Interview + Recipe - Lee Inch, Ajanta

28 May 2015

Lee Inch runs Ajanta, a Coolamon cafe that specialises in my favourite things - cookies, scones and homemade cakes. When I'm in need of a serious sugar fix, I'll make the 80 kilometre return trip from Wagga Wagga to the nearby town for a good slice of cake.

I've always been curious about the shop, with it's ever changing cakes, beautiful tea-ware and Friday through Sunday opening hours. Last week, before the after school milkshake rush could interrupt us, I chatted with Lee about Ajanta’s humble beginnings, how she chooses what to bake next and the cookie she can never seem to sell. 

How did Ajanta get started?

I always wanted to have a little cafe of some sort, I've always baked and my real job is at the school - I've worked with the Department of Education for, jeepers, 18 years - I'm actually still on leave without pay. I was approached by a co-worker who was heavily involved in this building and who has Treats and Treasures across the road. He said - Lee, I have just got the space for you. 

Ajanta came about probably because I thought, if I don't do it, I'm never going to do it and it was only ever going to be two years. I thought I'll do it for two years and get it out of my system. It will be 11 years in October.

My two older children and I went to India for my 50th birthday and we went to these caves called Ajanta, so that's where the name comes from. They were only rediscovered in the late 1980s, British soldiers could see a tiny opening across the hill, and once they went across to investigate they found these caves. Out of everything I saw in India, it just blew me away. In one of the caves there is a life-sized elephant that's been carved out of the rock and you wonder how they did it without light? It was the most amazing thing, I don't think I've ever seen anything as beautiful again. 

Did the name have any relation to how this space is laid out? It does feel like a bit of a secret spot because you can't see into it from the street and the first time you walk in, you do feel like you've really discovered something.

What I saw was the caves were very ordinary outside and full of colour on the inside. To me, it's a lot to live up to because this would be nowhere near as beautiful as Ajanta but because this building is governed by heritage - I can't put proper lighting in, I don’t have any windows and it’s very ordinary around the outside. 

The first time I came here I noticed that you only sold cookies, cakes and scones and I thought it was pretty bold. Was it a difficult decision not to serve lunch? 

I've got a business plan and I get it out sometimes to have a laugh. In my initial business plan, within six months of opening I was going to have brunches, I was going to do lunch, I was going to have theme nights with entertainment and then I started and thought - what was I thinking? It's a big thing to do all of that by yourself. 

Wow, so it wasn't like you initially thought - cookies and cakes, that'll be it. 

No, no. That was the beginning - I'll just open and we'll just do this simple little morning tea and then I'll move up. But the thing is the busier Ajanta's become, and it has, the more I'm cooking and I don't have time to do anything else. And it works so well the way it is anyway. 

I want to ask you about the cakes, your daughter Jess mentioned that there's a bit of a formula as to what you bake for different days?

After all of this time I try not to repeat and I have two new cakes over there today. I call them virgin cakes and I like to try my virgin cakes out on a Friday because I have lovely local people who will tell me honestly - Lee don't do that again or it was fabulous. We tried the zesty lemon today which is totally sold out, it was divine.

The only things that I have all the time - I have the fruit cake, the biscuits and the scones are always there. The only cake I have religiously every week is the chocolate cake on Saturday. A boy who usually sits over there has been coming here since the day I opened with his mum on a Saturday morning, he religiously has chocolate cake and chocolate milk. He's 15 now. That's a favourite part of having Ajanta, watching kids grow up, watching kids be born. 

There are probably five things that I could put on every single day that I know would sell out. They would be Whitey's sponge, which is the recipe I’ve given you, an ordinary old hummingbird, although I do make a Belinda Jeffery version of it which is a beautiful robust cake that I tweak just depending on what's in - I'll put some fresh mango if they're in. So it would be the lumberjack, hummingbird, the sponge cake, chocolate cake and sticky date anything.

Did you say a lumberjack?

Yeah lumberjack, which is apple and date. It’s really old fashioned and it has a baked on topping of coconut mixed with egg and you put it on the cake so it's lovely and crispy. I have found that as much as I love doing new exciting recipes, the cakes based on the old fashioned recipes are by far more popular. The only thing I've never been able to sell, I've made them probably on three or four occasions, are Anzac biscuits.

