FOR me, a child raised by two people whose aim seemed to be merely to survive their mornings, and life, Bill Granger offered an alternative. There was something unapologetic and uncompromisingly joyful about a life in which you would get up to feast unhurriedly on toasted coconut bread and silky, buttery curds of eggs.
Bill opened the door to a sunlit courtyard and a communal table where you could linger with unfamiliar others like family and where brunch was an event. The unfussy food was generous, fresh, had a hint of magical surprise (honeycomb butter!) and was served on elegant white ceramics. Perhaps life is about more than just survival, is what his food said to me.
I met Bill Granger in early 2008 at his Darlinghurst café bills in Sydney. It was a moment, a thin slip of time, just before cellphone photography and social media launched a million smashed avocadoes on toast and crowned him the grandfather of avocado toast.
On that clear February day, however, no one was hovering over their plate with a cellphone or livestreaming their flat white.
I do miss that specific shade of joy, when it felt like you had discovered something wonderful while travelling because not every inch of the experience had already been documented, hashtagged and stored away in the amorphous cloud.
By the time we met, Bill was a decade and a half into his career as restaurateur and had published several cookbooks. He built a brand on luxurious eggs, sophisticated simplicity and communal café culture, and his famous ricotta hot cakes were selling like … well. And yet, he was humble, kind and attentive in a way that surprised me — unlike so many chefs, he didn’t seem burdened by the need to take himself seriously.
In his book The Creative Act, the prolific music producer Rick Rubin writes about how everything already exists. The creative act does not require you to make something the world has never seen but to rearrange fragments of what is already there in a way that produces something new.
Bill epitomised that with dishes made up of instantly recognisable parts. Chunks of avocado on toast dressed with lime juice and fresh coriander, fritters studded with corn or hot cakes fluffy with ricotta — and of course, buttery piles of silky egg curds. They contained elements of the food I knew while growing up, but reimagined in a more generous and fresh manner.
What I found so poignant about Bill’s life’s work is how he wove something together that he longed for himself. He remarked that as a child he ate most meals alone, mostly prepared by himself from recipe cards. The longing to share meals, to commune around a table, was the childhood yearning that became a career.
* Bill Granger died on December 25, 2023, aged 54.
bills coconut bread
This bread is famous for a reason. My preference is to eat it slightly toasted with homemade labneh (yoghurt cheese) and fresh strawberries. However, it doesn’t need anything more than good butter to be an event. And if you prefer savoury to sweet, it is also delicious with strips of crisp bacon or smoked salmon and something creamy like a poached egg or a smear of cream cheese.
- 2 eggs
- 300 ml (1.25 cups) milk
- 1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla
- 315 g (2.5 cups) flour
- 2 tsp (10 ml) baking powder
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp lemon zest (or cinnamon)
- 200 g (1 cup) caster sugar
- 150 g (1.5 cups) shredded or desiccated coconut
- 85 g (6 tbsp) butter, melted and browned
1. Preheat oven to 180°C.
2. Whisk eggs, milk and vanilla together.
3. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Stir in the sugar and coconut.
4. Mix the egg mixture gently into the flour until just combined.
5. Add the butter towards the end and stir till smooth — do not overmix.
6. Pour into a prepared 22 cm loaf pan and bake for about an hour or till the tester comes out clean.
Note: Bill added 2 teaspoons of cinnamon to his recipe but I am fond of a grating of fresh lemon zest instead. I also used desiccated coconut which is less sweet than the shredded variant. And I browned the butter slightly so that it lends a nutty flavour, instead of just melting it.
Labneh: If you want to make labneh, it is simple. Take a clean muslin or linen cloth and drape it over a jug — I slip an elastic band around the top to secure it. Pour thick plain Greek yoghurt into the cloth and let it sit outside the fridge for a day. Then place it in the fridge overnight. The next day the liquid will have strained from the yoghurt, leaving behind a delicious, soft, creamy cheese spread. Scrape it into a glass jar, season with a pinch of salt and cover with a thin layer of olive oil. It will last at least a week.
bills zucchini fritters
Fritters are a bit of a labour of love, but it’s a labour I gladly embrace.
- 300 g waxy potatoes
- 300 g courgettes
- 4 spring onions, chopped
- 4 tbsp parsley, chopped
- 125 g Halloumi, grated
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 3 tbsp chickpea flour
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- oil for frying
1. Grate the potatoes and courgettes together using a coarse box grater. Wrap in a clean dish towel and gently squeeze to remove the excess moisture.
2. Mix everything together and season to taste.
3. Add a few tablespoons of oil to a non-stick pan and fry tablespoons of the mixture for 2 minutes each side. The best technique is to make sure the oil is hot but not smoking. Slide a generously heaped tablespoon mixture into the oil. Do not crowd the pan; make sure each fritter is an island surrounded by a boiling oil sea. Once the fritter is starting to brown at the bottom and is holding together, flip it over and slightly press on it to flatten it some more.
4. Drain on kitchen paper. I like serving them with smoked salmon and lots of lime juice and chilli crisp. Labneh would be a welcome addition here too.
Notes: Yes, I tweaked the recipe. I used gluten-free chickpea flour, which ensures a crispier end result. Instead of the mozzarella in Bill's original, I used up some Halloumi.
If you are catering for a few people, you can fry them the day before and reheat in a single layer on a baking sheet in a very hot oven.
♦ VWB ♦
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