A favorite among Bostonians, Joanne Chang’s Flour bakery has amassed a cult-like following thanks to its eponymous cookbook, numerous New York Times accolades, and the pastry chef’s definitive sticky bun win over barbecue-king Bobby Flay on the Food Network show “Throwdown” a few years back.
After setting aside her finance career for sweeter pursuits, the Harvard-educated Chang worked at the world-famous Payard Patisserie in New York City before joining “Top Chef All-Star” Jody Adams at the renowned Boston restaurant Rialto. With three award-winning bakery-cafés, an Asian-style diner called Myers+Chang (which she owns with her husband), and a second cookbook in the works, Chang’s decision to leave the consulting world has yielded delicious returns.
We recently sat down with Chang to discuss her Curator’s Collection for Joss & Main, “Beginner, Dabbler, Expert,” which showcases everything from baking basics like mixing bowls to pastry decorating kits and tart molds for the more advanced. The event launches tonight.
Q: The theme of your Curator’s Collection is “Beginner, Dabbler, Expert.” Tell our readers about what they can expect.
A: If you are interested in getting into the kitchen and if you’re interested in picking things from this event, then it makes sense to start off with your basic level of familiarity. Beginner is somebody who really has never really stepped into a kitchen. I thought about my husband [restaurateur Christopher Myers]; he doesn’t really cook or bake that much, but if I wanted to set him up in his first kitchen, then I thought about what tools he would need for the basics of baking. These are for the easier recipes both in my book and other books. If you’re curious, this is what you need. It’s the foundation.
Q: What are your must-have baking or kitchen essentials?
A: The things that I stress are:
A kitchen scale. If you’re going to learn how to bake, you have to learn how to measure your ingredients accurately. The best way to do that is by weight, rather than volume.
An oven thermometer. If your oven isn’t calibrated properly, then you could overbake or underbake and not even realize it.
A really, really good knife is something that some people take for granted. We always have a great paring knife and chef’s knife on hand to help with basic prep for baking.
A microplane zester. Fresh lemon zest and lime zest is so important—they add so much flavor.
Bench scraper and bowl scraper. When I start baking for the day, I always grab a bowl scraper and stick it in my pocket because it’s really handy for both cleaning out your bowls and your work surface. Working clean is something we talk a lot about at the bakery.
A KitchenAid mixer. It’s a big investment, but if you can get a KitchenAid, that will make so much of your baking so much easier. A lot of things you can whisk by hand, and you can definitely cut butter into scones by hand, but if you can get a machine to help you, it’s so, so much easier.
Q: Your bakery is called Flour. You must have some opinions.
A: We use King Arthur Flour. It’s local [to Massachusetts]. We use unbleached, unbromated all-purpose flour. We use a cake flour for a lot of our cakes. It’s a lot more tender. It doesn’t develop as much gluten, which is what makes bread chewy—not what you want in cakes and cupcakes. For breads we use bread flour, because of the exact opposite reason—it has a lot of gluten in it. It allows for all of that chew that comes with really good artisan bread.
Q: And stocking the cupboard—what shouldn’t you scrimp on?
A: The best chocolate you can get. Before I started baking professionally, I would just grab chocolate from the grocery store, like a Baker’s or a Hershey’s. Now I won’t even look at it or touch it. Good chocolate is expensive – I went to Whole Foods the other day, and I went to look how much their Callebaut and Valrhona was. It was definitely pricey, but it makes such a difference. We use Tcho from San Francisco, which I think you can get online.
A really good cocoa powder. Vanilla beans. Something you might not have – a lot of people use vanilla extract. If you’re going to use vanilla extract, make sure it’s natural. Don’t use artificial, but even better is vanilla beans. And the great thing about them is after you use them you can – after you scraped the beans from the pods, you can place them in a tub of sugar and after a couple of days it will become vanilla sugar. The vanilla is so strong it absorbs the scent and then you can use that in baking.
Q: Some secrets you wish you knew then that you know now?
A: Two things have become ingrained in me over the years, and I think they can help all home bakers become better cooks. First is cleaning as you go. It sounds so simple, but it really makes a difference if, as you’re baking or cooking, you put something away when you’re done with it. If you spill something, clean it up. It makes for a much less frustrating experience. We teach that to our bakers here. It can feel like it’s slowing you down, but in the end it will make you better.
Q: And number 2?
A: Read the recipe from start to finish. It sounds obvious, but a lot of people don’t read it through. And then assemble your mise en place, which means take everything in your ingredient list and measure it out and put it in little containers, little bowls, whatever you have handy, and then start the recipe. Then you’re not in the middle of the recipe before you realize you need to add a cup of toasted walnuts. Then you have to stop everything, go find the walnuts, heat up the oven, toast them, wait for them to cool, and by then your batter has fallen or something.
Q: Your fridge at home always contains…?
A: We always have the chili sauce Sriracha. We always have eggs. There’s a ton of champagne—I don’t know why. We keep gathering it and collecting it and soon we’ll have to have a big celebration. Apples. I’m an apple freak. I love Fuji apples. I live near a Chinese grocery store and I go there a couple of times a week to stock up. Butter, yogurt. And take-out containers. Lots of take-out containers.
Q: Biggest guilty pleasure food?
A: Ice cream. I could eat ice cream all day long, all night long and never eat anything else.
Q: Last question – your last-meal dessert?
A: Ice cream! Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream. No question.