Monday, June 17, 2013

Interview with Pastry Chef Gina DePalma

Every serious home cook has a favorite chef; someone they try to emulate. For me that person is Gina DePalma.  I was first introduced to her work when I had dessert at Babbo several years back and since then have baked my way through her entire cookbook, Dolce Italiano. (at least that's how it seems)

Gina is an amazing pastry chef and it shines through in all her recipes. Recently I was fortunate enough to chat with her, by email, about  her passion for pastries and I want to share that with all of you. 

1. As a pastry specialist what are some intuitive things people need to know to make pastries successfully?

When it comes to baking, I think there is a myth out there that it is all about being precise and scientific, while savory cooking is all about instinct. Food is food, and whether it is sweet or savory, you have to develop an ease and confidence in cooking, whether you are making a custard or baking a cake or roasting a turkey or sautéing mushrooms. The only way to develop that ease and confidence is to COOK. Often. And pay attention to what is going on, notice the details, the differences, the appearances and textures and tastes of the things you are cooking. Intuition and instinct are the most important tools for any cook to develop. My mother and grandmother certainly weren't professionals, but their skills were honed razor sharp from years of practice, and it is only from practice that you develop intution and instinct.

2.  What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when baking?

Continuing what I said above, I think the biggest mistake is not paying attention to what is happening in front of you and relying too much on a recipe to tell you what you need to know. My staff used to always ask me how long to bake things and my answer always was, until it is done. Underbaked things or undercooked custards would drive me crazy. "But I cooked it for 18 minutes!" they would say Well, it may need 19 or 20 minutes today for a number of reasons - how many times was the oven door opened, and was there something else in there baking with it? Is it hot and humid today or cold and dry? There are so many factors you can't control, so you have to constantly adjust things as you go along and look at what your food is doing. A recipe is just a guideline.

3.  I understand you have lived in Italy…what has this brought to the art of what you do?

Well, I am Italian, and I grew up in an Italian household; my grandparents came from the same town in Calabria and my mother spent part of her childhood there. Everything I did and learned about cooking from childhood influenced me much more than the time I spent traveling and living in Italy. That was my basis.  My later travels were more of a validation and refinement of what I already knew and the way I already had lived.

4.  How does esthetics factor into the final product?  Looks or taste what’s more important to you?

I never begin conceptualizing a dessert by thinking about aesthetics. I begin thinking about what flavors and textures I want and the ingredients I want to feature. I think well-prepared food is naturally beautiful, so the visual part usually comes easy and is the last step for me.

5.  What kitchen tool(s) can’t you live without?

My wooden spoons and mixing bowls. With just those two things, you can do a lot. Cooks did almost everything with them at one point, before we had the walls of gadgets available now. I love my wooden spoons and use them more than anything else.

6.  What is your go to dessert for family/friends? 

If we have dessert, I usually make my creamy ricotta cheesecake more than anything else, because it is quick and easy and delicious. The flavors are pure and straightforward, and after a big meal it is nice to have something simple and sweet. I also make a lot of cookies, because they go a long way, and nothing makes people happier than a big plate piled high with cookies. Most Italians, including my family, enjoy fruit and cheese and nuts after dinner, and the all-important espresso, and in many cases we don't have a dessert after that, but a cookie to dunk is always welcomed.

7.   Are you working on a new cookbook? 

Yes, I am. It has been a long project that finally nearing completion, and it is a continuation of my love for Italy and Italian sweets. There's a lot in there about both my family experience and my travels. 

8.   Any kitchen disasters you’d want to share?

We've all had kitchen disasters, it is part of process. People shouldn't be ashamed or angry because it is through the disasters that you learn the most about how to cook. I've made more than a few wedding cakes, and they are always filled with potential disaster. I once had to deal with a cake that cracked and almost split in half during the transportation process. After that, I swore off them.

9.  How did you get started with pastries?

I never studied pastry formally in school. But when I needed a job, one was available in pastry so I took it. Simple as that. That was almost 20 years ago, and the explosion of the restaurant scene had not yet begun. If you were offered a job in a good kitchen, you took it. I had apprenticed at Chanterelle and then was blessed with an opportunity in pastry at Gramercy Tavern, and it obviously determined the course of my career.

10. Share an unknown fact about your kitchen

It is a tiny NYC apartment kitchen. Teeny tiny. I don't have enough space in my cabinets for all of my equipment, so I have it stashed everywhere - in clothes closets, trunks, baskets, bureau drawers and under my bed. I dream of someday having a nice, big kitchen with two wall ovens and a kitchen island, but I sure don't have that now!

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