How creamy can creamy be?

As a pastry chef, I tend to chase textures. Unlike a savory chef, who has a wide array of nature-made textures at their disposal, for example, the range of textures in meat, or raw vegetables for example, pastry chefs have to create the textures they work with.

Where as a savory chef can use nuts, raw carrots, endive, potato chips, seed, apple, lettuce, if they want something with a crispy mouthfeel, just to name a few, we have to construct it. The ingredients we rely on, flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk, cream, etc, can’t simply be applied to heat and placed on a plate.

Instead, we begin the technique driven process of combining these ingredients in precise ratios, in exquisitely practiced sequence to come up with a texture we desire.

You’ll often find me asking our cooks to stretch their brains when discussing texture- what’s nutty without being a nut, what’s creamy without being cream. And you’ll find us geeking out over that crispy element we can’t quite put our finger on in another chefs dessert. Is it feulletine? Puffed rice? Shattered caramel? We subtly ask, pry a little, or out right beg them to tell us. Years ago, stumped by a crispy fruit element on one of Brooks Headley’s desserts at Del Posto, he told me with a sly look, it was dried cantaloup rehydrated in versus, knowing I never would have guessed.

When developing desserts, we ask ourselves how crispy can crispy be? How creamy can creamy get?

Currently, I have chased a cheesecake to it’s creamiest by destroying it all together. It feels a little like the private joy of stomping on your own sandcastle, but when I pull a cheesecake from the oven, I immediately scrape it into a food processor and puree it into hot, velvety oblivion.

The molten cheesecake is then poured into a crust, where it sets in the refrigerator into the creamiest cheesecake I’ve ever tasted. This method started with ice cream, as I pureed baked cheesecakes to be added to ice cream bases. Once I tucked the cheesecake puree away in the refrigerator and inspected the resulting texture, it became clear this super smooth cheesecake could be so much more.

Over the years we have filled macarons and sandwich cookies with cheesecake puree, smeared it on plates, tucked it into mousses, layered it between cakes, and when no one is looking, spread it on the tail ends of banana bread for kitchen snacks.

This month, a Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie at Publican Quality Meats marries this pureed cheesecake with fall pumpkin and it’s requisite spices. Set in a brown butter-hazelnut pie shell this twist on the classic squash pie is mounded with whipped cream once set.

Over at The Publican, we are whipping pumpkin cheesecake puree with buttermilk, and nesting a brown sugar pavlova in it. Whipped cream sweetened with the caramelized goats milk called cajeta crowns the meringue, while a drizzle of Steens molasses and pecan toffee flurry about the plate.

I highly encourage you to partake in this method, carefully constructing a crustless cheesecake, then completely ruining it, to watch the creamiest cheesecake you’ve ever tasted rise like a phoenix from the ashes.

Un été à Paris: Or, how to stage abroad (kinda)

There comes a time in every young cook’s life where they start to ask themselves bigger questions. What am I looking to accomplish in this industry? How much longer can I keep pushing myself so hard? What’s the next step? Or, in the case of myself and my friend Jane (also a pastry cook, working in the same restaurant as me at the time)– What if I went and staged in France?

All around us, we saw our fellow pastry cooks pursuing new challenges and began to feel restless. Our previous sous chefs were moving on to pastry chef positions. Former restaurant cooks were making the switch to high-end bakeries– or opening their own. Our friend and ex-coworker (hello, Harry!) decided to take a few months off to travel and stage across Asia. Suddenly, vague discussions of living and working in France changed into something more tangible, until Jane and I found ourselves at a neighborhood bar in Chicago, giddily buying plane tickets to Paris– the pâtisserie capital of the world.

For me, it felt like the perfect punctuation between an extremely formative position at Blackbird and whatever was next to come for me as a pastry cook. For Jane, the motivation was perhaps a bit more straightforward: “I just need to turn 27 in a foreign country.” Our common goal was simple: take some time off from the Chicago pastry scene, stage in a kitchen or two in France, and come back to the States with a better sense of the direction in which we wanted to take our respective careers. Easy!

