try to do some good,” she says.
Now, Chauhan has an even larger audience as a contestant on The Great American Baking Show, the American version of the beloved British counterpart, which has returned this time for the Roku Channel.
“I remember watching it all the time, especially when I was in recovery from my brain injury. I would be in my bed a lot and I wanted something wholesome and calming, and that would be the show that I'd watch,” Chauhan says. “Even though as a big fan, I never once thought to be on the show or to even apply.”
Chauhan turned in her application “at the very last second,” and got a call twelve hours later from the casting team. Things moved quickly after that. She said competing on the show really was like being sucked into your television.
“That set is so bright, Prue's outfits are so vibrant, and Paul's eyes are incredibly blue,” she says. “They're so incredibly kind and down to earth. They also—just as much as we wanted to succeed—wanted us to succeed, too. They would be giving us a pep talk…Yes, they have to be critical, but their feedback is actually really constructive. I came out of that tent learning a lot too, which was such a big gift to come home with.”
While the time crunch created a little bit of stress, Chauhan said her real takeaway from the experience was her new friendships with the fellow contestants. She said it was a very friendly, collaborative environment. Since the show was filmed in the United Kingdom, the bakers got together and discovered some differences in staple ingredients.
“The butter fat content is a lot higher in the UK. Cream whips up a lot faster. The flours can be a little bit different,” Chauhan says. “We were all helping each other…to amend or modify our recipes. There’s no secret sabotage. We always want to do our best and help each other do their best as well.”
Chauhan also said that the process was very physically demanding, with long filming hours on their feet, especially given that she was coming off of a long recovery from her brain injury. But she says that, given everything that she’s gone through in recent years, she’s been describing her experience as a “bonus life.”
“There was a time I couldn't do a lot of the things in the kitchen. I got those skills back with the help of the amazing team at Shirley Ryan. And then on top of that, to be able to apply the skills and my passion in a setting that I really respect and admire and have enjoyed and was like actually an active part of my healing process,” she says.
Chauhan is still baking, and she says one of the things she likes to enjoy alongside something sweet is chai. She makes a variation of her family recipe—in a family where everyone has their own variation.
“If my grandmother, my mom, my brother, and I are together, there are four different pots on the stove,” she says with a laugh.
The recipe below is important to her family, and it incorporates a little bit of every family member’s favorite elements. Her father, who passed away exactly one year before her accident, loved to start his day with chai.
“Chai time in our home and in a lot of Indian homes is a ritual. But it's more than that, too. It's this quiet time to gather here, connect with one another, to connect with oneself,” she says.
Chauhan created the recipe “with ingredients that most people will likely have in their home…I don't want people to have to go out and grab stuff that they might not be able to use all the time.” She says one key component to the recipe is to really grind the ginger down with a mortar and pestle to release the flavors.
Another key element of this “kadak chai” recipe is the multiple boil method, in which the tea is brought to a boil multiple times, and taken off the heat in between each boil to create a kind of aerating process. (You could also add more black tea, Chauhan adds, as an alternative). The result is what she describes as “spicy, gingery, milky, and warming.”
Chauhan’s parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, so as a first-generation Indian American woman, she likes being able to share the recipe, and by extension, her family’s background, with others.
“It is this way to introduce people to my culture in a very literally and figuratively warm way,” she says. “The act of sharing a warm cup of something across many cultures is such a beautiful, intimate time to connect with someone.”
Chauhan Family Masala Chai
By Nirali Chauhan
Makes two 8 oz servings
1 1/2 cups water
5 tsp loose black tea
2 inch knob of fresh ginger (40-50 grams)
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
Small pinch of ground cloves
1 1/2 cups whole milk (can substitute with dairy-free milk, oat works best)
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
4-5 fresh mint leaves (optional)
3-4 tsp granulated sugar, or to taste (optional)
1. In a mortar, crush the ginger into small pieces (alternatively, grate the ginger if you don’t have a mortar and pestle). If grinding your spices from whole spices, grind into a powder.
2. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add the water, black tea, ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves. Bring to a rolling boil and allow to boil for 1 minute. If using dairy-free milk, add warm milk to the boiling tea mixture, skip the multiple boiling method in the next step and proceed to step 4.
3. Add the whole milk and increase the heat to high until the milk boils, bubbles, and rises to the top edge of the saucepan. Lift the saucepan off the heat to allow bubbles to subside. Return to the heat to allow bubbles to rise again. Repeat 3-4 times. Turn off the heat
4. Before straining into cups, add the cardamom and mint leaves. Allow to rest a minute. Strain into cups and stir in sugar to taste.