Happy Earth Day everyone. I’m gonna tell you all a quick story.
When I was in high school, I wanted to get a job in a bakery. I found a job at a big supermarket called Loblaws that had just opened up at the mall near my house. This would be my first time working in the food industry.
The bakery section of this supermarket was tucked into a corner. They sold everything from birthday cakes to baklava to cannolis. The supermarket itself had a pretty steady stream of customers, but the bakery section was always dead. My job was to restock whatever was running low in the case and to serve customers. “Restocking” meant running back and forth to the huge walk-in freezer to grab frozen cakes, peel the plastic packaging off, slap an expiry date on the bottom, push them into the case, and pretend that it was freshly baked. (A huge reason why you should purchase your baked goods from a real bakery but that’s an argument for another blog post)
Since I was a full-time high school student, I could only work late nights. I worked until closing every night–9pm. My first night closing, I was trained by another employee. She taught me how to clean things up and stack things away until finally we reached all the food in the case.
“Here,” she said, handing me three large garbage bags, “Throw away all the cakes and cupcakes that are past expiry and all of the freshly baked goods.” My job every night was to take all this perfectly good food and toss it.
Perhaps I was naive or perhaps I didn’t want to admit it in the past, but I was shaken that this is what happened every single night. It absolutely destroyed me, and I so desperately wanted to take the whole bag of fresh croissants and hand them out to homeless people all over downtown Vancouver. Every night when I left work I felt sick, and I would brainstorm all the things I could do to reduce the amount of food waste that supermarkets produced. I asked my boss if I could take the bags home, and she said no. She told me I wasn’t even technically allowed to take one or two things home for myself, but that she would look past that. I lasted at that job for 2 weeks before I couldn’t take it anymore and left.
This experience sparked something in me. I vowed to myself that when I owned my own food business that I would do whatever I could to reduce food waste. I vowed that when I owned my own home and when I had complete control over my life that I would do what I could to reduce my carbon footprint and reduce my negative impact on the environment.
Now, I work at Butter Lane–a small cupcake shop in the East Village. Every night, we also toss all our cupcakes because our cupcakes are baked fresh every morning. Every night it still hurts to see all that perfectly good food in a garbage bag.
The difference is that now I can do something about it.
I know this post has already been long and winding, but I’m getting to the point I swear. This Earth Day, I want to share some of the things that I do in my daily life as an employee in the food industry, as a pastry chef and cake decorator, and as a homeowner, that help reduce food waste and also make my life more sustainable. Every day I am aware of the waste I produce and I am constantly trying to change. Every difference is a big difference if we all do it, so I hope you continue reading and try to employ some of these things in your own lives.
A Food Employee
A Chef and Decorator
A Consumer and Homeowner
I am Chinese. I was not born in China. I have never lived in Asia. I was born in Honolulu and moved to Vancouver when I was 11. My first language was English. My family speaks a small Chinese dialect called Hokkien, and unlike Cantonese and Mandarin, it is spoken in very few places of the world.
As the result of my pretty westernized life, sometimes I find it hard to feel Chinese. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t still raised with some very Asian ideals and values–yes I save all my plastic bags and take off my shoes at the front door–but to other Chinese people, I wasn’t very Chinese at all.
One of the biggest parts of any culture is food, and in Chinese culture food is massively important. I love Chinese food! I love those big family gatherings where me and 15 of my extended family members would go out and order a million dishes–noodles, duck, rice, fish, prawns–and eat until one piece was left on every plate. (And no one would eat it to be polite.)
My mom cooked Chinese food a lot when I was a kid, but since cooking was never really something I enjoyed, I never really learned. And when I started baking, I didn’t bake Chinese pastries, and I don’t really ever incorporate Asian flavours into my stuff (something I absolutely want to start doing.)
But I loved Chinese bakeries. In Chinatown, they’re everywhere. My family used to go, and I would always want to be the person in charge of holding the little white tray covered in wax paper, picking up the little breads with tongs. It would always smell like freshly baked bread, and the display cases were full of little pork buns, ham and cheese buns, tuna salad buns, and custard buns (that usually looked like a bear or something cute).
My mom would always say, “Pick out one or two things you want for breakfast tomorrow,” and I would always get the same thing: hot dog buns. If you are a little Asian kid, I can almost guarantee that you’ve had a Chinese hot dog bun before. They’re an Asian bakery staple. If a bakery doesn’t have hot dog buns, leave because they can’t be good. Even here in NYC, I still occasionally pick up a hot dog bun from the Japanese bakery down the street. They have been and still are a huge part of my life.