Except, of course, not. I’ve formulated many different variations of this “post-Parisian-stage” blog post in my head, including everything from a how-to of getting a stage in France or a tell-all exposé of the many disappointments I encountered– both in attempting to secure a stage in a foreign country and surviving the day-to-day of a French kitchen once I did finally find myself in one. The reality is that I can’t really be completely transparent about my experience for multiple reasons, including the fact that I might’ve blurred some legal lines in actually getting a stage (who knew so much obscure paperwork was required?!), but I can offer a general picture of the experience– the comedy of errors that it was.


Cake Cake Cake

I visited my friend Amanda Rockman recently in Austin, Texas. She’s taken up residency at The South Congress Hotel, where she fills pastry cases, dessert menus, poolside bars, coffee shops, and an ice cream truck with her brilliant wares.

While we were in the kitchen talking she told me a story about a shirt her older sister gave her for christmas. It says “cake cake cake” on it. A cute gift for a pastry chef, we sure do like cake. Making it, eating it, decorating it, cake cake cake!!!

After months of donning this pastry related garb, she told her cooks it was her new favorite shirts, she just loved wearing it everywhere. One of Amanda’s young cooks pulled her aside. The conversation goes something like this when I retell the story, and these things may or may not have actually been said, but like hollywood, I’ve taken liberties to benefit the plot.

“Um chef? you can’t wear that shirt anymore.”

Amanda looked at her with blank eyes.

“That shirt doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

“What do you mean?” Amanda asked. “It doesn’t mean red velvet cake?”

The cook shook her head back and forth.

“It doesn’t mean lemon chiffon with meringue frosting?” Amanda pressed, knowing this was going somewhere unfortunate.


“Its not pound cake?” Apparently that’s even worse, Amanda discovered from a second line cooks childish and repetitive hand motions.

Thanks to the 2011 release of Rhianna’s song Birthday Cake, Amanda was unknowingly a walking billboard for a sexual act involving someone else mouth and her very own, um, cake.

When she told me this story, which I have since embellished, I almost fell down laughing. And I’ve retold it many times since returning to Chicago. She and I have reached that point where not only does popular culture evade our understanding, but it passes by completely unnoticed. We are growing old, and the kids these days are having the last laugh.

Our perpetually youthful rotation of line cooks educate us to new uses for the words we unwittingly know and use daily. Nope can’t offer someone your milkshake. A trip to the candy shop doesn’t end in a sugar high. And apparently, now, offering someone a bite of your cake isn’t cool either. What’s next? Will asking a cook to fill the cream puffs inspire work, or sideways glances and giggles?

Read Amanda’s post on her own blog Pastrylandia, titled “An Open Letter To Music Writers,” an open discussion about appropriating the wares of our profession to mask the public discussion of genitalia to sell songs.

And if your cooks are giggling in the corner when you talk about one of your baked goods, chances are it now means vagina.


Home Baking At Work


I’ve recently taken a new pastry chef position at a collection of restaurants with the same name, The Publican. What was once just a beer hall dedicated to pork and oysters holding down a dark corner of Chicago’s Fulton Market meatpacking district, the Publican brand has since expanded to include Publican Quality Meats, a whole animal butcher shop with a sandwich menu and retail component, Publican Tavern in O’Hare Airport, and soon to include Publican Anker in Chicago’s Wicker Park. As of June, I am along for the ride, helping shape the sweeter side of things for this brand.

In a lot of ways, the job feels like my last one. The people who own Blackbird and Avec also own The Publican, so I have the same bosses, mentors, and spirit guides. But the menus, oh the menus. They couldn’t be more different. Where Blackbird used items from every pastry category to compose plated desserts, The Publican is a home for those individual pies, cookies, cakes, cobblers, buckles, cream puffs, scones, biscuits, sticky buns, donuts, ice creams, etc that I once borrowed from.

Long story short, for the first time, I’m making the same kinds of things at work as I do at home.

When I took the reigns from the talented Mathew Rice, the first dessert I set out to change were the fresh baked cookies we sell every day at Publican Quality Meats.

