• How Katherine Sabbath's dinner table transformed her into the cake creative and dinner party queen she is today. (Supplied by Katherine Sabbath)Source: Supplied by Katherine Sabbath
Celebrity baker Kat Sabbath attributes much of her cooking expertise to the quality time she spent with her family at dinner.
By
Melissa Woodley

19 Apr 2021 - 10:01 AM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2021 - 11:23 AM

--- The Cook Up with Adam Liaw airs weeknights on SBS Food from Monday April 19 at 7pm and 10pm. You can watch Katherine Sabbath's episode alongside Mark Best, this Wednesday 21 April. It will encore on SBS Food at 11am weekdays and at 3.30pm on SBS. SBS Food will air a marathon on Sundays at 2.00pm, and series will be made available after broadcast on SBS On Demand. ---

 

Katherine Sabbath, a high school teacher turned baker and cookbook author, thinks her evening dinner-time ritual was monumental in inspiring her love for food.

Take a seat around Kat's spacious, rectangular dining table, and you'll find yourself in the company of her mother, father and younger brother. Although her mum Yen was always the creative genius and head chef of the family, each member played a role during the dinner-time routine.

Kat explains, "My mum worked extremely hard and wouldn't get home until about 6pm, so we would start the process of getting all the ingredients ready for her.

"We would cook the rice in the big rice steamer that we had…and we would chop all the vegetables. Then my mum would usually have meat that she had prepared the night before [marinating], so it was easy for her to kind of stir fry it all up."

Kat with her mum (left) and dad. Kat's family dinner-time ritual inspired her love for food

Having immigrated to Australia in 1976 after the Vietnam War, Yen's cooking style was largely inspired by her Vietnamese heritage. Rice accompanied most meals and her classic tom yum fish soup regularly appeared on the menu when Kat was a child. However, in Shellharbour, NSW, where they lived at the time, many of the traditional ingredients required for these dishes were not stocked in its local supermarkets.

This taught Yen to get experimental, so dinners were often a riff on Vietnamese cuisine using whatever ingredients she could find.

"She's definitely inspired my love for experimenting and my stress-free view of food," Kat says. "I don't get caught up in not having the right ingredients. I always think, 'well, if I don't have the right ingredient at hand, there's always something that I can substitute for'. It might not be exactly the same but who knows, I might be delighted by a different flavour."

Kat's favourite dinner was her mum's crumbed pork and lamb chops, which were a product of this experimentation. If it weren't for her mother's skills, she believes her own cooking style would be quite different.

"I kind of see what I have on hand and think of it in a resourceful way," Kat explains. "What can I make myself for dinner without wasting the food that I have or what is available to me."

Although she may not have appreciated it as a young girl, Kat says she's incredibly grateful for her traditional Vietnamese upbringing.

"Once every month, my Vietnamese aunties would get together and they would make mass batches of spring rolls," Kat recalls. "They would sit around the table together during the day or at night, and they would all have like a station, and they would just make spring rolls, as many as they could, and then they would put them in Ziploc bags and freeze them."

Aside from the priceless opportunity to learn Vietnamese culture and traditional recipes, these experiences taught her the importance of using food as a vehicle to provide and show care for others.

"Mum always viewed [cooking] as such an important skill, to be able to look after yourself and the community around you."

Kat says she always bakes double batches these days and stores extra cakes in the freezer so that there's always one ready to go. Being constantly surrounded by her Vietnamese relatives, she also became quickly aware of the importance of respect and finishing what you were served.

"Vietnamese people are feeders. There's something wrong with you if you don't eat. They think you're sick, so you have to show kind of respect to whoever's house it is by eating," she explains.

"Mum always viewed [cooking] as such an important skill, to be able to look after yourself and the community around you."

Looking back, Kat laughs as she remembers not being able to leave the dinner table before she had finished her meal. "When I was younger, I would pretend that I needed to use a bathroom, but I would walk through the house with a mouthful of rice and spit out the rice into the toilet."

It was not only her stubborn nature that often left her still seated at the dinner table at 9pm. Growing up as a young, half Vietnamese kid in Australia, Kat simply wanted to assimilate. She grew sick of having rice all the time and just wanted to eat like all her peers.

Kat did find an antidote to rice at her German grandmother's dinner table. Once or twice a week the family would go over for a meal of veal schnitzel, mashed potato and roulade, but nothing could beat her grandmother's rich desserts.

"I always loved her main meals, but her desserts were nothing like I had ever had before," Kat recalls. "She would make these beautiful plum tortes…black forest cakes, trifles, custard pudding, coffee cakes."

Kat and her younger brother.

Seeing how her grandmother's love for butter, milk and cream could be transformed into such magical creations inspired Kat's future passions for baking. She quickly became known at school for her sickly-sweet caramel slice, which her friends would request on every and any occasion.

"I started getting really good at making caramel slice, probably when I was 15 or 16," Kat says. "The base was a really nice flaky and crunchy [texture], and you know fatty, and then the caramel layer was really chewy."

Her infamous caramel slice recipe still makes regular appearances at the dinner table today, with an upgraded edition featuring a pinch of chilli and salt sprinkled on top.

However, dinner time for Kat is about so much more than the meal being served. Being able to cook and share conversations around the table with her family and friends has helped transform her into the cake creative and dinner party queen she is today.

With two cookbooks under her belt, almost half a million loyal fans and regular media appearances, the future is looking pretty sweet.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @sporkdiaries

Photographs supplied by Katherine Sabbath


Kat's caramel slice recipe

Serves 30

Ingredients

Base

  • 1 cup plain flour, sifted
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup desiccated coconut
  • ¼ cup rolled oats
  • 125 g unsalted butter, melted

Filling

  • 2 cans sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tbsp golden syrup
  • 60 g butter, melted
  • ½ tsp vanilla bean paste

Topping:

  • 2 tbsp coconut oil (or any oil will do)
  • 250 g dark chocolate chopped (I like to use at least 75% cocoa)
  • Pinch sea salt flakes

Method

1. Preheat oven to 180°C Fan Forced. Line a 28 x 18cm (base) lamington or slice pan with non-stick baking paper.
2. Combine all base ingredients in a bowl. Mix well. Press into prepared slice pan. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until light golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.
3. To make the filling, combine all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook, whisking, for 10 minutes or until golden. Pour over cooked base. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until firm. Cool completely. Refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours, or until set.
4. To make the topping, melt oil and chocolate using the stove method by placing into a heat-proof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and stir until melted. Or, you can use the microwave method by heating oil and chocolate together at 30 second intervals, stirring in between until melted. Pour melted chocolate over caramel.
5. Refrigerate and as chocolate begins to set, sprinkle with sea salt flakes. Allow chocolate to set completely before cutting into squares with a hot knife to serve.

Tip: Feel free to jazz up my basic caramel slice recipe with the addition of nuts, cacao nibs, chilli flakes, dried and freeze-dried fruit, or even rainbow sprinkles!

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