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“There's this idea that dessert should be pretty,” Dana Ferrante ’17 says. "Something about dessert makes people want to eat it, even if they're not hungry.” Speaking as one of several passionate bakers on Harvard’s campus, Ferrante’s remark epitomizes an approach to dessert-making that is common among serious practitioners.
For culinary disciples of the sweet persuasion, whose areas of expertise range from cake decoration to bread making and from dessert blogging to culinary competitions, the art of dessert is far more than a simple pastime. It is a standalone craft with its own culture of techniques, experts, and aesthetic trends—one that can serve as both an anchor of community and a creative outlet for the Harvard students who practice it.
PRETTY ENOUGH TO EAT
One hour, two burners, two three-course meals, no appliances. Those are the limits set by the National ProStart Invitational, a culinary arts and restaurant management competition for teams of high school students. “I was sort of the designated dessert expert on our team,” says Ferrante, whose 2012 dessert earned seventh place in the nation and included a mug and saucer formed out of melted chocolate. A dessert made by Ferrante the following year consisted of maple-flavored whipped Bavarian cream—a dish with a mere 20-second window separating uncooked from overdone.
Ferrante’s team spent hours debating the look and shape of the mug and the plating of the dishes before the competition. “We had so many debates about the aesthetics of the cup—how big should the handle be, what shape should it be?” Ferrante says. “Even the cinnamon topping—do you need it? Probably not, but it makes it look so much nicer.”
When we meet at Lamont Café, Ferrante flips through the plan for a sustainable restaurant business model that her team put together for the restaurant management competition in 2013. She points to an apple, pear, and cheese dessert made with local cranberries and maple syrup. “This final product I think worked so well because it was symmetrical, and the glaze and cranberries go through the entire dish, which gives it a sense of unity," she says. "In the end, you can make something that tastes amazing, but if it doesn't look appealing you're going to need to persuade people to try it."
The aesthetic side of dessert-making is also important to Alec D. Yeh ’14. While still in high school, Yeh would sometimes arrive at Rancatore's Ice Cream where he worked in Belmont, Mass. at 3 a.m. to begin decorating ice cream cakes. "I really liked that solitary time," he says. "I would listen to music and be creative." As the unofficial "cake guy" at Rancatore's, which was founded by Joe Rancatore, the brother of the owner of the famed Toscanini's Ice Cream in Cambridge, Yeh clocked in hours of decorating that doubled as artistic education. On the job, Yeh learned about frosting, piping, and design. "My early cakes were abstract and color-based,” he says. “The owner really liked them and told me I could invest in more tools to make the cakes more intricate.”
Cake decorating became an important part of Yeh's senior year of high school, something he discussed in his college interview for Harvard. When we need, he pulls out his phone and starts flipping through some pictures. "This is the cake I asked my prom date to prom with," he says, pointing out one photo. "This is the first time I worked with waffle cones…. This is a cake that was featured in the Boston Globe." Intricate piped frosting designs and angular waffle cones grace Yeh's creations, some of which look more like modern art than dessert.
The sensory appeal of dessert is also a central focus for Eliza Pan ’15, whose past creations on campus have included cakes incorporating piped frosting and stenciled powdered sugar, as well as a chocolate Kahlua cake made in a rice cooker in Pan’s tiny Currier kitchen. “The aesthetic side of the dessert is very important, and something I invest a lot of effort into—which is why some people think I’m an ‘amazing’ baker even if it only tastes ‘good!’” Pan says, laughing.
Largely self-taught, Pan comes from a Chinese family of accomplished cooks and says she was inspired to try dessert-making because of the relative lack of a dessert tradition in Chinese food culture. “I ended up improvising a lot, and I think this improvisation has helped my baking,” she says. Dessert-making also allows Pan to reconcile two different aspects of her personality. “With baking, a lot comes down to the science and the proportions…. I have a rational, scientific side, and a creative, improvisational side, and baking lies at that intersection.”
But the appeal of dessert-making isn’t just frosting-deep. At the Dudley Co-op, student bakers use their craft to help foster a sense of togetherness among the Co-op’s roughly 35-student population.
