Yotam Ottolenghi, © 2017 New York Times News Service
Here is an image that I can’t shake: It’s a Sunday afternoon, around 4, probably. My husband, Karl, looks out the window of our first-floor West London flat; an expression of clear foreboding appears on his face and then, very quietly, he says, “Helen’s here … with her cakes.”
Helen Goh then walks through our front door like a gust of wind or, rather, an overzealous dusting of icing sugar, carrying more cartons than humanly possible and, before even setting them down, begins apologising for all the things that went wrong with her cakes. This one hasn’t risen properly, the other bowed around the centre, an icing has split during its application, a sabayon lost its air, a sorbet failed to churn, a sugar syrup crystallized, a cookie crumbled and so on and on and on.
Helen is an old friend and colleague who came to the Ottolenghi shops fresh off the proverbial boat from Australia, back in 2006. I remember meeting for the first time outside one of our shops, big meringue piles looming above us. I heard her story but couldn’t quite understand what drives such a star to leave behind a very successful career — Helen is both a talented pastry chef and a successful psychotherapist — in a very sunny Melbourne in favour of a rather elusive future in a rather grey London.
It took seeing Helen at work — first on the savoury side of the kitchen, then on the pastry side and then, later still, spending much of her time dreaming up pastries, cakes and all manner of sweet things for the company — for the penny to drop. I finally realized that it was Helen’s restlessness and her insatiable drive for perfection that had brought her to me.
What we shared was the notion that there is no upper limit to the number of times you can bake a cake or the amount of thought that can go into the components of a tart in order to get it just right; that you can discuss the minutiae of a chocolate ice cream or a nut brittle as if the fate of the entire universe rests on the conversation, without worrying for a second that this may be, just maybe, a tiny bit over the top.
Baking brought out both our inner kids — and, also, our inner geeks, with all the precise measuring, timing and weighing that informed all of our chats. The combination of the child whose enthusiasm never wanes and the nerd who won’t rest until it’s perfect led to some pretty sweet results.
Officially, she’s a “product developer” for Ottolenghi, but that doesn’t really do her role justice; her originality and perfectionism have had an enormous impact on what we do. From Australia, she brought wonderfully crumbly and sharp yo-yo cookies, her billowy powder puff cakes that are just impossible to put down, and her chocolate cake, which is the cake grown-up kids dream of, and which a newspaper in Australia once called “the world’s best.”
Her Malaysian heritage came through loudly in her chiffon cakes and pandan-infused pineapple tarts, which we often placed on the counter alongside our mince pies around Christmas. Her fluency in European and American baking traditions are there everywhere, from the almond-and-aniseed nougat bars piled by the register to our cheesecakes, cupcakes, madeleines and scones, which all sit beside the cakes I grew up eating, like the syrup-soaked semolina cake here.
Because I am a pastry chef myself, and a notoriously sweet-toothed being with an insatiable appetite for cakes, my bond with Helen was immediate and firm. We spent the following decade conjuring up an enormous variety of sweet things. Eventually, all these led to “Sweet,” the cookbook Helen and I have been working on for the past three years, which is also my first book dedicated solely to sweets. The Sunday tastings at home were forerunners to our Wednesday tastings for the book, which happened in my test kitchen in Camden, North London. Similarly, they were long and intense, sugar being both the fuel enabling us to carry on and the focus of our in-depth discussions.
Recipe: Pistachio and Rose Water Semolina Cake
Yield: 10 to 12 servings
Time: 2 hours, plus cooling
For the candies rose petals (optional):
1 large egg white
About 40 medium pesticide-free red or pink rose petals (from about 2 roses)
2 tablespoons sugar
For the cake:
1 cup/150 grams shelled pistachios, plus 2 tablespoons, finely chopped, for serving
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup/100 grams almond meal
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons/170 grams fine semolina flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon/300 grams unsalted butter (2 1/2 sticks plus 1 tablespoon), at room temperature and cubed, plus extra for greasing the pan
1 2/3 cups/330 grams sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 1 teaspoon), plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons rose water (not rose essence)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the rose cream:
3/4 cup/190 grams plain Greek yoghurt
3/4 cup/200 grams crème fraîche
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 tablespoon rose water
For the rose syrup:
1/2 cup/120 millilitres lemon juice
1/3 cup/80 millilitres rose water
1/2 cup/100 grams sugar
Step 1: Heat oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit/100 degrees Celsius. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and grease a 9-inch/23-centimeter round springform pan and line with parchment paper.
Step 2: Make the candied rose petals, if desired: Whisk egg white by hand until frothy. Then, using a small pastry brush or paintbrush, very lightly paint both sides of each petal with egg white; do this in a few small batches, brushing and then sprinkling the sugar lightly over both sides of each petal. Shake off excess sugar and lay petals on the lined baking sheet. Place in the oven for 30 to 45 minutes, until dry and crunchy, then set aside to cool.
Step 3: Make the cake: Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit/180 degrees Celsius.
Step 4: Combine pistachios and cardamom in a food processor. Process until the nuts are finely ground, then transfer to a bowl. Add almond meal, semolina, baking powder and salt. Mix together and set aside.
