For anyone who has already lapsed on the New Year’s resolution front, Donna Hay is a good person to channel. “I don’t cope well with rules and I don’t want to give up anything,” she says. “I don’t think that’s what life is about. There is so much pressure on us to be perfect mums, perfect cooks, perfect entertainers, perfect housekeepers and now you’re tasking me with giving up sugar as well and I think it could be my breaking point.” Hay’s latest cookbook, Modern Baking, is her 28th and, like the others, is full of sumptuous-looking recipes that definitely contain sugar. From deliciously gooey molten dulce de leche lava cake to moreish salted peanut butter and choc-chip cookies, it’s in part a celebration of the most indulgent ingredients (there are chapters titled “milk and cream” and “caramel, toffee and coffee”).
There is also a “fresh and light” section and you will see some use of “healthier” substitutions, such as coconut sugar, but these are decisions that Hay – who studied food science before starting her career as a food stylist – says have taken a lot of trial and error to get right. “You've got to look at the ingredient for what it is. Buckwheat flour’s really high in protein and it’s not the same as flour – you can’t just swap it in and out. I’ll end up serving you something else. You’ll say: ‘Wow, I’ve come to Donna’s and I’m having a diet cookie.’”
Hay says it’s her pavlova that she gets the most requests for (there are four different versions in this latest book). Her friends regularly pitch up on a Sunday to her beachfront Sydney home, when they know she’ll be catering for the crowd. “I don’t stress out if I haven’t cooked before they arrive because they are going to chat with me [while I cook] anyway.” Rather than taking to the kitchen being a chore, she says she finds it’s “meditative”, whether that’s putting together a meal for her friends, her boyfriend or her two teenage sons (she split from their father, Bill Wilson, in 2015).
Not that she has loads of downtime. She says that she usually has “three to four books on the go” and, until July this year, was head of her eponymous magazine, which had been running for 17 years. The closure ended her relationship with News Corp. She says she “decided to go out on top… it’s a long time to not be able to change jobs”, but she tells me that the hardest thing was telling her staff. Whatever the circumstances around the break, Hay is putting all her energy into establishing her new publishing studio and doing more promotion in Europe. When we met, London was her last stop after Berlin, Hamburg and Amsterdam.
You've got to look at the ingredient for what it is. Buckwheat flour’s really high in protein and it’s not the same as flour – you can’t just swap it in and out
She is a lot of fun to chat to. During our hour together, we cover topics ranging from the time she took part in the notoriously tough Sydney to Hobart yacht race – “I made the crew chicken schnitzel to keep us all going” – to her experience in a recent media appearance being interviewed on a TV show alongside “a porn star who’d written a knitting book”. But there is no doubt she is a shrewd business woman. She says she has “110% control” of her cookbooks and is keen to pass on what she has learned in the last two decades, warts and all. “When you work for yourself, you do make a lot of mistakes,” she says. “We’re so hard on ourselves, it’s not about dwelling on the mistake, it’s about learning from it and moving on as quickly as you can without beating yourself up.”
Hay credits her “tribe” of girlfriends for keeping her grounded, and having people to vent to about the ups and downs – including working in environments where the bosses are more often men. She tells me about a friend who has a “really high-pressure” job and was told by a male boss: “It might help you if you just be a little bit more humble.” “I doubt he would have ever said that to a man,” she says, before moving the conversation back to a lighter topic. She says having a laugh with her friends usually resets her: “You realise that what you’ve been stressing about is really quite comical and you maybe didn’t need to spend that time lying awake in bed.”
Hay is keen to stress that she doesn’t find it easy to be a mother-of-two and run her own business, and that she hasn’t always got the balance right. She tells me that in the earlier days of her career, she would conceal any family commitments, such as her sons’ swimming competitions, as something else in the diary. “Then I thought, ‘What am I teaching all the girls in my office?’ My business mentor said to me, ‘If everything is OK at home, everything is OK at work.’ If it’s not OK at home, you go and fix it. I’ve always had a family-first culture in the office.”
Balance, then, at work, at home or at the table, seems to be Hay’s mantra for 2018, which takes us back to Modern Baking. “Why do I need to feel bad about having a delicious piece of chocolate?
“I don’t need to sit down and have a whole block to myself, unless I’ve had a total meltdown of a day, but that’s all right as well… It’s like having a glass of champagne with your girlfriends – you’re not going to drink a whole bottle to yourself, are you?”
Donna’s fail-safe tips for successful bakes, every time
(“These sound obvious but you’d be surprised how many people ignore the basics”)
Always read the whole recipe first, so that you know what you’re supposed to be doing when.
Measure, measure, measure. Remember: baking is a science.
Follow the tin-size guidance. “Take a fudge brownie: if the tin’s too small, it will be too fudge-y and if the tin’s too big, the bake will dry at the edges and not have the right texture. There’s a reason each recipe takes a lot of testing.
Try Donna Hay's Upside-Down Chocolate, Hazelnut And Pear Cake from Modern Baking on The Pool here
Modern Baking is out now