—How James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Joanne Chang went from business school to owning one of the country’s most beloved bakeries.
Sweet, delightful and warm describes not only the makings of a perfect dessert, but the very spirit of Boston baker Joanne Chang. Since founding the famous Flour Bakery + Café nearly two decades ago, she’s gone on to start an empire (eight storefronts and counting), earn a James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker, author five cookbooks, take down Iron Chef Bobby Flay on an episode of Food Network’s “Throwdown” and even open an Asian-inspired restaurant in the South End alongside husband, Christopher Myers.
The way she measures her successes, however, isn’t in dollars and cents. Chang prefers to take in the smiles she puts on people’s faces—whether it be the customer who traveled far and wide to try her outrageously over-the-top sticky buns or an employee who’s genuinely happy to come to work every day. The awareness and ability that Chang has to understand people I believe manifests itself in her pastries, and is the reason why they’re so sought after. It doesn’t hurt that they’re downright delicious, either.
On the heels of celebrating Flour’s 19th anniversary and the grand opening of the newest location in the Seaport District, Chang just released her fifth cookbook entitled, “Pastry Love.” Inside, readers will find Chang’s tips to becoming a better baker, notes from her personal travels, as well as 125 recipes that appeal to beginners and enthusiasts alike ranging from breakfast pastries to sweet and savory breads, pies, cakes and candies. I recently spoke with Chang who talked about her unusual career path, all things Flour Bakery, how she likes to spend the holidays and what her process was like writing her latest book. She also shared an exclusive recipe from “Pastry Love” for peppermint kisses that she considers a “go-to holiday gift.”
You graduated from Harvard College with a degree in Applied Mathematics and Economics. When did you decide that becoming a pastry chef was the career path for you?
I got a job as a management consultant at The Monitor Group in Cambridge and I spent two years traveling, writing PowerPoint presentations, creating massive Excel worksheets and attending meetings. I liked the work a lot but I didn’t see it becoming a long-term career. I looked at my bosses, some of whom I still keep in touch with today and who I respected a huge amount, and realized that I didn’t want to eventually become them.
So while my peers were applying to business school or moving up within Monitor, I decided to take a year off and try my hand at a hobby that I’d always enjoyed immensely—cooking. I had dabbled a bit in baking while in college, selling fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies to the student-run dorm grill; it was mostly just to relieve the constant pressure of impossibly difficult problem sets and it was also a way to earn a little spending money. While at Monitor I continued to cook and bake, mostly just hosting dinner parties with friends and sometimes selling my cookies to co-workers who were looking for treats for birthday parties and such. But I’d never really thought it would be a career. I simply loved being in the kitchen and when I had to figure out what I should do after Monitor, it seemed like spending a year in a professional kitchen would be a great experience.
I sent a cover letter and resume (this was before email) to four of the top restaurants in Boston at the time; I explained that I had no professional experience but I had a ton of passion and was a very hard worker. Chef Lydia Shire who owned Biba called me and offered me a low-man-on-the-totem-pole position as bar food cook. I jumped at the chance to work in such a well-regarded kitchen with such a talented chef. Two weeks later I left my cubicle and was julienning scallions and making chicken stocks.
After a year, I decided to pursue pastry and asked Chef Lydia where I should go. She pointed me in the direction of Rick Katz who was operating a bakery in Newton Center, MA. I spent a year with Rick and he taught me all of his recipes and gave me a solid foundation in scratch baking. I knew then I was meant to be a pastry chef!
From opening the first Flour location to now, what’s that transition been like for you and the brand?
Both dizzyingly fast and at the same time, very organic and thoughtful. We now have eight bakeries and are actively planning the ninth. I never originally planned on opening multiple bakeries. But I had such incredible staff at the first bakery that I knew I would have to grow in order to give them opportunities to stay within Flour. I’ve loved watching people develop within the bakery and move up and help us open more Flours. I’m immensely proud that the same missions that guided us with one bakery, still hold firm with eight.
What did you have in mind when you opened Flour Bakery in 2000?
We opened September 2000 in the South End, and my goal from the very beginning has been to make the best pastry and food possible and provide super warm and genuine neighborhood service. We also aim to give back to the neighborhood by giving a certain percentage of our sales to charity. We have to run efficiently in order for us to flourish so “running profitably and efficiently” is another mission. Finally, my main mission at Flour is to make everyone’s lives better: I want to make our customers’ lives better with our amazing food and service, and more importantly, I want to make everyone who works at Flour’s life better by being a great, awesome, inspiring, supportive and encouraging place to work.
One of your earliest claims to fame was taking down Bobby Flay with your signature sticky buns. Did you know that they would blow up like they did after the show aired?
