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18 October 2017Last updated
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Sweet! Yotam Ottolenghi talks to Friday about his new book

He made his name with innovative recipes, but this autumn goes back to his roots with a dessert book

Arva Ahmed
6 Oct 2017 | 09:00 am
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If there’s a one-word reason why commonplace Middle Eastern ingredients like tahini, pomegranate molasses and za’atar have become “sexy” in the West, then it would be “Ottolenghi”.

Yotam Ottolenghi had switched paths from philosophy and comparative literature to food after a six-month course at Le Cordon Bleu in London. His hunt for a pastry-making job lured him through the doors of London-based Baker & Spice, where he connected with the then-executive chef, Sami Tamimi. The two bonded over their parallel lives in the Middle East and London, and eventually left Baker & Spice three years later to start their own empire of restaurants and cookbooks.

Ottolenghi eventually rose to fame over his transformation of fresh seasonal vegetables. No longer were they mere accessories for meat dishes but instead vibrant showstoppers of the meal. When I flip through the pages of Ottolenghi and Tamimi’s book, Jerusalem, I have an instant urge to glorify some swiss chard with tahini, yogurt and buttered pine nuts or conjure up a platter of roasted potatoes with caramel and prunes.

This year, Ottolenghi has reopened the door that let him into the world of food: Pastries. Fresh out of the oven, his sixth cookbook, SWEET: Desserts from London’s Ottolenghi, is co-authored with Helen Goh, a Malaysian-born pastry chef who earned her sweet laurels in Melbourne before joining the Ottolenghi family in London in 2006. Their book whips together Ottolenghi’s French pastry training, his Middle Eastern upbringing with ‘syrup-drenched cookies and cakes’, the legendary cake displays at Ottolenghi restaurants piled with ‘apple and olive oil cakes, all sorts of tea cakes’ and Helen’s background in Australia and Malaysia.

Read: Five recipes from cookbook star Yotam Ottolenghi

While sugar has become a vilified ingredient today, Ottolenghi advocates ‘moderation’ and ‘real ingredients’ rather than ‘free from’ desserts that sneak in ingredients we are unaware of or cannot pronounce. SWEET is born out of his ‘genuine belief that a little slice of cake goes a long way to bring a real pop of pleasure to people’s day-to-day. And, of course, my unashamed sweet tooth’.

Flipping through SWEET made me weak with craving – and I don’t even fancy desserts. In the face of the monotone chocolate-over-more-chocolate desserts we see today, the book is an indulgent reminder of how creative and contrasting dessert flavours can be, from custard ‘yo-yo’s’ with roasted rhubarb icing to walnut and black treacle tarts with crystallized sage.

(The book came out on September 7, and is available at Kinokunya and Magrudy’s bookstores in the UAE.)

I interviewed Ottolenghi to learn more.

You started writing a baking column in the New York Times earlier this year, and now you’ve published a book called SWEET. What compels you to write about one of the most vilified ingredients of our generation?

Like all of my cooking, SWEET and my New York Times column are a celebration of food. I’ve just never been one for the vilification of any ingredient or a complete ban on an entire food group. I know there is a trend at the moment for certain ‘free-from’ ways of eating but it’s just never been my approach to food. Trends come and go but I’ve always cooked and eaten everything, in moderation, and really believe that if you’re starting out with real ingredients on your worktop (rather than hidden ingredients, in processed food) then you can’t go far wrong. It’s ingredients with names I can’t pronounce which worry me, and food which is ‘free from’ something (without telling us what has been put in instead) rather than the words, ‘sugar’, ‘flour’ and ‘eggs’. What compelled me to write SWEET is a genuine belief that a little slice of cake goes a long way to bring a real pop of pleasure to people’s day-to-day. And, of course, my unashamed sweet tooth.

The gluten-free and nut-free desserts in the book are claimed to be ‘happy accidents’. Tell us more.

I often find it a useful discipline to impose certain limitations on my cooking – it can challenge one to be more creative and really think about things if not everything is readily available – but, again, SWEET is a book of absolute free-for-all abundance and decadence, with very few of these imposed limitations. The remit here was perfection and excitement on the flavour, texture, look and pleasure front, rather than setting out to cater for those who are cooking without nuts or dairy or gluten, for example. The fact that we so often reached this high bar without gluten or nuts, for example, was just that: a happy (if it means that it’ll encourage more people to cook it) accident. I use ground almonds rather than flour in a cake because it makes the texture super moist, for example, not so that its point is to be gluten-free.

