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Sweet talking

Famed chef, author Yotam Ottolenghi visits Palo Alto

"Sweet" co-authors Yotam Ottolenghi, left, and Helen Goh, center, talk about the making of their book with Margo True, food editor at Sunset magazine at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Tuesday, Oct. 3. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Yotam Ottolenghi's cooking style is so popular it has spawned its own verb: "Ottolenghify."

The Israeli-born British chef is known for his string of London delis and stunning cookbooks, which teach others how to "Ottolenghify" traditional dishes with the addition of bold flavors and ingredients like saffron, cardamom, figs and tahini.

Ottolenghi spoke to a sold-out crowd at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Tuesday while on tour for his new cookbook, "Sweet," which he co-authored with Helen Goh, an Australian pastry chef and longtime lead product developer for Ottolenghi's restaurants. The cookbook is his first focusing on desserts. Goh joined him at the event.

On Tuesday, he described his own cooking sensibilities, which he applies to sweets as much as savory: "I try to break the rules if I can -- not just for the sake of it but just for asking the right questions," he said. "Why do we cook in a certain way?"

This approach shows up over and over again in "Sweet," where even a classic American dessert, the chocolate chip and pecan cookie, is tweaked with the additions of cocoa powder, cinnamon and mashed banana.

Ottolenghi's background defies convention. He was born and raised in Jerusalem, but has Italian roots on his father's side. He earned a master's degree in philosophy and comparative literature before moving to London, where he planned to start a doctoral program but instead ended up at culinary school. His first cooking job was whipping egg whites for souffles at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London in 1997.

His co-author's story is similarly unusual: Goh is both an accomplished pastry chef and practicing psychologist. She was born in Malaysia but immigrated at a young age to Australia, where she worked in the pharmaceutical industry before shifting to pastry. Goh got the job with Ottolenghi's company a decade ago by cold-emailing Ottolenghi after visiting one of his London shops, which she described as "like Aladdin's caves," with windows full of sweets piled high.

Goh's own baking style -- which is more traditional and simple, she said -- has become bolder because of her years with Ottolenghi, but she has also left her print on the brand. Her own recipes, such as her take on an Australian classic cookie (a custard "Yo-Yo" with roasted rhubarb icing) and simple peanut cookies, are featured in "Sweet."

The two have been collaborating for years, and spent hours together testing desserts that would end up in "Sweet" during what Ottolenghi called "crazy sugar sessions" at his house in London. On Sunday afternoons, Goh would bring armfuls of cakes to eat and critique.

"It was not just physical," Goh said. "We put our academic, analytical minds to work."

The goal of "Sweet" is to make the sometimes intimidating world of dessert-making more approachable, both said. Each recipe comes with a short story on how it came to be (Ottolenghi said these details are important in a time when "story-less recipes are abundant" online) and helpful tips and tricks in the margins. "Blind" testers also tried the recipes to make sure home cooks could follow them.

"The more I hear these kind of voices that I think we all know -- 'I just cook; I don't bake because I find it too challenging, too precise and so much can go wrong with a cake' -- I actually think it's the other way around," Ottolenghi said.

So much can go wrong when cooking fish, he said, while baking a cake comes with more structure and definition.

Ottolenghi described himself as more of a recipe developer today than a chef, constantly keeping his audience -- home bakers and cooks with a wide range of skill sets -- in mind.

Ottolenghi and Goh also shared their own tricks of the trade on Tuesday: Measuring ingredients by weight rather than volume is the best ("there is no merits to cups," Ottolenghi said); when baking with bananas, use "mottled" bananas rather than overly ripe ones, Goh said, to get an ideal balance of sugar and acid; and sifting flour is not always necessary, except in some recipes.

As a tribute to all things sweet, the cookbook's authors also acknowledge that sugar is often viewed as "Public Enemy No. 1." Ottolenghi argued Tuesday that the book celebrates ingredients and bringing people together through baking rather than the sugars hidden in processed foods.

"For us, cakes are not so much about sugar. ... it's much more about the act of baking," he said. "It's a cultural act. The art of baking is the best manifestation that our culinary culture has created over the years."

Read more about Ottolenghi and Goh's recipe-development process, what his next cookbook will be about and the best sweet thing he ate all year in a Q&A with the Weekly.


Below is a recipe from "Sweet" that Ottolenghi said would be the one dessert he would eat for the rest of his life.

Tahini and Halva Brownies

Servings: 16

The combination of tahini, halva and chocolate is so good that some members of staff (Tara, we see you!) had to put a temporary personal ban on eating these particular brownies during the making of this book. It is very hard to eat just one.

In order to achieve the perfect balance of cakey and gooey -- that sweet spot that all brownies should hit -- the cooking time is crucial. It will vary by a minute or so depending on where the pan is sitting in the oven, so keep a close eye on them.

Equipment: We made these in a 9-inch square baking pan, but a 12 x 8-inch pan also works well.

Storage: These will keep well for up to 5 days in an airtight container. They also freeze well, covered in plastic wrap, for up to a month. When you take them out of the freezer, they are uncommonly good eaten at the half-frozen, half-thawed stage.

1 cup plus 1-1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into 3/4-inch cubes, plus extra for greasing

9 ounces dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), broken into 1-1/2-inch pieces

4 large eggs

1-1/3 cups granulated sugar

3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

7 ounces halva, broken into 3/4-inch pieces

1/3 cup tahini paste

Heat the oven to 400 F. Grease your chosen pan and line with parchment paper, then set aside.

Place the butter and chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, making sure that the base of the bowl is not touching the water. Leave for about 2 minutes to melt, then remove the bowl from the heat. Stir until you have a thick, shiny sauce and set aside to come to room temperature.

Place the eggs and sugar in a large bowl and whisk until pale and creamy and a trail is left behind when you move the whisk; this will take about 3 minutes with an electric mixer, longer by hand. Add the chocolate and fold through gently with a spatula -- don't overwork the mixture here.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder and salt into a bowl, then gently fold into the chocolate mixture. Finally, add the pieces of halva, gently fold through the mix, then pour or scrape the mixture into the lined baking pan, using a small spatula to even it out. Dollop small spoonfuls of the tahini paste into the mix in about 12 different places, then use a skewer to swirl them through to create a marbled effect, taking the marbling right to the edges of the pan.

Bake for about 23 minutes, until the middle has a slight wobble and it is gooey inside -- they may be ready anywhere between 22 and 25 minutes. If using the 12 x 8-inch pan, they will need a couple of minutes less cooking time. They may seem a little undercooked at first, but they firm up once they start to cool down. If you want to serve them warmish (and gooey), set aside for just 30 minutes before cutting into 16 pieces. Otherwise, set aside for longer to cool to room temperature.

(Recipe reprinted with permission from "Sweet: Desserts from London's Ottolenghi," by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh, copyright © 2017. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.)

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