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 firstname.lastname@example.org.