Odette Williams Says: Make More Cake
“Two bowls and a whisk. Pop it in the oven. You’ll have cake in your mouth in an hour.” We love her.
True confession: Odette Williams gives us hero-worship vibes. The Australia native launched a line of high-quality kids’ kitchen gear about seven years ago, championing an inclusive, laid-back approach to cooking with the whole family. Her new book Simple Cake puts this philosophy on the page, laying out dead-simple recipes designed for regular use, experimentation, participation, and—y’know, lots of cake. (Scroll down for her beautifully quick lemon cake.)
We recently caught up with Odette on a breezy, sunny Brooklyn afternoon to talk about how she launched her business, about cooking with kids, about Australia, and how cake fixes so many things.
How did you end up going into the kids’ apron and cooking spoon game?
I say it was an accidental business. My friend had arrived from Australia, and had brought my kid a children’s apron set. It was kind of a cheesy vinyl design, but Opal, my daughter, just loved it. She was always playing in it, whether we were cooking or not. And it was around the time we were getting invited to all these kids’ birthday parties, and I thought, y’know, that makes a great gift. It just needs to be redesigned so that it’s more of a keepsake.
It really just came from being a mum, and being in a place and time when this was what my life was. I was cooking a lot with small kids. I was on the birthday party circuit. And I was really conscious of not adding to another family’s plastic graveyard.
Simple Cake is one of the best cookbook titles. But why start your authorial career with cake?
Cake is one of those foods that really kept me happy and kept the kids happy. It’s easy to bust out. Even though it’s a baking title, I see it as a lifestyle title as well, trying to encourage others to spend some time in the kitchen with their family. The simple task of making the easiest cake has brought me tons of happiness on days when I needed, y’know, just a little pick-me-up.
How would you describe your approach to cooking and baking with kids?
I’ll be totally honest. Sometimes cooking with kids can be totally teeth-gritting. You can be pulling your hair out, wondering why you ever embarked on it. But it’s funny—we’ve got kids of various ages. And I’ve seen the trajectory of it. When they’re really young, they have meltdowns for no reason, they spill the good vanilla, they ruin the couch—all of it. But then, at the end of the day, my daughter can go into the kitchen and make one of these cakes.
She’s turning 12 this summer. I came home the day the book was released, and she’d baked one of the cakes in the book for me. That’s what it’s all about! And that’s really the premise of the book. These simple gestures that you’re kind of teaching your kids as you do it.
Do you consider yourself more of a baker, rather than a cook?
I’ve always been driven by savory food as much as sweet. I wake up in the morning thinking, hmm, what’s for dinner? But baking—I think baking can get a bad rap for being super-intimidating. I wanted to demystify that a bit. There’s baking out there that’s kind of in the ballpark of doing a simple bouillabaisse. Some people have told me that my cakes are like the cookie-cake—they’re not the six-tiered, layered beauty.
Hence the “simple” in Simple Cake. What’s the approach?
There’s such a glut of everything now. I appreciate when someone curates something for me. I go to Ina Garten because I know her recipes are going to work. I wanted Simple Cake to be that buttoned-up: Okay, that chocolate cake, it has six ingredients and I probably have all of them in my pantry. With baking, once you know a little bit, you know a lot. That’s empowering.
I wanted these cakes to be easy but hardworking. There are 10 base recipes and 15 toppings. I give you 30 moments in life when I think cake helps, and each has a combination of cake and topping. There are also variations within the recipes, and variations for different pan sizes—how many times have you gone to make a cake and found you don’t have the right pan size? And the variations promote a bit of play and experimentation.
This may seem like an odd question, but how do you think being from Australia influences you as a cook and writer?
I think I bring an Australian approach—maybe even an English approach—to baking. There’s a modesty there, which was very much a part of baking in my childhood. We just didn’t have the kind of show-stoppers you see in America. Baking was more like an everyday thing. I think the climate has something to do with it. It’s so hot, no one wants to spend much time around a hot oven. You want it in and out in an hour. And that’s kind of the style of my cakes: Two bowls and a whisk, pop it in the oven, and you’ll have cake in your mouth in an hour. Cut it warm, whack some whipped cream on, and it’s done.
The other connection to Australia is, okay, I’d had the idea for years. And then my father unexpectedly died. So I went back to Australia for the funeral, and we were going through all these old photographs—one is in the front of the book. My father and I are in my backyard, and he’d baked a cake for my birthday, a cake from a cookbook that’s really iconic in Australia, The Australian Woman’s Weekly birthday cake book. He was newly divorced, in his late 30s—he would have been totally out of his comfort zone. It was such a wake-up moment. This is what it’s all about. This is why we do this simple gesture. It seems so small in the moment, but it’s so significant in the grand scheme of things. That emotion became the engine of the book, beyond the basic format.
After all this cooking and thinking about cooking with kids and families, how do your kids approach the kitchen?
If they see you cooking and enjoying it, I think it just rubs off on them. My daughter is far more into the actual cooking. My son not so much. But he’s such an adventurous eater, he’ll devour anything that gets made. So he’s into it in a different way.