A Guide to Pie Crusts

pie-crust21My latest installment over at Lucky Peach is just in time for your holiday baking! A guide to pie crusts includes the in’s and outs of making pie crusts, or maybe it’s the why’s and how’s? I dare say, it’s quite explanatory, I’m not sure Ive ever written the word “fat” so much. Attached are my 4 go to recipes, a flaky butter crust perfect for double crust fruit pies, a tender lard crust that I love for blind baking single crusts , a sassy cream cheese crust that does a bang up job for decorative tops, and a enriched crust for savory pies, like the one you will want to make with all your thanksgiving leftovers! I’ll let the article do the rest of the talking, and leave you to your holiday baking!!!


Pie crust, fundamental and unique to American baking, is simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest recipes to master. The difficulty stems from the narrow boundaries within which flaky, tender, barely crispy pie crust exists. But once you understand those boundaries, pie crust becomes one of the simplest techniques in your repertoire.

At its most basic level, pie crust is made of very small pieces of fat, coated in flour, moistened with just enough water that the fat pieces stick together when pressed and rolled. It’s the treatment of these three ingredients that creates a range of textures, some more desirable than others.


Every pie begins with a bowl of flour. Fat is then “cut in,” or systematically broken up—and as each piece of fat is repeatedly divided into two smaller pieces, it gets coated with flour. As these chunks of fat get smaller and smaller—and their number grows exponentially—the surface area of the collective pieces of fat becomes large enough that most of the flour will be adhered to the fat. At this point, just enough water is added to moisten the flour into an adhesive that holds the fat bits into a single mass.

Simple enough, right? Cut fat into flour, add water and presto: pie crust! But…………….

Follow that thought here at Lucky Peach

and don’t forget to scroll down for the recipes! 


Up the Stairs and Around the Corner: A Day in the Blackbird Pastry Kitchen


This post is intended to summarize a typical shift as the morning pastry cook at Blackbird, in the case that more people outside of just my own parents might take interest! There’s a fair amount of battling the elements, routine tasks and running around, but everyone has the same goal in mind: make beautiful, delicious things.

Increasingly these days, when I walk into the kitchen in the morning, I can almost see my breath. I fire up all of the stovetop burners, switch on the oven, install the tiny countertop space heater on my station– preferably at face-level for optimal efficiency– and let myself adjust to the temperature drop. Chicago is known for its volatile weather patterns, and working in the pastry kitchen at Blackbird can sometimes feel like being in the eye of the storm.

Check the prep list. Check the lowboys. Make a split-second plan– do I have time to experiment with mignardises today? Can I make a fancy staff meal, perhaps try to improve my pie-making game or try out a different recipe for a favorite standby (donuts, anyone)? What do I have to hold off making before deliveries come in? How many ice cream bases do I need to spin? Organize the fridge, scrape the ice from the freezer. And the day hasn’t even truly begun yet.

Once my apron is on and I feel a little bit of warmth beginning to stir in the tips of my fingers, I get to work. This past week, leading up to Halloween, our chef encouraged us to play around with Halloween-themed mignardises: our takes on classic candy bars, inserting pumpkin spice flavors, or even just strategic use of orange food coloring. My coworker Jane made “witches’ hats,” plump dollops of piped marshmallow atop small round sable cookies and dipped in dark chocolate. A visiting stage made snowy-colored cinnamon macarons filled with a silky pumpkin butter (thanks to my failed attempt at making a pumpkin pate de fruit that just never quite set up. When in doubt, stick it in a blender!). I, in turn, decided to try my hand at making homemade candy corn. Armed only with a recipe from the Internet, the only options are sigh-of-relief success or abject, messy, embarrassing failure– which can be a bit of a problem when your entire day is measured by the amount of minutes it takes you to complete an item on your prep list. Nevertheless, I press on.

Amazingly, the candy corn comes together without protest and I let myself relax a little as I knead food coloring into the warm fondant and then roll each section out into long, parallel strips. These are the moments I live for in the kitchen: experiments gone right. For a moment, I have time to just enjoy the process at hand, as I sink a knife through the candy to shape them into triangles and marvel at the bizarre science of cooking sugar. After three years of working in pastry, I’ve only scratched the surface of confectionery work. Caramels, marshmallows, meringue, pate de fruit– these are the go-tos. Next, I resolve to finally try making salt-water taffy, a treat I remember from childhood visits to my grandparents on Cape Cod. Someday.

By 10 am, the restaurant is no longer quiet. Lunch starts at 11:30, and is always a whirlwind of a service. Restaurants are constantly in flux, transitioning from the pre-service tension to the slow trickle of tickets to the rhythmic flow of service– then the comedown, and the subsequent anticipation of doing it all over again, sometimes in only a matter of hours. There is always a reason to be moving as fast as you possibly can. Pastry is the somewhat counter-intuitive balancing act between outsmarting time and cultivating patience– measuring the the gram, watching the rise and fall of numbers on a thermometer.

After lunch service, the bulk of my day is done. I spend the remainder of my shift helping the PM team prepare for dinner service: inflating a whipped cheesecake in an ISI canister, paddling velvety caramelized milk into salted butter. Our chef is working on a new donut-based dessert and everyone pauses their tasks to taste: what shape of donut works best? Should it be filled? Are the cranberries necessary? What do we think of the miso ice cream? As much as I relish my hours in the kitchen by myself each morning, these collaborative moments are what I find truly exciting– standing around with my pastry team, each with a spoon in hand, taking careful bites and sharing insights. Write the beginnings of a prep list for the next day, store my kitchen shoes up in the kitchen attic. As I walk out the front door of Blackbird, the dining room lights dim behind me, music starts, and another service begins again.

pastry cream; our very own mother sauce

pastry cream

If you read my last column for Lucky Peach, you should be ready to make proud, hollow cream puff shells. But what of their filling! Worry no more, the follow up to that piece discusses pastry cream, the classic companion for pate a choux. You may have seen pastry cream in a fruit tart, or hiding inside a boston cream pie. But left to set, pastry cream becomes our very own mother sauce! And a myriad of things can be folded into this stable, rich custard. Read on! 


