Ottolenghi and Goh on sugar

A debate with Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh on the merits of any particular cake, biscuit or pudding, spirals into serious, labyrinthine assessments of silkiness and nuttiness, crumb size and snap. (There is, they will tell you, an art to ensuring a biscuit has as much crunch when it’s liberated from the oven as it does after three days in a tin).

You quickly realise they’d be utterly formidable on Bake Off.

Israeli-British chef Yotam, 51, co-owner – with Sami Tamimi – of the Ottolenghi delis and restaurants, and pastry chef and psychologist Helen, 54, spent more than three years concocting and wrangling over sugary treats like this to include in their book of desserts, Sweet. It was his sixth book and her first.

 
 
 

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In it there are mini berry frangipanes, decadent cream-frosted puds and cookies galore – all of which have been put through the pair’s ruthless, multi-stage recipe-testing regime. “Each recipe has to have something indefinably ‘Ottolenghi’ about it,” says Mr Ottolenghi.

The perfect cake depends on the time of day

“Easy!” shouts Ms Goh when asked to pick the bake she’d fancy a slice of right now. “The prune and Armagnac cake.” (It has a rubbly walnut topping, dusted with clouds of icing sugar).

“It depends on the time of day, right?” ponders Mr Ottolenghi. “Now, I don’t want anything creamy, I just want something that would be really nice with a cup of tea.

“But in the evening, something more dessert-y. I really love the – you know how much I like strawberries and vanilla – the rhubarb strawberry crumble cake …” We all glaze over in a sugar-spiked reverie.

 
 
 

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“There was always going to be an Ottolenghi pastry book, the question was when,” he adds, explaining how the Ottolenghi deli windows have become synonymous with sweet things, particularly the brand’s huge and billowy meringues.

“Before you, no-one had taken meringues seriously,” Ms Goh tells him proudly.

Baking offers an escape and brings back memories

The pair collided in 2006, when Ms Goh, who hails from Melbourne, Australia, via Malaysia, moved to the UK. She began by encouraging Mr Ottolenghi to up the patisserie and sugar-work in the deli windows, and won him over with her remarkable attention to detail and oaty Australian Anzac cookies. They’ve been friends and partners in pastry ever since – after all, “you don’t eat a cake by yourself,” says Ms Goh with a grin.

With baking, it’s the precision and escape that appeals to her: “There’s a satisfaction of following the steps and then getting something at the end – just that sense of achievement, and that sense of flow. You have to be accurate and very focused, which means you forget about everything else.”

 
 
 

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For Mr Ottolenghi, it’s the way baking intersects with memory: “We’re all yearning for things that feel comforting and reminiscent of home – and I think baking really brings that across, even more than other forms of cooking.”

“And we feel a bit disjointed about our reality [at the moment],” he adds thoughtfully, “with so much of it not being real, so much of it happening on computer screens and TV screens. I think baking just creates that sense of place, of home.”

Demonising sugar makes you want it more

One thing they were highly aware of throughout making Sweet, was the negative conversations being had around sugar – the mainstream demonisation of the white stuff.

“The difficulty at the moment is creating a clear understanding of what you expect of sugar,” says Mr Ottolenghi. “Whenever you demonise something, you want it even more; it creates an unhealthy relationship.”

“We’ve always been raised eating a little bit of sugar, but somewhere along the way, that relationship has become a little bit broken,” he says, explaining how a bewildering distance has opened up between us and sugar: “It’s mainly to be blamed on mass-produced food, and sugar added where it doesn’t need to be, so how are you meant to trust your instincts on it now?

“There is room for a piece of cake, room for a bar of chocolate – there is room for all of these things in our lives – but we need to do it consciously.”

Know what you are eating and relax a little

“It’s about savouring what you eat,” Ms Goh agrees.

“And if you make it [yourself], you know exactly what goes in – you are much more aware of what you’re eating,” adds Mr Ottolenghi. “I think generally we should be a little bit more relaxed about everything, and the rest will follow.”

 
 
 

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Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh is published by Ebury Press, Photography by Peden + Munk. Available now.

How often do you bake? Do you try to reduce the sugar in recipes or use sugar alternatives?

– With PA

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Related articles:
https://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/health/your-health/find-the-hidden-sugars-in-food
https://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/food-recipes/recipes/perfect-sticky-toffee-pudding
https://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/health/wellbeing/yotams-favourite-food-memories

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