So “Sweet”! Ottolenghi Baker Helen Goh Shares Her Inspiration
Talking Martha, Malaysia, and the surprising desserts she creates for the celebrated London restaurants.
Helen Goh has plenty of accomplishments under her belt: she's successfully pursued two careers-in psychology (she completed her doctorate in 2014 and only recently stopped practicing) and in baking (she's the mastermind behind the desserts at superstar chef Yotam Ottolenghi's restaurants in London); she and Ottolenghi co-authored a bestselling, James Beard Award-nominated cookbook, "Sweet"; she has a recipe column in the Australian newspapers Sydney Morning Herald and The Age; and she's kicking off the new year with a bang-by baking with Martha! Goh is a special guest in the "Martha Bakes" season premiere, which is fittingly all about British desserts.
The episode is also a personal milestone for Goh, as it was Martha's cookbooks she turned to when she first started baking. Goh was born in Malaysia but grew up in Melbourne, where after an unsatisfying stint working for a pharmaceuticals company, she opened a cafe called Mortar & Pestle with zero baking experience-what she calls "the most foolish thing you could ever do." Goh did her best to learn on the job, reading and baking nonstop. On the set of "Martha Bakes," she showed Martha a picture of a gingerbread house she made back then from Martha's Christmas book. "I followed every single detail," says Goh. She found Martha's books and magazines helpful because "there was always something you hadn't thought of or didn't expect. They were aspirational and achievable at the same time."
Although the cafe received all kinds of accolades, Goh was hungry to learn more, in a more traditional setting. She began an apprenticeship at Melbourne restaurant Donovans and spent seven years there, quickly working her way up to head pastry chef. She moved to London in 2006 and went from making salads at the Ottolenghi cafes to developing dessert recipes for the entire restaurant empire. Ottolenghi is known for its eye-catching windows full of colorful baked goods, and Goh describes the development process as navigating the tension between the traditional and the new. "There's comfort in the traditional," she says, "but you don't want too much comfort; you also need that thrill of discovery."
Unlike many of-the-moment pastry chefs, she's not interested in originality for the sake of originality. While she loves an element of surprise in a dessert, it has to make sense flavor-wise, like the ras el hanout she added to an otherwise classic fruitcake for "Martha Bakes." She's more focused on getting the crumb, texture, and sugar level just right. "It might seem subtle," says Goh, "but 50 grams of sugar can make the difference between wanting a second slice of cake and feeling like you can't eat cake for another year." She appreciates simplicity but emphasizes that simple is not easy-it takes a lot of work to get there.
First and foremost she's guided by what fruits are in season, explaining the trick is to bring out the best in that fruit without messing up the structure of the dessert. "Think about blueberries in a lemon cake-instant color, instant appeal," she says, "but you don't want them to sink or the batter to weep." Inspiration also comes from sources as disparate as the parsnips at a Sunday roast dinner (which led her to bake a magnificent parsnip cake) and a pair of summer sandals with the most alluring green beads. "The green got me thinking about sugar crystals and how to color them," explains Goh, "so I whisked up basil leaves with sugar and sprinkled them over a nectarine cake."
She's also driven by the desire to preserve the art and ritual of baking. From a psychology standpoint, she finds the act therapeutic. "People who are depressed or anxious tend to worry about the future and obsess about the past, but baking keeps you present and mindful because you have to be very attentive to the process," says Goh. "It's a very powerful way of being connected to yourself." It's also a way to connect with others-we rarely bake just for ourselves, we bake to share-which can be equally restorative.
The positive associations with baking start young Goh notes, with birthday cakes. "They're one of our earliest memories," she says. "They make you feel special and cared for, so I don't think it's a coincidence that we link baking with giving and loving." This message is reinforced by celebrations that are marked with baked goods, from Christmas cookies to Easter pies. The process still sparks the same joy for her as it did when she first started baking. "For me, baking is magic. It's transformative. It's alchemy," she says. "When you put a chicken in the oven, a chicken comes out. But with a cake, you put in butter, eggs, flour-something that looks completely inedible-and get this glorious result."
And while Goh feels more confident than ever in her baking, she's always open to new ideas. Her goal for 2019 is to delve deeper into the ingredients that she grew up with in Malaysia (and that are now easier to find in the U.S., U.K., and Australia), from pandan leaves and cassava root to tapioca flour and blue pea powder. "I want to be braver about incorporating Southeast Asian puddings and cakes into my repertoire," she reveals. "It won't be traditional or authentic, but I'm ready to be bold."