There’s a reason why so many of us covet those tattered recipe cards for our grandmothers’ cookies, cakes, and pies. For most of us, baking seems so precise and formulaic that it can be tricky to improvise, let alone innovate. Then there are the world’s baking dynamos, like pastry chefs Gale Gand from Tru in Chicago and Paige Retus from Olives in Boston, who don’t blink at pulling ingredients off the pantry shelf and creating something brand new.
So we put them to the test, handing them four of our favorite baking ingredients—chocolate, dried cherries, almonds, and coffee—to see what they’d create. In the end, both surprised us with recipes that were as drastically different as they were scrumptious. Each also clued us in to how she came to be inspired and create what she did—giving us a sneak peek into the creative process of a pro.
Rules of the challenge. Before we let our chefs go wild, we laid down a few rules.
• Of the four chosen ingredients—chocolate, dried cherries, almonds, and coffee—one could be dropped.
• Also at their disposal were basic baking ingredients—butter, eggs, milk, flour (all-purpose and cake), sugar (white, light or dark brown, and confectioners’), salt, baking soda, baking powder, and vanilla extract.
• Two additional wildcard ingredients could be added to help make their ideas sing.
Gale Gand fashions a chocolate terrine
Lately I find myself drawn to recipes that are simple but that hold a lot of appeal. Plus, when it comes to working with chocolate, I find it’s often best to deliver it as straight as possible. So this smooth, creamy, fudgy slab of chocolate heaven with very few ingredients seemed the perfect creation. There aren’t many other flavors, so all you taste is the pure essence of chocolate as soon as it lands in your mouth. The full effect of its silky texture follows as the chocolate melts from the warmth of your tongue.
When I’m designing a dessert, I like to contrast textures, so I knew I wanted something crunchy to exaggerate the silky feel of the terrine. That’s where the almonds came in. But how to make them even crunchier was the question. I turned them into a brittle, cooking the sugar until golden brown for a nuttier taste. While I used the coffee to add depth of flavor to the terrine, the dried cherries didn’t really fit, so I chose to leave them out. For an additional ingredient, I wanted some lightly whipped cream to snuggle up to the dense chocolate terrine. This is the final contrasting element I felt the dish needed. —Gale Gand
Paige Retus rolls up a perfect little coffee cake in a muffin tin
When I saw this rich list of ingredients, with coffee capping off the list, I immediately thought of a yeasted cake or sweet bread, a compelling partner to a hot cup of brew any time of day. Cinnamon seemed a natural with the flavors given so I used it as one of my wildcard ingredients, along with yeast. I almost excluded the coffee, but as I was completing the cake, I felt it needed a glaze. Cinnamon was too strong, vanilla too distracting. Coffee came to the rescue—it was just right. The rich ingredients called for an equally rich and assertive dough to hold them—enter brioche. But brioche can be daunting. So, I monkeyed with the technique to take some of the spookiness out of it, and I sweetened the dough a bit. By leaving the dough to rise overnight in the fridge, you’re not waiting around for the dough to proof. I also used the overnight chill to my advantage: Brioche dough is naturally tacky, so working with it cold helps to minimize the stickiness during shaping. I wouldn’t even try working with this dough at room temperature.
This coffee treat is great hot out of the oven, stores well, and freezes like a dream. I love the look of the individual cakes. A basket on the counter filled with these glazed mini cakes is too tempting to resist. —Paige Retus