As its name suggests, pastry cream is the cream in the pastry world—and that’s saying something for a world so heavily populated with creamy things. But you’d be forgiven for not knowing about it: classic American desserts—cookies, brownies, fruit pies—are largely pastry-cream free.

At its most basic level, pastry cream is a boiled custard similar to vanilla pudding. The custard itself contains egg yolks, milk and/or cream, and sugar, and is often finished by whisking in butter. This mixture is stabilized by the inclusion of flour and starch, which makes it thick and malleable, and prevents the egg from curdling during the cooking process.

To begin making pastry cream, the milk and cream are heated to a boil along with any inclusion meant to perfume the cream. (Vanilla is most common, but teas, spices, and fresh herbs are also popular.) The hot cream is then poured gently into a mixture of whipped egg, sugar, and starch. Transferred back to a pot on the stove, pastry cream is cooked to a boil. The key: whisking constantly to ensure a smooth custard. After a two-minute boil, butter is whisked in and the pastry cream is ready for its destiny.

When it’s still hot, pastry cream takes to a variety of mix-ins: chocolate, coffee, and rum are all popular. Or, you can pour it into tart shells immediately after boiling, let it cool, and then top it with fruit for a classic fruit tart.

Pastry cream’s greatest trick, however, is when it is left to cool in a pan. From there, it becomes the mother sauce to an endless variety of desserts.



Our mother Pastry cream has quite a brood, but not one to be tied down, every child of pastry cream has a different father. Her daughter, Mousseline, is born of a moment between pastry cream and smooth soft butter, delicately folded together into pure velvet. Another coupling, between the tall proud Italian meringue bore our mother pastry cream the child Chiboust, airy and light as chiffon. But add a little heat to that night, say, a 400 degree oven, and the marriage of meringue and pastry cream swells into the ephemeral Souffle.


Whipped cream and pastry cream have a small family unto themselves. Their first born, Diplomate cream, rich and reserved, made from folding whipped cream and pastry cream together, has siblings. Add touch of Grand Marnier, and you’ll meet Bauminiere. Add American bourbon, and you earn the right to name this child as well, as the French pastry masters haven’t done so yet.  Perhaps my favorite, Frangiapane is the child of our mother pastry cream and sweet almond cream, a gentle girl who loves to play with stone fruits, pears, and apples.


When in the country of Spain, pastry cream transforms into the secret filling of Basque cake. If you’re thinking of cake in the American sense, light, moist, with an open crumb, guess again. It’s more appropriate to call this a Gateau, a cake in the most European sense; a dense, low rider of a cake, absolutely heightened by the moisture of a cup of coffee, sipped along side.


I mentioned that pastry cream is vacant in American desserts, but that’s not entirely true. The Boston cream pie, which is in fact a cake, owes it’s custard center to pastry cream. Glazed with shiny dark chocolate, two rounds of sponge cake sandwich a quiet layer of vanilla flavored pastry cream. Boston cream pie may appears simple, but is grand enough to have become the official cake of Massachusetts, beating out another state creation, the Toll House cookie.


Left in the hands of curious cooks, I’ve seen pastry cream battered and fried, for a molten dumpling this side of insanity. I’ve also seen it thinned down and frozen for something akin to a pudding pop. Which makes me wonder how it would behave in an ice cream machine. In a pinch it can be thinned into a sauce, taking on any additional flavors you can blend in.


Not all recipes you’ll find are created equal, with nuances in the ratio added to favor the predicted purpose; thinner for tarts, thicker for mothering a child, and set with flour or cornstarch depending on the authors preference. As you can see, if the recipe you use doesn’t do exactly what you expected, there is no shortage of ways to transform your pastry cream.


Pastry Cream Recipe

the one spoon quenelle and how to hide it

sweet potato

sweet potato

hide and seek

hide and seek

i work in Carmel, CA. a place most people don’t go. one of the most beautiful places in the world. Big Sur to the south and Pebble Beach to the north, a relaxing 1 hour drive to Santa Cruz where Keefer Sutherland heads a vampire clan (maybe he’s moved on) and another hour into San Francisco where Michelin stars can be found like Hollywood stars.
i used to work in big cities and big restaurants. from Los Angeles to the French Laundry. now i work in a restaurant with 1 pastry assistant, 5 other cooks, 9 tables, and an average of 20 covers a night.
i moved here 8 years ago. surrounded by pine and eucalyptus and no one to talk pastry with. so i started a blog back then.

one spoon quenelle.

i wanted to reach out, just as the brilliant Dana Cree has done and continues doing. then my blog was taken over by twitter and instagram and the immediacy of just posting a picture and a title and having some kind of recognition. sometimes a red heart. sometimes a witty comment or even more alluring…an emoji.
but the conversation is lost.
so with The Pastry Department’s help, i hope to bring back some discussion.

