Dessert for me is an art form. My usual approach is to take a classic--apple pie, carrot cake, tiramisu--and rethink it. The initial image that comes to mind is wonderful and comforting, but then I always ask myself the same question: How can I turn this dessert upside down and come up with a new way to look at it and eat it? Other times, I will create a dessert that is entirely new, sometimes building it around one extraordinary ingredient or an unfamiliar flavor combination. I am inspired by all kinds of things, from exotic sugars to architecture to song lyrics, and I think of desserts as whimsical, fun, wild, stunning, exciting, and, of course, delicious.
In the pages that follow, you will learn how to make many of my favorite desserts. My hope is that they will inspire you to think creatively and begin building your own dazzling desserts.
I come from a creative family. My father is a painter, my mother has always been a creative multitasker and a great cook, one brother is a musician and composer, and my other brother, whose illustrations grace this book, is an illustrator, actor, and performer. My dad exposed me to the works of the modernists, such as Rothko, Stella, Still, Klein, Lichtenstein, Calder, and Diebenkorn, at an early age. And then there was Julia Child. My mother and I would watch her shows together, and I especially loved how Julia took her cooking seriously but kept her sense of humor. If you combine the works of the modernists with Julia Child and the influences of every American kid growing up in the seventies--the Beatles, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Snickers bars, and the television show ZOOM--you get an idea of how the creative part of my brain works.
Growing up in Southern California, I imaginedmyself directing movies some day. When I began to focus on experimental filmmaking, I moved to the Bay Area to attend the San Francisco Art Institute. I produced installations and films built around audience participation, including Black Espresso, Black Sorbet, a film scene–dessert experience that I created for the audience.
While still in school, I worked part-time at the originalWilliams-Sonoma store on Sutter Street in San Francisco.My coworkers and I would skim through all the new cook-books when they came in. Julia Child, Marion Cunningham, and James McNair all came into our store. It was a totally different celebrity scene than I was used to, but I was into it. I was dining in some of the hottest restaurants of the time--Stars, Chez Panisse, Zuni, Monsoon, Rosalie's, and Eddie Jacks--and before long I was leaning toward cooking as a profession.
After graduating in 1989, I worked in a small filmproduction company during the day, and at night washeddishes and plated croques-monsieur and Caesar salads at Café Claude, a French bistro in downtown San Francisco. The café bought many of its desserts wholesale, and when I offered to make the apple tart, cheesecake, and bread pudding, as well as the chocolate mousse andcrème caramel, my offer was quickly accepted. The response was great. A month or so later, when chef Julia McClaskey left, I was given her position, and I ran with it for a year.
During that same time, I worked as a stagiaire at Masa's, the famed four-star French restaurant headed at the time by chef Julian Serrano. My friend Daniel from Masa's, who had his coffee at Café Claude every morning before heading to work, mentioned one day that there was an opening in pastry. I immediately ran up the hill and asked Julian for the job. I worked for one year--an amazing year--at Masa's alongside pastry chef Alicia Toyooka, who had been hired by founding chef Masa Kobayashi.
The early 1990s was an exciting time to work in restaurants in the Bay Area. While California cuisine was taking hold in the rest of the country, chefs in San Francisco were looking abroad for inspiration, incorpo-rating ingredients and techniques from foreign cuisinesinto their cooking. Elka, a restaurant opened by Elka Gilmore and Traci Des Jardins in the Miyako Hotel inJapantown, was one of the first restaurants to serve Pacific Rim cuisine, a then-new term for food rooted in a California-Mediterranean style but influenced by Asian kitchens. After dining at Elka, I decided I had to find a way to work there. At that point, I had been one of Alicia's assistants for a year, and I was anxious to learn more and move up. But there was no place for me to go at Masa's. So I called Traci, introduced myself, and told her how amazing I thought her food was. I then showed up with sketches of my desserts, a sample menu, and somedesserts for Traci to taste, and I got the job. At Elka, I was able to experiment with many Japanese ingredients and aesthetic concepts, which I am still drawn to in my work today.
