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.