During my first baking job at UCSC, I met a middle-aged baker named Roxanne who every morning would serve me up a big plate of Too Much Information. Trysts in the walk-in with the cutie who mixed the pizza dough, drug induced escapades, naughty acts with various boyfriends; no subject was off-limits for Roxanne. She left after only a month to start her own business, but she did leave me with more than just disturbing visual images before she went.
One day she asked me whether I wanted to be a cook or a baker when I grew up. I thought for a moment of the shrimp legs I’d had to rip off at my prior job as a pantry cook, of the stench of raw onion trimmings and fish detritus, of the blood drippings from the raw beef I’d had to hack up. Then I looked around me at the flour-dusted wooden counters, lumps of dough in various states of formedness. I glanced in the compost at the blameless eggshells. I inhaled the aroma of vanilla and butter and warm cinnamon around us and said decisively, ‘A baker. It’s cleaner.’ She nodded in agreement and approval, then told me conspiratorially, ‘There are two types of people in the world: cooks and bakers.’
Her words continued to echo in my head, long after she switched topics back to last night’s explicit sexual act.
Bakers like to follow recipes. We like the assurance that as long as we do as we’re told, everything will turn out right. With baking, there is only so much tweaking you can do as you go. Once you put your product in the oven, you can cross your fingers, but you are pretty much stuck with whatever comes out.
When someone tells me that they suck at baking, I assume what they actually mean is that they don’t like to follow instructions. Conversely, I greatly admire those cooks who can whip something up at the drop of a tomato. It is harder to do this with baking, and even the most experienced bakers that I know tend to use springboard recipes for basic ratios before diving off into the abyss of improvisation.
Since opposites attract, it makes sense that I have many ‘cook personality’ friends, including the talented Leigh, who makes the best tomato sauce, and many other things, I’ve ever tasted. I will never let him forget the time we made soup together 10 years ago at my house in Santa Cruz. Nervous about not following a recipe, I was constantly tasting and adding small amounts of salt to bring up the flavor. Leigh cheekily grabbed the salt shaker, and dumped a bunch in. When I tried to stop him, he sprinkled in more just to spite me. The soup was inedibly salty and we were forced to add copious amounts of water to it so we didn’t go hungry.
Becoming a pastry chef has forced me to overcome my aversion to improvising. Though I still always use a base recipe, like a good baker, I am braver about adjusting flavorings, adding ingredients and changing techniques to achieve the results I’m seeking. This tart, for instance, was inspired by Smitten Kitchen’s zucchini-ricotta galette. I made a cornmeal pate brisee à la Martha, but completely made up the fillings. I hovered over the oven, worrying about the crust being soggy or the filling watery, but in the end the tart emerged radiantly flavorful and juicy from the oven to be proudly and happily devoured. It was exactly how I’d imagined it.
I wanted to make this recipe as streamlined as possible, so I didn’t prebake the crust or veggies. I did salt the zucchini to draw out some of the moisture, and I might slice it thinner next time to make it easier to arrange in the dish. The result was not unlike a pizza, with stretchy melted cheese, delicate fillings and a buttery-tender crust. Despite all the butter and cheese, the tart tasted surprisingly light; Jay and I polished the whole thing off in two meals. It makes a succulent, vegetarian supper or brunch served alongside a green salad. It reheats beautifully, the crust staying resolutely crisp and sturdy.
The basil, tomatoes, squash and cheeses felt like the ideal way to usher in the first of the summer produce, but don’t feel like you have to be an anal baker-personality when you make this; feel free to throw caution to the wind and futz around with various fillings if you like.
Just go easy on the salt.
Makes 4 – 6 servings
Time: about 2 1/2 hours, including chilling, sweating and baking (the food, not you)
Cornmeal pate brisee:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornflour (finely ground cornmeal) or cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/2″ chunks
1/4 cup ice water
Combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl. Scatter over the butter chunks and work in with your fingers until some pea-sized chunks remain. Sprinkle in the water a tablespoon at a time, tossing with your hands, until the dough just comes together and no floury bits remain. Gently press the dough into a ball, flatten into a disc, and stick in plastic bag. Chill in the fridge until firm, 30-45 minutes.
On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into an even 14″ round. Fit into a 10″ tart pan, fold over the edges and trim flush with the pan. Chill 30 minutes.
1 pound (4-5 medium) summer squash or zucchini, cut into 1/8-1/4″ rounds
1/2 teaspoon plus 1/4 teaspoon salt
8 ounces dry mozzarella (not the water packed kind) sliced
2 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons basil, chopped, plus some leaves for garnish
1 garlic clove
1 tablespoon olive oil
While the tart dough is chilling, toss the zucchini with the 1/2 teaspoon salt in a colander. Set aside to sweat about 1 hour. Drain and pat dry with a clean towel.
Position a rack in the bottom of the oven and preheat to 450º. If you have a baking stone, put that in there, too; if not, put in a sturdy baking pan.
Layer the fillings in the chilled crust in the following order: mozzarella, goat cheese, basil, tomatoes. Arrange the squash on top in concentric circles.
Mash the garlic with the 1/4 teaspoon salt in a morter and pestle until a paste forms. Add in the olive oil. Brush this mixture over the squash.
Place the tart on the baking stone or baking sheet. Reduce the oven to 425º and bake for 55-60 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the crust and squash are golden. Cool the tart 10 minutes, then cut into wedges and serve.