Can you have your cake and eat it, too? Do you love sweet treats but don't like putting a bag of white sugar into your body? Though baking brings comfort and a proffered cake is perfect to mark a celebration or cheer up a friend, and no meal is ever quite complete without a pudding, we're also surrounded by messages that too much of a good thing can be detrimental to our health. Enter Amber Rose. Her new cookbook Love, Bake, Nourish could just be the antidote and make it all alright. In it, she lays claims to "healthier cakes, bakes and desserts" and, after talking to the gorgeous author, I'm convinced that she's right, cakes can be good for me. Okay, perhaps "better for me" may be more the truth of it.
Amber Rose is tall and slender, the picture of good health, with glowing skin and flowing locks and she oozes "casual cool". Yet she is, somewhat surprisingly given she's knocks around with the trendy Kensington set in London, also very down to earth and practical. Having been the personal chef to, and now friend of, Sadie Frost and able to count other celebrities as friends and clients in her role as a food stylist, none of it seems to have gone to her head. That, I surmise, is because she has grown up in rural New Zealand.
She's the daughter of Kay Baxter, pioneer for organics and sustainable agriculture in New Zealand, seed-saver (or should that be saviour?) and founder of Koanga Gardens, so her childhood was spent living off the land, learning to be resourceful and seeking out the healthy alternatives provided by nature. All of this has stood Amber in good stead in getting noticed in the UK.
"So much of what I do has been informed by my growing up in New Zealand. How I approach food is entirely due to Mum and her garden, not relying on a fridge full of food, but rather going out to the garden and seeing what is there. For a creative person that is great, it keeps you feeling challenged and you keep pushing yourself to broaden your scope of ingredients and techniques."
Amber is also bang on trend. This, her first cookbook, is about baking so is crammed full of recipes for cakes, puddings and biscuits and yet you won't find any white sugar or white flour on the ingredient lists. Instead, more natural forms of sugar, from honey, unrefined sugars and nectars, are used to sweeten cake batters, puddings, custards and compotes. The flours used are derivatives of more ancient grains like spelt and buckwheat, or from ground nuts - almond, chestnut and walnuts - and cakes, big and small, are moistened with heritage fruit and vegetables. Slices are made chewy with honey and dried fruits.
I asked this willowy expat if her baking really is healthy. "It's healthier. I still use butter and other dairy products and consider bakes to be 'treats' rather than everyday food, but they can be nourishing at least. By avoiding refined sugar, which I believe and science is now indicating is ageing, and not relying on white flour, which robs our body of nutrition instead of providing nourishment, we can begin to enjoy baking in a different way. Once you start baking in this new way, you really begin to notice the difference."
Certainly it's been a recipe for her own success in making her way in London and coming to the attention of Stella McCartney, Kate Moss, Jude Law and others who all look to her for their cake-making and food styling, sharing her philosophy that food should nourish, not deplete, our bodies.
But before you consider becoming part of the in-crowd, you may have to re-examine some of your long-held beliefs about baking. For starters, Amber is not hell-bent on making cakes that are high-rise, light and airy. In fact, flicking through her book for the first time I was intrigued that many looked flatter and more solid than we're usually enthralled by in most baking books. Amber explains: "I am less attracted to big fluffy cakes that are full of white flour and white sugar.
A lot of the cakes around are like white bread - boring. Refined flour and sugar have no unique flavour and you need to eat a lot of it to satisfy you. I like to bake beautiful cakes with nut flours and natural sugars which give texture, form and flavour. My ideal cake is flatter, more of a combination between a tart and cake really."
Talking to this baker, many of my preconceived notions - baking is an exact science, a cake is best eaten on the day it's baked, celebrities have some screwy and strange eating habits and unreasonable demands - begin to waver.
When she moved from New Zealand to London and landed the role of personal chef to Frost and Jude Law, it opened up a whole new world to her - one that would eventually see her providing cakes to the rich and famous. This included being food stylist for Fiona Cairns, baker of the royal wedding cake, massaging a sunburnt Alexander McQueen (don't ask) and counting many other celebrities as friends and colleagues. Are they, as the tabloids would have us believe, diet- and self-obsessed? "I think that might be the American celebrities," she laughs. "Sadie and her family, like most people in the UK, love their food and they were really very usual in their eating. Why I think we were a good fit [they're now good friends] was that they were attracted to a healthier way of eating and that's where I have always focused my cooking."
Surely there were plenty of other chefs and food stylists vying for those positions in London, and wasn't a girl from New Zealand intimidated?
"I'm not scared to try things and I was a bit different because I saw a broader spectrum of plants, grains and sugar alternatives that could be used in cooking.
Once I began working for Sadie, I got to meet more like-minded people and so it just grew from there."
When I say that baking can feel restrictive in that it is always bandied about as an "exact science", Amber reassures me that, "Baking is supposedly an exact science but I myself struggle to follow a recipe. So many of my recipes are the result of happy accidents where I've been experimenting with a bit of this, a bit more of that. I think baking requires an immense amount of intuition and people just need to build that confidence to be able to play a little with a recipe. When you write a cookbook, you begin to realise that common sense is required, in conjunction with the recipes, because to write cooking instructions which will, presumably, ensure a 100 per cent successful outcome, would take up about five pages!"
Given that surveys have indicated that, on average, a mere two recipes are cooked from cookbooks, it's worth wondering how much detail is really necessary.
"I think cookbooks are used for more than just the recipes. It's about style ideas, creative thought, lifestyle, being aspirational. I wanted my book to be a tool for people seeking more nutrition from their baking and for extending their repertoire. I've included lists of edible flowers and plants and the decorations on my cakes, lavender and calendula petals, even whole roses, are always edible."
I was also pleased to learn that many cakes, not just fruit cakes, improve with age. "Sure, a sponge cake is best eaten on the day but others are better on day two or three after baking. It's then that the baking takes on character, the flavours settle in together and develop, and if you're using fresh fruit, it has had time to moisten the cake. When you bake using nut flours, fresh is not always best."
So Amber doesn't stick to the rules when it comes to sweets and there are even some old favourites that she vehemently loathes. "I look at baking as an art form and there are some palates that just go together - like pears and buckwheat or apricot and almond flour - and others that don't. I've never understood fresh strawberries dipped in chocolate, for example. In my view, it's a terrible combination; you take something that is rich and silky, ie, melted chocolate, and pair it with watery strawberries, then chill the entire arrangement so that the chocolate is hard and the strawberry chewy. The whole experience is incongruent in texture and flavour. Instead, I'd be looking to team chocolate up with fresh dark cherries in a warm, gooey pudding. Much better!"
So guilt be gone, I'm a convert of this new style of baking. Even better, I now have a good reason for my cakes not rising to gravity-defying heights and for indulging in sweet treats with the excuse that they're good for my soul. Turns out they can be good for my body too. Love it.
• Love Bake Nourish (Published by Kyle Books, distributed by New Holland Publishers; $45) is available at book stores this week. Meet Amber Rose at Nosh Food Market, 422 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden on Friday March 15 10.30am-12pm. Tickets $15 (includes cake and tea tastings) from eventfinder. co.nz.
- VIVABy Nici Wickes