A baking club has taken it upon itself to boost the capital’s home-baking scene. Writing by Nicole Dulieu; photography by Charles Fox.
It’s 35C outside, and an army of ants are encroaching on the sugar bowl. The sticky heat perforates the air. Sitting in a room with a hot oven seems like a questionable way to spend the day, yet across Phnom Penh baking trays and Tupperware are being brought out of cupboards and gingerly transported across town in tuk tuks. It’s the first Sunday of the month, and time for a group of bakers to meet.
Opened in January, Phnom Penh Baking Society – a small group of amateur bakers – provides an antidote to the capital’s alcohol-based socialising, offering an indulgent pastime for a lazy Sunday afternoon.
“You don’t have to be an amazing baker, its about making an effort,” says society founder, Capucine Harmant. Inspired by London’s Clandestine Cake Club, Harmant brought the baking theme with her to the Phnom Penh culinary scene. Unlike its London counterpart, Phnom Penh Baking Society’s location is not secret. The group meets on the first Sunday of each month from 2pm to 5pm at Tipico Restaurant in Toul Tom Poung.
Growing from a base of three friends who wanted to bake, the group has swelled, gathering patrons from around the world under the auspices of sweet treats. For regulars, such as Jenifer Royslin, the meetings are a great chance to meet new people and, of course, eat cake. Although bakers are predominantly female, men attend too. And the club has a few Khmer members but is seeking to expand to appeal to both Western and Cambodian tastes.
Harmant describes the club’s typical patron as someone who likes desserts and enjoys meeting new people, presumably swayed by the club’s “bring a cake, bring a friend” policy. The 28-year-old, who previously worked as a teacher, is arguably one of few French expats to describe British puddings, tasted while studying in London, as “actually very good, sometimes better than the French”. High praise indeed from the pastry nation.
Riding the wave of rising popularity, Harmant saw a gap in the market in Cambodia for baking. “There is little to do on a Sunday, and only a few good places to get desserts, so it is a great chance to experiment and share,” she says. Each month has a theme, ranging from “desserts around the world” to the sickliest one – chocolate.
Baking in the heat is a challenge for most, but the club aims to be easy and accessible for all. The variety of cooking methods used has perhaps been of most surprise to the club founder. “People here are very resourceful,” she says. From a cake cooked in a frying pan to a no-bake dessert, Phnom Penhers are proving eager to experiment.
Among the showstoppers at a booze-themed meeting, were eclectic offerings of Baileys and chocolate pie, a no-bake tequila-lime pudding served in coconut and G&T ice lollies.
Attracting all abilities is core to the Baking Society ethos, “I’m honestly not much of a baker,” Royslin says. “When I first joined the baking society I didn’t have an oven, so a friend and I would make no-bake recipes. We weren’t always successful, but the process was fun.” Others, such as Crumbs Bakery owner Lea Richard, come to the club to get feedback on new recipes.
For many, the biggest challenge isn’t baking in Cambodia, but sourcing ingredients. The rise of minimarts and internationally supplied stores, are making it easier for the epicurious to source ingredients and experiment.
“Not many people know where to go to buy the right supplies, often you have to go to many places,” Harmant says. She adds that Le Marché is good for French products, such as vanilla sugar, Superduper offers cheap apples and Sand Bakery specialises in baking equipment.
While the globalisation of Phnom Penh has brought a wider range of ingredients to the eager baker, their cost is often sky high – strawberries cost more than $7 for a punnet – and can remain the number one barrier to baking in the Kingdom.
For now, the club is an eclectic mix of foodies but Harmant envisages it expanding into a active cooking community, where interested chefs swap recipes and share tips on where to find certain products.
And sourcing local ingredients should be easy for the upcoming Asian Delights theme, which promises tantalising creations of sticky rice topped with taro and airy Japanese sponge cakes waiting to be devoured.