the “one spoon quenelle” was referred to in the strikingly visual French Laundry cookbook. it symbolized elegance, refinement, skill, technique, aesthetic, and most importantly it epitomized
pastry in a fine dining setting. you didn’t do a quenelle in a bistro, cafe, pizza joint, or top a brownie sundae with a perfect one spoon quenelle. it had to be placed on white Limoges atop white linen. so perfect, so pure, so smooth….can you see it? better yet, can you taste it?
oooh…. it improves the flavor of anything you scoop.
so i learned to do it like every other pastry cook trying to elevate their game.
with Ben and Jerry’s, with whipped cream, with butter…..
and then I had it.
got it, done.
collect special spoons, antique shops, stolen from other restaurants, now i have a bain marie of varied spoons from various places for all sorts of shapes and sizes. I even worked at the French Laundry as pastry sous Chef and did about 80 quenelles a night for the pre-dessert.
80 covers, 5 nights a week, 16 months.

then the one spoon quenelle became redundant and lost it’s meaning (to me at least)
and then i moved to Carmel. and i began rethinking what i did and retrained myself.
i did and still do quenelles….sometimes.
but they aren’t that important anymore. they mean very little. what matters is what flavor ice cream i make, the texture, the components of the dish, the story. the image of the dish as a whole.
i’m tired of spooning non-comital crumbs on a plate to place a perfect quenelle down to show that I have 15 years of pastry experience. i know i can make one. i can stack about 6 quenelles and swirl 3 flavors into 1 quenelle.
so now i place a perfect quenelle in a dish and cover it up with shards of meringue or crispy milk. i roll ice cream in puffed grains and shape it into an organic form reminiscent of the sandstones that wash ashore on the beach 4 streets down from the kitchen. or best yet, spread just churned ice cream onto a frozen plate in a wonderful slab and top it with so many good things. this way you force the diner to eat that ice cream with what you place on top. flowers, herbs, ground honeycomb….my Cold Stone.

so what does it mean?
what i think about is what does fine dining mean? what makes a Michelin 3 star dessert?
can there still be attention to detail in other forms?
can i translate emotion, feelings, seasons, flavors and textures in other ways?
can it still be aesthetically pleasing, beautiful even, without falling into perfect shaped trappings?

i am not saying by any means not to learn it. i want to bring up the question of why do we do it?
how do we move beyond the recognizable and be transported by what we cannot easily understand?

and this is how i begin the conversation….again.

Meet Ron!

ronmendoza (1)

I first started following the work of Ron Mendoza, long before I started following the work of Ron Mendoza. It’s confusing, I know. But about 3 years ago, I started coming across pictures of desserts made by the pastry chef of Aubergine. They resonated with me in a way few do, our desserts are kindred spirits you could say. Then, the name Ron would pop up in pastry-cheffy-conversations, and before I knew it one of my friends, Caroline Thompson, stage extraordinaire, was moving across the country for the opportunity to be his cook. I’ve become such a fan of Ron’s work, that I decided to invite him to contribute to this blog. When I asked my friend Caroline for his contact info, and divulged my plans to her, she said, “oh yeah, he used to write that blog One Spoon Quenelle.” It was then I realized I’d been following Ron long before I’d been following Ron. It should have struck me that Ron from One Spoon Quenelle and Ron from Aubergine were the same person long before, but alas! Lucky for all of us, not only did Ron agree to share his work with us, he’s well versed in blogging as well. Without further adieu, meet Ron!


What is your name, and what is your current position?

Ron Mendoza, Pastry Chef at Aubergine Restuarant in Carmel by the Sea


What was the first dessert you ever made?

For about 9 months in I worked Jaan Restaurant in the L’Ermitage Beverly Hills.  I actually worked the garde manger station but made the dessert menu since I was the only one there with pastry experience.

The only dish I remember was a warm Chinese 5 spice broth poured into a bowl of shaved candied fennel, the fronds, and creme fraiche ice cream.

I remember this one because we got reviewed by the LA Times food critic and she liked the dish.  I was thrilled because it was my first menu but was not credited as the Pastry Chef.  Still it gave me motivation and a clear path.


Did you go to school, and where?

I went to Southern California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena.  I never intended to do pastry.  It was a 15 month program and the school was in it’s infancy so they had a poor curiculum.  I worked the entire time and learned more on the job.  The school has since grown and it seems lots of great chefs have come from there, including Stephanie Prida of Manresa and Thomas Raquel of Le Bernardin.


What was the worst thing you made in pastry school, or any other hilarious disasters we can laugh about?

As I previously stated, I went to culinary school not interested in pastry.  So during the pastry program, I didn’t really pay much attention to the details of the craft.  I was skipping school often to do cooking events with the restaurant I worked for.  One particular day I missed was when we did laminated doughs and croissants.  It bit me in the butt because, of course, for my final I had to make croissants.  I winged it somehow.  I guess I was lucky because though I didn’t prepare much at the time, I was a voracious reader of all cookbooks and techniques.  My croissants surely weren’t worthy of selling but good enough to pass.  Now I love doing laminated doughs and kind of wish I did them more often.


What was your first pastry job?

My first pastry job was at Patina Restaurant in Los Angeles.  It was a dream job.  I started there in garde manger 8 months previous.  The station was next to pastry.  I constantly pestered the pastry chef on how they did everything.  Once a positon opened up, I grabbed it and never looked back. That is where I found my mentor and began my real training.


What has been your favorite job so far?

I would have to break it down into two moments.  First, at Sona in Los Angeles.  Along with my mentor and the rest of the team, we were cooking like no one else in town.  Back in 2003, we wanted to bridge the gap between El Bulli and Chez Panisse, with influences of Sigur Ros and Jackson Pollock.  The whole restaurant wanted that. There were no rules.