It would be easy, I thought. Cookies are the simplest of baked goods, something I’d been making without a grown-ups help since I was 12. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For all the work I’ve done in the dessert realm over the last 15 years, I simply didn’t have a backlog of cookie recipes. Infact, most of the cookies I have made in my career were eaten at staff meal.

Mathew and I were sharing matcha lattes every day during my training, so the first step I took was to add matcha powder to a rice krispy treat. It’s freakin delicious, we both agreed, and I patted myself on the back for nailing it.

Then I pulled out my cookie ringer, a brown butter chocolate chip cookie, and impressed the guests with it’s depth of flavor and crackly surface. I paddled meyer lemon zest into the sugar cookie recipe I developed for a Lucky Peach article about sugar cookies and watched them fly off the shelves.

Then………………… I was out. I tried a peanut butter cookie that bombed. I made oatmeal cookies for two weeks, hating each one more than the last.

I finally had to admit, cookies were not going to be easy.

While I set my sights on the usual suspects, I wanted cookies that were distinct while being familiar. It took a lot of testing, some of which were unfit for even the staff to eat as snacks. A request by Paul Kahan to put potato chips in a cookie led to the saddest no-bake cookie I’ve ever had!

I made recipes from every cookie book I could get my hands on, comparing Dorrie Greenspans Oatmeal Cookie to Sherry Yard’s, pitting Christina Tosi’s peanut butter against Pichet Ong’s. I borrowed qualities I liked from some of the cookie-masters recipes, and took some recipes in wildly different directions.

For example, after weeks of oatmeal cookies coming out of our ovens tasting much like everyone else, I decided to try a reverse creaming method, mixing the butter with the flour and sugar before the eggs were added for an uber crispy exterior. I also set the cinnamon aside and spiced this cookie with powdered ginger and studded it with chips of candied ginger along side plump golden raisins.

Aside from the flat, crackly brown butter dark chocolate chip cookie, we included a second chocolate chip cookie, this one fat and tall, a little doughy in the center, and filled with milk chocolate and walnut chunks. And a third chocolate chip cookie, made with caramelized white chocolate, macadamia nuts, and sour cherries, an ode to the cookies of mall food courts everywhere.

I joked that I could fill an entire case with chocolate chip cookies, each one completely different than the last.

But the recipe I hold dearest to my heart right now is a Sorghum Peanut Cookie. After eating crispy peanut butter cookie after crunchy peanut butter cookie, I decided to make the softest, moistest version I could. I employed sorghum syrup, a robust sticky cousin of molasses, richer and deeper, with a redish hue. The result deserves a spot in the “soft-batch” category, and the flavor is outright haunting.

This cookie is reason enough to run out and buy a jar of sorghum syrup, and read up a little on it’s legacy as an american heritage product, still made by hand by those passionately growing the unpopular crop. The batter is sticky, so much so it requires chilling before scooping.

Since i am now baking at work like you bake at home, I can share this recipe with everyone. I hope it finds it’s way into your cookie jars for good.









From plate to cone

Almost 3 years ago a friend asked me “if you were to open your own place, what would it be?”
As a pastry chef, it was a tough question to answer. I had been working the fine dining pastry station for 15 years. My first thought was “can’t I just open a restaurant built around my pastry station?”

Maybe as a future dream project, but realistically in my small town, it would be way too much of a gamble.
For a restaurant chef, I think that question opens up many possibilities. Fine dining, casual, market driven, seafood, bbq, gastropub, winebar, French, Italian, American, Mexican, Vietnamese influences…now chefs are opening restaurants that cater to casual and fine dining, pleasing everyone, in buildings with multiple floors!
For a pastry chef, especially one that solely worked at very intimate, high end restaurants, the avenues are a little more limited. A dessert bar WOULD be a dream, like a sushi restaurant where I could stand behind a counter and do 3 to 4 course tasting menus, where the pastry chef has control over the front of house, the design, the service standards, where I could engage with the guests and not be considered an afterthought, as sometimes happens in standard restaurants.