When I meet Matthew E. Stolz ’14 at the Co-op, his hair is tied back in a bandana and he's still wearing an apron from making that evening's dinner. Stolz takes a break from the bustle of the meal to greet me. "First of all,” he says, “Can I get you something to eat?"
After politely declining, I sit down with Stolz to talk dessert. Stolz learned to cook by making two meals a day, five days a week at Deep Springs College, a renowned alternative liberal arts school located in California. Stolz attended Deep Springs for two years before before transferring to Harvard. Meals Stolz prepared at Deep Springs included potatoes grown on campus, cow's brain soup, and tongue tacos ("People love them!"), made from Deep Springs' own cows. In comparison, making food for the Co-op's residents seems like, well, a piece of cake.
“When we did French pastries [at Deep Springs] we stayed up to 4 a.m. working on them. We'd rather bring sleeping bags to the kitchen than go back to our rooms,” Stolz says. “There were times I was cooking seven hours a day, even getting behind on my schoolwork.” Today, Stolz works hard to make his meals at the Co-op cohesive and tasty. "I don't really distinguish between cooking and baking,” he says. “For me, it's about making a whole menu…all the way down to the dessert at the end. Sometimes that doesn't happen—but you have to reach for the light of the ideal."
Matthew C. Plaks ’14, another resident of the Co-op, credits the lifestyle of the Cooperative with enabling him to develop an interest in the culinary arts while at Harvard. The students living in the Co-op share the cost of buying food and take turns preparing meals. "Harvard isn't very conducive to getting people to realize they are interested in [baking] as a career,” Plaks says. “Personally, if I wasn't already paying dues to the Co-op, I wouldn't have had the funds to pursue this at the level that I am.” “This,” for Plaks, is bread-baking, a pastime that he delved into wholeheartedly after he moved to the Co-op last fall and baked his first loaf.
“The reason I love bread baking is that bread is really a good anchor, or actor even, in creating community,” Plaks says. “I realized people would drop what they were doing as the smell of the bread [pulled] them into the room." In order to hone his bread-baking skills, Plaks pored over instructional videos and the commentary sections of cookbooks, even emailing renowned bread bakers for their tips. When we meet, he tells me about the series of precise creative decisions that go into making a bread, such as choosing the type of fat and considering the volume of liquid.
Closely attentive to subtle differences among breads, Plaks speaks of sweet breads with hints of lemon, of crusts that reach a deep mahogany brown, of nuances in sandwich loaves and flours. He echoes the opinions of Yeh, Ferrante, and Pan, pointing to the importance of creating a dessert that is as visually appealing as it is tasty. "Aesthetics are a big part of the final product. Of course it's good if it tastes great, but [it’s] even better if it looks nice. It's one thing to make food that nourishes and sustains you, but it's another to have a level of refinement." As a VES concentrator who works primarily with photographs and videos, Plaks sees a qualitative difference between his work in these media and his culinary work. "Bread-baking is a much more intuitive and tactile and sensory experience [than video], so it's really nice to have that expression and sensation."
While the bakers at the Co-op aspire to please a small community with their creations, student bloggers at Harvard attempt to share their baking expertise with the world. Caroline T. Zhang ’16 founded the baking blog "Pass the Cocoa" with a friend when she was a senior at Carmel High School in Indiana. Zhang, who is an active Crimson news and design editor, says the blog has made her think differently about the presentation of food. "When I started, it was about baking cool things and snapping a picture and putting it online,” she says. “Now I'm much more into the photos and the presentation."
Victoria B. Piccione ’16 says she began baking when she was nine years old. “It got me in a lot of trouble!” she says with a smile. Today, Piccione is enthusiastic about sharing the process behind the foods she creates through her blog, “Sweet Dreams: Adventures in Baking.” “There's a story that comes with every baked good,” she says.
Piccione’s creative process begins with a concept and progresses through a sketch of the envisioned dessert in order to ensure that it looks as good as it tastes. "[Dessert-making] is appealing to me because you can make something that looks awesome, and then when you bite into it, it also tastes awesome…. That's so much better than something you just get to look at." More than any other dessert, Piccione loves making cake, which she decorates with fruit, frosting, or elegantly drizzled strands of chocolate. Piccione admits it's difficult to balance her passion for food with her other interests but points to baking as a way to alleviate stress and get her mind off her schoolwork.