Secondly, my current position.  Being outside of any major city with no one else around, I have had time to practice, try, fail, try again, discover, and rediscover everything and anything.  I have definately found myself and my style here in Carmel.


Do you have someone you consider a mentor?

Michelle Myers of Sona Restaurant and Boule.  She no longer cooks but I really owe everything I do to her.  She taught me basics but more importantly taught me how to think outside the box.  During work, we discussed food, techniques, flavors, art, music, film, design…she taught me creativity and how it applies to dining.


Why did you choose this career path to begin with?

This is a funny question.  I don’t know, really.  I don’t have any history with food aside from the fact that I was comfortable in the kitchen.  I grew up a total latch key kid, making my own dinners with Kraft Mac and Cheese or just rice with butter and soy sauce.  Quesadillas are a specialty of mine.

I didn’t start culinary school until I was 25.  Way too late of a start.  But I had drive and a sense of creativity.

I used to skateboard.  Amatuer contests and all.  I was pretty good.  Lots of trophies.  I always knew how to progress and push myself.  Cooking techniques are like skateboard tricks, the more you know, the bigger arsenal you have and eventually you create your own style.  Both take passion and a push from within.


Have you done any stages? Where? What did you learn there?

I didn’t stage.  I wish I did.  With such a late start, I needed to work.  It’s always been a necessary job unfortunately.  But I have been able to travel and meet people and have seen lots of great things because of cooking.


If you had to describe the style you work in, what would it be?

Organic.  The main word my mentor taught me.  Everything is organic.  Menus evolve, style gradually changes over time.  Nothing is forced. If it doesn’t feel right, change it.

Organic in flavors, in style, in plating.

My Chef said the ingredients should look like leaves fallen from a tree…delicate, natural, with a sense of ease, but meaningful.

That is how I want to work.  I want the experience to be felt more than forced.


What was your first pastry chef position?

Sona Restaurant was my first pastry chef position.  We opened a pastry shop, boule, across the street and my main focus was Sona Restaurant.  It was great.  So many great cooks came from that kitchen.  I think the best thing about it was working with a great team and mentoring newer cooks.


Name one of your favorite cookbooks.

Easily Albert Adria’s first pastry book.  Pastry chefs still do food that he did 16 years ago.  Everything in there is still brilliant, relatable, and usable to this day.

And the iconic Michel Bras book.  Nature, organic, technique, so perfect and thought out and at the same time completely at ease.


If you wrote a book, what would it be about?

Well, the first thing that comes to mind would be just a visual photo book of plated desserts. Similar to an artists book of paintings.  I could fall deeply down a rabbit hole just staring at amazingly photogenic dishes.  The colors, the textures, movement within a still life photo.  The plate it’s on.  The background or lack of.

The image itself inspires. They could be posters on a wall or photos in a museum.

Pastry books aren’t made like that.  They have to teach you something.  How many books have a pate sucre recipe or a macaron recipe where they are all basically the same.  I want an image that moves me.  That makes me think about how food can move others and other artists.  It doesn’t even have to be my food.  Just show how beautifull a dessert can look and let viewers question how it was conceived.


Have you ever written about your work before?

Yes.  I used to have a blog.  One Spoon Quenelle.

I started it when I moved to Carmel.  It was a way to communicate with others, to document what I did, and to force me to think about what I did.  The title came from the French Laundry book that referenced the quenelle and how that became the standard bearer of what fine dining pastry was.  You weren’t doing fine dining unless you had a perfect quenelle on the dish.  It forced me to rethink the concept.  It ultimately became a lie we all lived.  Now I smash quenelles or cover them up…..


If you had any advice to the younger version of yourself, what would it be?

Definately go stage, go travel, get out there, and talk to more people and don’t be such an introvert!

I used to skateboard. I always broke rules.  I love art, film, architecture, clothing design…anything that comes from a creative mind.  But I didn’t get out more and see more of this industry.  To create connections, see how other people did things.  So now, I feel as if half the time, even though I know what I know, I have no idea how this industry really works.


Restaurant, hotel, bakery, or beyond? What’s your niche?

I’ve worked fine dining restaurants most of my career.  It’s where I feel comfortable.   Though a pastry chef will always bump their head on that ceiling eventually.  No where to go in that building, you know.

A dessert bar similar to a sushi bar would be a dream.  Spontaneous, creative, trasparent, interacting with guests and serving desserts they couldn’t find anywhere else.  I could imagine having a service where not one person gets the same dish.  How cool would that be…..or crazy?


What was the last dessert you ate?

do you mean the pop tart or Ben Spungin’s dessert at 1833?  The pop tart makes my latch key childhood happy even though I know it’s a terrible representation of what good pastry is.  One the other hand, Ben makes the most ethereally creamy desserts and he’s such a cool guy to know.


And most importantly, do you have any pets, and what are their names. Tell us everything.

Unfortunately, I can’t have them where I currently live.  However, my previous cats were brothers and were named Fauchon and Berthillon.  While working in LA at Sona, we heard squeals in the wall behind the hostess stand.  We hammered through and found 4 kittens, barely a week old.  They had fallen from the roof where the mom gave birth and landed safely on a beam in the wall.  Fauchon loved to suck on my shoulder and Berthillon just stared at me with eyes like C3PO.  Lovely kitties.

Can’t wait for my next ones!

What to do when your chef leaves


The latest column from Chefs Feed, this one discusses what happens to those left behind when a chef leaves. I’ve left a team behind at blackbird, just as I inherited one when I arrived. Likewise, I’ve been a cook, left behind when a chef decided to move on and a new one brought a sea of change into a kitchen. After watching this process for my entire career from one side or another, these are a few of my observations. 


