Portrait

In the kitchen with chef and author Julia Ostro. By Romy Ash.

Chef Julia Ostro

In her home, Julia Ostro has a 1950s galley kitchen with minimal bench space: lime green linoleum, red and yellow wooden cupboards, a narrow Parkinson oven in Fahrenheit. There’s a blackboard on one wall with a chalked list, some of the items struck out.

greens pie

house salad

potato leek mozzarella torte

mushroom barley pie

The oven is on. Ostro’s cracking eggs into a bowl at the bench. Beside her is a round cake tin, buttered and lined with parchment paper. She’s smiling, bustling, as I sit in a corner eating fancy chocolate she brought home with her from a recent trip to Italy. She’s making a recipe of her mum’s, but she doesn’t have the recipe. She’s making it from how she remembers her mum making it, from how she remembers the taste of it, the look of it. It’s a butter cake, with apples and cinnamon. She’s recipe testing for her second book. Her first book Ostro was released late last year.

She says of the cake, “I have a memory of eating so much of it once that I felt sick. Like, it was so good. It was so cinnamon-y and the apples inside and on top. It was so good, but it was really basic. She only ever made really basic cakes.”

Ostro grew up in the south of Adelaide, by the sea. She speaks Italian; her heritage is Maltese. She remembers collecting seawater with her parents to make ricotta.

“You can make ricotta with seawater?” I ask.

“In Malta they do,” she says.

She remembers the pastel pink baskets for the cheese sitting on the sink. Hanging on a hook above her own sink she has a similar basket, in blue. In Melbourne ricotta can still come like this when you buy it fresh.

“Mum never wrote down any of her recipes – and it’s funny, her mum didn’t write down any recipes either. I put a fish soup recipe in Ostro and she just had to come and cook with me. She’s got a good memory, for all the little things that her mum did and if I change the recipe she finds it hard. I’ve got some aunties who are really amazing cooks, back in Malta, and I ask them a lot. I did this ricotta pie and I just couldn’t get it right. The ricotta just kept being spongy. It wasn’t right. I called my aunty in Malta and she just said this, this, this, less eggs, don’t mix it hard. The tips and then it just worked,” she says.

She cuts a chunk of butter from the block and melts it gently in a little saucepan on the stove. She gives the melted butter a swirl with a spoon.

“I literally grew up just eating Maltese food – except for this one dish that Mum would make, which was French onion soup, and just the smell of onions cooking in butter is what I remember waking up to on a Sunday morning. You know, being a kid, being in bed and smelling that smell. Onion and garlic in oil – it’s the basis to all the things I grew up eating.”

She weighs out flour and sugar.

“I have always cooked. It was what I was really interested in. When my mum would have people over she would let me cook a three-course meal. I would have been in primary school, about 10 I think. She totally put her pride aside, and it didn’t even matter if it was going to be good, she just let me do it. I can remember making this charlotte royale. It’s so ’80s. You line the bowl with jam scrolls, then you fill it with raspberry gelatinous cream and you let it set and then you tip it over,” she says, laughing.

She whisks ingredients, holding the bowl in her arm; places the bowl on the bench and starts peeling green apples with a paring knife. “Even like this, I always thought that the way my mum would peel an apple was amazing. All in one piece,” she says. She shows me her own apple skin. It curls away from her fingers, bounces a little, all in one piece.

“Seeing her do that without a board. Maltese people never use boards. They’ve got everything in their hands. With a zucchini she’d just be over the pan, chopping directly into the pan. A whole meal without a board. They use their hands so much. I think it’s so beautiful.” She’s slicing the apple in her hands, slicing it directly into the cake mix that she’s poured into the tin.

“I hope this works,” she says of the cake. She sprinkles cinnamon sugar over the top.

“Oh, I forgot to put the butter in!” She laughs. “Oh what am I going to do? Should I just make it without butter? I have to mix it in, don’t I? I have to take off all the apple.” More laughter. “I’m going to mix it in the tin.”

She removes the apple. Mixes the melted butter gently through and reapplies the apple, adding more cinnamon sugar.

“People are like, ‘Do you ever make mistakes in the kitchen?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, yes, I definitely, definitely make mistakes.’ It’s going to be so cinnamon-y now. Alright, it’s going in.” Ostro opens the oven, places the cake inside. She claps her hands together and we wait.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 17, 2018 as "Baking memories". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.