So I gave the question serious thought. Chocolates (I’m not that disciplined), pastries, cakes, viennoiserie (those already exist in my neighborhood and they make some quality stuff), breads (would really love to but I’ve barely got my fingers sticky in the natural leavened sourdough tub)…..
What I have been doing consistently for 15 years in fine dining restaurants is make ice cream. Every single restaurant I’ve worked in we have made ice cream in house. On almost every dish. With a Pacojet, with a small batch freezer. With liquid nitrogen.
In thinking about it, within the last 5 years most of my plated desserts would stem from some kind of crazy ice cream flavor.
Beeswax, celery root, parsley and shiso, fermented pear, sunchoke, cucumber and pineapple, even uni and foie gras ice creams…basically anything in the kitchen was up for grabs in my book.

And that thought answered the question of “what style of business would you like to open”.
And now I have exited the restaurant and entered the ice cream shop.

The question asked isn’t an uncommon one for chefs. But I do think for a pastry chef it proposes some interesting limits.
How does a pastry chef stand out from the chef and restaurateur? How do they establish their own names? How do they even set up a future for their livelihood? That is a huge question we should ask ourselves. I want to own something, to support my future, something where I have control over, because I don’t have that total control within the small restaurant within the hotel within the restaurant group that I had previously worked for. Or any of the other restaurants that I worked in.

Now I am a business owner. Now I am able to open a direct dialogue to my guests. That is what I am excited about.

Odds and Ends

While the last few posts I’ve written have been singular in focus (palm sugar, mochi), this one is a grab bag of techniques. Not only did staging in Asia introduce me to a variety of foreign ingredients, but also many new ways to treat already familiar foods.


Pandan (a.k.a. Asian vanilla)

Pandan, the ubiquitous green leaf used in Asian desserts and also known as screwpine, is often tagged as Asian vanilla because of its prolific use and vexing flavor profile. Just as it is difficult to describe the nuance of the flavor “vanilla,” it is equally challenging to explain how pandan tastes without having any on hand. Floral and sweet, somewhat nutty, but also starchy in the way good horchata smells, pandan is an essential ingredient in Asian desserts, the “1 teaspoon vanilla extract” that is included in every cookbook for every cookie and cake in America. After tasting fresh pandan leaves, pandan juice, pandan extract and pandan paste in Thailand, I’ve found the best way to describe it to Westerners is that pandan tastes the way an ice cream shop making fresh waffle cones or pizzelles to order smells.


Here in the U.S., pandan extract is readily available at Asian markets in small green plastic bottles. And to cook with it, making kueh is a good gateway recipe. Kueh are the Southeast Asian analogue of American bars (brownie cheesecake, raspberry streusel) or Australian slices (chocolate caramel, oatmeal raisin). A two-layered sweet, roughly an inch high, the bottom half of a kueh is comprised of sticky rice (or rice flour) that has been steamed with coconut cream and pandan leaves and compressed to condense it into a chilled sliceable bar. The top layer is typically a baked or steamed pandan custard that is set with egg yolks.


If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with some serious Asian markets, you may be able to find fresh or frozen pandan leaves, which can be run through the vita prep with a little water and passed through a chinois to produce pandan juice.



Asian desserts are big on texture. Shaved ice sundaes will often be topped with three or four flavored jellies, all slightly different in their jelly-ness. [Agar is king when it comes to setting liquids in SE Asia, and it’s common to have a single dish include pandan, coconut, palm sugar, and grass jellies, set at 0.25%, 0.5%, 0.75% and 1.0% agar, respectively.]*

Rubies are another common dessert element, a clever way to incorporate soft and crunchy textures within a single component. Something mildly sweet and firm (water chestnuts, apples, Asian pears) is diced and soaked (or compressed, if possible) in a flavored syrup. After infusing for a few hours the fruit is drained and tossed in tapioca flour. The excess flour is shaken off and one by one the pieces of fruit are dropped into simmering water. The fruit is cooked until it floats to the surface (~1 minute) and then immediately shocked in ice water, setting the tapioca gel on the outside of the fruit. For service (i.e. while you’re standing on a street corner in 100 F heat making coconut milk slushies for passersby), the rubies are kept in the same syrup they were compressed in.


*These amounts are rough estimates—when I watched a street vendor making their agar jellies, they were using the cap from a liter bottle of Coke as their measuring device.