You started your culinary career whisking egg whites for meringues, then rose to fame over savoury and vegetable dishes, and now you’re back to the world of sweets again. Has anything changed in your approach to desserts since you first started out as a pastry chef?

My training as a pastry chef was in the classical French tradition, with the emphasis on all sorts of pastry. The years since have massively increased my repertoire – all the Middle Eastern syrup-drenched cookies and cakes I grew up with, classic American cookies like chocolate chip, all the cakes which have become core to the Ottolenghi cake displays over the years – apple and olive oil cakes, all sorts of tea cakes and so on – and then of course everything Helen has brought to the table over the years. Helen’s experience of all things sweet is vast and wide, from her background in Australia and Malaysia, which has introduced so many new ingredients to my idea of what works in a sweet context. Chai brulée tarts, pandan-infused milk, ground star anise and so on and so on.

You and Helen talk of giving the recipes in the book the full Ottolenghi treatment, or ‘Ottolenghify’-ing cakes and cookies. Should we be looking for pomegranate seeds and tahini in everything?

When I talk about the ‘Ottolenghi treatment’ I’m not talking so much about the ingredients or look of a dish as much as the process recipes go through to be deemed as ‘done’. The ‘Ottolenghi treatment’ is the exacting system a recipe goes through from first idea to final publication, with all the testing and tweaking and honing and second testing and third testing that every recipe goes through. For all the pomegranate seeds or tahini drizzles in the world, my recipes don’t mean anything unless, firstly, they work at home and, secondly, they pass my ‘very delicious’ bar. If anything, I shy away from too many pomegranate seeds and tahini where I can. They are almost a too-easy way of making everything either look gorgeous or taste nutty and divine. I don’t not use them, of course, but I try not to use them too much!

In Dubai, we don’t have a plentiful supply of seasonal fruit other than dates. What’s your stance on using imported fresh, frozen or canned fruit in desserts?

All these alternatives can absolutely work well. With a fruit like apricots, canned can often be the best option as the window of perfection for these stoned fruit is rare for everyone, whether or not the supply is plentiful. Frozen can also be a good first option: Frozen raspberries (rather than fresh) in the raspberry ice cream for the knickerbocker glory, for example, creates a super-smooth texture from all the liquid they emit. In some cases, though – if making a roulade for a special occasion or the celebration cake, which is topped with fresh berries – I’d make an exception and use imported fresh fruit and berries. Frozen will not work – they’d collapse and leak on the cream. As a general rule, if it’s for garnish or decoration, I’d go with fresh if possible, but if it’s to be blitzed or pureed into a batter or dough, then frozen or canned will be absolutely fine.

Water ganache: Are we skipping the cream to appease our vegan friends?

This is another ‘happy accident’. Using water instead of cream here means that nothing distracts from the taste being one of pure chocolate. It’s also much more stable and easy to work with than a cream-based ganache, which tends to lose its shine after a couple of hours. A colleague introduced me to this: It didn’t sound as though it was going to work or emulsify but it actually makes the smoothest of all ganaches. Plus, it keeps well in the fridge for days, ready to be re-heated in a small saucepan over a low heat. Again, it’s all about the taste and look or something rather than it serving a primarily ‘free-from’ purpose.

The book has over 300 pages dedicated to cakes, mini-cakes, cookies, cheesecakes, tarts, pies, desserts and confectionery. How did you decide which recipes made the cut for the book?

They had to work, they had to be very delicious and they had to be something I’d bake and make again and again at home for friends. After passing that criteria, there was then a need for balance in the book in terms of ingredients, colour and chapter length. No book needs eight different-but-similar chocolate cakes or fruit crumbles, so sometimes we’d have an ‘off’ where three similar cakes or cookies went head to head and only one could get through.

Could you explain the thought process behind deep-frying Roma’s saffron custard doughnuts along with the parchment paper they were proofing on?

