How Yotam Ottolenghi Found His Sweet Tooth
All photos courtesy Peden + Munk

How Yotam Ottolenghi Found His Sweet Tooth

The British-Israeli chef best known for vegetables has just released a baking book. 'Sweet' contains over 100 cake and dessert recipes, with not a roasted aubergine in sight.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB
September 21, 2017, 10:08am

It started with an article in the New York Times. Yotam Ottolenghi admitted it: he loves sugar. Not a delicate teaspoonful to balance a tomato sauce or as a light dusting over citrus fruit, but real sugary sugar in cakes and dessert and biscuits.

"Here is my confession," he wrote, "I rarely go a day without a slice or bite or square of something sweet. If it's not cake, then it'll be a cookie, a slice of tart topped with fruit, or a slab of dark chocolate." This is Ottolenghi, the British-Israeli chef with a vegetarian column in the Guardian and restaurants credited with bringing vegetable-focused Middle Eastern cooking to the mainstream. The one whose recipe books have sold so widely that even your Aunt Sheila in Wigan knows how to prepare a Jerusalem artichoke. The name that has become a byword for tahini-drizzled salad and anything topped with pomegranate seeds. Ottolenghi really, really likes cake.

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Shortly after his "Eat Your Sugar" piece, Ottolenghi announced that he would be bringing out a cookbook with pastry chef Helen Goh. Sweet was published this month and contains over 100 baking and dessert recipes. There isn't a roasted aubergine in sight.

"I think people who know me through my books rather than our Ottolenghi delis were surprised," he tells me of his apparent switch from savoury to sweet. "But if you had been coming to Ottolenghi all those years—mostly Londoners—you would have always known that this was a big chunk of our offering. Pastry displays are a big thing in Ottolenghi." Peer through the window of any of the capital's four Ottolenghi delis and you will indeed find plates of brownies, pecan cookies, berry-topped roulade, and unseemingly puffy meringues. NOPI, his Soho restaurant where we sit at a quiet table near the back, has a pudding menu that includes chocolate ganache and pecan financiers. When the waitress asks if we want breakfast, Ottolenghi insists that she brings croissants for the table. They arrive with individual pots of butter and raspberry jam.

Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh. All photos courtesy Peden + Munk

"They're good today aren't they?" he says, grinning as he tears open the flaky pastry. "They really fluctuate according to weather, to humidity, to everything; so the one thing that keeps bothering me all the time is the crust. I get a WhatsApp message in the morning from one of the shops saying that they were a bit floppy today or they weren't crispy enough—it's always a conversation. A never ending conversation about the croissants!"

"They look amazing," agrees Goh, who joins us and orders a cup of fresh mint tea that sounds so good, Ottolenghi and I ask for the same.

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The two chefs first met in 2006, when Goh left her post as head pastry chef at an esteemed Melbourne restaurant to come to London, and ended up joining the Ottolenghi delis. The pair soon began developing cake recipes together on their days off—his from heading up the restaurants and writing his Guardian column, she from working at the deli and studying part-time for a psychology doctorate. The introduction to Sweet describes Goh turning up at Ottolenghi's house on a Sunday, laden with "more brown carton boxes than humanly possible," full of "cakes-in-progress."

Ever since those weekend tasting sessions, they've been talking about publishing a baking book.

"It was a conversation that we were having over the years," Ottolenghi explains. "Certain baking or cake recipes have featured in my other books, quite a lot in the Ottolenghi: The Cookbook and then later on in Jerusalem and Plenty More. But then one thing led to another and the time had come to do it. Helen and I were ready to go."

"There is a way of using sugar willy-nilly, without thinking of adding it to ready made food, and we are exposed to a lot of that. But there is a whole swathe of ways with sugar that are fantastic. That's the whole art of baking."

Ottolenghi didn't mean to get pigeonholed as a vegetable-focussed chef. In fact, he didn't mean to become a chef. Born in Jerusalem to a professor father and teacher mother, he was meant to be an academic, but abandoned further study aged 29 after completing a graduate degree from Tel Aviv University. He moved to London to train at Le Cordon Bleu and ended up staying in the city, working in restaurants before opening his first Ottolenghi deli in Notting Hill in 2002. In 2006 came the "New Vegetarian" column, a weekly recipe section he took over from Rose Elliot, despite eating meat. His first book, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, was published two years later thanks to the success of the column, which had by this point inspired so many home cooks that some mainstream supermarkets began stocking sumac and za'atar.

More restaurants and cookbooks followed, including the James Beard Award-winning Jerusalem, which explores the food of his home city with longtime collaborator Sami Tamimi.

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"I think I've kind of left that position already with Jerusalem being very balanced with meat, fish, and vegetables," Ottolenghi says, when I ask about his status as a veg-forward chef. "I think people get what it means when you say Ottolenghi eating is beyond vegetarianism—it's a whole way of looking at it. It's celebrating ingredients and putting vegetables very high up there, but it really is about putting everything out on the table and enjoying it."

Flourless coconut and chocolate cake from Ottolenghi and Goh's new baking cookbook, Sweet.

Something of Ottolenghi's academic background infiltrates his food. In cookbooks and in conversation, he has a very precise way of describing dishes and ingredients. Goh, who recently completed her psychology doctorate, seems to approach cooking with similar exactness.

"She's a doctor, she's Dr. Goh!" Ottolenghi points out.

