Ballymaloe Beth: Baking is closer to science than to cooking

As she brings out a 2023 baking calendar, Cork chef Beth O’Brien tells COLETTE SHERIDAN about her love for the skill, and shares her recipe for Yule pudding
Ballymaloe Beth: Baking is closer to science than to cooking

Beth O’Brien, pastry chef at Ballymaloe House

A BALLYMALOE pastry chef has launched a charity calendar inspired by her Instagram baking recipe tests, with 10% of the proceeds going to the Irish Red Cross relief efforts in Ukraine.

When Beth O’Brien was asked to name her favourite recipe for chocolate cake, she didn’t really know so, with fellow chef, Mary Lamond, she began testing a selection of tried and trusted chocolate cake recipes.

From Darina Allen and Delia Smith to Nigella Lawson and Yotam Ottolenghi, Beth has been trying out their recipes, not just for chocolate cake but for a range of desserts.

She then styles the results, photographs them and shares the pictures on her Instagram page @bethcooksthings.

For the 2023 calendar, each month features one nine-recipe comparison test and photographs, as well as Beth’s own recipe inspired by the greats.

For this 26-year-old Dubliner, who initially moved to Cork three years ago to train as a chef at Ballymaloe before getting a job there after a stint baking in London and in the west of Ireland, baking is a labour of love.

But before donning her chef’s hat and apron, she did a degree in French and Spanish at Trinity College Dublin.

The idea was to have languages so that she’d have the option of travelling and cooking.

She went on to complete a Masters in food business at UCC.

“I was always interested in baking, particularly sourdough bread and French pastry. I wanted to pursue it as a career once I finished my undergraduate degree,” she says.

“It’s a hard career with long hours. The pay is usually not great. You have to work in a place that you enjoy.”

Family and friends pointed out that Beth was choosing a difficult path, but she has no regrets, insisting that she is pursuing her passion.

While many people baked bread during lockdown, causing a flour shortage, Beth says that, generally speaking, “baking isn’t the most common hobby. It’s quite exacting. It’s not like cooking dinner where you can experiment. With baking, you have to follow a recipe or you won’t get the result you want. It’s more of a science than cooking.”

Many have got into it from watching the hugely successful series, The Great British Bake-Off, which ended its most recent run a few weeks back.

It is pure entertainment. As Beth says: “It’s terrible, but we love to see people having massive baking disasters.”

But for this chef, precision is key, using the exact amount of ingredients and baking at the correct temperature.

Asked what pastry chefs she admires, she says: “I’m not just saying JR Ryall because he works in the kitchen at Ballymaloe. He’s a really talented chef and a good teacher.

“Obviously, I admire the Allens in the Ballymaloe Cookery School. There’s a baker in the UK I really admire called Nicola Lamb and also Ravneet Gill.

“But the new domain is social media. There are a lot of freelance workers doing pop-ups as opposed to bakeries and restaurants. There’s definitely an online pastry community.

RN Head Pastry Chef at Ballymaloe House JR Ryall with his team, Anne Healy, Camille Tabu, Beth Barrett and Beth O’Brien, at The Grainstore in Ballymaloe at the recent launch of his book ‘Ballymaloe Desserts’. Picture: Joleen Cronin
RN Head Pastry Chef at Ballymaloe House JR Ryall with his team, Anne Healy, Camille Tabu, Beth Barrett and Beth O’Brien, at The Grainstore in Ballymaloe at the recent launch of his book ‘Ballymaloe Desserts’. Picture: Joleen Cronin

“Once you go down that rabbit hole, it’s a very interested and supportive community.”

Beth got good work experience at Pophams Bakery in London - but the hours were long.

“It was pretty tough going. I’d start work at midnight and would be there until 11am. I started there in January, 2020, so I was there for all the big lockdowns.

“I enjoyed working there, but I probably would have got more out of it if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.”

Having always wanted to work at Ballymaloe, Beth got work experience there as a student and loved it.

“Kitchens can be quite intense, but I find the kitchen in Ballymaloe is relatively chilled out. When I finished my Masters, I rang JR Ryall to see if there were any jobs going. Luckily, there was one.”

The Masters in Food Business is something that Beth undertook with a view to opening her own cafe or bakery down the line. She would like her own business within the next ten years.

“A lot of cafes are opening and then closing. It’s a really tough business.

“My plan is to spend the next five years getting experience and working in different places to see if I can find a niche that would make a good business.

“I plan to get some experience abroad and see if I can spot a trend in the market that hasn’t reached Ireland. I could come back and be ahead of the curve.”

When we spoke, Beth was in the throes of Christmas pudding production at Ballymaloe.

“We do batches of about 30 at a time. They’re sold at our November craft fair and a lot of them are for the dessert trolley at Ballymaloe.”

Beth likes the traditional Ballymaloe recipe for the festive pudding.

“It has all the fruit, bread crumbs and beef suet which is kind of controversial with the vegetarian and vegan movement.

“But it’s so delicious that there’s no point in tweaking the recipe if the original one is the best.”

The tradition is to use whiskey in the pudding.

A page of Beth's calendar
A page of Beth's calendar

“Or you can use whatever is in your cupboard such as rum or even liqueurs like arametto or grand marnier.”

Christmas with her family in Dublin will be a bit of a busman’s holiday for Beth, who is in charge of desserts for Christmas Day.

But she revels in it and plans to make a trifle. For the younger diners, she plans to make something light like tiramisu or Yule log. Simply delicious!

The calendar (€22) can be ordered from Beth’s Shopify Page. (bethcooksthings.myshopify.com/products/2023-calendar.

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