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A Lunch With: Lily Vanilli

Serving up high-camp hedonism at London's Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the baker talks to Inigo about taking on the tradition of tea one dollop of buttercream at a time, and shares her superlative scone recipe. OK – it’s not strictly lunch, but when the treats are as toothsome as these, who’s counting?

Cici Peng
Ellen Hancock
A Lunch With: Lily Vanilli

To walk into the Grand Saloon in the newly refurbished Theatre Royal Drury Lane is to step into a different era. It is one of high glamour and excess: low-hanging crystal chandeliers warm the walls’ soft pink and green marble with dappled light; the duck-egg blue details on the high ceiling have been meticulously adorned with gilded daisies;  golden acanthus leaves top floor-to-ceiling pilasters.

Inspired by the splendour of the Regency period, the culinary offering here is similarly fit for a king (or, indeed, a prince regent). This is the realm of Lily Vanilli, baker extraordinaire and cake-maker to the stars ­– Elton John, Madonna and Alexander McQueen among them. Lily’s creations are in perfect symphony with the space. “Before floor or furniture were even put in,” she explains, “I was coming into the theatre to take pictures of all the tiny details added to the room… I worked with the space to inspire my food.” The whole room is, in Lily’s eyes, an edible landscape of possibility: her spiced sticky-toffee pudding is topped with a tiny gilded chocolate flower, replicating the minute details along the walls and the mirrors; her chocolate cake is iced with swags of pastel pink and green.

With high-camp hedonism, Lily is breathing new life into the centuries-old tradition of high tea. Self-taught, Lily opened her own Columbia Road bakery 13 years ago and she is always “trying to keep my ideas fresh”, creating everything from zombie cakes to Rococo buttercream confections. For this latest flight of fantasy, she asked herself: “What do the people who come to my bakery get inspired by in 2021? It’s not a cucumber sandwich, let me tell you.”

On paying a visit, Inigo was enveloped by a sense of childlike wonder, gazing slack-jawed at her offerings. This is high tea for the modern eater, with classic delights given an unexpected twist: think lapsang souchong-infused smoked salmon madeleines, or scoops of absinthe and mint-chocolate-chip ice cream served in silver shells from a wheeled trolley. Tiered plates decorated with fanciful figures by Kit and Willow Kemp add to the spectacle. But all this Rococo extravagance is tempered by Lily’s unstuffy informality. The queen of cake is playing by her own rules, some of which she shared with Inigo over fluffy and lavishly buttered scones (recipe below).

Be decadent

Dress yourself up! Dress the table up! High tea should be indulgent and plentiful. We live in an era of small plates and sharing, so I suggest bringing out plenty of everything at once and having people help themselves. Not having courses in a prescribed order allows you to have a certain kind of freedom, where you can eat at your own pace. If you don’t want to wait to have pudding, you don’t have to.

Write your own playbook

Make sure the things on the table don’t follow anyone else’s dictum. Cook the things that you and your friends like to eat – it doesn’t matter if they don’t have anything to do with afternoon tea traditions. I just want people to let their hair down and enjoy themselves. There is nothing formulaic about how you behave or how you should present yourself.

Express yourself

After being stuck inside so long over the past year or so, the best thing about afternoon tea is that it gives you an experience – of getting back to life, of being creative and expressing yourself, of making (or reinventing!) traditions together. Once the plates are cleared, I would love it if people continued to have a fun time together. That’s why being here, at the theatre, is just so perfect.

Lily Vanilli’s perfect scones (makes 12)

360g plain flour
1tbsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
75g caster sugar
170g butter, cool but not rock solid, chopped
1 egg
225ml buttermilk
70g raisins, soaked in hot water until plump and juicy, then drained (but not squeezed)

To bake
1 egg
Demerara sugar

Mix the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar, preferably with a paddle mixer. Add the butter and mix until you have a breadcrumb-like consistency.
Add the egg and mix to combine.
Now add the buttermilk and raisins, using your hands to bring the mixture together gently.
Knead twice gently on a floured surface, just to bring the mixture together some more. The dough will be very wet; avoid getting it too floury.
Cut the dough in half and stack one half atop the other, then very gently roll into a long rectangle about 3cm deep. Cut into triangles with even edges of 5cm.
Place in freezer until frozen through.
Once fully frozen, preheat the oven to 180°C fan. Arrange scones on a tray and bake for 15 minutes.
Remove from oven. Beat the remaining egg and brush over scones before sprinkling with demerara sugar.
Bake for a further 9-15 minutes. The scones are ready when they’re gold all over and the bases are browned. If in doubt, break one open to check.
Serve hot or cold, with butter and salt, or jam and cream.

Further reading

Book tea at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Lily Vanilli on Instagram

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