I was once told this in a moment of personal doubt, when I struggled to see the direction my path was taking me. It wasn’t said to threaten me, but to free me; inevitably, in a restaurant, everyone who works there will leave. Unless, that is, you own the joint, which reduces your chance of leaving by half. Everyone will be the one who leaves at some point, but what of those left behind? What happens to a cook when their chef moves on?

I’ve always considered the positions I’ve held custodial. Just as I took the position at Blackbird from another pastry chef, so I have given it to yet another comrade-in-arms. When the goodbyes were said and my last staff meal was eaten, I walked away knowing another pastry chef was there to carry the torch.

Luckily, the daily urgency of restaurant work relies on a momentum that helps every cook carry on through the early days of transition. But it isn’t easy watching the department you’re an active part of change and mutate in front of your eyes. Even the most flexible dispositions have breaking points.   How do you work for a boss you didn’t choose, particularly if you took the job at a restaurant specifically to work for the dearly departed chef? One thing I would tell all my cooks is that they came to work for Blackbird, just as I did. When you strip back all the nuances I plastered over the walls of that pastry department, the foundation underneath is always going to be Blackbird. It is the roof over our heads, the coats on our backs, the ovens we fill with cookies, and the entity that signs our paychecks. That’s true whether I’m populating the department with dishes, or another pastry chef is.

Things will be different. This isn’t good or bad, but temporary. The discomfort of transition isn’t a sign of a storm coming, it’s a sign of a little cloudy weather quietly passing by. You’re going to carry weight you’re not used to as a new leader revises and disperses labor to fit their menu. You’re going to be asked to give up some of the stability you’ve come to rely on. Only if you start to flail in panic, will things start to collapse. The Irish butcher at the Fat Duck once told me to be like the willows in the wind, which bend and sway with the wind from any angle. Eventually, they stand back up straight. As the winds of change pass, remember the flexibility that benefits these reeds. You’ll soon have a new routine to carry you through the day.

When a chef takes over a functioning kitchen, there is an inevitable double-power shift. First, cooks will need to train the new chef on the nuances of the restaurant before they can step back into the director’s chair. As cooks, you were taught how to do your job by someone else, and now it’s your turn to give that back. A new chef will come in knowing how to do their job, but they don’t know how to do yours. It’s a power shift that doesn’t feel natural, when a cook feels like they know more than the chef, but teach them with patience. The sooner you do, the balance of the world will fall back into place.

The other side of the coin is something every cook working through a change in command needs to hear………

Please do continue reading the rest of this article over at Chefs Feed… Click Here!


Thoughts on a dream job


Hello all! My name is Danielle, and I’ve been working in various pastry departments for the past three years. Over a year ago, through a stroke of good luck (and a degree of skill, but timing—as always—was paramount), I found a home in the storied pastry kitchen of Blackbird.

If you work in the industry, you know Blackbird. Opened in 1997, Chef Paul Kahan’s first restaurant has been home to some of Chicago’s most celebrated chefs and harbored countless cooks who have taken their experience at Blackbird and gone on to head restaurants of their own. I knew most of these things about Blackbird before I ever set foot inside, but these were not the reasons Blackbird first piqued my interest. I was far more interested in one specific person working there– a person I initially came to know through this blog, a wide-open window into a kitchen unlike any of the others I’d come to know as the standard.

The Dana Cree I met in person embodied the same voice who spoke warmly and candidly through her blog, readily willing to speak of mistakes made and lessons learned, but calmly capable of throwing down the exact science behind anything from muffins to marshmallows to hydro colloids. She introduced me to her principles of “creative obligation,” through which she requires her cooks to create on their own– learning on the fly about the complexities of manipulating flavors and executing both classic and modern technique.

The kitchen is a second home to three of us cooks, along with one sous chef– and like any home, it has its quirks. After over a decade as a working kitchen, it’s taken on a lot of character, including a toothpaste-green floor and an attic-turned-pantry-turned-access to the rooftop garden. Drafty in the winter, sweltering in the summer– but I embraced it all. This was it. This was the dream. I was now a character in the blog, inhabiting that world that I had previously only watched from afar.

A few months ago marked my completion of a full year at Blackbird. This coincided with another significant event: after three years at her post as head pastry chef at Blackbird and Avec, Dana announced she would be leaving to pursue pastry beyond the realms of restaurant kitchens. Changes of this magnitude are never easy, but I (along with my fellow cooks) decided to stick around and see the transition through. The kitchen at Blackbird has changed drastically since I started, but Dana’s replacement– Nicole Guini, former pastry chef at Spiaggia– has upheld the same philosophies that made the kitchen so appealing to me in the first place, allowing her cooks to carve out their own creative spaces on the menu while guiding them through the process.

However, the most pressing question in any restaurant setting is “what’s next?” This one-year milestone is typically when cooks of any level at any restaurant begin to look beyond their current position and plot the next step. Work their way up to new responsibilities within the same restaurant? Or perhaps go elsewhere, chasing new experiences under different chefs? It’s a question that has started to haunt me lately, from considering what kind of dessert I would like to develop for the lunch prix fixe menu (my newest rung on the ladder of creative obligation) to wondering what will happen once I eventually leave Blackbird. What happens post- dream job?