Step 5: Place butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until fully combined but take care not to overwork it; you don’t want to incorporate a lot of air into the mixture. With the machine still running, slowly add eggs, scraping down the sides of the bowl a few times and making sure that each batch is fully incorporated before adding the next. The mixture will curdle once the eggs are added, but don’t worry; this will not affect the end result.
Step 6: Remove the bowl from the machine and add the dry ingredients, folding them in by hand and, again, taking care not to overmix. Next fold in lemon zest, lemon juice, rose water and vanilla extract and scrape the batter into the pan. Level with an offset spatula and bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean but oily. While the cake is in the oven, make the rose cream: Place all the ingredients for the cream in a bowl and whisk to beat everything together for about 2 minutes, until thick. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
Step 7: Make the rose syrup: About 10 minutes before the cake comes out of the oven (you want the syrup to be warm when the cake is ready), place all the ingredients for the syrup in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring so that the sugar dissolves, then remove from the heat. Don’t worry that the consistency is thinner than you might expect; this is how it should be.
Step 8: As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, drizzle all of the syrup over the top. It is a lot of syrup, but don’t lose your nerve — the cake can take it! Sprinkle with finely chopped pistachios and set the cake aside in its plan to come to room temperature. Remove from pan and scatter rose petals over the cake. Serve immediately, with a generous spoonful of rose cream alongside. (The cake keeps well for up to 5 days in an airtight container. The rose petals should be sprinkled over just before serving.)
Recipe: World’s Best Chocolate Cake
Yield: 12 servings
Time: 1 1/2 hours, plus cooling
Ingredients for the cake:
1 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons/250 grams unsalted butter (2 sticks plus 1 1/2 tablespoons), at room temperature and cut into 3/4-inch/2-centimeter cubes, plus extra for greasing the pan
7 ounces/200 grams dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa solids), chopped into 3/4-inch/2-centimeter pieces
1 ½ teaspoons instant coffee granules, dissolved in 1 1/2 cups/350 millilitres boiling water
1 1/4 cups/250 grams sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons/240 grams self-rising flour. If you can’t find self-rising flour, whisk together 1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons/240 grams all-purpose flour and 2 3/4 teaspoons baking powder and use this mixture instead.
1/3 cup/30 grams Dutch-processed cocoa powder, plus 1 1/2 teaspoons, for dusting
¼ teaspoon salt
For the chocolate ganache (optional):
7 ounces/200 grams dark chocolate (70 per cent cocoa solids), broken or chopped roughly into 3/4-inch/2-centimeter pieces
3/4 cup/180 millilitres heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature
For the espresso cinnamon mascarpone cream (optional):
1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon/375 millilitres heavy cream
3/4 cup/190 grams mascarpone
Scraped seeds of 1/2 vanilla pod
2 ½ teaspoons finely ground espresso
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 1/2 tablespoons powdered sugar
Step 1: Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit/170 degrees Celsius. Grease a 9-inch/23-centimeter round springform pan with butter and line with parchment paper then set aside.
Step 2: Make the cake: Place butter, chocolate and hot coffee in a large heatproof bowl and mix well until everything is melted, combined and smooth. Whisk in sugar by hand until dissolved. Add eggs and vanilla extract and whisk again until thoroughly combined and smooth. Sift flour, cocoa powder and salt together into a bowl and then whisk this into the melted chocolate mixture. The batter here is liquid, but don’t think you have missed something; this is how it should be.
Step 3: Pour batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, or until the cake is cooked and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean or with just a few dry crumbs attached. The top will form a crust and crack a little but don’t worry, this is expected. Leave the cake to cool for 20 minutes before removing from the pan, then set aside until completely cool.
Step 4: Make the chocolate ganache, if desired: Place chocolate pieces in a food processor, process until fine and set aside. Combine cream and corn syrup in a small pan and place over medium-high heat. As soon as bubbles begin to appear (just before it comes to a boil), remove from the heat. Get the food processor running again, with the chocolate still inside, and pour in the hot cream in a steady stream. Process for 10 seconds, then add butter. Continue to process until mixture is shiny and smooth. (You can also make the ganache by hand; just make sure the chocolate is chopped fairly finely before adding the cream mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon until almost melted, then add the butter. Stir again until the ganache is smooth.)
Step 5: Use a rubber spatula to scrape the ganache into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, with the plastic actually touching the top of the ganache. Set aside until it has set to the consistency you want. If you want a thin layer to spread over the cake, it can be poured over while liquid so that you get an even, light and shiny coating. For a thicker ganache with a spreading consistency, leave it for about 2 hours at room temperature. (The ganache can be stored at room temperature, providing it’s not too warm, for 3 days or kept in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. It can also be frozen, although it will lose a bit of its shine when defrosted.)
Step 6: Make the espresso cinnamon mascarpone cream, if desired: Place all the ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat for 1 to 2 minutes, until soft peaks form.
Step 7: Peel the parchment from the cake and discard. Transfer to a serving platter and spread the ganache, if using, on top of the cake. Slice into wedges, divide the cake among plates and, if using, spoon the mascarpone cream alongside. With or without icing, the cake will keep well for 4 to 5 days in an airtight container.
Featured Image: Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times