You’ve probably heard the saying that dessert cookery is “scientific”. One mistake and your cake/tart/meringue will fall into a heap, your dinner party embarrassingly ruined.
It’s a reputation Anna Higham – executive pastry chef at the esteemed River Cafe – is trying to fight. “I always hear so many people say that they really don’t know how to make pudding, or that it’s this really scary thing.” To which she says: “No, this is just cooking, it’s the same principles. You’re just not as familiar with it [because] you don’t do this every day.
“I know that I come at this with a lot of experience,” the 34-year-old adds, “but I think people just get really tense [about pudding cookery] and it’s just making something tasty.”
Higham wants home cooks to approach dessert cookery by engaging our senses and tasting – like we would with a meat, fish or a veggie dish – and to think about seasoning a pudding, in the same way we would season a savoury dish, but instead of salt and pepper, using sugar or other flavourings to adjust the taste.
“When people make a stew, they know how to adjust it, to get it to taste the way they want it to. Sometimes you can’t do that, you can’t adjust the cake really once it’s baked, but when you’re cooking fruit, that’s when you can adjust.”
Fruit is the focus of Higham’s debut cookbook – The Last Bite – a beautiful collection of more than 150 pudding recipes, including many innovative flavour combinations, laid out season-by-season. Think goat’s cheese and cherry tart in summer, fig leaf ice cream with fig leaf oil and warm almond cake in autumn, and clementine granita with clementine leaf cream and pumpkin seed oil in winter.
It may sound impressive but Higham, who hails from Scotland, wants to inspire home cooks, “as well as the next generation of pastry chefs”. Plus, with fruit, there’s more leeway than chocolate, for example.“If you want to make a delicious fruit-based dessert, there’s a lot of space for error and to play around – it’s not all ruined. And if you overwork the cream one day, you overwork the cream. It’s alright,” she says with a shrug.
What’s notable, though, is her love of using only one fruit at a time. While you may find additional ingredients, no two fruits ever meet in her recipes (with the exception of summer pudding and Christmas pudding).
So have we all been making a grave error putting blackberries in our apple crumbles or heaping – gasp! – fruit salad atop a pavlova? What’s wrong with putting two or more together?
“I mean, nothing,” Higham laughs. “I just think if you’re going to spend time finding a really good version of that fruit, you’ve created it in a really respectful manner and tried to cook it to make it taste really delicious and really of itself, then why would you want to dim that shine a little?
“I’m a bit of a purist about ingredients, I think you should really taste whatever you’re eating. So if I’m tasting rhubarb, I just want to taste rhubarb and really kind of revel in it.”
Chocolate and fruit is a big no-no for Higham, however: “It’s just wrong”.
Her book includes some underrated fruits you might not be as accustomed to baking with – like grapes, quinces, and pumpkin.
Gooseberries tend to get a hard time, she adds. “People are just like, ‘Oh they’re sour’ and think that’s all they are, but there’s so much more to them, particularly if you can get red gooseberries. They’re really sweet and when they’re properly ripe, really delicious.”
She uses sweetcorn in deserts too – corn ice cream, for example. And why not? This influence comes from Higham’s time working at the Gramercy Tavern in New York (after learning her trade at the Gordon Ramsay Group).
“In the States, they use [sweetcorn] a lot more in desserts,” she says. When she returned to London to work at Michelin starred Lyle’s, “we were using it during the game season with grouse and duck, and I just thought, ‘Well it’s a delicious ingredient and it’s a sweet ingredient in and of itself – so why aren’t we making puddings with it?’ It pairs beautifully with the sweeter herbs and with honey and brown butter,” Higham explains.
After five years at Lyle’s, growing the ever-changing dessert offering, and its sister bakery Flor, she moved to River Cafe in 2020 – something of an institution among London restaurants – to run the pastry section. “There’s a lot of people who have been coming to the restaurant for almost all 35 years [since it opened] and [founders] Ruthie Rogers and Rose Grey really influenced probably every British chef around.”
It’s an Italian restaurant, “but not the lasagne kind”, Higham adds. “And it’s completely seasonal, completely ingredient-led. They rewrite the menu twice a day depending on what ingredients we’ve got.”
Female run, 50 per cent of the cookery staff are women and her pastry team are all women. An oddity when it comes to professional kitchens. And it’s far removed from the shouty, fear-inducing kitchens she worked in at the start of her career.
“I worked very hard not to get shouted at – I’ve worked in some hard kitchens,” Higham says. She remembers only sleeping for four hours a night for five straight days once – “I actually don’t know how I used to do it in my 20s, I think I was very tired!
“Kitchens are generally long hours, quite intense, stressful places. So it’s very easy for people to be rude and shout,” she adds. “[The industry] is male-dominated and it can be misogynistic at times. I’ve always felt quite lucky that I’m six-foot, I’m not going to be intimidated by a large man trying to stand over me, I can always hold my ground.
“But I think the culture is really changing, particularly post-pandemic. People are saying, ‘Well no, let’s not make people work 17 hours a day, let’s make sure people only work single shifts’, in an environment where they get breaks, where they get enough days off to rest, where you’re not so stressed out that you react in aggressive ways.”
More effort is being made to keep women in the restaurant industry too, she says, with the creation of more maternity and paternity policies. The industry is behind on that front – “because they haven’t had to think about it” – being so male-dominated for so long. “I think if you go to the big hotels, it’s probably still French men [running dessert sections].”
But from Ravneet Gill (who presents Junior Bake Off) to Terri Mercieca (the owner of ice cream business Happy Endings), Higham says: “There are huge number of women [in pastry] doing really exciting things.”
‘The Last Bite: A Whole New Approach To Making Desserts Through The Year’ by Anna Higham (published by DK, £22; photography by Kim Lightbody), available now.