Foi Thong

The Portuguese love egg yolks. Egg yolk tarts, egg yolk beverages, egg yolk candies—they’ve covered every texture, temperature, viscosity, and density when it comes to egg yolk products. Nuns would use egg whites to stiffen the laundry and the surplus of yolks had to get used. At some point during the 16th or 17th century, Portuguese explorers introduced fios de ovos (“egg threads”) to Thailand and Malaysia. Now called foi thong in Thai (meaning “golden threads”) the candy is made by whisking egg yolks until they’re runny, placing in a bag, and cutting a very small opening. The yolks are then drizzled quickly (as if you were making a funnel cake) into gently simmering simple syrup. The protein in the yolk sets the strands and after a few minutes the excess water is driven off and what remains is a crunchy egg yolk candy that is similar in texture to instant ramen noodles, pre-boil.



Honeycomb Cake

Backpacking through Jakarta on my way to stage in Bali, Indonesia was one of the more terrifying and legitimately dangerous things I’ve ever done. However, were it not for several sunrise to sunset walks in my attempt to cover as much as I could of the 250 square mile city, I would never have discovered bingka ambon. Translated as honeycomb cake, the sweet contains no honey but is prepared and baked in such a way as to have a structure similar to its namesake. Rice flour, coconut water, palm sugar and yeast are mixed and left to proof for 30 minutes. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were starting to make Indonesian brioche. In a separate bowl, eggs and more sugar are beaten to the ribbon stage, coconut cream and melted butter is added, and finally tapioca flour is folded in. This is then combined with the yeasted mixture, poured into a pan, and left to proof for three hours.

Once the surface is dotted with air bubbles, the cake is par-baked on a contraption that inspires awe with its ingenuity and jankiness. Using a propane tank and a wok burner, a stone is heated to about 375 F, the pan is placed on the stone, and a larger pan is inverted over it. The idea here is to create an “oven” that only heats the cake from the bottom. As the proofed yeast on the bottom of the cake creates CO2 and expands, the direct bottom heat pushes the gas upward through the cake, creating its signature rivulets. The cake bakes this way for an hour and every 15 minutes the inverted pan is lifted to release excess steam. Finally, the cake is transferred to a regular oven set at the same temperature and baked for an additional 15 minutes to set the interior structure.


After cooling, the cake is sliced with a sharp chefs knife. This process is fascinating to watch when performed on street carts—unlike an American kitchen, where I might slice something delicate using a knife, a clean towel and a torch or bain of hot water, Asian hawkers slice honeycomb cake using a knife that is repeatedly rubbed with oil.

This bottom-heat-only technique is also often used on very thick (think ¾ of an inch) pancakes in Singapore. The pancake batter is cooked at a low temperature on just one side until fully set. Then the surface (which has gelled and is not raw, but is extremely soft and pillowy) is scattered with chopped peanuts and granulated sugar, the pancake is folded in half and sliced into wedges. The crusty, caramelized exterior gives way to an almost custardy center. Sometimes the vendor will ask if you would like sweetened condensed milk drizzled on top—the answer is always yes.


Some Things I’ve Learned About Mochi


Before working for Dana Cree, I knew mochi to be a chewy topping for frozen yogurt or a thin veil wrapped around adzuki bean paste. The Blackbird pastry kitchen offered a primer on microwave mochi, as I watched chef Cree apply flavored pieces to her legendary bubblegum dessert and sous-chef Krystle roll out sheets of it for an impromptu mignardise. It wasn’t until staging in Asia, though, that I really dove down the rabbit hole and discovered the seemingly endless variations of pounded rice products.


Alright, lets talk mochi.


Traditionally (as in, 100 A.D. traditionally) mochi was made by soaking glutinous rice in water overnight, steaming it, and then vigorously pounding the rice into a sticky mass that could be shaped. To avoid confusion, I think it’s important to point out that no, glutinous rice (short-grain rice) does not contain gluten. The name comes from the glue-y, adhesive quality the rice has when cooked.


