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Poh, Zen and the art of baking

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Baking is Poh Ling Yeow’s road to relaxation – so much so she’s been known to sit in front of the oven to watch a cake bake. With her new cookbook out this month, she talks to InDaily about her ‘first love’ and offers tips for novice bakers.

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“I don’t think it’s an uncommon thing for people who like to bake to find the process relaxing,” Poh says, when asked if it’s true she occasionally watches an oven like a TV.

“I think the meditative part centres around the fact that everything has to be measured out properly and it’s just kind of a process that can’t be rushed.

“With baking, if it’s going to take an hour to bake, it’s going to take an hour – you can’t just crank up the heat.

“So I think there’s something about abandoning yourself to the process. You just have to be a bit Zen about everything, and that’s what I love about it.”

Of course, there’s also the bonus that you usually end up with “something delicious that you can share”.

Most foodies and reality-television fans will know Poh’s story: born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, she is both an artist and cook who first gained prominence through MasterChef, then went on to host her own TV shows Poh & Co and Poh’s Kitchen, publish several cookbooks, and established the Adelaide bakery/café Jamface with friend Sarah Rich.

While she became known during MasterChef for her take on South-East Asian cuisine, Poh says she really only learned to cook savoury dishes properly in her mid-30s – “which sounds outrageous, but I just wasn’t hugely into it”.

Her latest cookbook, Poh Bakes 100 Greats, is inspired by her first food passion, baking, which she fell in love with at just nine years old.

“Mum taught me a few skills, usually very pedantically, and then she just kind of set me free in the kitchen so I used to bake all the time on my own.

“Melting moments were one of the first things that I made … and I made a really terrible quiche. I just didn’t really understand the whole thing of blind baking and didn’t know how to blast it first, so it was soggy and gross. I remember being really angry with the recipe.

“And sponges, they were my thing, and also biscuits because I used to make them to give away.

“I learned very quickly that people like you if you give away baked goods!”

Poh Bakes 100 Greats contains 100 of her favourite baked delights, grouped under chapters such as “Savoury Stunners”, “Bake-sale Beauties”, “Oldies but Goodies” and “French Fundamentals”.

It reflects her own baking style, which she describes as a mash-up of French and Australiana – from traditional French pastries like croissants and tarts to “all the old favourites, like melting moments, and your CWA-style stuff that everyone grows up with”.

“I love the familiarity, which is what I think a lot of people love also, because it almost certainly reminds them of childhood … it’s something that naturally makes you reminisce and always takes you back in time.”

She sees baking as a great way to introduce children to cooking because there’s little cutting required; “usually it’s round objects – wooden spoons, bowls”.

The precision required for baking can, however, be the downfall of many amateur bakers, with minor errors resulting in a flat sponge, dry cake or soggy bottomed tart.

Poh admits she still has baking disasters herself “all the time”.

The thing that’s fascinating about cooking is that it keeps you really humble

The most recent one occurred when she was making one of her favourite recipes, Persian Love Cakes, from her new cookbook. It is, she insists, actually very simple – but on this occasion she was in a rush and didn’t follow her own very specific instruction for lining the springform tin.

“The corners all stuck, so they were all missing corners – that was annoying.

“But I read somewhere that the thing that’s fascinating about cooking is that it keeps you really humble, because no matter how well you know the recipe, there’s always variables.”

Poh suggests biscuits as a good place for the novice baker to begin, as well as muffins or any type of cake that uses the “muffin method” – “what I call bung in and mix; it’s usually wet ingredients into dry ingredients and you mix it with a wooden spoon or a whisk; you don’t really need machines.”

She says the most important skill for a baker, besides concentration, is persistence. And with the different variables that can affect each bake – especially in the temperature variations between different ovens – her own experience is that you generally need to make a recipe at least twice to get it right.

“You need that persistence and to grow to love the troubleshooting aspect… and you need to have a spirit of fun about it as well. If it doesn’t look exactly like a picture, it’s usually still edible.

“Don’t always strive for it to look like the picture. If you’re not experienced at decorating and stuff, just focus on making it taste good.”

Poh Bakes 100 Greats, by Poh Ling Yeow (Murdoch Books, $39.99) is available now. Keep an eye on InDaily for recipe extracts from the book in the coming weeks.

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