As I grew up eating these buns, I was always amazed at the dough encasing these hot dogs. Asian bakery bread is nothing like western bread. It is so soft and smooth–even moist. The texture of Asian bakery bread is something I have never experienced in western baked goods ever, and therefore, I didn’t learn how they were made in school. Most culinary schools have a European curriculum, so this would never be something they taught.
So I went through culinary school learning all about how to make various European breads, but my question of how to make that soft, silky Asian bread was never answered. So I continued to buy hot dog buns until one day… I realized… what the hell was stopping me from learning how to make it myself?
For some reason, I had never thought to just Google it. I don’t know–I think a part of me thought that it’d require rare Asian ingredients that I couldn’t acquire, or that it’d need some sort of antique Asian tools and equipment.
Spoiler alert, it’s really freaking easy.
So yesterday, I looked up a recipe. I stumbled across one from the food blog, The Woks of Life, and it looked promising. The Woks of Life is a blog run by an Asian family that finds authentic Asian recipes, test them, and then post them. Definitely go check them out, they’re awesome. The exact recipe I used is here.
I gathered my ingredients and got to work. The dough is so simple: put everything in a bowl and then knead for 15-20 minutes. It is a very unique dough in its ingredients, and I think it has everything to do with why the texture is so smooth and soft. Like a basic bread dough, it has yeast, flour, a liquid, and salt. What makes it different is that instead of just bread flour, it also has a small amount of cake flour. And for the liquid it calls for milk, but also heavy cream.
When it was done kneading, I left the dough for an hour to proof. Meanwhile, I quickly pan fried the sausages and let them cool.
The dough was incredibly soft and fluffy. I portioned it into 10 balls, and rolled them into long logs. These logs were then wrapped around each individual hot dog, and the buns were covered and proofed again.
Finally, they were egg washed and baked. I was so excited to see how they turned out. They looked amazing wrapped up in the puffy dough already, but I really hoped they were going to bake beautifully.
When they came out of the oven, I brushed them with a light coat of simple syrup, which–(I didn’t know this!)–gives the breads in Chinese bakeries their signature shine.
So what’s the verdict?
Well, they were delicious! But were they the best they could be? Not quite. So in The Woks of Life, they recommend pan frying the sausages lightly before baking to give them a better texture and flavour. In most Chinese bakeries, the sausages are just baked raw, and it results in a rubbery texture. These buns with the pan fried hot dogs were infinitely better than the buns where the hot dog is just baked in. That is something I highly recommend doing as well.
The dough was very soft, however, not as soft as I know Asian bakeries can get them! I think the reason for this is because this dough did not use the tangzhong method–aka “water roux.” It is a Japanese bread making method, where a small portion of the water and flour of a bread recipe are separated and cooked. Specifically, 1 parts bread flour to 5 parts water cooked to 65C. This method of bread making results in a soft and bouncy bread that is unique to Asia. The science makes sense: cooking the flour pre-gelatinizes the starches in the flour and heating the flour and water strengthens the gluten structure. This means that it can hold much more water throughout the bread making process, resulting in a moister, softer dough! (source: here)
Magic? Nah. Asians.
So I think the next time I attempt these hot dog buns I will use the tangzhong method. Regardless, I am very happy with the result of these hot dog buns. Maybe it’s stupid, but I feel more connected to my culture after having made them. It’s one of the only Asian things I can make from scratch, and after I perfect them, I hope that one day my great grandchildren will buy a hot dog bun from a bakery and angrily say to themselves, “My grandma makes better hot dog buns. Can't believe I wasted $1.50 on this." That's Asian grandma goals right there.
Thanks for reading! And be sure to check out The Woks of Life if you wanna try this recipe too!
French macarons. I have always considered the ability to make these little French cookies the mark of a good pastry chef. The French macaron is a notoriously difficult cookie. Entire books have been dedicated to perfecting the art of the macaron. It has a reputation of being incredibly fickle and temperamental despite the fact that the base cookie really only consists of four freaking ingredients.
It is safe to say that its reputation has made me utterly terrified of the little things. The first time I ever attempted them myself was a disaster. They were all cracked and misshapen, and looked nothing like the smooth and perfectly round macarons I had seen in pastry cases my whole life. I tried twice that day before admitting defeat, and I spent the rest of the night feeling bad about the money I had spent on almond flour…shit’s expensive…
I never entertained the idea of a macaron for years after that. I read books and watched videos, but every single tutorial and recipe made it sound like you just had to know in your heart and soul how to do them right. It was cowardly, but I admit that I just shied away from the damned cookies, forever waiting for the day that I would build up the courage to attempt them again.