A quick science break. All starch is made up of a combination of amylose and amylopectin. Medium- and long-grain rice mostly contain amylose, whereas short-grain rice is almost entirely amylopectin. Amylopectin is much more hygroscopic than amylose (it holds onto water), so, when cooked, the grains are able to swell more and create the chewy, elastic product necessary to make mochi.


In the nearly two thousand years since mochi’s birth (which may have been in Korea, Japan, or China, the jury is still out on that one) the process has stemmed dozens of variants. Most are still made with rice, but with one important caveat—with the advent of milling, rice can now be processed into a flour that eliminates the many hours of kneading and mashing the cooked grains. Whether mochiko (glutinous rice flour) or shiratamako (a finer flour than mochiko that creates a more elastic, stretchy mochi), rice mochi can now be made in minutes. As the technique developed popularity other Asian countries like Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia, other base ingredients were used that contained a similarly high ratio of amylopectin to amylose. Potato starch, tapioca starch, arrowroot flour and sago starch (extracted from palm trees) are all suitable alternatives.


In its most basic form, mochi is a starch gel comprised of nothing more than fully hydrated amylopectin and air bubbles. Rice and water. That’s it. Given a few millennia, though, it was bound to become more delicious. Sugar is now a common ingredient, whether in the form of sucrose, sweetened condensed milk, or palm sugar. The liquid used to swell the powdered starch can be anything with a high water content and low viscosity: tea, beer, liquor, milk (mammal, nut, soy), fruit juice. The most recent additions have been fats like vegetable oil and Crisco, which increase the elasticity of the mochi and greatly improve its shelf life. Any extract, essential oil, or ground spice can also be used to impart flavor.


There are surely dozens and dozens of different mochi making techniques, here are a few of the variations I saw while staging.


Dumpling Versions

-The raw dough is portioned, indented, filled, shaped and boiled.

-10% of the raw dough is boiled and kneaded back into the raw dough before being portioned, indented, filled, shaped and boiled.

-The raw dough is portioned, indented, filled, shaped and steamed.

-The raw dough is portioned, intended, filled, shaped and baked.


Cold Versions

-The ball of dough is steamed, chilled, rolled out, cut into circles and stuffed.

-The ball of dough is cooked in a pot, chilled, rolled out, cut into circles and stuffed.

-The ball of dough is cooked, transferred while warm to a bowl, kneaded with fat, chilled, rolled out, cut, and stuffed.


As a Garnish

-The ball of dough is cooked in a pot, chilled, rolled out and cut into pieces.

-The ball of dough is steamed, rolled out, cut and deep fried.

-The dough is microwaved briefly, stirred, and microwaved again, rolled out and cut

*Microwaving for too long overheats the starch and results in an inedible             hockey puck.

-The dough is cooked, portioned and grilled over charcoal.

-The dough is cooked, rolled out, and cooked again in a waffle maker.


Below are a few basic recipes I picked up while staging, each calling for a different cooking method.


Microwave Mochi

65 g milk

50 g mochiko

40 g granulated sugar

2 g baking powder*


*Only in the microwave method does mochi require a leavener like baking powder. When reducing the cooking time down to a mere two minutes, we need to artificially create the air bubbles that would naturally occur over a longer time if steamed or boiled.


-Mix all of the ingredients in a plastic container into a smooth paste.

-Cook for 1 minute in the microwave, stir, and cook for 1 more minute.

-Immediately transfer the contents onto a cutting board dusted with cornstarch and roll to your desired thickness.

-Allow to cool before cutting.

-Use within one day.



Steamed Fruit Mochi

15 g all-purpose flour

30 g mochiko

30 g rice flour

30 g granulated sugar

135 g fruit juice or puree

2 tbsp sweetened condensed milk

30 g butter


-Knead all of the ingredients into a soft dough.

-Steam for 8 minutes.

-Chill in the fridge for 2 hours.

-Knead on an oiled surface until smooth and shiny.

-Roll out to desired thickness before cutting.


Stove-top Mochi

15 g mochiko

35 g rice flour

40 g granulated sugar

80 g water


-Mix all ingredients in a small pot and cook over low heat until the dough pulls away from the sides of the pot.

-Transfer to a cutting board coated in cornstarch and immediately roll to desired thickness.


