These days, if you want to order a bespoke cake for that special friend’s birthday there are many places to choose from in Phnom Penh. But how many options out there differ from the sugar-laden pink iced cakes? (You know the ones I mean.) Where can you go to for cakes, cookies, or brownies that are known for their flavor – rather than how highly sculptured the frosting is?
We look at two women in the Phnom Penh culinary scene doing it all by themselves. These women, baker and blogger Han-Na-Cha of courgettesandlimes.com and Lea Richard of Crumbs, make cakes that really pack a punch.
That’s it, I quit! Han-Na’s short-lived career as a baker was over before it started at the grand old age of 9. Han-Na forgot to turn the oven off for the last time and her mother was letting her know about it. Despite this early setback, she soon jumped back on the baking horse to experiment with flavor combinations.
“My mother, a chemist, would always say – look at a recipe and remove half the sugar,” encouraging her to instead swap ingredients in and out of recipes to see how different tastes worked in harmony together.
Fast forward a few years, and Han-Na makes a list of 30 things to do by the time she turns 30. On that list is entering a baking competition. “I ended up entering into the UK television show ‘The Great British Bake Off’ and after a lot of planning I showcased 9 weeks of recipes all at once.” Han-Na secured a spot to meet the revered and famously critical judges. “All I wanted from the experience was to be told they liked my baking – and they did!”
When moving to Phnom Penh almost four years ago, Han-Na realized that if she was going to move halfway around the world, she would needed to bring her utensils and baking equipment with her.
Her “tools of happiness”, as she calls them, help her to make cakes she shares with her Khmer colleagues (she’s a teacher by day) who are glad to try their hand at product testing. It’s an education that goes both ways – they give feedback and help guide Han-Na’s cake flavors. Next stop: a soursop cheesecake!
When the orders for her cakes started coming in she realized her blog was really helping people out. “People read my blog (courgettesandlimes.com) and think ‘Well if she can do it, I can do it!’ Which is wonderful.” Whether it’s raspberry burst brownies, wholemeal sea-salt chocolate thins, ‘figgy’ lemon shortbread, or hazelnut brown butter cake, Han-Na’s baking is quickly making its mark on the palettes of eager Phnom Penhers.
“Baking and the creating recipes by working out what works well together calms me, it puts me in my happy place.” Arriving in Phnom Penh 18 months ago on a contract with an NGO, Lea Richard, a self-taught baker and cake-maker, has followed a similar path to Han-Na. One of her earliest memories is kneading the dough while baking brioche and other classic French breads with her father every Sunday, aged just two years old.
Lea’s love of baking continued and she started baking muffins for her school friends. “I just love to bake. Some people would bring wine, cheese, or dips to a party – I always bake a cake.”
Leaving behind her usual kitchen in Toulouse, France, Lea had to improvise with her cake making – working out that the cooler climate of France just doesn’t compare with baking in Phnom Penh! “I’d run home after buying butter hoping it wouldn’t melt too quickly!”
Lea built up a clientele through word of mouth and by supplying cakes for popular Toul Tom Poung eateries Tini and Eleven One Kitchen. Recently Lea has made the jump to leave her job and open a shop of her own, satisfying cookie and cake lovers in Phnom Penh full-time.
Now it’s easy to get your own bag of cookies (I’m looking at you gluten-free salted caramel peanut butter cookie) or pick up a cake (lime drizzle sponge!) for that special occasion.
Lea and Han-Na’s reasons for baking are remarkably similar. Han-Na says, “I realized that everything you do in life should make you happy – and baking, the process of experimenting and seeing it succeed, brings me happiness. I think people should do what makes them happy!”
You too can try to bake up a bit of happiness in your life and have a go at Han-Na’s delectable banana and dark chocolate chunk recipe at home. Tell Ha-Na how it went on her blog at www.courgetteandlimes.com – she’d love your feedback!
For deliciousness, see below:
Facebook: Courgettes and Limes
Corner Street 123 and 460 (next to Eleven One Kitchen) Toul Tom Poung
T 078 381 366
BY: Arron Goldman