Pastry chef and James Beard Award-winning author Nick Malgieri
Pastry chef and James Beard Award-winning author Nick Malgieri
Nick Malgieri knows his way around a bag of flour, be it in New York's Institute of Culinary Education or the Turkish bakeries where he gleaned some of his latest recipes, stretching yufka dough thin across whole tables. The James Beard Award-winning cookbook author shares these new recipes and four decades of pastry know-how in his new book, Nick Malgieri's Pastry: Foolproof Recipes for the Home Cook, along with simple step-by-step instructions to introduce even the most accident-prone pastry-chef hopefuls to the art of baking.
We caught up with Malgieri in anticipation of his Southern Season book signing, where you'll find him this Friday, Nov. 14, and we learned that baking is no boogeyman; in fact, it's as easy as, well, apple pie.
Richmond magazine: Pastry is designed to walk home chefs, step by step, through any fears or misconceptions they might have. Are these fears unfounded?
Nick Malgieri: Well you know a lot of that is attributable to World War II. A lot of women went to work outside the home for the first time, and convenience food came in and they stopped baking from scratch, and that was all it took for everybody to then demonize [baking] and say, ‘Oh my God, I could never do that!’ They’d never seen anybody in their family do it, they never learned from anybody in their family, so a lot of people say the last home-cooked meal in the United States took place before World War II!
To a certain extent, that’s very true; people didn’t make their own bread anymore, people didn’t find time for those things anymore, and of course there were so many other conveniences that happened — electric refrigerators for everybody and not just the wealthy, and TV, and automatic washing machines where you didn’t have to take everything out and put it through the wringer.
And today there even more options.
Today it’s ridiculous. All you need is a cell phone and a sheet to cover yourself with; the rest you can order in!
So what's the best argument for getting America back to its baking roots?
Oh, I would never argue with anybody, but it is nicer to have food that is cooked at home and prepared for your family and friends, and that can include baking. And I think that in a balanced diet, things that are baked definitely have a place; Julia Child did something wonderful when she said, ‘Everything in moderation … including moderation.’ It’s good to indulge every once in a while. An entire diet of brown rice and raw vegetables would make you want to eat a triple cheeseburger, probably.
Do you think that baking pastries deserves the reputation of being scary or insurmountable?
No, not at all. It’s like any other type of cooking or any kind of manual pursuit. You have to get a little experience and you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. You know, I was watching somebody knit on the bus this morning on the way to the airport, and it looked like it was a really intricate pattern and yet they weren’t following a pattern; it was probably something they’d made before. My mother was great at all sorts of needlework, and I know that you really have to pay attention to that! That’s not the kind of thing where you can add things or leave things out at will and expect it to turn out right.
People love to do that with baking; they love to say, ‘I think it should have less sugar in it’ and then they write me and complain that the pastry was so tough or the cake didn’t rise and I’ll write back and say, ‘Well did you do this or did you do that?’ ‘Oh, no! I didn’t put any sugar in.’ People do that all the time. If you’re cooking a stew and you don’t have any thyme, you can leave it out. People think you can do the same thing with a baking recipe. Now that doesn’t mean that the stew is going to taste as it’s intended to; obviously it’s going to be edible and it might even be good, but things in baking recipes like baking powder or baking soda or yeast or salt in a yeast dough recipe — those are all really essential ingredients.
You can’t fool around with those … but the other thing about baking is that with ingredients where you’re using a large amount, like flour or sugar or butter, a little bit more or a little bit less is not going to make any difference at all. You can’t double or triple the amount of baking powder, though.
So even in baking there’s a little bit of leeway.
Oh, sure. You need to try and be as accurate as possible, but by the same token, every recipe has some space in it. A lot of it is logical; I hate to use the word common sense, but it really is. It’s not the kind of thing like learning to play the piano with both hands at the same time. That’s difficult.
Do you think it’s possible that baking just comes easier to you because you’ve been doing it for decades?
Well, anybody who’s been doing something for 40 years usually has a pretty easy time of doing it, but that’s why I mentioned before: practice and experience and keeping calm about it, too. This isn’t anything that a bunch of grandmothers couldn’t do without so much as thinking about it in times past.
You’ve been voted one of the top 10 pastry chefs in America, so I wanted to ask: What separates the exemplary bakers from the average?
People who take a lot of care with what they do all the time; that’s the secret. The secret is making sure things are good and to specifics all the time. Not just sometimes. Sometimes doesn’t count. That’s what makes the restaurant that gets three Michelin stars different from the one that gets just one.
It really is. And on a commercial basis, it’s very difficult to do. I remember once talking to Claudia Fleming, who was the pastry chef for a long time at Gramercy Tavern, and she said, ‘Students come in and they think this is all about artistic expression; this is more like working in a factory!’ You’ve got to do the same thing over and over and you’ve got to do it really well. You can’t just do it sometimes, when you feel like it.
Meet Nick Malgieri this Friday, Nov.14, at Southern Season at 3 p.m., where he'll be signing copies of his new cookbook, Nick Malgieri's Pastry: Foolproof Recipes for the Home Cook.