Gillian Bell, artisan cake baker, Gillian Bell cake

Whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly ...

Cast a greedy eye over Gillian Bell’s luscious creations and one gets the feeling that what this master baker cooks up isn’t just cake – it’s art. Her materials may be flour and eggs, and the kitchen her studio, but with a little imagination and ingenuity Gillian’s finished pieces are artistic endeavours in their own right. These fleeting works are dreamed up with a sense of purpose – a wedding, an anniversary, a birthday, perhaps – but they’re a conduit for living in the moment, and bring nothing but pleasure until only crumbs remain. The self-taught cook grew up in a large family, which meant her mother had little time to bake and therefore if Gillian wanted cake, she had to learn how to make it herself. Her toils paid off handsomely, with the baker now supplying cakes to clients and cafes across Brisbane. This week The Weekend Edition dropped into Gillian’s headquarters perched high in Ashgrove’s hills, to talk cooking fails, sustainable farming and guilty pleasures.

What was the first dessert you ever baked?
I baked what I thought were chocolate fairy cakes when I was four years old … I’d climbed up on two chairs to get to the cupboard where the cocoa was kept, but it turned out to be instant coffee powder, which I’d added liberally to the batter and icing! They were bitter and awful and completely inedible.

Which of your creations are you most proud of?
The cakes I baked for my late father. He was always my most honest critic and my most ardent fan.

Your cakes mark special occasions in your clients’ lives, what’s your fondest memory so far?
Being asked to design and bake cakes for three generations of women in the same family.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Introducing people to the simple pleasure of a homemade cake made with fresh, natural, unadulterated ingredients.

You grow your own organic fruit and edible flowers, make your own preserves and deal directly with farmers – why do you think sourcing food in an environmentally responsible way is so important?
I think we take for granted the quality and availability of the food we enjoy. Yet the state of our soil and how we grow produce directly affects our wellbeing and our food security. I want to support our farmers and producers who farm sustainably, and pay them a fair price for their efforts so they and their children can continue doing what they do best on our behalf.

You also host cooking classes. What’s the most common misconception you’ve found amongst home bakers?
Thinking they can’t bake! I love the surprise on people’s faces when I show them how to ‘tickle’ their scone dough to encourage it to rise!

The recent Kialla Bake-Along caught our attention – what can you tell us about running online cooking classes?
The Bake-Along was such fun! The technology allows home bakers to chat with me and each other as we bake from kitchens all around the world. More are definitely planned for this year!

We love a good picnic and have eyed off your Swallows & Amazons vintage-style picnics initiative. What does this involve?
I prepare traditional-styled picnics in retro 1950s and 60s picnic sets. Couples can choose from seasonal menus of homemade items – things like sausage rolls, tarts and sticky buns. And of course, there’s a thermos flask. Perfect for special dates!

How have tastes changed in Brisbane over recent years?
I think there’s a growing awareness of the importance in knowing where our food has come from – I’m delighted we are having these kinds of conversations!

What inspires and influences your work?
Nature. And those who work with honesty and passion.

Have you ever had any epic fails in the kitchen?
Yes! There have been times when the cake has gone in the oven and then I’ve spotted ingredients still left on the bench …

What’s one foodstuff you couldn’t live without?
Butter, from cows raised on organic pastures. There’s nothing like fresh, creamy, nutritious butter!

What’s your ultimate guilty pleasure?

Do you have one vital baking tip you can share with our readers?
‘Softened’ butter doesn’t mean melted butter – better that your butter is on the cooler side when creaming it.

How do you like to start your weekend?
With a large cup of tea.

How do you like to unwind?
Making pastry while listening to BBC radio 4.

What are your essentials for a well-spent weekend?
To be up to hear the dawn chorus, a kitchen table full of fresh produce, a glass of Pimm’s at some point, and baking a cake.

What is success to you?
When no-one goes hungry and all can enjoy a life of dignity.

What are your words of wisdom?
The grass is always greenest where you stand and water it. Whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly.

Only a local would know … the beer off the wood at Breakfast Creek Hotel is legendary!

Perk up …
any of our lovely beaches.
Relax … the garden.
Dine … my kitchen.
Indulge … picnicking – anywhere!
Shop … Etsy.
Catch-up … a farmers market.
Be inspired … GOMA, South Bank.


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