When I was at ICE, my chef for Module 3 was Chef Kathryn Gordon. She is a brilliant pastry chef, and if you know her, you probably know her as the author of the book Les Petits Macarons. Obviously, I desperately wanted her to teach me her secrets. Finally came the day that we’d be making macarons. I asked her tons of questions and listened intently, waiting for her to tell me that special tip that would make me the best macaron maker ever! That was my problem… I really thought that there was a solution to my issues. I thought it was a simple fix: “do this and they’ll be perfect every time!” There isn't. I watched her fold the batter in the macaronage stage and was disappointed to see that yet again–based on the texture, the fluidity, the “way the batter moved,”–she just knew when it was ready.
I went through culinary school, graduated culinary school, and entered my externship, still never having made a successful macaron on my own. I felt kind of like a fraud. How could I ever call myself a professional if I couldn’t even make this STUPID COOKIE?
So here I am, trying again years after my first ever macaron attempt. I spent the whole day before reading Les Petits Macarons, watching YouTube videos, and asking people questions online. I swear that I have read or heard every single “tip and trick” that there is to know about macaron making now.
It took two attempts for me to make a batch of successful macarons. There are three main methods to making French macarons: French, Swiss, and Italian. Each method is ultimately the same except for the type of meringue that’s used. For my first attempt, I used a Swiss meringue because it’s the meringue I use for my buttercream, and I’m confident making it.
My first attempt started out looking alright until I got to the macaronage stage. In Les Petits Macarons, Chef Kathryn states that the Swiss method results in a slightly firmer batter due to the cooking of the egg whites making their protein structure stronger. While folding my batter, however, I noticed that it was too stiff. It literally felt like a dough and not a batter. I knew something was wrong, but figured I’d bake it off anyway to see what would happen.
In all honesty, they came out better than I expected them to. They had feet! That was a big deal to me because my macarons had never had feet before. And the tops weren’t cracked, but they were discoloured and misshapen. They also didn’t have a smooth, hard crust–they were squishy. And when I bit into one, it was super chewy.
So… ultimately a fail. But it was honestly the closest I had ever gotten to success, so I was motivated. For my second attempt, I decided to try French meringue. People seemed to have success with it and it didn’t involve cooking, so that was nice.
The tip that helped me the most was actually the “Figure 8 Test”. It is impossible to articulate how to identify the stage in which the batter is ready for piping. People say things like “slack,” “fluid,” “glossy,” but when you’re in the moment it looks like lumpy batter…and the lumpy batter 20 folds earlier looked the same as this lumpy batter.
Thus, the Figure 8 Test. If you can hold your spatula 2-3 inches above the bowl and draw a figure 8 without the batter ribbon breaking, the batter is ready. I piped and baked off this new batch, terrified. I forced myself to leave the kitchen while they baked to avoid the agony of waiting, and when I came back, THEY WERE GODDAMN PERFECT.
They weren’t the smoothest, but they had beautiful feet, a hard shell, and peeled right off the parchment. When I bit into one, it was crisp at first, and then chewy underneath. As they should be. I was so happy.
I am still leaps and bounds away from being a macaron master, but I am proud to say that I am no longer terrified of the French macaron. I feel ashamed that I avoided them for so long, but I truly feel like now, I can conquer any dessert I set my mind on. That feels good. And I’ve actually become somewhat obsessed with them… They are so beautiful, and such a great vehicle for flavour. I am excited to experiment and try new flavours in this brand new medium.
No longer will I fear the beast that is a French macaron!
Also, huge, HUGE shoutout to Chef Kathryn Gordon and her incredible book. Without Les Petits Macarons, I probably wouldn't have been inspired to make them in the first place, and they definitely wouldn't have come out as beautifully as they did. Find the link to purchase her book here: Les Petits Macarons
My last day of high school was only a little over a year ago, and yet here I am today celebrating another last day.
Today was my last day of classes at the Institute of Culinary Education.
During this program, I have had the opportunity to learn from true masters in this industry like Chef Simon Cass, Chef Penny Stankiewicz, Chef Jeffrey Yoskowitz, and Chef Kathryn Gordon. I have met incredibly talented individuals in both pastry and culinary who I hope to collaborate with one day in the future, and I have proven to myself that while this industry is tough and unforgiving, I still love every minute of it.
However, the most important thing I learned in my journey through this course hasn't been a technique or a recipe–it's been a sentiment a chef shared with me. I'll get to the message at the end...