Boiled Mochi

40 g mochiko

45 g tea

15 g granulated sugar

5 g potato starch

10 g all-purpose flour

10 g Crisco


-Paddle all of the ingredients together on low speed.

-Let rest for 15 minutes.

-Divide into 10 g portions.

-Flatten each in your palm, fill with desired mixture, wrap and seal.

-Boil the mochi dumplings until they float (about 5 minutes).


Now go make some mochi!

Trust the Process: Building Desserts at Blackbird

Change happens slowly– or so I’m told. In a professional kitchen, however, change is just part of the day-to-day. Controls are in place to anticipate change and inform reactions to it: a hierarchical system of chef, sous chef, cook; detailed inventory systems and recipes, the concept of “mise en place” and how it rules a cook’s mindset. Still, every new day is a possibility for a wrench to be thrown in the system, whether in the form of an unannounced eight-top during a busy service or a cook putting in their notice. However, the sort of change that challenges me the most is of a different sort– deliberate change.

With time, with seasons, with pressure from managers or expectant customers– menus change. Desserts in particular are meant (at least to me) to be in a constant state of flux, at once complimenting the savory dishes they follow and standing alone as a representation of a certain time of year or state of mind. The pastry kitchen at Blackbird never rests. Once a new dessert, workshopped over the course of (up to) several weeks, tasted and revised and tasted and tasted again, finally makes its way in a completed form onto the menu– it’s time to start working on another. Before Blackbird, I had only witnessed this process as an observer, but being a pastry cook here means undergoing the process yourself.

In my current position, I’m in charge of coming up with two different desserts for the lunch prix fixe menu. One takes the form of a “coupe,” basically an ice cream sundae, and changes almost weekly. All I need is an ice cream flavor of my making and three to four textural components to go with it: typically some sort of sauce, a cake/cookie element, a flavored whipped cream, and perhaps a finish of meringue, candied fruit/nuts, or just maldon salt. This is (relatively) easy, since the format is so well-defined and I can repeat components if I like them and they work well.

The other option on the prix fixe menu is a plated dessert, intended to change on a loosely seasonal basis. Something on the small side, not too heavy, and easy to execute. Within these boundaries, the challenge is to create something compelling that will appeal to a lot of people– with perhaps one “wild card” ingredient, that surprise element that elevates a dish to Blackbird standards.

For someone with little experience conceptualizing plated desserts (such as myself), this is all more difficult than it initially sounds. And it doesn’t particularly sound easy.

Luckily, I’ve had some guiding forces to help me get whatever’s in my head to make sense on a plate. I distinctly remember approaching Chef Dana one morning when we were the only ones in the kitchen. I had recently moved up to the lunch cook position and was eager to begin exploring the opportunities of the role– but, admittedly, at sort of a losses to where to begin. A born perfectionist, I hate the process of trial and error, but every composed dessert (or any creative project, really) begins from this point. “I think I might have an idea for a dessert?”

Chef Dana was all enthusiasm, and immediately grabbed a piece of paper. My dessert began as a grilled peach panzanella, using day-old service bread as buttery croutons. From there, Dana began to show me her technique of mapping out a dessert: the central flavor occupies a main bubble on the page, off of which other ideas begin to branch out. What goes with peaches? Coffee, creme fraiche, bourbon– but also sourdough, parsley, zucchini. And what goes with zucchini?

In this way, we were able to pare down the dessert to its most distilled, necessary components. Make no mistake– the process unfolded over the course of several weeks, with multiple different ice cream test batches and a brief deliberation over whether the dessert might be better suited to the dinner menu over lunch. However, one of the most essential things I’ve learned during my time at Blackbird that critiques are not necessarily born out of mistakes. “This component doesn’t need to be on this plate” does not imply that it was error to include it in the original idea– everything must be tested, tasted, and questioned. “Mistakes” often breed more ideas, or turn up in another later dessert, or can be simply written off as a learning experience.

