Stephanie Sobel, founder of The Friday Baker, is great at problem solving. The Sydney-born, London-based baker actually chalks it up to her job as an interior designer—a career based on finding solutions—but it is apparent in her recipes as well, which are filled with tips to guide amateur cooks without taking away their autonomy. Below, she weighs in on her kitchen, her baking life—from preparing foods in the internet age to the trials and errors of recipe development—and on collaborating with her fiancé, fashion photographer Daniel Nadel.
ON MAKING HER SMALL KITCHEN WORK
With a small kitchen, I am constantly culling. We have shelves everywhere. Our spice rack was made by a friend who used old floorboards. We buy and use groceries on the same day. Our refrigerator is small, but I’ve learned to manage. We’ll only have one item at a time; one milk, one yogurt. We buy six eggs not twelve, one cheese not five. We don’t have any excess, and we don’t waste anything. Even with baking, I only have this one cake tin, so I have to adapt recipes for it.
I’m actually a very messy person. I like having the things I use often out on the surface and readily available. I don’t see the point in putting something away if twice a day I’m going to pull it out. But Daniel is a clean freak, so my own system doesn’t even really work out. Because the kitchen is so small, the best technique is to clean as we cook, so he comes in and cleans as I go. It’s really handy, and it 100% compensates for him not cooking.
STEPHANIE’S BAKING ESSENTIALS
A digital scale: Cups can be inaccurate if you don’t fill them properly and slice the top off. Weighing is particularly important with newer recipes. If you’re using coconut flour for instance, it’s so absorbent that if you don’t have the right balance of flour to eggs, you’ll get an awfully dry recipe.
A second thermometer inside your oven: It’s the only other necessity for an older kitchen. I always have one hanging up inside my oven, because even though there’s a light that turns off when the temperature has been reached, some people’s ovens don’t heat up as well, or they overheat. It’s the best thing for an old oven. I use a Hess and Blumenthal thermometer, I got it from a shop in London.
A handheld mixer with the whisk attachment: I got a KitchenAid for my birthday. It’s a fabulous luxury item, but you definitely don’t need one. These days people like to create time saving recipes, but really if a recipe for bread insists you use a KitchenAid and you don’t have one, our hands actually do the best job at kneading. It might take longer but you’ll get the same result, if not better! Actually, Gordon Ramsey once said that all you need is two good knives.You don’t need gadgets, you don’t need the garlic crusher or the peeler or the mandolin, if you have the right skills.
ON STARTING A BAKING-ONLY BLOG
I started baking in University. I fell in love with the color; apricots, lemons, carrots. I didn’t cook growing up, because my parents cooked for me. Baking allowed me to do something for myself and then give it away. I love giving what I’ve made to people. I love the response. I try everything I make, but baking has always been about giving it away. Maybe it’s a selfish thing—I want confirmation that it was good—but people also appreciate it because they don’t bake for themselves. I used to bring baked goods to work, and I still take them to clients as gifts.
On the blog, I try to share what people might look at and find intimidating. I also experiment with other people’s recipes. These days, though, I find that if I bake something from Instagram or Pinterest, it tends to flop. Not always, but often. And I get really frustrated, because I’ve spent all this time in the kitchen, followed the instructions perfectly, and it just didn’t work! Cooking blogs are like Broken Telephone: someone adapts a recipe, and accidentally writes the wrong direction, or adapts it in such a way that it doesn’t really work, but then it continues to cycle around the internet, and maybe someone else does something like change the egg content because maybe they baked it in winter not summer, and with cakes, so much can go wrong. It’s not the same when following a recipe from a published author, which tends to be a lot more successful.
Having cooking tips and an easy-to-follow approach are crucial for recipes. I’m always trying to include tips on my blog. If you’re an amateur baker it helps to have a bit of support on the side. Even a simple thing like blending butter and sugar; some people don’t have their butter soft enough, or don’t blend long enough. It’s those tiny things that might make it not turn out the way you wanted it to. Even making it clear that some ingredients are omittable. Obviously there are things you can’t leave out, but it helps to mention that there are alternatives to a handful of chopped fruit or nuts.
STEPHANIE’S BAKING TIPS
TRICKS FOR SAVING IMPERFECT CAKES
ITEMS THAT PERSONALIZE HER KITCHEN
Cake and bundt tins! I want to collect them. My mini bundt tin has a lot of really nice detail in it, and cakes always come out really well. My parents gave me these Le Creuset Ramekins, which give a personal touch to a dinner party. And cookbooks! I’ll never stop buying cookbooks. I don’t even use them often, I just like having them for inspiration. I really like the new UK [culinary] girls —Hemsley & Hemsley, Deliciously Ella—but UK recipes are very different cooking from Australian cooking. They’re very wintry, which makes sense; food should reflect the place you’re in. But the ingredients are heavy. There is always a savory pie. And sometimes I find their recipes too vegetable-based; they’re healthy, but a cookbook should also make you feel comfortable having a balanced diet. If you’re vegan or vegetarian it’s an amazing resource, but if you’re happy to have a bit of goat cheese or chicken, the books can be a bit extreme.
