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Sweet treats from Australia’s ‘dessert queen’

Taken from The Age, November 1, 2011
Philippa Sibley has a confession to make, writes Kerrie O’Brien.

Bountiful berries ... summer pudding.

Contrary to what you might expect, Australia’s ”dessert queen” Philippa Sibley is no sweet tooth. Salt is her vice. The best chocolate or the most fantastic pastries in the world just don’t do it for her: ”I’m allergic to flour, for goodness sake.”

Sibley is aware of the irony and points out that her grounding is in all aspects of cooking. ”It feels like I’ve been pigeon-holed with the whole desserts thing,” she says, not that she’s complaining.

It was the salt element of the Snickers, her favourite chocolate bar as a child, that gave rise to her signature dish of the same name. Created when she worked at Circa, it was immortalised in the latest series of MasterChef. The dish was loosely based on the chocolate bar but also inspired by a layered chocolate dish a friend described eating in Japan, and a salted caramel from one of Heston Blumenthal’s books.

”People ask how you get ideas for things … it just seems like an organic process,” she says.

Philippa Sibley in the kitchen. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Her book, PS desserts, features the Snickers, as well as others in her repertoire including the poire belle-Hellene, peach melba for Oprah and her fabulous sorbets. It is divided into basics, classics and signature dishes, and is beautifully designed, with photos illustrating each step of the process.

The opening notes detail must-have equipment and tips on eggs, butter, fruit and chocolate. It reads a bit like insider information, a fact not lost on Sibley. Demystifying desserts is part of what she set out to do.

”After all the brouhaha about the Snickers – which I call the Charlie Sheen because it’s completely out of control – [the book is] kind of a homage to all the recipe books that I’ve loved and used over the years.”

A cookbook tragic, Sibley still has her original copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, which she used when learning to cook.

She is on her fifth copy of Michel Roux’s Desserts: A Lifelong Passion and her third of another by legendary patissier Frederic Bau.

Sibley signed on to write PS desserts in February and it will be published next month, a speedy turnaround – two years would be more usual. ”I would’ve gone mad! I’m a chef – I’ve got attention deficit disorder,” she laughs.

She did all the cooking and styling herself, with just one helper, at home: ”I’m still cleaning the chocolate off the walls and the sugar off the floor.”

Novices note: Sibley is reassuringly frank that baking can be tricky for the uninitiated, an attitude that imbues the book.

”It’s the stuff that would’ve helped me,” she says. ”I’ve always had major issues trying to make puff pastry, for example. Back in the day, I wouldn’t try to make it without someone showing me.”
Working as a young chef at restaurants including Le Gavroche, Est and Harveys in London, and the three-starred La Cote Saint Jacques in Joigny, France, Sibley learnt from some of the best.
Back in Australia in 1996, she and then partner Donovan Cooke had a brief stint at Mietta’s before opening est est est and, two years later, Luxe. Those restaurants ”blazed white hot” for a few years but then the GST hit hard and they sold Luxe and closed est est est.

Sibley’s next venture, Albert Street Food and Wine, is expected to open early next month, in Melbourne’s Brunswick. Backed by Stuart Brookshaw, a past manager of Icebergs, and his partner Ruth Giffney, formerly of Longrain, Sibley will be executive chef.

The plan is to make as much as possible on site, including charcuterie down the track and perhaps some ”signature” cheeses. On offer will be rustic food, the best of Mediterranean. And, yes, desserts will be served.

RECIPES (external links)
Summer pudding
Poire belle-hellene

PS desserts by Philippa Sibley, published by Hardie Grant, $49.95

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