Anyone who’s been to Skye Gyngell’s Somerset House restaurant, Spring or simply followed them on Instagram will know the irresistible lure of their sweet treats and cakes. In time for Easter we meet Stroma Sinclair, baker supreme and share the recipe for Spring’s iced buns.
Where did you learn to bake?
I’ve always been a big fan of dessert. Its an exciting treat at the end of a meal, and not an everyday thing. It began as a hobby; at uni I was always on birthday cake duty. I was studying contemporary crafts and ended up writing my dissertation on how I viewed baking as a form of art. I loved to repeat recipes and tweak them, constantly striving for perfection. From then I just went to as many kitchens as I could, met so many brilliant people and learnt by getting stuck in.
When did you start baking professionally?
When I moved to London after uni, I was working in a garden center. I still baked at home, and my friend who worked at Italo in Vauxhall suggested I bring in some cake for them to sell.
Italo become my first regular customer and I suddenly realised I was quite good at this and could maybe make some money from it. I started approaching more cafes to supply, so would get home from work and bake and then deliver in the morning on my way to work. I then started getting approached about celebration cakes through friends or the cafes I supplied, so Stromabakes was officially born and growing.
I was still so new to it, and eager to learn more. That’s when I discovered staging. It was amazing to me that I could get into these kitchens and learn from other bakers, which is how I started at Violet. My introduction to Claire Ptak and learning about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse was a real inspiration. From then I was hooked!
Over the years Stromabakes grew busier, and I continued to work in different kitchens and always had an eagerness to learn more. I’ve been round the world just to stage and keep seeing kitchens, meeting chefs, tasting everything, and gaining more experience and confidence.
What is it like working at Spring?
I remember when I first staged at Spring in 2015, just being in awe. I had only really worked in smaller cafes and bakeries never in restaurants. Restaurant kitchens always scared me, they seemed so fast paced and slightly macho. Being at Spring was a great way to prove those fears wrong. I was introduced to Skye’s food and ethos and also when I met Sarah Johnson. Sarah is from California and had worked at Chez Panisse. Her attention to detail and appreciation for ingredients was eye opening and made complete sense to me.
It started as a stage, but I kept coming back to Spring and ended up putting Stromabakes slightly to the side to be there full time. It’s full of exciting possibilities and the menu changes so regularly, I’m constantly perfecting tarts, cakes, jellies, ice creams…I feel spoilt to be able to use the best ingredients, including the produce from Fern Verrow and Heckfield Home Farm.
What’s your favourite cake invention of your career so far?
I am a real perfectionist, so still not sure if I could answer that. I think I’m still constantly working on my masterpiece!
Which are the most popular of Spring’s cakes/bakes/ice creams?
Well with desserts I can never seem to predict what the most popular ones are, it keeps me on my toes. The ice creams are a personal favourite and doing our ice cream pop up in the courtyard at Somerset House last summer was an absolute dream. There’s something so special about taking a berry that has been picked the day before and then churning it into an ice cream that is so bright and fresh and really celebrates the flavour.
Which ingredients are in season now/next that you’re loving?
Well we are currently in a lull in seasons, before we start drowning in a colourful glut of every berry you can imagine. But there’s always rhubarb. I feel a bit sorry for rhubarb as we are so grateful for it when it appears in cold, dark February – this gorgeous Yorkshire pink pop, but then by May we’re sick of it and desperate for a gooseberry to appear. But I have to say I’m loving our rhubarb sun bun, a soft buttery brioche dough filled with vanilla custard and topped with tart rhubarb.
You seem to be reinventing old school puddings and cakes. Where do you get your inspiration?
I would say the old school inspiration has always been there but is definitely encouraged by Skye. We share a love for the simple done with complete precision. Like fruit jellies, ice creams, peach melba, Poires Belle Helene. We love a classic, especially one that highlights the seasons. Also I think they have such fun and whimsical potential that really fills me with wobbly jelly joy.
What’s your personal favourite birthday cake?
I most enjoy making summer birthday cakes. I think one of my favourites has to be an elderflower and strawberry cake. Elderflower I adore, I think it’s a magical flavour and anyone can find it in the hedgerows. So lashings of elderflower cream with the perfectly ripe British strawberries in layers of oh-so-light chiffon sponge, and knowing me, covered in colourful blooms. A complete dream!
Where do you live? What do you like about your area?
I’m a South Londoner. It’s a little bubble and it’s where a lot of my friends are. There’s also some really great food here like Silk Road and Theo’s in Camberwell. I’ve spent many a Saturday morning at Spa Terminus in Bermondsey. It’s changed a lot over the years but still has the great people and places like Puntarelle, Ham and Cheese, Neals Yard Dairy, and Ancestral wines to name a few. Although I must say that during lockdown I’ve been drawn to east London as they have an excellent selection of bakeries doing tasty sandwiches!
Do you listen to music or podcasts as you work?
I always like to have something on in the background, at work it’s mostly music. I’m a big fan of classic disco tunes and all things upbeat that I can have a lil boogie to or that keep me moving in the kitchen.
What baking kit could you not live without?
The humble spatula is a must, it does it all the stirring, folding, scraping, smoothing. I’m very particular about our spatulas at Spring, and have to keep them away from the savoury chefs trying to use them for their garlic and onions.
Could you share a recipe with our readers?
These iced buns/ sticky fingers/ finger buns are a favourite of mine and Skye’s, they have real nostalgia for Skye of Aussie tuck shops and for me of British teatimes. I’m a bit of a bun obsessive, and love the soft squishyness of this dough with the thick layer of sticky icing, YUM!
Iced Buns (makes 14)
Strong white bread flour 350g
Plain flour 200g
Lemon zest 1
Yeast dried 10g, fresh 20g
Butter, soft 60g
Activate the yeast by whisking the yeast into lukewarm milk and water mix.
Weigh out both flours, sugar, zest and salt. Add yeasty mix plus egg to the dry mix. Mix with dough hook until it comes together and starts to form a smooth dough, around 5 minutes. If mixing by hand (which requires a bit more muscle work) stir in wet ingredients until all incorporated then take dough out and knead the dough for about 10 minutes.
Rest the dough for 10 minutes, then add butter bit by bit until all incorporated.
Allow to rise for 1-2 hours.
Weigh out into 70g portions, and shape into fingers. Place on tray lined with baking parchment, allow space for them to prove. Prove for an hour, they will end up holding hands. Brush with egg wash (made with a beaten egg and a splash of milk.)
Bake at 200c for 15 minutes. Cool completely before icing.
For the icing there are plenty of different options depending on the season. Add any fruit juice like lemon, orange, blackcurrant or raspberry to sieved icing sugar. Add the juice little by little you don’t need very much at all. You are looking for a thick paste consistency to spread on top of your buns. They will tear apart beautifully.