The Feast Goes On is a beautiful cookbook by The Monday Morning Cooking Club, a group of Jewish women in Sydney that have gotten together and collected recipes. They asked people in their community for recipes, had someone test them, and compiled the best one. My dad is in here with two recipes: his Osso Bucco with lamb, and his herb crusted lamb dish.
About five or six years ago, my dad started cooking and baking like a chef. I’m not sure what made him start; maybe because he could no longer play golf as much he’d like. Now he makes dinner every night, reads cookbooks in bed, makes his own pasta and bouillabaisse. He makes dinners for his friends on weekends and people are lining up for invitations. When I go back home, we cook together.
ON COLLABORATING WITH HER FIANCé
It’s fun having Daniel help me out. He has a lot of input; as a photographer he has an eye for it. We work on the weekends. The shoot takes about five hours. We move the sofa out of the way, we make sure the light is right.
We plan out each shot—the mixing, the cutting—and we try to aim for at least five shots. Sometimes when I’m prepping Daniel might do a still life of an ingredient. We like the photos to be a bit quirky; sometimes we’ll hang up a picture from our house, or include an object that we think is relevant to the dish.
I didn’t think we would work on this together. I was making scones one day and he gave me his digital camera, and then he said “do you want me to take the photos?” I was shy about it, I felt uncomfortable giving something of mine over to someone else. But I said to myself, why not? After that, he would ask, “do you want to bake this weekend?” He definitely helped turn it into a blog.
ON SEASONAL INGREDIENTS
This is an apricot cake. They are in season and super delicious. The cake has dried apricots inside, as well as almond meal and a bit of wholemeal flour. It’s a real cake, with butter and sugar. You wouldn’t think to put apricots in a cake but it really is delicious. Another tip: Even with this recipe, when you start adding in the eggs, the mixture starts to look like it curdles, due to the fat of the eggs and the butter. It goes a bit weird and lumpy. The first time I saw that I thought I had messed up. But when you start adding a bit of flour it binds and the issue is gone.
You’ll need a 23cm (9 inch) diameter spring form cake tin.
[A/N: the original recipe has UK measurements. We’ve converted the measurements for our US audience, but if you have a scale, measuring the ingredients by weight will be the most accurate].
For the cake:
250g (approx. 1 heaping cup) softened butter
250g (approx. 1 heaping cup) caster/superfine sugar
75g (3/4 c.) almond meal
100g (3/4 c.) plain wholewheat flour
100g (2/3 c.) soft dried apricots
4 large eggs, beaten, at room temperature
grated zest and juice from 1 organic/unwaxed lemon
25g (approx. 1 oz.) pistachios, shelled
25g (approx. 1 oz.) almonds, raw or toasted
For the purée:
400g (14 oz.) ripe apricots
100g (1/2 c.) sugar – caster/superfine or granulated
- Preheat the oven to 180˚C (350˚F) and line the base of a 23cm (9 in.) spring form cake tin with baking or greaseproof paper.
- Beat the butter and the sugar in an electric mixer until light, fluffy, and white. Make sure you stop the mixer two or three times to scrape down the edges.
- Add the beaten eggs to the butter and sugar mixture a little at a time with the beater on a low speed. If you rush this step the mixture will curdle. If this happens don’t stress! The addition of the flour later should rectify it.
- Mix the almond meal and flour together in a separate bowl. Then, in a food processor or Vitamix, whizz up the dried apricots until they are very very fine.
- With the mixer still on a low speed, add the lemon zest and a third of the flour mixture. Gradually add the remainder of the flour mixture, a tablespoon at a time, until well incorporated. Don’t rush through this step, adding the flour too quickly or impatiently increasing the speed will result in a heavy cake.
- Lastly, with the beater still on a low speed, add the lemon juice and chopped apricots. Transfer the mixture using a spatula into the lined tin and bake in the oven for 35 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean and the top springs back when you touch it. Another sign it is ready is if the sides are beginning to come away from the tin. It really depends on your oven, so don’t freak out if it takes up to 45 minutes.
- Run a palette knife around the edges, remove the ring and turn the cake out onto a wire rack lined with baking paper.
- In the meantime, slice your apricots in half and take the pip out. Add them to a saucepan with 4 tbsp. of water and 60g (4 tbsp.) of sugar. I personally prefer them a little on the sour side, but if you want to add more sugar feel free to. You can always add a bit more at the end. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and leave for about 20 minutes or until the fruit is soft.
- Allow the apricot mixture to cool a little before blitzing it in a food processor or passing it through a sieve.
- Clean out your food processor and add the nuts, pulsing until they resemble rough crumbs.
- Once your cake is out the oven and cooled for at least 5 minutes, spread a thin layer of purée over the top and sprinkle with the nuts. Serve with more purée and greek yogurt.