"Yeah, I'm not a real one," Goh protests. "And you're a doctor too! Didn't you get an honorary doctorate?"

"Honorary! But that doesn't count," he laughs. "It really doesn't count."

Doctors or not, the analytical skills honed through writing a thesis or examining scientific hypotheses must come in handy when baking. It's an art that demands attention to the smallest of details: a pinch too much bicarbonate of soda and your vanilla sponge will taste bitter. Leave brownies in the oven for an extra few minutes and their delicious gooey centre is gone.

RECIPE: Flourless Coconut and Chocolate Cake

"We do a lot of analysing of one kind or another," says Goh. "Baking is such a technical art that it sometimes requires a bit more thinking and experimentation and looking at all the factors that come together. It's like a chemical equation."

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"You start from a creative point and then you end up in an analytical point," Ottolenghi adds. "When we throw ideas at each other, it's quite fluid but when it comes to the product, it's about a gram of sugar here or a gram of sugar there. So then, the discussion becomes much more analytical."

Baked goods might require precision but for many people, they're eminently more approachable than Ottolenghi's savoury dishes—sometimes mocked as being bougie fare for middle class dinner parties. In contrast, Sweet contains simple fruitcakes, classic chocolate chip cookies, and a seed cake flavoured with nothing more exotic than lemon. Is this Ottolenghi's attempt to reach a wider audience with his cooking? One for whom crushed carrots with harissa will never be a feasible dinner option?

"In terms of the ingredients, I think baking is more accessible because you could go to any supermarket and buy flour, eggs, and sugar and come up with something pretty decent," he says. "Ottolenghi recipes have never been about buying what's just available on the shelf, we were always pushing the boundaries. Not every Ottolenghi recipe is like that, but many do call for ingredients that are slightly more difficult to get your hands on. I think we had to struggle much less in this book compared to other books with how people would get hold of this ingredient or that ingredient. There are a handful things that are a bit more tricky to get, like ground star anise, but these are quite small so I think [Sweet] has made Ottolenghi cooking more accessible."

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"I don't think we set out to do that," says Goh.

"No," agrees Ottolenghi. "But it's the nature of the beast."

Cinnamon pavlova with praline cream and fresh figs.

Sweet might be Ottolenghi's most international book yet. Recipes are sourced from friends, family members, Ottolenghi employees, chefs, and bakers across the world. Some, such as the halva or tahini brownies ("It is very hard to eat just the one"), draw on the chef's Middle Eastern heritage. Others reference Goh's Malaysian-Australian background—like the pandan tartlets and Anzac biscuits. The result is a book that jumps easily from Guinness cake to galette and Persian love cakes to praline pavlova, and feels like sitting down at an intimate Ottolenghi tea party.

"It says pavlova but it tastes really different from a normal pavlova," Ottolenghi says, referring to the showstopper-esque cinnamon pavlova with praline cream and figs. "Because it has cinnamon and brown sugar."

Ah, yes. Sugar. The addictive-as-cocaine substance scientists and health professionals say is rotting our teeth, contributing to the obesity crisis, and giving us diabetes. In the book, Goh and Ottolenghi acknowledge the public health debate surrounding sugar with a preface titled "Our Sugar Manifesto." It stresses their awareness of the ingredient's adverse effects, while advocating an everything-in-moderation approach to sweet goods.

"It would have been an elephant in the room had we not addressed it," Ottolenghi explains. "One of the things that I feel sorry about is that there are ways and ways with sugar, but I think that they're mixed up. So there is a way of using sugar willy-nilly, without thinking of adding it to ready made food, and we are exposed to a lot of that and that is probably not a good thing. But there is a whole swathe of ways with sugar that are fantastic. That's the whole art of baking that has been around for so long."

A Mont Blanc tart with meringue and candied pecans.

He continues: "The difference between a commercial cake and a cake made at home, I think, is that you're much more respectful of something you have at home. There is a real ritual to make it, to share it, to eat it. As a result, people probably have less of it and have a better understanding of what they're eating. That's what we wanted to address: how important it is to bake as an act of joy and celebration and spreading love."

This uninhibited embrace of sugar and eggs and butter aligns with the recent backlash against "clean eating." After a short-lived obsession with superfood smoothies and gluten-free quinoa balls, it seems many of us have realised that eliminating entire food groups from out diets without the consent of a doctor might not be a great idea. Not to mention very appetising.

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"I don't really understand what clean eating is," admits Goh.

"I don't think many people understand," replies Ottolenghi. He thinks for a moment before adding: "There's such a long history of eating of human culinary activity that goes back many thousands of years and then all of a sudden, someone comes and says you can't eat A, B, C, or D, which consists of like 70 percent of what we've been eating so far. It's bonkers! It's really crazy to do something like that and it's so obviously wrong. People try to find wholesale solutions to problems that aren't really food-related, they're more cultural."

I can't think of a better way to summarise the clean eating movement so take a large bite of my croissant with extra jam. They really are good today.

Despite making his name with vegetables, despite sugar being Public Enemy Number One, despite the clean eating movement; Ottolenghi's move to the sweet side seems, so far, to be a success.

"The book came out on Thursday but I remember on Saturday morning waking up and getting my phone and seeing all these things I was tagged in," says Goh. "All these things people were baking from the book—I was absolutely delighted. Some of it I thought, 'Gosh, that looks better than our version.'"

Ottolenghi laughs. "Yes," he says. "And it's very annoying!"