This dream presented itself to me sweetly– a chance discovery of this blog, a perfectly-timed job opening, and most importantly, a reality that lived up to (even far exceeded) my expectations. I have no immediate plans to leave Blackbird, as it continues to fulfill my creative desires and I still find myself learning something new daily. But when my time is up here, what’s next? My old coworker and friend Harry took off to travel through Asia, staging in kitchens throughout Thailand and Singapore. Our previous sous chef, Krystle, went to North Carolina to help open a new restaurant/bakery. Dana herself is exploring and developing dairy-related products with 1871 Dairy– a perfect extension of her pre-existing passion for milk and cheese.

However, when I start to get lost in ruminating thoughts, it helps to look back on the Danielle of last year: devouring the articles on this blog and imagining a future for myself that maybe, if I was lucky, would involve working in a kitchen like Blackbird. Now another dream is coming full circle: the opportunity to write about pastry on a public platform, as Dana has so graciously opened up The Pastry Department to contributors from all areas of the craft. Dream jobs come in unexpected forms. For the time being, I’ll attempt to forget about what comes next and fully live out the reality of this one.

Meet Danielle!


Danielle Snow walked into my life one lunch service, over a year ago. She had applied for the pastry cook position I had posted, and took it upon herself to come in and express her interest in person. It takes guts to cold call a chef, in person. It must, because I’ve rarely seen it done. Half an hour after Danielle walked in, we were finishing up an impromptu interview, scheduling a trail for her to come in and officially audition for the position. A week later, she was putting her notice in at her two other pastry jobs, getting ready to begin a working relationship with me, one that eventually shed light on her own aspirations to be a food writer. When I stepped out of the pastry department and decided to open this space up for others to shine light on their own pastry paths, it seemed a natural fit to invite Danielle. Follow along with her own adventures, sharing what a pastry department looks like from the cooks point of view.

Danielle’s interest in pastry arts was piqued while her family was transplanted from Texas to Belgium, an enviable time spanning most of her teens. Her sophomore year in high school, a friend turned her onto pastry specific food blogs. Realizing baking and pastry was actually a legit career, she immediately apprenticed in local bakery for the remaining 3 months she was overseas, before her family moved back to the states. While she began studying in a traditional college, she transferred to Kendal in Chicago, a culinary school that offered her the opportunity to complete her bachelors while simultaneously studying the culinary arts. Danielle began broadening her horizons by staging in different restaurants and bakeries around chicago. She took her first job at a chicago darling, a restaurant called Small Bar, cooking savory food, slinging brunch. The chef at Small Bar knew Danielle was interested in desserts, and helped her attain a stage at the perennial favorite,  Lula cafe.  Her stage quickly led to a position in the pastry department. While at Lula Danielle took a second job as a pastry cook at Stephanie Izards restaurant, Girl and the Goat. When she left these two coveted positions behind it was to join the pastry department at Blackbird. While there, and with the chef’s encouragement (that’s me!) Danielle took a part time job expanding her chocolate skills at Veruca Chocolate. As her responsibilities grew at Blackbird she laid down her chocolate tools and today is currently focusing on working with the new Pastry Chef, Nicole Guinni as she transitions the pastry department you’ve read so much about on this site, to become her own.

Without further adieu, meet Danielle!


What is your name, and what is your current position?

Danielle Snow, just like John Snow. Except for the whole bastard thing. I’m a pastry cook at Blackbird restaurant in Chicago.


What was the first dessert you ever made?

In a restaurant setting or in a life setting?

In life, the earliest thing I can remember is helping my mom make chocolate pudding, like a real stove top pudding. It was fast and easy, from one of those old betty crocker cookbooks. We ate it while it was still hot, and I really enjoyed that we whipped fresh cream and put it on top.  I was actually talking to my mom about it recently, asking her if she still had the recipe book. I remember it had a whole lot of butter, and no cornstarch.


Professionally, I wasn’t yet a pastry cook. I was at my first job at Small Bar, where we made pretty simple desserts, and we had a really delicious butterscotch pot de crème. At that point I already knew I wanted to persue pastry, so the pot de crème was my little pet project. I took a lot of pride in it. I used to have that recipe in a notebook from that restaurant with a lot of delicious things, like a recipe for biscuits titled “bad ass flaky biscuits” but I lost that book. I need to track down somebody with those recipes.


Did you go to pastry school, and where?

I went to culinary school. I went to Kendal and earned a culinary certificate, so it’s like a year long program. I’m glad I went to school, my experience was maybe a little unconventional, I went to Kendal because I could finish a business degree and also study culinary. I was in a class with a lot of career changers, mostly over 30’s, but the culinary school was the perfect amount of school for cooking, specifically.


What was the worst thing you made in pastry school, or any other hilarious disasters we can laugh about?

When I went to culinary school I was newly vegetarian and really fierce about it. I knew there would be a point when I would have to cook meat, but I didn’t realize how emotional I would be when I broke down a chicken. I was feeling a lot of “this goes against my values” but at the same time I knew it was an important hurdle. I did not elect to taste any meat while I was there, which is crazy to me now, because it was all we were cooking, these French delicacies like foie gras and terrines.

I remember I was the only person who wasn’t grossed out by beef tartar with egg on it, I grew up in Belgium and was used to seeing it there.

What was your first pastry job?

My first pastry job was working at Lula café! It was, I would say ideal. I was in love with the restaurant itself, it was challenging, but the pastries were not at a level where I couldn’t understand them. Sometimes it’s crazy to think what a beginner I was when I started there. But it was a great place to make mistakes, I was really supported by the team there. They have a Monday night farm dinner, and the chef has to come up with an entirely new plated dessert every week. I was exposed to a lot, and that kind of constant shifting teaches you how to adapt to a new item coming on the menu on a regular basis.


What has been your favorite job so far?