When Traci opened Rubicon in San Francisco's Financial District, the first California venture for New York–based restaurateur Drew Nieporent, I went with her. During my three years there, I learned a great deal from Traci about balance and restraint. I was also able to stagiaire with François Payard at Daniel in New York and spend every free moment working stints with Mary Cech, a pastry chef who made a huge impression on me when she was at San Francisco's Cypress Club. Mary introduced the architecture that had begun to appear in East Coast desserts to West Coast restaurant kitchens.
At Rubicon, I honed my skills and pushed myself and my team to create inventive desserts. My recipes started to reflect my interest in different cultures and abstract ideas. Titles began playing an important role on our menus, too. They were a way to sell the desserts through intrigue and suggestion, rather than just by listing what was in them. Names like A Chocolate Tart Named Desire and Baked Hawaii gave diners familiarframes of reference while making it clear that they should expect something different and original.
Customers began asking me to make cakes for their birthdays and weddings. Soon, I was making so many cakes outside of the restaurant that I thought someone needed to open a bakery, a great bakery, in San Francisco.
In 1997, I opened the original Citizen Cake along with my pastry chef, Sara (Cameron) Ko, who I had begun working with at Rubicon. The original Citizen Cake location was on an obscure corner in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood. Not surprisingly, the bakery proved a drastic shift, moving from plating desserts to making cakes, breakfast pastries, and breads that needed to hold up in a display case. Plus, Sara and I had to become early-morning bakers, rather than late-night dessert makers.
Two years into it, I was feeling that our location wastoo small and too remote, so we moved to Grove Street inHayes Valley, near City Hall, where we are today. In the process, we grew to be a full restaurant and pâtisserie serving breakfast pastries; cakes, cupcakes, and cookies to go; ice cream; brunch, lunch, and dinner; and--traveling full circle--my plated desserts. I love thinking about the architecture of cakes and the simplicity of shortbread cookies, but plated desserts are my favorite expression of pastry, because they give me the freedom to juxtapose components with different textures and temperatures.
In the ten years I have owned Citizen Cake, I have constantly shaped and reshaped my style of cuisine. Often a regular customer who has tried lots of our desserts will say, "Elizabeth, I miss Pokemon's Purse. Any chance you'll bring that back?" Pokemon's Purse was a dessert I created after my first trip to Japan. It is a rich chocolate cake neatly wrapped in a thin layer of vibrant yellow mochi to look like a purse, with Spanish peanuts on top. When you cut through the ever-so-slightly-crisp mochi, you get a hit of warm chocolate cake and a kind of Snickers bar effect from the peanuts. I liked it too, but Pokemon's Purse in its original form had its moment (as did Pretty in Peach, with its peaches, cardamom froth, and peach sorbet; or Blueberry Hill, which was a very cool combination of sautéed blueberries and corn with corn crumbles and bacon ice cream).
Although my staff and I look back on past creations fondly, we also want to keep moving forward. If Pokemon's Purse ever reappears on our menu, chances are it will take a different form, because every day in the kitchen we learn more, discover more flavors to play with, come up with new ideas we want to try. I think of the Elvis Costello album This Year's Model, and that same notion applies. I believe that our desserts get even better as they evolve, and the constant process of discovery is the best part of my work.
This book is a compilation of my past creations (in some cases updated to suit my taste today), as well as some of the most recent desserts from Citizen Cake. I purposely start with a chapter devoted to chocolate chip cookies to demonstrate how even something so basic and iconic can be taken in many directions. The progression from classic chocolate chip cookie recipe to the book's first plated dessert, Chocolate Chip Mania, is a snapshot of my creative process.
If you have some basic cooking or baking experience, try making the major desserts as they are written and photographed, with all of the components. If you aren't as comfortable in the kitchen, you can start with the "minimalist version" that accompanies most of the recipes. I have written the recipes so that you can prepare the desserts the same day you will be serving them. But some advance planning can take the pressure off, particularly when making the multicomponent desserts, so I have provided a make-ahead timeline when appropriate. For every dessert in this book, think balance and restraint: a five-component dessert works only if you use a light touch with each component.
