New to Sydney’s inner-west, I was heading back home from the St Peters train station one evening and stumbled across something rather beautiful – yes, beauty IS possible down the gritty south end of King St!
I’d discovered an impeccable little store called Polka Dot, filled with 1950s/60s furniture and homeware. It wasn’t your typical Newtown second hand store though – in fact, it wasn’t selling anything of the sort. Polka Dot’s mid-century china cabinets were brimming with delicious cookies, impeccably iced in a variety of different shapes and sizes.
Enamoured, I vowed to return and Polka Dot has been a local favourite ever since. No one else on the King St strip can lay claim to creating sweet morsels such as Marie Antoinettes, Cinnamon Animal Crackers and my personal favourite – London Fog biscuits. And while cookies are Polka Dot’s specialty (they take loads of orders for weddings and events) they also bake other sugary goodies too (coconut cream, bitter lime and and vanilla bean macarons, anyone?).
I was fortunate to meet owner Libby a few weeks ago while visiting Polka Dot for my sugar fix, and she shared with me her background, inspiration, favourite customer ‘briefs’ and her plans for the future. And her favourite cookie for the record? “Whichever one has just come out of the oven normally.”
What’s the story behind Polka Dot? What inspired you to bake delicious cookies?
We established in 2003. I have been a pastry chef for 20 years now and I don’t think there is anything else I could see myself doing for a living. I have baked all sorts of sweets and I love biscuits the best as they are such a small thing that people eat with such high expectations. They have a simple ingredient list and you have such a small amount of eating time to deliver texture and awesome taste. They are one of the hardest things to make.
Describe a typical day in the Polka Dot kitchen.
Baking biscuits, eating biscuits, going a bit crazy and yelling in kitchen, procrastinating, spending too much time on the internet, more baking, more eating biscuits, gossiping with locals, running around looking for new ingredients, boring stuff like scrubbing the kitchen down and catching up on accounts.
How do you come up with new ideas for cookies? What inspires you?
I check out plenty of cookbooks from all kinds of chefs across the (food) industry. I’m inspired by anyone who is working on brilliant flavour combinations. Also, old herbal manuals. Many ideas I pinch from customers who are nostalgic for flavours they used to have when they were kids.
What’s the most unusual cookie shape you’ve ever created?
I don’t know that we create particularly unusual cookie designs. Often the most unusual requests to be too bonkers to make. I’m always keen to make sure we make food that looks like food and less like your big toe – for instance!
Any exciting experiments you’d like to share?
We’re working on lots of crazy milkshake ideas behind the scenes -black seasame on toast flavoured shake is perhaps the most unusual, although anyone who has had toast-flavoured ice-cream will know that’s nothing new really.
One of MY personal Polka Dot favourites is your London Fog cookie. It’s an unusual name – what’s the story behind this particular recipe?
I was on Google and found a recipe for a cocktail called “London Fog”. This was around the same time that some chefs were promoting smoked this and smoked that and I was curious if I had to buy a smoker to achieve a smokey flavour. Turns out you buy smoke flavour in a tub from a specialist bakery supplier, which is not so hard.
We were working on infusing flavours into butter to give a scent to the dough and happened to be doing it with Earl Grey tea. I thought that was kind of English and then the smoke thing just seemed to make sense with the fog name. And we had a cute cutter in cloud shape from our events cookie range. The process of coming up with creative new flavours involves lots of time thinking about flavours – with a bit of luck you might think about good flavours to combine at the same time and somehow you muddle together a flavour that works!
Any hilarious kitchen hiccups you’d like to share?
There’s been many burnt things, explosions, mad people and too many hours worked in a row to the point where someone tells a dumb (and totally not funny) joke and you collapse with laughter, but I am not sure if I can single one out – they’re “kind of had to be there” moments. Deliveries are always the worst. Every chef I’m sure has some story about a 40-degree day driving around with pavlovas in the back of a ute trying to catch the one and only ferry that crossed over to an island for a wedding or something similar.
What’s one of the most exciting ‘briefs’ you’ve had from a customer?
Normally ‘exciting briefs’ would require some name-dropping on my part, and we do work for lots of high profile clients, but my favourite client requests are the ones that bring together design and visuals with a desire for a beautiful flavour. I loved the Blackberry Honey, Pink Peppercorn and Cinnamon Drops we made for a Clinique Black Honey lipstick promotion. They were based on a nostalgic biscuits flavour – Arnott’s Honey Jumbles – but with the flavour spiced up. They also had a neat colour and shape reference to the lipstick itself.
Where did you find all of the amazing retro furniture and cabinetry for your shop?
Lots of op shopping and retro shopping, but my favourite supplier is Brian from Newtown Old Wares at 439 King St.
Any exciting future plans for Polka Dot Cookies that you can share?
We are opening as a cookies + milk bar at 531 King St mid-year – keep an eye out.