Um, blackbird! So many reasons. It’s hard because I almonst get a little emotional about it, and it’s hard to talk about it without it sounding clinical. No one had really asked my opinions about things before. It gave me access to some of the best mentors and leaders, and I worked with some of the best cooks. It was also very interesting because its’ the only job I’ve looked at from afar for a long time. I had billed it as my dream job, and I think about what it means when you’re actually working your dream job.


Do you have someone you consider a mentor?

Krystal Swendson was a really big mentor for me, she was the sous chef when I started at blackbird. I learned to take on responsibility, instead of waiting for someone to tell me what to do all the time. I learned the importance of organization, I know it’s such a basic thing but it gets left by the wayside so often. She was so good at guiding people, leading by good example, and creating beautiful desserts.



Why did you choose this career path to begin with?

When I first started school, I wanted to persue a career in writing. But as I went through school it increasingly seemed like a vague thing to aspire to, I didn’t know what direction I wanted to take writing towards. My sophomore year in high school someone introduced me to food blogs, and there was one specific blog called Foodbeam, written by a girl who worked as a pastry chef. It was almost like I had never considered being a pastry chef an option, but I was really inspired.


Have you done any stages? Where? What did you learn there?

Yeah, a lot. My first stage was foray in to pastry was when I was in Belgium, and I was so taken with this idea of being a pastry chef that I became an apprentice in a fourth generation Belgian bakery. They made traditional breads, viennoiserie, entremet cakes, and it taught me how much work it actually is.

Here in Chicago I staged at Nelcote, Hot Hhocolate, Vanille Patisserie, and the vegetarian restaurant Green Zebra. Many of those one day stages were either because I was interested in a job or a friend worked there and encouraged me. I think stages are important because they are windows into other kitchens,  and help inform your opinions and decisions, and you definitely learn what it’s like to be the underdog.

Name one of your favorite cookbooks.

The one I go back to a lot is the bouchon bakery book. There is such a wide variety of things in there. I made their hot cross buns for staff meal the other day. I hope people enjoyed them, I tend to leave staff meal on the table and walk away. I love making yeast raised doughs, it’s such an interactive process and I feel a lot of instant gratification because you can see the process working.


If you had any advice to the younger version of yourself, what would it be?

Keep doing what you’re doing but save more money. It’s kind of boring but it’s true. It’s hard to save on a cooks wage but I can do it. So much about being a young cook is about living in the moment. But there comes a time when you’d really rather be taking big steps from your own means.

Restaurant, hotel, bakery, or beyond? What’s your niche?

For now, restaurant, for sure. I’d like to see how far I can get in restaurants. I think for me there is infinite possibility to be creative. I’m also drawn to the people who work in restaurants. I like the life style. Surprisingly. For now.

What was the last dessert you ate?

When I was recently back in texas, I don’t know if this counts, but my grandma was sick and someone did that lovely thing where they bring an ill person a dessert. It’s a lost art. It was a boxed yellow cake mix with strawberry frosting with coconut on top. It was really sweet, and really delicious. It tasted very familiar too.

 And most importantly, do you have any pets, what are their names?

My roommate has a pet, her name is Ginger, she’s a little orange haired cat from PAWS. She’s the sweetest cat I’ve ever met, so affectionate. She doesn’t mind wearing costumes, that’s how easy going she is. My roommate is always making neclaces for her.  I guess you’d call them collars, but with beads on them. We did it once thinking there’s no way it would stay on her but she wore it all day. We keep talking about what her costume is going to be for halloween, and we are thinking batman, so like “batcat.”

How to make Pate a Choux

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 11.10.38 AM


To hear me say it sounds like “padda shoe.” The phoenetics for the French term I’m most certainly mispronouncing, pate de choux, announces one of the most versatile recipes in classic patisserie. Somewhere between a dough and a batter, pate de choux takes it’s name from the rough, cabbage-like shape of the dough when its baked. Once in the oven, this paste of sorts performs the neatest magic trick, blowing up like a balloon, so much so the germans call these puffs “wind bags” instead.


Pate de choux was the first fundamental technique I dedicated myself to mastering. Durring my earliest role as pastry chef at Eva in Seattle, this dough was often found inflating in my oven in varied shapes; miniature wheels of paris-brest waiting for seasonal fillings, and long skinny eclaires to be glossed in chocolate. My favorite application of this dough was profiteroles. The hollow shells were toasted to order, split, and filled with scoops of ice cream, and looked like an ice cream sandwich and a hamburger had a baby.


Profiteroles were a staple on my junior-most menu, their constant presence giving me good practice at this twice cooked technique. Pate de choux requires you to cook the batter on the stove top before transferring it to a small appliance, where the eggs are added. Some use a food processor and add all the eggs at once, but I’ve always incorporated the eggs in a kitchen aid mixer, one at a time, watching the sticky mass swallow each egg, break, then come back together. This gives me the opportunity to withhold a little egg if I see the batter getting too loose.


Of all the fundamental recipes, pate de choux will offer you the most immediate success. While I won’t call them fool-proof, this dough has a wide margin of error. This doesn’t mean there is a low ceiling for perfection with pate de choux, .


I myself have chased the ethereally light, hollow, crisp cream puff for nearly 10 years. A dough that swells proud and taut in the oven, completely hollow with no webbing, and retains its light crispiness when layered between soft creams and shiny glazes.


