Sitting down with recipe and tablescaping expert Kirthanaa Naidu, Instagram’s new rising star

The new name-to-know on the foodie scene shares her childhood cooking stories, a must-bake summer recipe and her advice for setting a gorgeous (and budget-friendly) table

Written by Clara Strunck June 23, 2021

If you’re not yet following Kirthanaa Naidu (@kirthanaa), we strongly suggest you open Instagram as soon as possible. With her shots of beautiful (but never pretentious) tablescapes and innovative bakes inspired by her Malaysian heritage, it’s no wonder Kirthanaa is catching the eye of the industry’s big hitters – among them, Stevie Parle and Jackson Boxer. We catch up with her to discuss her newfound success, what inspires her and her tips for setting a picture-perfect table. To spoil you even further, Kirthanaa also shares her recipe for a sumptuous Panna Cotta shortbread tart below, which will see you through every dinner party this summer.

How did you get into cooking and baking?

I’m a Malaysian living in London and moved here at the age of 12 – so my upbringing has been finely split between the two countries, and I call both home. I work in the charity sector, at Amnesty International, covering their events and education work, but during lockdown I followed another of my passions and began developing recipes and designing tablescapes. I’m hoping that with easing of restrictions I can combine the two and host Malaysian supper clubs at my home later in the year.

Cooking has always been a big part of my life as my mum is an amazing cook. Being Indian-Malaysian, she mainly cooked dishes like biryani, tosai, hoppers and lots of curries. As Malaysia has one of the most rich and diverse culinary traditions in the world, I was constantly trying a wide range of dishes – I really was spoilt for choice.

My love for baking has steadily grown over the years. I started baking at school, making cakes for birthdays and special occasions. Over the first lockdown, I did an online baking course with PUFF The Bakery, which gave me the confidence to bake more technical stuff. 

You’re so popular now among top chefs, who love the recipes you post. What was your breakthrough moment?

On Instagram, I’m probably best known for my burnt Basque pandan and coconut cheesecake. I developed this recipe as I wanted to combine pandan, one of my favourite flavours from Malaysia, with one of my favourite European desserts. Fortunately, it was a match made in heaven. I started selling them via Instagram and then, most excitingly, the owner of JOY at Portobello Stevie Parle offered to sell them in his restaurant. I was overjoyed and jumped at the opportunity!

Your tablescapes are enormously popular on Instagram. What are your tips?

When it comes to setting your table, fresh, seasonal flowers and candles are both a must. If you’re just starting out, I would work with what you’ve got at home – try using old jam jars to create a floral centrepiece. Make the most of flowers and foliage from your garden or grab cuttings from your walks.

If you’d like to get creative with your tablecloth, I’d recommend buying some fabric and finishing it off with some hem tape and an iron. It’s a cheaper way to change up your tablescape and it’s more sustainable, as you can buy dead stock that otherwise may go to waste.

As time goes on and you start to develop an eye and taste for the things you like, you can be bolder and buy a few more hero items – I have really enjoyed investing in a few pieces from sellers and creators that I love, like The Sette.

Why did you choose to share this recipe with us?

I wanted to share this recipe with The Sette’s readers as I think it’s the perfect dish to take to any event this summer, whether that’s a picnic in the park, a garden party or a barbecue. People often consider tarts to be particularly difficult and usually, they would be right! But as I’ve swapped out the usual sweet shortcrust pastry for shortbread, it’s much quicker and easier to make.

You can also get really creative with the decoration: I’ve used strawberries and elderflowers here as they are in season, but you can use other berries, fruit and flowers to garnish.

Panna Cotta shortbread tart topped with strawberries and elderflower

For the shortbread tart case:

  • ¾ tsp salt
  • 420g plain flour
  • 300g unsalted butter, softened
  • 60g light brown sugar
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 1 lemon, zested (optional)

For the Panna Cotta:

  • 2 ½ gelatine leaves
  • 200ml milk
  • 550ml double cream
  • 120g sugar
  • 1 tbsp vanilla bean paste, or 2 vanilla pods
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 punnet of strawberries
  • Elderflower or edible flowers (optional)
  • Zest one lemon (if using) and set aside. In a mixer or bowl, beat the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Next, add the flour, salt and lemon zest and mix until combined to create the shortbread. Press the shortbread mix into a loose bottom tart pan, keeping the mixture around ½ cm thick all the way through. Chill in the fridge for 10-15 minutes.
  • While the tart case is chilling, preheat the oven to 160C fan. Bake the tart case for 35 minutes until golden, then set aside and allow to cool completely.
  • While the tart case is in the oven, start making the Panna Cotta filling. Add the gelatine to a bowl of cold water and soak for five minutes. Place the milk, cream, sugar, salt and vanilla in a saucepan, stirring to combine. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then remove from the heat. Remove the gelatine from the water and squeeze out the excess liquid, then add the gelatine sheets to the mixture and lightly whisk to combine.
  • Pour the milk and cream mixture into a bowl and place it over an ice bath. Allow the cream mixture to cool down for approximately 30 minutes, occasionally whisking. Once the mixture is cool, pour it into the cooled tart case and refrigerate for approximately five hours until set.
  • When the Panna Cotta has set, it will still be a little bit wobbly. Decorate with fresh strawberries and edible flowers.