You don’t need to worry about creating Bake Off-style masterpieces with Jess Elliott Dennison’s new book Lazy Baking, says Ailsa Sheldon.

Jess Elliott Dennison only launched her popular cafe Elliott’s in 2018 – after a diverse early career spanning food marketing, styling and product development, working on everything from Australian cookery programmes to Jamie Oliver’s product range. Since then this busy cook has run supper clubs, the cafe, a modern grocers, plus an online shop – and somehow managed to write three cookbooks in four years – so why is her newest volume called Lazy Baking?

Jess’ first two books Tin Can Magic and Salad Feasts focussed on seasonal ingredients, putting humble pantry staples centre-stage and making everyday eating a bit more special. The idea for this book came when Jess realised: “I’m just not a baker.”

HeraldScotland:

There are two types of cooks – there’s people who make savoury things like me, and people who are more scientific, and like baking and measuring things out properly. Baking and strict measurements weren’t really my thing.”

So why would a self-confessed ‘non-baker’ – write a baking book?

Jess explains: “Elliotts was gaining a strong reputation for cakes, things like the flourless chocolate cake,” and she wondered if there might be space for a different kind of baking book – “even if you’re not a baker, it’s so nice to make a friend a birthday cake, or if you’re going for dinner bake something to take for pudding.”

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At Elliott’s, cake recipes were developed through necessity – lots of demand and not much time. For the first two years Jess did all the cooking, and fit baking into brief quieter moments. Favourite recipes were streamlined – fewer processes, less washing-up. “I’m very ingredient and flavour led,” says Jess, “If gooseberries are in season then I want those on the cake rather than lots of buttery coloured icing. I’m a cook that happens to bake and I want rustic tarts and crumbles and baking that’s linked to the ingredients that are around.”

In Lazy Baking, there are no recipes for Bake Off style masterpieces, instead there are simple and delicious recipes – think Jam and Coconut sponge with proper custard, Cheddar and Mustard scones and versatile Flatbreads, as well as Elliott’s favourites Pork and Fennel sausage rolls, and of course the legendary Flourless Chocolate Cake.

Jess was “ruthless” when editing the book, “if something felt a little bit complicated – if a recipe had too many steps, too many bowls or was a bit faffy then it would get cut. 

“I’ve really tried to keep it as simple as possible, but not compromise on flavour or texture.”

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As Jess started writing the book the pandemic hit, and like all hospitality businesses Elliott’s had to speedily adapt. With just Jess, her mum and a neighbour remaining in the kitchen, the success of Elliott’s as a takeaway was a welcome surprise, but time was running out for recipe testing. Jess reached out to the cafe community asking for recipe testers and “The Elliott’s instagram went crazy”.

Enthusiastic mass testing began with all recipes sent to at least three different households: “ I’d get really thorough feedback, the cost of ingredients, how easy it was. They sent me photos.”

The result is a book that many people in the local community feel a connection to.  “It’s really nice that people who’ve been with us from the beginning have been able to test recipes they’ve been buying for years. For them to have a bit of ownership of the book has been really special.”

With what is for many the busiest hosting season coming up, I turn to Jess for some festive inspiration.  First, of course, some baking, and, woman of my own heart, Jess explains, “I just like having a cake around at Christmas that you can just have every day” – the festive Fig, Hazelnut and Chocolate cake is ideal.

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“If people are entertaining then the flourless chocolate cake is so tried and tested, you feel really smug making it – people think it’s really impressive but it’s so easy.” Jess’s amaretti make a perfect Christmas treat, or last minute gift.

As for the rest of the festivities – Jess says, “I tend to just simplify Christmas every year.

"Every year our menu gets more and more simple – less elements, less fuss. It’s really chilled out, it’s getting everyone round the table and drinking wine and eating good food. For me it’s the build up, it’s the walks, crisp fresh days and going to buy presents, buying nice cheese and watching the same old films every year. Nothing radical, just family.”

Looking to the future, Jess is excited about the Scottish food scene: “There’s such a great energy around food at the moment. It’s amazing how in lockdown there’s been lots of startups and creative things happening.  The game is changing big time which is so cool.”

At Elliott’s, “we just keep adapting and adapting, ... it’s been hectic but I think we’ve got a plan for next year”. Plans include fresh projects at 21 Sciennes Road with workshops, events, dinners and an expansion of the Elliott’s in house product range. For Jess personally, there will be one extra at the table this Christmas - her first baby is due days after we speak. Now, who’s baking a cake to celebrate?

 

JESS’S SOFT AMARETTI

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MAKES 8 amaretti

TAKES 25 minutes, plus 15 minutes baking time

A crisp, golden crust with a squidgy, zesty, almondy centre, eating an amaretti with a strong coffee has got to be one of life’s simple pleasures. Considering how good they are, these amaretti are pretty easy to make, so I urge you to give them a go.

Ingredients:

1 egg white

100g (31/2 oz/scant ½ cup) caster (superfine) sugar

¾ teaspoon honey

½ teaspoon vanilla paste

Finely grated zest of ¼ grapefruit, 1/3 orange or ½ lemon

150g (5oz/1½ cups) ground almonds

Pinch of sea salt flakes

50g (2oz) icing sugar

 

Method:

1. First, preheat the oven to 180 0C fan (400 0F/gas 6) and line a large baking tray (pan) with baking paper

2. Next, place the egg white in a large bowl and beat until frothy using a handheld electric whisk or balloon whisk and plenty of elbow grease. Add the sugar and whisk for a further 2-3 minutes or until soft peaks have formed and the mixture is thick and glossy. Add the honey, vanilla paste and citrus zest and whisk for a further 30 seconds.

3. Using a large spoon or spatula, fold in the ground almonds and salt until just combined.

4. Spread the icing sugar over a large plate or tray. Don’t bother sifting the sugar, just crush any large lumps between your fingers. Divide the amaretti mixture into 8 equal-sized balls. Roll the amaretti around in the icing sugar, packing as much sugar on the surface of each ball as possible. Leave the amaretti to sit in the sugar for 10 minutes.

5.Transfer the amaretti to the lined tray and bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on the tray. The outsides will firm up but the insides of the amaretti will be all squidgy.

6. These amaretti keep beautifully in an airtight container for up to 3 days.