Edited 12:40 PM: Joy of joys!! I actually discovered the CIndy has already posted the recipe for the Warm Cranberry Crumble Tart on her own blog, here. Hope some of you have a chance to make it for the holidays! Check out the rest of her blog, as well – it’s great!
Ok, before I move on to the topic proper of this post, thank you ALL for the lovely comments you left on the last post! I really loved reading about everyone’s favorite cookies, and I think I have enough cookie suggestions for a sequel to the cookie book;) Thanks also for the wonderful well-wishes; it almost felt like all of you were at my book release party helping celebrate with me! I loved it!
And now for the announcement of the lucky winner of a copy of Field Guide to Cookies. I used a random number generator so it was as random as could possibly be, and the winner is…Darla! I’m afraid I don’t have a last name, but I think there was only one Darla in the comments, and I’m e-mailing her, so congratulations, Darla! I hope you enjoy the book!
For the rest of you, be sure to go all the way to the end of this post (well, actually, I’d love if you had time to read the whole post too:) ) for another exciting book giveaway!
Without further ado, onto my interview with Cindy Mushet!
It probably will not surprise anyone that Sur la Table is one of my most oft-visited stores; their selection of kitchen equipment is satisfying wide-ranging and high quality, and I’ve rarely gone there without finding what I need – or several other somethings that suddenly have also become quite necessary. The manager of my local Sur la Table and I are on a quite friendly basis now.
Recently, Sur la Table has ventured into the realm of cookbook publishing, a natural progression for a company dedicated to educating and outfitting cooks with tools and toys for the kitchen. Their Things Cooks Love and Knives Cooks Love have been well-received as much-needed resources for home cooks. Sur la Table turned their attention next to the arena of baking, and have come out with The Art and Soul of Baking, an encyclopedic encapsulation of, well, the art of soul of baking.
I was lucky enough to be contacted a couple weeks ago and told that Cindy Mushet, the author, would be in town promoting the book, and would I like to interview her. I eagerly accepted, and received in the mail the next day an astonishingly weighty, satisfyingly handsome book that promised to contain all the answers to any pastry question one might have between its covers.
Cindy Mushet is a charming, enthusiastic woman who clearly loves pastry, and loves to talk about it. She is currently an instructor at the Le Cordon Bleu California School of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles, and it’s clear from both talking to her in person and going through her book, that she is very accomplished at imparting what she knows about baking.
I was beyond thrilled to learned that Cindy had begun her own culinary education at none other than Tante Marie’s Cooking School – hey, if my endorsement of that school isn’t enough for you, take it from Cindy! After finishing the culinary program, she worked at Chez Panisse, and was part of the Baker’s Dozen, the renowned Bay Area baking group founded by Marion Cunningham and including such baking luminaries as Alice Medrich, Peter Reinhardt, Flo Baker, David Leibovitz, and Lindsay Shere, among others. What an amazing time that must have been in American baking, and Cindy spoke of those days with obvious fondness.
She eventually made her way down to Southern California, and found a new home at the Le Cordon Bleu California School of Culinary Arts, where she helps decipher the mysteries of pastry to eager new students. Since most of you know my opinions about pastry school, I asked her about her thoughts, and her response was gratifyingly similar to mine: she really believes that prospective students should get as much practical experience as possible, to get a realistic view of what a culinary career entails. Like me, she said she was often surprised at the students who would come to class with goals that did not seem to be in line with what they would learn, or be doing after graduation.
However, she still strongly endorsed the value of going to culinary school, for those who were serious about a career in food. Although real world experience is important, she also emphasized that there were many things taught in a formal classroom that one might never learn just by working in a kitchen; a teacher’s guidance that might help elevate you to the next level.
Cindy, like all the best pastry chefs, I suspect, is a strong believer in understanding the science behind baking, and that’s what she tries to teach her students. She really wants them to understand why recipes work the way they do, what role each ingredient plays, and how different techniques work. I talked with her about the frustration and fear of writing recipes and having turn out poorly for other people; she believes that many times recipes don’t work is because the person didn’t fully understand what was going on, and did something wrong or different and didn’t even realize it. Also, an experienced baker will understand there are many variables that can affect a recipe: humidity, temperature, ingredient freshness, oven size, etc. A baker that is aware of these variables might be able to compensate for them if it’s a rainy day or the pan isn’t the right size, but a less experienced baker might not know the difference and then wonder why the recipe didn’t turn out as expected even though the recipe was followed seemingly perfectly. What Cindy does as a teacher is to make her students aware of all these things, so they are more aware as bakers and have more understanding and control over how their baked goods turn out.
