Penelope Ransley has been doing the fine-dining-pastry-chef-opens-a-bakery thing since before it was a thing. She worked with renowned chef Martin Benn at The Boathouse in Blackwattle Bay before becoming his pastry chef at the legendary Sepia. After that, she moved into baking, working the ovens at Iggy’s Bread in Bronte before opening Penny Fours in Leichardt in 2013.
But at the end of last year, faced with a lease renegotiation and a desire to shake things up, Ransley left Norton Street and moved a couple of suburbs up, to Balmain.
“I was doing pretty well [in Leichhardt], but I was there for 10 years, in the same kitchen, working mostly six days a week, so I thought a change would be good,” Ransley tells Broadsheet. “We opened in April and the first seven weeks were really good – it was busy and all the Leichardt locals came out, which was really touching – and then we had the fire.
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“I needed a bit of a change – but this obviously wasn’t the kind of change I was looking for.”
The fire was caused by a malfunctioning switchboard on the telephone pole just outside the new shop, and it jumped over to the roof. Although it could have been much worse, putting it out caused extensive damage to the roof and ceiling, which in turn required the safe removal of asbestos. Penny Fours had to close for months.
During the repairs, Ransley’s staff had to find other jobs. It was back to square one. But three weeks ago, Penny Fours Balmain reopened for take two.
“I was by myself, so I just opened up slowly, with the support of the local people,” she says. “Because I’ve lost my baristas, we’ve stopped the coffee for the moment to focus on what we do best: pastries.”
All the buns, tarts and croissants that earned Ransley her devoted following are on proud display. The almond and raspberry croissant is the bestseller, but the sticky buns and mixed-berry danishes give it a run for its money.
Savoury pastry fans will have a tough time choosing between the ever-reliable ham and provolone croissants; a four-cheese-and-truffle-oil Danish; and the BB King, a danish loaded with bacon, broccoli and cheese. Also tempting: a goat’s cheese, thyme and cauliflower tart, and chocolate and macadamia cookies as thick as a debut novel.
Rugby ball-sized sourdough loaves, raisin snails, and plain and chocolate croissants – the dignified, hardest-working staples of all good bakeries – are present and excellent.
Although a handful of favourites hang around the menu, one of the joys of a visit to Penny Fours is seeing what Ransley’s freewheeling, spontaneous approach to baking has led to that day.
“I change things up all the time, every week,” she says. “Special croissant fillings, different tarts – I don’t even know what I’m going to do. I’m just excited to get back to business.”
485A Darling Street, Balmain
Thu to Sun 8am–2pm