From these first impromptu scribbles on a piece of scrap paper to an actual, real-life, approved-by-my-bosses dessert to be sold on a Blackbird menu, we ended up with a bourbon-poached peach panzanella with walnut butter, sourdough croutons, and a zucchini bread ice cream. This, and subsequent dessert development projects that I’ve taken on, work well because the Blackbird pastry kitchen is a collaborative environment. (It’s really too small of a space not to be– nothing occurs in a vacuum!) I am still developing my confidence as a pastry cook, but fortunately for me in this industry, if at first you don’t succeed– at least your mistakes double as snacks.

Pastry School- How to make Ganache


My latest installation for Lucky Peach’s Pastry School is about ganache, the chocolatey backbone to so many pastry techniques. Read about the not-so-simple mixture of cream and milk, and try your hand with the three recipes I’ve written, firm ganache for truffles, medium all-purpose ganache for frostings and fillings, and thin ganache for glazes and sauces. 

Ganache and I go back to my freshman year of high school. My early interest in baking was encouraged by Marcel Desaulniers’s Death by Chocolate Cakes, and, armed with Baker’s brand chocolate and my mother’s Sunbeam mixer, I dove in headfirst. I whipped up dark chocolate cakes and covered them with a shiny chocolate-and-cream-concoction called ganache. With half a year of high school Spanish under my belt, I guessed at the pronunciation of French words in the recipes, and assumed the word ganache rhymed with apache. I continued to proudly make guh-nat-chee throughout high school, rolling it into truffles, drizzling it on my dilapidated attempts at crepes, and covering those deadly chocolate cakes.

Ganache is one of the easiest—but easiest to mess up—recipes in the fundamental pastry canon. At its simplest, ganache is no more than a velvety paste of chopped chocolate mixed with hot cream that will solidify when chilled. And, for the most part, it really is that easy. If you’re lucky, you could go your entire ganache-making life never knowing what a pain in the butt ganache can be.

When ganache does fail, it’s a runaway train of seized grainy chocolate or a curdled and oily disaster. It can happen with a recipe you’ve used a thousand times—even the best ganache recipes split—and the failure is usually caused by technique.

Look a little closer at ganache…………. Here at Lucky Peach! Click through to read the full article. 

Or head straight to these recipes…

Thick Ganache for Truffles

All-purpose ganache for frostings and fillings

Thin Ganache for glazes and sauces


One of the most interesting parts of my job at Nico is the exploration of a different cultures’ food traditions. It’s Easter, so naturally there are multiple Italian traditions. What’s really interesting is how these traditions differ among not only regions, but among families. In Italy, Pasqua (Easter) celebrates not only the traditional religious aspects, but also the Spring harvest.


Introducing the Gubana! This traditional Easter bread comes from a region northeast of Venice near the Austrian and Croatian border. It’s not just for Easter, but is also used during Christmas as well as other celebrations. The easiest way to describe a Gubana is an Italian version of a babka. It’s a brioche-type egg dough with a filling of chocolate, dried fruits, and nuts. It’s usually formed into the shape of a snail.

This delicious bread has a rich history as well. The word Gubana comes from a Slavic word “guba”, that means to fold, which makes complete sense given how it’s made! It is said that it dates back as far as 1409 and was made for the Pope.

But let’s be honest about Easter: I’m in it for the bunnies and the food! So here it is: The Gubana!


First the dough. This dough is very similar to a brioche dough as it is enriched with eggs and butter. We adjusted the dough recipe because often times, Italian doughs are a little bit dense for my taste. The dough is then split into 2 portions.


The dough is then rolled out and hangs out in the cooler for a little bit before it gets filled. The filling I used is butter, cocoa powder, chocolate pieces and dried cherries rehydrated in Marsala wine.


It then gets rolled up like a cinnamon roll and goes back in the cooler for about an hour.  This particular recipe made 2 logs. The logs then get cut in half lengthwise and the two halves are twisted together. This is what creates that beautiful swirled effect.


Now it’s time to put the dough in a “snail” shape- but in reality, any shape is good. I used an 8” cake pan that was lined with parchment.


The “traditional” Italian recipe that I used did not call for this dough to proof, but since I wanted a little bit more air to it, it’s proofed for about 30-45 minutes before it goes in the oven.

And then here it is! This beauty is on our Easter brunch menu!


Happy Easter!!!