While Piccione is adamant that she wants to keep baking after she graduates, she is unsure of exactly how it will figure into her future. Attending a Wintersession talk given by Joanne B. Chang ’91, the founder of Flour Bakery in Boston, provided Piccione with some helpful guidance. "It was great because I have idolized her for years,” she says. “[Chang] said, 'Don't plan on dropping out of here right now and starting your own bakery,'…. That was something I needed to hear."
If anyone can testify to the practicability of pursuing a career in baking after Harvard, it is Chang. Since its flagship location opened in Boston’s South End in 2000, Flour Bakery has become renowned for its delicious pastries. Rona Shen, a pastry chef at the Back Bay branch, says working in a professional setting presents an ever-changing set of challenges. "Ninety-five percent of our pastry chefs don't have formal training, though a few of the bakers on each team came from culinary school backgrounds," she says. "The advantage of not having formal training is we join the bakery as a clean slate. We can learn and absorb whatever Flour teaches us."
All of Flour locations do basically the same decorations, though variations exist in piping design and fruit arrangement. While Shen says she no longer bakes very much at home, she is constantly on the lookout for innovative pastry ideas and new flavors. “The process of researching and tweaking [a] new product takes at least a month.”
Despite the logistical challenges of baking while on campus, some students are following in Chang’s footsteps while still in school and turning their passions into business ventures. Nina L. Hooper ’16 is one of the founders of the Holistic, a nonprofit organization which aims to create nutrient-dense desserts currently under development at the Harvard i-Lab. Hooper, an astrophysics concentrator, says the Holistic’s most recent product is a chocolate cake made of chickpeas rather than flour, and topped with avocado frosting. Every ingredient in a traditional cake recipe has been replaced with a healthier alternative.
“Where the art comes in is that we know people want to see a certain thing, a certain color and texture,” says Hooper. “We have to be very careful about choosing ingredients and trying to replicate [desserts]. There is art in the design [and] in the flavor.” Hooper’s guinea pigs are freshman entryways, recruited by Hooper to sample and review her cakes at study breaks. “I really like the ‘wow!’ factor when people realize the cakes are made of healthy ingredients,” Hooper says. “Making these cakes is really an investigative process. The math is pretty basic, but there is an element of discovering the right proportions, of figuring out the chemical principles.” The founders of the Holistic hope to have its cakes sold in Harvard cafes and to give its profits to eating disorder awareness organizations.
Ferrrante is also committed to making a career out of her passion for dessert—prior to starting Harvard, Ferrante was accepted to culinary school. She delayed her professional baking education in order to attend Harvard but has taken a food-related class every semester since she arrived on campus and has gotten involved with the Food Literacy Project and the Beekeepers' Association. Ferrante was tempted to try and bake professionally while at Harvard, but was unfortunately stymied by logistics.“There are so many bakeries and places to work at around Harvard, but they want you to work long shifts, work all weekend. And you really can't do that as a Harvard student.”
Scheduling concerns may not be the only factor on students’ minds when thinking about jobs in bakeries. “There have been times I’ve worked and made food in a professional setting, and I felt less invested,” Stolz says. “It’s not…a community that I know very well and love. It’s weird to churn out food for people I don’t know—but I could see myself going that way. I haven’t ruled it out.”
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Wielding pastry bags in lieu of paintbrushes, Harvard’s student food artists use their spare time to create elaborate and appealing desserts. Overwhelmingly self-driven and passionate, these dedicated bakers view their culinary work as far more than a hobby. In their capable, flour-dusted hands, dessert becomes a vehicle for self-expression and artistic experimentation. Like other artisans honing their skills, these culinary craftsmen have developed their products by tweaking recipes and being open to the possibility of failure. They’ve also taken steps to share their creations with larger audiences—people they care about and cook for, family and friends on special occasions, and even the general public through food blogging and business ventures.
Though dessert-making is a field that demands patience and dedication, Stolz stresses that it is also accessible to newcomers. “People say they don’t know how to cook,” Stolz says. “But the truth is, if you know how to read, then you know how to cook.” Not all may reach a level of mastery on par with these culinary champions—but their craft may serve as an inspiration to tie on an apron.
—Staff writer Ola Topczewska can be reached at email@example.com.
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