HELEN Hermanstein Smith’s parents came to Britain from Guyana in the late 1950s. The rich tastes of the Caribbean infused her mother’s cooking and influenced Helen, who has just published her first book, The Acorn House Bakery Recipe Book.
Helen lives in Wincanton and her home-baked cakes are sold direct to customers and at Coles Yard greengrocers and whole food shop, in the High Street. Over the years she has lived in the town, she has built up an enviable reputation for her delicious cakes, some of which recall her mother’s Guyana heritage.
The gorgeous-looking Caribbean Rum Fruit Cake (pictured) is one of the recipes handed down to Helen from her mother, who made the cake every Christmas and for other celebrations. Packed with nuts and with fruit infused in dark rum, it positively sings of the spectacular, beautiful country that is bordered by the Caribbean and by Venezuela and Brazil, and as a former British colony is the only country in South America where English is spoken (rather than Spanish or Portuguese).
Helen was born and brought up in south London, in a large household. She remembers her mother and grandmother baking bread and cakes, and by the age of 13 she was making cakes for friends and family. But work and marriage took her away from the kitchen. She worked for a publishing company, and later spent three years in Hong Kong with her husband, while their two children were very young.
Back in London, she completed an MBA and worked in the tech world for several years before changing direction and retraining in patisserie, bread baking, cake decorating and chocolate-making at Westminster Kingsway College and Le Cordon Bleu School in London, eventually going on to become a qualified baker.
It wasn’t quite the major change that it would have been for most people – Helen had been baking since she was a child. She recalls how there were always homemade treats on offer from her mother and grandmother – “Baking was a normal part of my life and I genuinely thought it was how everyone lived.”
She and her siblings would make their own bread, shaping it from left-over dough from her mother’s bread-making. “It wasn’t until I was about nine years old that I realised most people bought their bread from the supermarket – wrapped in plastic.”
Helen and her husband, Derek, lived in London but they also had a house in Wincanton, and eventually decided to move full time to Somerset. This was the opportunity for Helen to focus on her baking. She developed her skills particularly in making and decorating celebration cakes, speciality cookies, chocolate and confectionery.
A few years ago, she began to collect tried and tested recipes from her childhood and from her professional training. “In creating each of the recipes I have taken inspiration from my mother,” she says. Her mother’s influence has continued since her death a couple of years ago: “I am so proud to own her little booklet of handwritten recipes. And it was in baking that I sought solace, not only to help deal with my grief and loss, but also to bring back many happy memories of our times baking together.”
In 2021, she set up Acorn House Bakery at her home, specialising in luxury treat boxes filled with personalised artisanal cookies, chocolates and fudge. Two years on, the range has extended to include her own-recipe artisanal jams, marmalades and chutneys, using locally grown produce and fruit from her own garden.
Putting your first recipe collection together in a book can be challenging, as Helen discovered: “I had so many in my head that I needed to be really firm when choosing which recipes to include.” The result is a well-organised selection, which explores a range of techniques and includes some wonderful savoury treats as well as cakes, biscuits and desserts.
The savoury recipes include the French-influenced shallot tarte tatin, the utterly moreish Parmesan shortbreads (ideal as a pre-dinner appetiser, with a cheeseboard or on their own) and a vegetable and goat’s cheese flan inspired by holidays in the south of France.
Helen loves to travel and there are more Mediterranean influences in the tomato and feta cheese tart and the Italian-style fruity biscotti.
Favourite cookies and confectionery include AHB (Acorn House Bakery) creamy fudge, chocolate truffles, and fruit and stem ginger florentines. The cake choice ranges from a banana and chocolate chip cake, made with loving memories of her mother, to a sophisticated gin and tonic lemon drizzle cake or locally inspired Somerset cider apple cake.
Perhaps one of the most inviting recipes is the one that is pictured on the cover of the book – almond and apricot flan, a summery dish which can be made at any time of year because of the clever use of dried and canned apricots. “My mother would often use canned fruits that were out of season to make colourful desserts during the winter,” she says.
Helen is as generous with her skills as she is with her recipes – the notes, tips and hacks include a lot of simple, clear advice that should improve your baking and make sure that the results are (almost) as good as Helen’s!
Baking has always been a family affair for Helen – and it still is. She says: “Derek and our children Charlotte and Adam love baking and cooking too. Sadly, it’s a bit of a competition between us – but I’m the master baker!”
Footnote: The Acorn House Recipe Book, price £14.99, is available at Coles Yard and Paper Trees in Wincanton, at Stripy Duck bookshop in Bruton and Bailey Hill Bookshop in Castle Cary. Contact Helen on 07946 410037; email: firstname.lastname@example.org : instagram: @acornhousebakery_by_helen … or visit : https://acorn-house-bakery.business.site
Helen Hermanstein Smith with her new recipe book
The front cover shows the almond and apricot flan
The delicious Caribbean rum cake