This requires a well-balanced recipe, diligent cooking over the stovetop, and a watchful eye when adding the eggs. Once mastered, you’ll find seemingly endless applications for your pate de choux. Yes, you can bake hollow shells for cream puffs, and fill their cavities with delicious sweet things, towering them into croquembouche. The shape can be altered when you pipe, long and skinny for eclaires, round for paris brest, and more! You can also opt for savory fillings of confit duck and dried fruits, liver pates, and rillettes, or a simpler herbed ricotta. My gingerbread flavored pate de choux recipe was once borrowed to be filled with the Japanese barbecued eel, unagi. Cheese can be folded directly into your pate de choux dough to make gougeres, cheesy little poofs most often eaten warm and fresh from the oven.


But pate de choux goes far beyond the oven. The dough can be piped into boiling water to make a dumpling, called Parisian gnocchi. It can also be dropped into hot oil and fried like a dount. Small dollops of fried pate de choux dusted in powdered sugar are called “nuns farts” in france, but you can dress these abstractly shaped fritters like your favorite donut and name them after any other broken wind you desire. If you trust your piping skills, place pate de choux in a piping bag fit with a star tip and pipe round crullers, or long skinny churros. Freeze them, and when when firm, remove them from the freezer and drop them into hot oil. They will hold their shape and reward you with the lightest donut known to man.


While I have not had the opportunity to serve gnocchi on my dessert menus yet (I’ll find a way!) a parmesan crullers recently anchored a dessert at blackbird, nestled over white chocolate custard with basil and black raspberries. Served warm from the fryer and dressed like a plated dessert, this may have been pate de choux’s most elegant appearance yet.


Pate de choux next best trick is it’s ability to be cooked immediately when frozen. Once piped, the batter can be locked away in your freezer until the moment you’re ready to prepare it. Small domes pulled from the freezer line up quickly on a sheet pan and loose no quality when popped in the oven or fryer. This makes them ideal for the kind of production professional kitchens employ. It also helps the home cook with the large quantity of dough most recipes produce. It’s easier to make a full batch of pate de choux and freeze the rest for another application than reduce the batch size and maneuver a miniscule amount in a mixing bowl. Besides, you’ll look like a whiz when warm gougeres or cream puffs emerge from your oven with seemingly no effort at all.


Pate De Choux

Transitioning, letting go, and finding my own way

By Leigh Omilinsky
IMG_9381_2I remember being very young and getting a knot in my stomach every time I knew things were getting ready to change. Sometimes it was a graduation, or a friend moving away, or even me deciding it was time to move away. When it was time for things to come to an end, I would often feel paralyzed by the unknown. As I got older, I realized that even though the unknown seemed so terrifying, forward motion is a necessity. And to my own astonishment, I got through it!

And here I am. In an industry that is always changing, always moving, and never stagnant. As someone who was (and maybe still is) so scared of change, I find myself in a world where it’s “normal” to stay at a job for only a year. It’s “normal” to take a few months off and stage somewhere fabulous. The mentality is to get the experience, get the name on your resume, and move on. Quickly. So how do you know when it’s time to change?

I found myself in this situation a few months ago. I was working at the Sofitel. I was a part of a strong team and was lucky enough to work with my best friends. They were supportive of my education in the pastry world and sent me on a life-changing trip to Paris. I was making cheese. (Yes, making and aging cheese) I developed a style as both a chef and a manager. It was fulfilling! So why move on? I wasn’t looking to move on, but an opportunity showed it’s face and I had to look. That opportunity was Nico. Once I realized that this change was really happening, I got that same old feeling of being anxious. And then the “what-ifs” started. What if this isn’t right? What if I’m not ready? What if I can’t do this? But I then realized I would be more upset with myself for not exploring this option than staying comfortable. It was time. I had to let go of my home away from home of almost 5 years. To say there are deep roots there is an understatement.

I’m lucky enough to be friends with Amanda Rockman, the former Pastry Chef of Nico. Anyone who knows her knows that she’s a rock star! So I had big shoes to fill. Since she’s a rock star, she set me up to succeed. And that’s what us pastry family does for each other. I’m lucky.

I inherited a strong pastry team with young and eager people that are so willing to learn. But they came to Nico to work for and learn from Amanda. She and I are very much cut from the same cloth and very dear friends, but we are different. So how do I make this job my own? Start with what I know and love: The macaron.

The macaron and I have a serious love. It’s been a long and rocky road, but it’s love. They are my favorite food, so I was excited to bring my love to a new venue. And then an interesting thing happened. My love and enthusiasm seems to have been contagious and my team is now excited to make them! Ok. I can do this.

The whirlwind of changing a menu is daunting. There are so many things to think about. So walking into an already existing and fully functional beast is a little daunting! It’s like trying to jump on an already moving train while still maintaining my own identity, leading a team, and hopefully growing and learning. What worked in previous restaurants with other chefs may not work in this one. And that thought is terrifying! These are things you don’t think about as a cook. Or, better yet, you think you can do! And guess what? It’s hard.

What made this transition a little bit less scary for me, was knowing that I have been given an opportunity to evolve. I am not, nor should I be, the same person I was 3 years ago. And that evolution can be seen and tasted in my food. So I need to own it. I realize don’t need to look to everyone else to gain the confidence in my work. I need to look within. I need to keep those same standards that I learned for myself throughout the years. I need to be true to me. Just “ok” isn’t good enough. Have I had failures? Absolutely! Have I had to take a dessert and adjust it 50 times before I get it right? Yep! Sure have. But it has made me better. Change is hard.

A wise woman once told me, “the right thing isn’t always the easy thing.” I can take some comfort in that. I am so excited to embark on this next chapter in my pastry career. I’m ready to flex different creative muscles, plant new roots, and see where it takes me.