I had no idea! I honestly hadn’t known what the show was all about and when it aired we went from making a few dozen stickies to a few hundred and still running out. It took almost a year for us to figure out how to keep up with demand.
You also received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Baker back in 2016. What was your reaction to that honor and what does it mean to you?
I was incredibly honored and proud. By my being recognized it really meant my whole team was being acknowledged. We started as one little neighborhood bakery and winning this award told my whole team that their hard work and careful baking and dedication was out there for the world to see.
Most recently, you released a fifth cookbook. What can readers expect from “Pastry Love”?
These are by far my favorite and best recipes all together in one big journal. Like everything else, the more you practice the better you get. With this fifth book I feel these recipes are the ones that people will bake again and again.
What’s your creative process like when coming up with a new book?
It is a mish mash of pouring over cookbooks, reading food magazines, cruising on Instagram, going out to eat a lot, traveling and taking lots of pictures and tasting a lot of things. The internet is an incredible resource that I use constantly. And then there is a lot of time in the kitchen playing around to see if you have something that works.
To what extent was the home baker in mind as you were considering recipes?
100 percent. I’m always thinking of my book editor’s mom—who I’ve never met but I imagine she is really lovely woman—someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen and her son is sending her this recipe to make.
With the holidays right around the corner, do you have any special food-related traditions you share with your family?
For me and my family, it’s all about eating all day long. Every Thanksgiving, Christopher and I go to our best friend’s mom’s house in Rhode Island. She cooks a huge feast and I bring one of every pie we make at Flour. We all challenge ourselves to eat some of every dessert—there are usually about 10 on the table.
What are some of your favorite desserts from the book that you find fitting for the holiday season?
Oh my, so many! I love the gifts in this book—the peppermint kisses, apple cider miso caramels and peanut buttercrunch. The adult spice cake is full of rum and spice and cream; sticky bun kouign amann for family breakfasts; cranberry pecan and fig walnut breads; eggnog cheesecake; pumpkin pecan bread pudding.
Makes about 10 dozen kisses
Every holiday season, one of my favorite things is walking into our production kitchen and watching an army of bakers piping tray after tray of these stunning, simple treats. Meringue is spiked with a touch of peppermint extract and then deftly piped into little kiss-shaped cookies. The pastry bag is striped with a touch of red food coloring, which streams down the sides of the cookies, creating a lovely striped kiss. Packaged in little plastic bags tied with ribbon, they will become your go-to holiday gift.
• 8 large egg whites (about 1 cup / 240 grams), at room temperature
• 1 cup / 200 grams superfine sugar
• 1 cup / 120 grams confectioners’ sugar
• ½ teaspoon kosher salt
• 1 ¼ teaspoons pure peppermint extract
• 1 tablespoon red food coloring gel
1. Preheat the oven to 175°F and place a rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set it aside.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form, 3 to 4 minutes. Whip until the wires of the whisk leave a slight trail in the whites. Test for soft peak stage by stopping the mixer and removing the whisk from the whites and lifting it up; the whites should peak and then droop.
3. With the mixer on medium, add the superfine sugar in three increments, whipping for about 1 minute between additions. Meanwhile, sift the confectioners’ sugar and salt together and set aside. Once you’ve beaten all the superfine sugar into the egg whites, increase the mixer speed to medium-high, add the peppermint extract, and beat for about 15 seconds more.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the confectioners’ sugar and salt.
4. Place a 3/4-inch round pastry tip in an 18-inch pastry bag. Fold back the pastry bag about halfway down and cuff it over your hand. Dip a wooden skewer or chopstick into the red food coloring and paint 4 long stripes, starting as close to the tip as you can all the way up the side of the pastry bag. Fill the bag halfway with the meringue (don’t ever fill a pastry bag more than halfway or you’ll create a mess) and pipe kisses about 1 inch wide and 1 inch tall (around the same size as a Hershey’s Kiss) onto the prepared baking sheet. To do this, hold the pastry bag about an inch above the baking sheet, squeeze the meringue out of the bag, release pressure on the bag, and pull up to create the top of the kiss. Pipe kisses about an inch apart and fill up the baking sheet, piping onto a second baking sheet as needed. Add more red food coloring to the inside of the pastry bag as needed when you refill the bag with meringue and pipe until you have used up all the meringue.
5. Bake the kisses for about 4 hours, rotating the baking sheet a few times, until the kisses are completely dried out inside and out (break a few open to check). Turn off the oven but leave the kisses in the oven to dry out overnight.
6. The kisses can be stored in an airtight container. If the weather is not humid, you can store them for up to 1 month. Otherwise they are best eaten within a few days.
Peppermint Kisses is excerpted from PASTRY LOVE: A Baker’s Journal of Favorite Recipes © 2019 by Joanne Chang. Photography © 2019 by Kristin Teig. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
Photography by Kristin Teig