The Dubai outing of The Collective Affair – a lifestyle event from Los Angeles that highlights the trends and influencers leading the fashion, food and travel industries – promises to bring together the "who's who" of the two cities at the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club on Thursday, November 7. Among them is Gemma Stafford, a professional chef and baker with close to two million subscribers on YouTube, and more than 100,000 followers on Instagram.
Stafford is a digitally driven entrepreneur, who has accumulated a steady following of social media fans. Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram are, after all, the modern-day go-to for quick and easy-to-follow recipes, for everything from soups and salads to cakes and more elaborate baked goods. Stafford herself has posted more than 750 recipes online, yet also chose to write a cookbook, Bigger Bolder Baking, which was published in September with 115 recipes.
It might seem paradoxical for a woman who built the entirety of her brand online to then turn to traditional media – and that too, a cookbook, which for some is a relic of the past, akin to telephone directories and rolodexes. However, the Irish-born chef, who studied at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork and now lives in California, says some of her earliest memories are baking at the kitchen table with her mum in Ireland, and that for her, cookbooks hold great sentimental value. "Growing up, we didn't have the internet. A young baker, I religiously scrolled through my mum's cookbooks bookmarking everything I wanted to make. I wanted to put pen to paper and create a book so other bakers out there can create their own memories with my recipes," she says.
Simultaneously, what's considered true luxury is increasingly becoming offline, and cookbooks, too, are re-emerging in popularity, says Stafford. "Cookbooks have had a resurgence because they are tangible treasures that people can actually use [for sustenance].
"They have come a long way in the past few years, with amazing photography and design, becoming coffee-table books and centrepieces," she explains. "My goal was for mine to be your go-to baking bible for the modern home baker. I believe a good cookbook will never go out of style."
Stafford's own style is to simplify baking for multitasking people with busy schedules. "Although I'm a professional chef, my recipes are not complicated or intimidating – quite the opposite. I'm all about giving everyone the confidence to bake anytime, anywhere," says Stafford. "I read a lot of recipes online and even with my 15-plus years of experience, I get confused with the extra steps and fluffy stuff. I realised early on that if I can't make head nor tail of these recipes, then I'm not the only one."
Most of the recipes in her cookbook, she notes, involve fewer than 10 steps, and all require basic kitchen tools and ingredients, to "help the baker focus and become confident regardless of their experience or equipment they have on hand". This includes Stafford's signature banana and salted caramel meringue roulade, which is a lightly baked meringue, soft in the centre, crispy on the outside, rolled with cream and bananas and drizzled with a salted caramel sauce.
Dieters and weight-watchers, look away now.
Stafford’s book and social media offer an endless abyss of sugary temptation. From sprinkle-filled vanilla pound cake to a decadently layered chocolate and raspberry trifle, the mouth-watering images look delicious enough to pluck off the screen (or indeed, page) and devour. It sure must be tough just to write about it all without sneaking a trip to the pantry in search of a sweet treat – so how does Stafford maintain self-control?
"Balance is hard when you are surrounded by sweets on a daily basis," she admits, "but I try and practise moderation. I enjoy a little of everything without overdoing it. My saving grace is that keeping fit and exercising is a big part of my routine. I work out daily as much for my head as for my body."
As well as cakes, cupcakes and cookies, Stafford's online recipes include breads using different types of dough, home-made flavoured ice creams and no-bake desserts. She has a section with different mug-cake recipes, which are single-serving treats mixed in a mug and made in a microwave, and even posts recipes for gluten-free, egg-free, vegan, low-sugar and low-carb desserts. Stafford's user-friendly website allows visitors to rate recipes, print them and upload images of their own attempts. All recipes come with detailed photographs and video tutorials, and many come with tips on storing and longevity.
Stafford's trip to Dubai for The Collective Affair this week will be her first visit to the UAE, and she says she's most excited about experiencing the culture – including, of course, the food. And given her penchant for variety, we may just find her take on regional delicacies such as Umm Ali or kanafeh on BiggerBolderBaking.com this time next week.