Nadine Ingram, the quiet force behind Sydney’s cult bakery, Flour and Stone and the just-launched cookbook of the same name, has us convinced in the power of cake to connect to people and heal.
Can cake cure everything? The woman behind one of the most highly-anticipated cookbooks of this year, Nadine Ingram, believes in the power of cake to connect to people and heal (both the baker and the eater). Her baking powerhouse, Flour and Stone, named after her cult, Lilliputian Woolloomooloo shop that she opened in 2011, documents her three decades as a baker. It’s filled with a lifetime of recipes (including her number-one best-seller, gamechanging panna cotta-soaked lamington). The pages brim with Ingram’s generosity, the chapters are turbocharged with her philosophy for love, life and happiness, and the book is infused throughout with her family spirit – ‘Flour and Stone’ is named for her two daughters, Poppy and Ruby, and is written on her shopfront shingle in her grandmother’s cursive script.
Ingram probably would not like her book being “gushed over”. In fact, the attention that her baked goods and the book have garnered (along with her recent nomination for Gault& Millau’s Pastry Chef of the Year 2018; winners aren’t announced until January 2019) has her squirming.
“I really hate it,” says Ingram. “If my grandmother was here, she would just be, ‘Oh, Nadine. Pull your head in more!’ She wouldn’t be pleased to see the spotlight on me at all. They [my grandparents] were both very, ‘stay plain and stay simple. Don’t be flashy.’”
It’s thanks to her Nanny and Poppy, who “gave me the courage and tenacity to believe I could build a bakery like Flour and Stone,” writes Ingram in her soul-filled introduction to the book. Her grandmother was the reason she started baking – “mainly scones and just simple slices and biscuits and things like that. Nothing fancy. Just good country cooking, using what we had around us” – but not, as one would presume, at her nan’s knee.
“Stay plain and stay simple. Don’t be flashy.”
“I always got reprimanded for being hopeless around the farm. I didn’t like outdoors a lot. So they’d [her grandparents] just say, ‘Oh, Nadine. Go back inside. You’re hopeless.’ So I’d go back inside and bake scones.
“It was something that I took on independently. I’d watched my grandmother do it, and I’d watched her put them on the table. But she was too busy outside [working the farm] to be pampering to me. So I was inside figuring it out for myself. I think that’s followed through to the rest of my life. I am very independent and I don’t like asking for help, and I’ll generally figure things out on my own.”
Rest assured, though, the recipes in her book are the furthest from you figuring things out by yourself.
The recipes “are all written as though I am standing beside you holding your hand, which I will squeeze gently if I see you about to make a mistake or use low fat milk!” enthuses Ingram.
“Did you know when a cake is perfectly cooked it makes a soft whispering sound.”
Her most important piece of advice to novice and experienced bakers alike is to use your senses and intuition.
“There used to be a young lady that worked in our kitchen called Little Lucy and she made the best lemon drizzle cakes. When we asked her what her secret was, she just said, ‘When I put them into the oven, I smile at them before I close the door’. It’s that intuition that I try to encourage, because anyone can bake a cake using a recipe, but you need to use your senses – they are a baker’s best friend.”
Perhaps the most mind-blowing lesson from honing (and trusting) your senses and intuition is the ability to hear when a cake is ready to come out of the oven.
“Did you know when a cake is perfectly cooked it makes a soft whispering sound [when you touch the top of the cake] that alludes to hidden moisture in the middle, not so much that it’s undercooked but just enough to give the cooled cake a perfect crumb,” smiles Ingram.
“When I put them into the oven, I smile at them before I close the door.”
Trusting her intuition has paid dividends for Ingram beyond cakes. She’s taken a chance on hiring people looking for a career change and is a champion of diversity and gender.
“I have 70 per cent women in my kitchen, who are from diverse backgrounds in both culture and career,” says Ingram. “Next time you’re eating cake from Flour and Stone, it could have been baked by a former scientist, journalist or engineer.”
And it’s not just within her kitchen that she’s a mentor. Her generosity extends to supporting fellow bakers (like when Melbourne’s Michael and Pippa James of Tivoli Road Bakery fame released their cookbook and the publisher didn’t have enough funds for a Sydney launch, Ingram said, “Come up. Do the launch here. It’ll be great.”) and local artisans (which is why you’ll find the likes of handmade, small-batch buttermilk ricotta from Kristen Allan Cheesemaker starring alongside still-warm sourdough crumpets at Flour and Stone).
“Supporting local small businesses is what we do where I come from [being raised in the country]. I would always pay extra, or more, for a small business locally, especially one run by a woman.
“I just always try and seek out people that I feel I’ve got something in common with,” says Ingram.
This connectivity is fundamental to why she bakes.
“The thing is we are all craving human connection from the heart more than we need money. There is a whole generation of people who have grown up not eating around a table and you should see their faces light up when someone puts a sponge cake in front of them, it’s like a hug.
“The healing power of cake should not be underestimated.”
Anyone who has patiently stood in the 20-person deep queue at her Riley Street premises (or Saturday-morning market stalls) to lay hands on a prized portion – perhaps a slice of elegant fine apple tart (that’s the one on the cover of her book), or old-fashioned triple-stacked vanilla cake (that’s it in all its oozy glory above) or her second best-seller, the lemon drizzle cake – can attest to the healing power that Ingram and her team of bakers have baked into each bite.
When you bite into a wedge of lemon drizzle cake “that lemon sunshine is the quintessence of happiness,” says Ingram.
We’ll take three slices of happiness, thanks.
Cook the book
“The recipes and stories derived from my country upbringing and half a lifetime spent in some of the best kitchens in the world,” says Ingram. “From my grandmother’s peach dumpling recipe to an apple tarte Tatin conceived thousands of miles away in the kitchen of Le Gavroche in London.
“I’ve been baking for nearly 30 years and there are no shortcuts. My wish is that I hope someone in your family is still baking from the sticky pages of my book in generations to come.”
Pear, ginger & hazelnut cake
This cake began as a humble ginger tea cake but, with the addition of poached pears and toasted nuts, it has morphed into a comforting upside-down cake that’s perfect for a winter pudding.
Zucchini, chilli & gruyère buns
These buns have a cult following amongst our morning customers. Toasted with butter and a sprinkle of sea salt is the way they roll.
Chocolate, raspberry & buttermilk cake
This is the fudgiest of all the chocolate cakes I know and it’s perfect even without the raspberries on top.
Wholesome carrot cake with cream cheese frosting
Everyone knows carrot cake is just a vehicle for cream cheese frosting. I am in no way trying to be misleading when I say this cake is wholesome – it does have spelt in it. Though perhaps my reference is intended to reflect the more spiritual variety of ‘wholesome’. The type that makes you smile and feel there can be no wrong in the world.