The Core Recipes chapter at the end of the book provides the raw materials for you to assemble your own pastry creations. I hope you will forge your own dessert-making path, putting together the components exactly the way you like and drawing from the rest of the book, other sources, and your own inspiration. Consider any mistakes part of the process of discovery. In fact, sometimes mistakes turn out to be better than what you set out to create. The cook who made the first fallen chocolate soufflé cake didn't start out thinking that the cake would fall, but what came out of the oven was fabulous.
Since we are on the topic of being bold, I want to introduce an ambitious little baker, Caremi Keiki, who is going to appear on some of these pages. Caremi Keiki has big ideas. She wants everyone to know that dessert is necessary in our lives. "People smile when they see dessert coming, and that's important," she says.
Caremi likes to make larger-than-life sculptures from dessert ingredients. Sometimes she gets carried away, literally, and while she is quite clever and a bit of a show-off, I'm fully behind her point: always have as much fun making dessert as eating it.
Since junior high school, I have made chocolate chip cookies at least once a week, always tinkering with the ingredients to see how the cookies would change. During my student council days, I would go home during the lunch break, bake a batch, and then carry back warm cookies to the meetings.
I grew up in the eighties, when cookie shopswere springing up all over--Mrs. Field's, Famous Amos, and David's cookies were all popular. Every time I took a bite out of one of those boutique chocolate chip cookies, I would think, "I can do better than this," and I'd go home and make another batch of cookies to see how I could improve them. My youngest brother, Ryan (who did the illustrations for this book), called me Libba. When I began making ice cream sandwiches from the chocolate chip cookies I baked, my other brother, Jason, christened them "Libwiches." These days when I visit my brothers, all they ask for is my cookies.
A cookie might seem tame compared to some of the other desserts in this book, but a well-made chocolate chip cookie is a work of art. While the recipe for this American icon has only a few ingredients, their quality and how they are combined can change the taste and texture of the cookie. In the following recipes, you will see how I start with a single concept and take it in a few different directions, before finally deconstructing it and transforming the idea into the more-is-more plated dessert appropriately named Chocolate Chip Mania (page 35).
Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you make cookies:
–Start with unsalted butter that has been allowed to soften at room temperature but is still cool to the touch. If the butter is too warm, the cookies may bake up thin and have a slightly greasy appearance.
–Once the dough is made, chill it in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Cookie dough (and pie dough) benefits from chilling because it relaxes the gluten that developed as you made the dough, resulting in a better texture once it is baked. If you want to chill it longer--say overnight--you can, but 30 minutes is fine.
–Try to handle the chilled dough as little as possible when shaping the cookies. At our bakery, we use a 1-inch scoop to plop cookie dough onto the baking sheets. It gives us cookies with a consistent shape and it is superfast (we made 142,000 drop cookies in 2006, so speed is essential). At home, I usually spoon the dough onto the baking sheet. If you like to shape each cookie by rolling it into a ball between your palms, you can, but keep it quick, because cookie dough is easily overworked.
–The cookie doughs in this chapter will keep in the freezer for a couple of months. To freeze, divide the dough in half, roll each half into a log about 1 inch in diameter, and wrap well in plastic or parchment. You don't have to thaw the dough before baking, though it is easier to slice if you let it sit at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes. Slice the log into chunks 11/2 to 2 inches wide, place on parchment-lined baking pans, and bake for 2 to 3 minutes longer than specified in the recipe.
–I like bittersweet chocolate, but it is not easy to find in chip form, so I chop chocolate bars into chip-sized chunks. But you can use standard chocolate chips in any of these recipes.
–Every cookie in this chapter makes a great ice cream sandwich. See steps for making ice cream sandwiches in the Real McCoy Ice Cream Sandwich (page 50).