Where do you find new recipes?

Everywhere. I love Donna Hay, Belinda Jeffery, Bill Granger and I'm always looking. It's more about how they present things, how they decorate things. I'm not a cake decorator, I've never been to classes but I like the cakes to look different. I love sauces, I'm near orgasmic when the fruit comes in. I really am.

I had my last plum cake last weekend, that will be it now for another nine months until they come back so now I'm looking forward to the quinces, pears and at the moment I’m doing a lot of apples. I love this time of year when I can start doing the lovely caramel and butterscotch sauces.

The presentation in your shop is so thoughtful, from the embroidered fabric napkins to the silver forks. How did you go about sourcing all of the smaller details, like all of the beautiful tea-ware?

I'm always buying napkins, I probably have well over a thousand napkins but they get rotated so they don't wear out. They might only get used once a month and I rotate them all. It's me that irons, washes and spray starches them and I still buy them.

I have a colour theme, which is Johnson Brothers, the really old fashioned lemon, pink, pale blue and pale green. So no matter what you put together, it still works because of the lovely soft colours. If the staff were to break that teapot today, I just wouldn’t talk for three hours because it's not even about the expense, it's about finding that teapot that fits in here.

In the beginning when we were putting the shop together, I would get up really early on the weekends and hit the garage sales. I'd be in there at 7 am and 11 years ago, there was no navigation. It would be a map and the paper and then I would have to decide, okay, which suburb would have sort of things I’m looking for?

I guess the biggest reaction, which is really nice, is from the older men. The blokes will say, oh the butter curls and the napkins. I'm thinking - that's so nice for you guys to notice that.

The presentation and the baking, was that something you grew up with? Is that what you’re trying to replicate?

No, not really. I always had a passion for baking as a very young girl but my mother would never let me cook at home because of the mess. And sometimes because I do all the baking at my house I think - no wonder. 

The person that had the biggest influence on the way I now look at things was a lady that was in my life for one hour max, when I was young and pregnant with my first child. 

We were temporarily living with my in-laws and as soon as my mother-in-law went to work, I would be baking and they were mostly failures. I can remember the first thing I baked, I used up some nuts that she had in the cupboard and she came home and searched for those nuts and I'd made this cake and I'd put it in the bin and I never fessed up that I'd used them. She looked for ages and I felt really bad about it. I never gave up and on the third occasion I had made a chocolate cake. I'd just got it out of the oven and it was this big and I'm in tears - pregnant, highly hormonal and crying.

You'd made a big cookie.

Then someone came to the door, her name was Eve Horn, I'll never forget her name. She just cuddled me because I was this young girl and she said, 'Why are you so upset?' She'd actually come to sell me a second-hand pram because she knew we were young and didn't have a lot of money.

She said, 'Come on, put it down and we'll fix it. We'll make it into a torte.’ I had no idea what a torte was. She got a serrated knife and she cut this tiny little cake into three layers, whipped up some cream, grated some chocolate and chopped up some nuts. It was magnificent. And she said to me, 'Remember, it doesn't really matter what it tastes like but it's always got to look sensational.' 

That woman had so much influence on how I looked at things. My neighbour always says she loves it when I do really rustic cooking. She's a young woman and she gets a lot of rustic cooking because I do have a line where it's - I cannot put that out - so I’ll throw it over the fence to her, saying here's some cake for supper.

What recipe have you decided to share and is there a story behind it? 

I call it Whitey's sponge, Mrs White was 92 when she gave me the recipe. She died, I think, when she was 101. She was still making this cake at 92 and the recipe I have is in her original writing. Every time I make it people will come across and tell me - I have not had a sponge cake like that since I was a kid. 

It's a really old fashioned sponge cake and it reminds me of her, and I love to make it because I know I've got it down pat now. Back then, in a lot of my original recipes, there's a pinch of that, a handful of that - it's not measured. Now the two tools I can't live without are electronic scales that convert pounds and ounces into metric and a sifter, a really good sifter. 

Thank you Lee.  You can find Ajanta on Faceook or pop in from 9.30am-5pm Friday to Sunday. 

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