My final project assignment was a fully decorated three-tier wedding cake. This cake turned out to be one of the most creatively straining cakes I’ve ever constructed. The day before the first design draft was due, I sat hunched over my dining table sketching until 1am. Nothing I drew looked cohesive or interesting and I was desperate to challenge myself and create something dynamic and unique. The prompt was “autumn wedding” and I really wanted to capture the feeling of autumn without designing something that was tacky or childish.
Chef Penny, my chef instructor for my final module and founder of Sugar Couture was the one who taught me my most important lesson. She said something to me that changed my entire outlook on cake designing and art in general: “Creativity is a muscle just like every other muscle in your body. In order for it to get stronger you have to exercise it. You can’t sit around waiting for ‘inspiration’–inspiration isn’t going to strike down upon you every time you’re designing a cake. You have to sit there and struggle through bad ideas until something usable comes around.” My view of art has always been that you were either blessed with a naturally creative mind or you weren’t. I have always resented the fact that ideas never came as easily to me as it seemed to come to my classmates and colleagues.
When Chef Penny said that to me I realized that I wasn’t the only person working in a creative field that doesn’t feel creative all the time–and that was incredibly comforting. The night I had to design this final cake, I very much struggled through the creative process. I sat there for hours googling autumn flowers and leaves, swatching colours, sketching, erasing, and sketching again. It wasn’t until I stumbled across a random stock photo of crushed leaves that I thought to myself–Could I translate this texture to cake? Would it look cool?
Soon after that eureka moment, I stumbled upon acorns laying in the grass at a park. I picked one up and immediately knew that I would somehow incorporate it into my design. I had forced myself to find my inspiration and it had resulted in a beautiful cake I was very proud of.
Of all the things I learned from my months at culinary school, what Chef Penny told me may have been the most important to me. I wanted to pass this message along to anyone who reads this, and any artist who doesn’t always feel creative.
I am sad that we are done, but I am also excited for what’s to come! I wish all of my classmates luck on their externships and future endeavors! I hope to see all of us succeed one day. And a special thank you to ICE for an awesome 100 classes.
I had just come home from class when I realized I had a voicemail. It was from a number I didn’t recognize, and that usually means it’s a potential client.
Well this potential client happened to be Dame Diana Rigg: English actress who was currently in New York performing in the Broadway show My Fair Lady.
What was it like making a cake for someone as iconic as Diana Rigg? I remember the event planner in the voicemail hadn’t referred to her by name but instead told me that he needed four cakes for “a well-known actress’ 80th birthday party.” Like any sane human being, I immediately began searching for all actresses in NYC who were 79 and had birthdays in late July. I asked my boyfriend when he got home and he said, “maybe it’s Meryl Streep!” We then proceeded to look up Meryl Streep’s age and realized we had just insulted Meryl Streep by thinking she was 10 years older than she actually was.
This order was the biggest order I had ever gotten. They were asking for two sheet cakes and two 10” cube cakes all made with vanilla cake, vanilla buttercream, and filled with lemon curd. I knew it was going to be an insane amount of labour and ingredients, and I knew that LEMON CURD was not a very stable building material. The order was placed months before the event, and the weeks leading up to the event were the most panicky weeks of my life. I had spent the past weeks ordering bulk ingredients, doing geometry equations I never thought I’d do again to figure out how much batter was needed, refining and altering my lemon curd recipe, and mentally trying to figure out the best methods for production, structure, and transportation. This cake was a result of tireless planning and ridiculous logistical organization. Every single step we seemed to encounter a problem that needed solving.
The night of production I enlisted the help of my incredible boyfriend and a friend from culinary school. My boyfriend and I hauled several boxes of ingredients that we had been storing in our studio apartment over to the kitchen we’d be working in. The three of us worked non-stop in the small, dimly-lit, hot basement kitchen of a local bakery for almost 10 hours. I had never worked with so much cake batter, buttercream, and damn lemon juice all at once before. Without the help of my boyfriend and my friend I am convinced I couldn’t have pulled this off. They were endlessly helpful.
By the time the cakes were fully baked, the buttercream fully whipped, and the curd fully set, it was time to assemble the four cakes. Each cube cake had 7 layers of cake and 3 layers of structure just to ensure they would both make it to the venue the next day. By 2am, the cakes were done, my feet were tired, my face was sweaty, and I was delirious–but the cakes were fucking done. I had dreamed about this moment since I got the order.
After the delivery, the event planner I had been coordinating with sent me some photos of Diana when the cake was unveiled. Seeing those photos and seeing her smiling face, she made me almost forget about how hard it was to make it happen. I’d do it all over again if I knew it’d make people as happy as it did. And I was unbelievably proud because I had proved to myself that I could handle this industry and this massive order.
That’s what it was like making a cake for Dame Diana Rigg. An unforgettable experience.