When I think about Christmas parties and family get-togethers — which might be almost nonexistent this year — I think about cookies. Maybe most of us do. The best holiday parties are the ones with the best cookies. You can always tell who actually bakes their cookies versus buying packages of them. The cookie snob in me thinks it’s shameful to see Pepperidge Farm Milanos on a tray of what are supposed to be holiday treats.
David Atherton, the 2019 winner of the Netflix hit The Great British Baking Show (known in the U.K. as The Great British Bake Off), felt for some of his life like those misplaced Milanos, a gay sweets-eater with a health food-eating mom and a religious family with bigotry toward the LGBTQ+ community.
“My mum had five kids and tried to make all the household chores into games, like killing two birds with one stone kind of thing,” Atherton told me. “So from my earliest memories, we played with masses of bread dough like it was Play-Doh. My mum was a hippie and very into healthy food, so I was brought up with healthy eating tastes, which has been amazing for my adult life and really influenced my baking.”
Atherton originally studied art and design before deciding on a career in health care and training as a nurse. He then picked up a postgraduate degree in wilderness and expedition medicine and worked as a health adviser for the British aid organization Voluntary Services Overseas, assisting in various countries around the world, including Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, and Malawi, but always with a deep-dished interest and a natural flair for baking.
When the baking show first aired in the U.K., David’s friends and family all asked him to jump into the proverbial oven of competition, but he kept putting it off. “Applying for a TV show felt like something other people did, plus I had little experience in the world of frostings, meringues, and all the other high-sugar baking techniques that didn’t interest me to eat so therefore I rarely made,” Atherton intoned with some inside jargon that made my mouth water. “My journey to baking stardom doesn’t necessarily come from a foundation of baking but really from a love of all food and a personality that thrives under pressure and stays calm.”
Atherton needed that sense of calm to ride out the turbulence of being surrounded by homophobia, which left a bitter taste in his mouth, like a gone-wrong tiramisu. “My coming out process was very similar to my journey onto Bake Off,” Atherton recalled. “I spent years, through fear and shame, putting off what would terrify me — coming out — but fundamentally would make me happy.”
As he came from a religious family and grew up surrounded by hate and bigotry toward the LGBTQ+ community, this meant that Atherton experienced a sense of self-loathing. “Not only did I grow up ashamed and filled with self-hate, I also grew up homophobic,” he said with a sense of sadness. “Breaking down internalized homophobia is so tough when it has been ingrained from such a young age.”
Eventually he realized that coming out meant speaking out for all LGBTQ+ people, outside of his small world. “Shame is a cancer that eats away at us, and to fight it you need to be vulnerable. I learned from a young age how to hide my true self and to not allow myself to be vulnerable. Coming out was terrifying but made me brave to step up and try new things and push myself. I stayed in the closet until I was 30, but since then I’ve found the most amazing person ever, and I’ve won a national baking competition. Vulnerability has really paid off.”
Since he won the Netflix hit show, life has changed for Atherton. “Everything is very surreal. You know what you’re applying for when you fill in the application form, but you never believe you’re going to get on the show [over 17,000 people applied], and once you’ve started, the next step comes quickly after the next, and before you know it the final is complete, and you have to be ready to become a household name. I still find it strange that so many people follow me on Instagram, but my day-to-day life has not changed too much.”
Part of that ordinary life is his relationship with his fiancé, Nik. “I am in a relationship with the most amazing man. We recently got engaged, and this is not something I could ever have dreamed of throughout most of my life. Nik was the person who taught me how to be vulnerable, and he has been my greatest teacher in loving myself.”
Atherton said Nik shares in his success. “My success is not my success, it’s our success. I may be the face of my win on Bake Off, but Nik was there every step of the way. Since the show finished, Nik has been the key person driving any success I’ve had subsequently. He is such a strategist. I just want to bake bread! He continually pushes me to do new things. We recently bought our first apartment together in London and we’re enjoying making a home.”
I’m sure that Atherton and Nik will throw some fabulous holiday parties once they’re married and once we’re out of the quarantine of COVID-19, and I’m sure Nik won’t let his bread-baking husband put Milanos out for guests. So, to that end, Atherton was kind enough to share an easy holiday cookie recipe below.
150g all-purpose (plain) flour
125g white bread flour
1 tbsp cocoa powder
2 tsp mixed spice
100g unsalted butter (room temp)
100g caster (superfine) sugar
1 medium egg
200g icing (confectioner’s) sugar
1 medium egg white
1. Put the flours, cocoa powder, and spices into a bowl and toss until mixed.
2. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
3. Beat in the egg until smooth.
4. Mix this with the dry mix until it forms a dough (do not overknead), then wrap and put in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes.
5. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until 0.5 centimeters thick. Cut out any shapes you want and remember to cut out little holes if you want to hang them on the tree. Transfer to baking trays lined with baking paper then put in the fridge to chill for 20 minutes.
6. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius /330 degrees Fahrenheit (fan-assisted).
7. Bake for 10-12 minutes until the edges are just browning, then allow to cool for five minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.
8. Beat the icing (confectioner’s) sugar and egg white together until smooth. Transfer to a piping bag and pipe on any decorations you would like. Allow to fully harden before hanging (or eating).
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.