Editor's note: This is the first piece in Joanne Chang's new series about demystifying pastry for home cooks. To try her recipe for Flour Bakery + Cafe's chocolate chip cookies, click here.
Pastry is not scary. Skydiving? Scary. Watching Nightmare on Elm Street by yourself in a dark apartment? Definitely scary. As the owner and pastry chef of Flour Bakery + Cafe in Boston, I'm struck by how often people say to me, "Oh, I love to cook but I can't bake—it's too scary." Even established chefs shy away from the pastry side of the kitchen as if they're going to blow something up if they try to combine sugar with butter. I myself came to baking in a bit of a roundabout way, and I've written a baking book with the main intention of luring people to the sweet side of the kitchen. In the weeks and posts to come, my aim is to teach you a bit about pastry and the awesome world we pastry chefs live in.
My husband and I have a Sunday ritual: We spend the day reading the paper, watching TV, and catching up with each other after an invariably long and hectic week. I grab the New York Times Style section to read about everyone who got married over the weekend (you *can* meet your life partner while riding the subway!) and he tackles the crossword. I help out when I can (food, math, and science questions are my favorites) but when he says, "four-letter word for German River in 1943 RAF raid," I give him the stink eye.
I majored in Applied Math and Economics in college because, as Christopher (Myers, my husband) notes, history, literature, and other such subjects were not my strong points. While I was an okay math student, I was nowhere near the same level as my brilliant friends, and I had to learn to add value to our regular study group, and quickly. So I baked a batch of Toll House chocolate chip cookies—the only thing I ever baked at home growing up. I fed the group, and in turn they helped me grasp the finer points of the Riemann Hypothesis.
Baking cookies on a regular basis was a fun diversion from class, and I baked leftover batter into cookies for our dormitory's student-run grill. Pretty soon I was known as the chocolate chip cookie girl. I had to double, triple, then quadruple my batch sizes in order to feed both my hungry study group and the grill customers.
Maybe it was a tip-off at that point that I was meant for the kitchen, but after graduation I got a "respectable" job as a management consultant. I continued to bake at home, though, and I started a small side business called "Joanne's Kitchen," making cookies and cakes for friends. After two years of wearing a suit and heels to work during the day and a kitchen apron on the weekends I decided to make the jump and get a job in a professional kitchen. With uncharacteristic bravado, I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies, attached one to each departure memo I stuffed in the mailboxes of my co-workers and wrote, "One day these cookies will be famous!" in the subject line.
I spent the first year cooking, which is quite different from baking. I found myself whisking vinaigrettes, pressing fois gras terrines, chopping up raw beef for steak tartare. While I loved being in a professional kitchen setting, I quickly learned that I much preferred baking. The energy and bustle of restaurant service appealed to my adrenaline-addicted line-cook coworkers, but I felt sorely out of place. I longed to be elbow-deep in sugar and butter and flour ... not onions and bone marrow and olive oil. I rushed through my prep so I could help the pastry cooks next to me roll out tart shells and slice strawberries. Sometimes we even switched outright: Francisco the pastry cook would prepare my soup stock while I baked his crème brulées.
After a year of cooking I got my chef's blessing to move on and get a baking job. Whew! Much better. At Bentonwood Bakery in Newton Center, a suburb of Boston, I felt at home. I learned how to make everything I had been baking on my own, but the right way. I fell in love with the oversized mixer that I could sit in (yes I tried it out!) that helped me make dough for hundreds of pies and batter for dozens of cakes. Peeling case upon case of apples might sound tedious to you, but I thoroughly enjoyed trying to peel each apple faster and cleaner and better. Plus my insatiable sweet tooth was much happier being surrounded by fig tarts and chocolate pudding.
My next job was working as the pastry chef at Rialto, the four-star restaurant in Cambridge owned by Jody Adams and Christopher Myers. (Yes, the same Christopher Myers ... I married my boss, but that was many, many years after he was my boss.) Restaurant work was very different from bakery work. I don't think I baked a single cookie for two years; instead I stretched my wings and made desserts like Italian Cassata and Quince Tarte Tatins and Almond Pithiviers for our revolving pastry menu.
I missed the bakery setting and moved to New York City to work with Francois Payard in his eponymous patisserie. Pastry is like a religion to the French, and I was happy to get baptized in that world. However, for all the fancy crème Bavarois and croquembouches the patisserie turned out, they couldn't make a decent chocolate chip cookie to save their lives. (Sorry Francois....) I knew that I wanted to come back to Boston to open my own bakery, where I would make the best chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, and coconut macaroons along with fancy French pastries like Pain aux Raisins and classic croissants.
Flour now has three locations and more than 100 employees, but I'm never far away—both figuratively and literally—from the pastry kitchens. My actual time in the kitchen has diminished as my extremely capable executive pastry chef, Nicole Rhode, has taken over the day-to-day operations. It's a bummer because, in addition to baking and eating, my favorite part of being a pastry chef is teaching. Flour's young cooks are all eager to learn and I love being able to show them the correct way to cream butter and sugar together or how to hold a knife.
Christie, a dear friend who also happens to be a kick-ass cookbook writer, approached me about writing a baking book together a few years ago. She was nibbling (let's be honest, inhaling) a chocolate chip cookie from Flour and with her mouth half-full she said, "You've got to teach me how to make these! Let's write a book. You could teach everyone how to make all of your favorite treats."
And that's exactly what we did. When people approach me and say, "I love cooking but baking? Not for me," I think to myself, it's not like cats and dogs. You don't have to prefer one at the expense of the other! I plan on sharing with you common misconceptions about the so-called "terrors" of baking. I promise you, if you can boil a pot of water and turn on the oven then you can bake. I'll also offer tips and guidelines on how to make tender cakes, flaky pie crusts, fantastically delicious pastries. I'll wrap up with some behind-the-scenes stories about how we decide what to make at Flour, why we always seem to run out of those darn sticky buns, and what went into writing my first cookbook. Flour the book has recipes for almost everything we make at Flour the bakery, along with dozens of recipes from my gigs at Bentonwood, Rialto, Payard, and Mistral. I love them all ... but here's the one that truly got this whole thing started.