This is certainly one of the ‘you don’t want to be making and eating this every day’ recipes in the book! They are amazingly wonderful, though (and so rewarding to make your own doughnuts) and deep-frying is just the reality here: I’m yet to be sold on the pan-fried doughnut! Putting them into the oil with the parchment paper attached was an idea we got from my friend, the chef Peter Gordon: If you try and take them off the parchment paper after they’ve proved then they’ll deflate straight away, so transferring them on the paper helps. The paper soon detaches once the doughnuts start frying and can then be fished out with tongs.

Biscuits versus cookies – can we interchange the two terms without offending anyone?

I think there are enough other big issues in the world, yes, to use these interchangeably without causing too much offence. It was a question we put the test kitchen when writing the book – what’s the difference between a cookie and a biscuit – and everyone had a different response. Some thought that a cookie is thick (and often softer, with a crumble when broken in two) and a biscuit thin (often with a snap when broken in two). Or that cookies are sweet but biscuits can be savoury. But then we could think of crisp cookies too, so our hard and fast definitions also begun to snap (or crumble) when we thought about them. Others just thought it was a case of American vs. British wording or that ‘a biscuit can be many different types of things but a cookie is always a cookie’. Perhaps this is one of the big questions after all!

We’re glad that you approve of cake for breakfast! Other than the strawberry and rhubarb crumble, are there others in SWEET that are appropriate for early morning indulgences? (We’ve got our money on the coffee and walnut financiers.)

I could have cake any time of the day but, yes, the crumble works particularly well at breakfast along with some thick Greek yoghurt. The tin can cakes work well as well, slathered with butter. I’d also be happy with a slice of fig and pistachio frangipane tart, again with some yoghurt or crème fraiche alongside or a soft date and oat bar.

Why are vitamin C tablets used in the beet, ginger and sour cream cake?

The addition of the vitamin C tablet helps preserve and ‘set’ the colour of the beetroot in the cake, allowing for streaks of magenta when you slice open the cake. It’s a trick I learnt when cooking quince in the pan and trying to preserve their colour as well.

Given all the rage around tahini chocolate chip cookies, we would have expected the recipe for one in an Ottolenghi book of desserts. Is there a reason Sweet doesn’t include them?

I brought together this winning combination in the seriously moreish tahini and halva chocolate brownies. I published a recipe for cookies drizzled in tahini in one of my New York Times columns. The combination is wonderful indeed but it wasn’t something the book was crying out for.

Baking is considered a precise science and the book also mentions Helen’s ‘insatiable drive for perfection’. Yet the recipes in Sweet seem quite forgiving and even open to substitutions and improvisation. What variables in a dessert recipe are most conducive to personal creativity, versus ones that should be held as sacred and unchangeable?

This is the beautiful paradox at the heart of all baking and all things sweet – on one hand it taps into the inner geek – measurements must be precise, oven temperature must be accurate, the temperature of ingredients in the first place makes a difference – but on the other hand it completely taps in to the inner child – so much fun to be had with chocolate chips and colourful berries and drizzling icing over cupcakes! As ever, with cooking or baking, my advice is to make something again and again until you become so confident and familiar with a recipe that you’re then able to make changes according to what you like and what your oven is really like and what your family like. I know that one of my recipes is a success when someone has made it so many times that it then belongs to someone else. I want people to make the recipes I love their own.

How many kilograms were gained after the ‘endless tests’ you mention were behind this book?

Wednesday afternoon sessions, when we’d do much of our tasting, were followed, it has to be said, by a very small (and very savoury) supper and a morning run the next day. I’m fairly good at eating just a bite or two or something when trying it out, rather than an epic slice, but the test kitchen as a whole is fairly relieved to have moved on to testing for more savoury recipes now.

I’m an anxious novice baker. Which Sweet recipe should I start with to boost my confidence?

Start with some of the cookies and biscuits in chapter one. The chocolate chip cookie, for example, of the peanut sandies. Also, look for recipes that seem long and complicated but are actually made up of two or three components that can all be made in advance and in your own good time and then just assembled when you need to. Some of the cheesecakes, for example, are deceptively easy. There are a handful of recipes which you’ll need to build up to – the frozen espresso parfait for a crowd is not one to be made when in a hurry – but the recipes are designed for the home cook, with little fancy kit needed or complicated methods undergone. If you can read, you can cook, and if you can cook, you can bake, and if you can bake, you’ll make a lot of friends and family happy.

Arva Ahmed

Arva Ahmed