Now, doesn’t she sound like the perfect person to write a how-to baking book? When I asked Cindy how this book project came about, she said that Sur la Table approached her and asked if she would be interested in writing a comprehensive guide to pastry. Although she was not sure what she could add to the long list of baking resources already available to both home bakers and professionals, she decided she wanted to do it. I’m glad she did – despite her modesty, Cindy has a lot of very valuable knowledge to share with all baking enthusiasts.
The scope of the book is most impressive: it really does cover just about everything in the bakers’ repertoire, from cookies to cakes to breads to laminated doughs. Every section begins with a short primer on the category, going over basic concepts and techniques; these introductions are great references. The introductions are followed by recipes ranging from simple must-knows for every baker, like tart crust and chocolate cake, to more creative ones to inspire you once you’ve mastered the basics.
Looking through the book, I have to say I’m quite jealous of Cindy’s book-writing experience! Apparently she was given a good amount of time to write and test recipes, and pretty much had free rein to write whatever she wanted! I’m sure a great deal of that was due to the fact that the editors recognized her talent and knew to stay out of the way, and I’m thrilled that they respected her skill and wanted a quality product enough to give her the time and freedom to do her job well.
Even if you already have “how-to” baking books, I’d highly recommend this book. It’s beautifully and clearly written, thoughtfully laid out, and just very well produced. There’s a wealth of information to be found in the beginnings of the chapters, in the headnotes for the recipes, and in the recipes themselves. Cindy includes “What the Pros Know” sidebars to helpfully emphasize little tips and tricks to make your baking better, like how to fold egg whites in batter without deflating them or how to improvise flavor variations for a recipe. Also, for all you who prefer to measure by weight, all the recipes include measurements in ounces! This is probably one of the biggest selling points for me, and made me totally fall in love with Cindy. Anyone who’s done any sort of professional baking knows that measuring by volume (cups and spoons) can so maddeningly imprecise, yet for some reason cookbooks continue to have only volume measurements. It used to be near impossible to find a cookbook for home cooks with weight measurements, but I think some authors are starting to have success, including Cindy, and that makes me really happy. Once you switch to a scale, there’s no going back!
I also was very impressed with the range of recipes in the book: Cindy mentioned that even though the book was supposed to cover the basics of baking, she didn’t want to only include basic recipes, which might be limiting for some people. So she fought to also include some more difficult and interesting recipes so the book would appeal to bakers of all abilities. Some that really jumped out at me were: Raspberry Souffles with Hidden Chocolate Truffles (cover photo), Rustic Olive and Thyme Bread, Coffee-Cardamon Pots de Creme, and Warm Cranberry Crumble Tart, which is what I made for this post.
When I asked Cindy about her experience teaching students, she said that the two things people always wanted to know was 1)how to make flaky pie dough, and 2) how to temper chocolate. I decided that I’d have to try her pie dough recipe after hearing this, and it’s a real winner. Just flour, butter, a tiny bit of sugar, salt, and water, and following her directions it becomes the flakiest, golden, perfectly-shattering-in-your-mouth crust. Filled with cranberries and topped with a sugary streusel topping, it is a simple but dramatic-looking dessert perfect for Thanksgiving! My boyfriend gobbled up the first batch of small tartlets I made; I baked a second larger one for my office party today and it vanished in minutes!
I could wax on and on about Cindy’s book since there’s so many great things to say about it, but I think they best thing I can say it to go find it at your local bookstore. Or, you can win yourself a copy! Yes, I’m going contest crazy and holding another giveaway! I have one copy of The Art and Soul of Baking to give away to a lucky person. Again, to enter, simply leave a comment to this post, and tell me the one pastry item you’d really like to make or master – your holy grail of pastry, if you will.
Thank you, Cindy, for a wonderful chat! She is a truly lovely person and if you are lucky enough be around Los Angeles and Le Cordon Bleu, perhaps you’ll be able to take a class from her. Or get a copy of The Art and Soul of Baking: it’s like a pastry course in a book, the next best thing to going to pastry school!
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you! I hope you all have a wonderful weekend with your loved ones, and get ready for the holidays and all the deliciousness it will entail!
P.S. It’s really late and I need to get some shut-eye – I’ll post up the recipe for the cranberry crumble tart tomorrow, if there’s interest! Thanks!