THIS ARTICLE IS ADAPTED FROM THE JANUARY 15, 2022 ISSUE OF THE GASTRO OBSCURA FAVORITE THINGS NEWSLETTER. YOU CAN SIGN UP HERE.
Towards the end of the 19th century, American baking took a big step forward. The invention of chemical leavenings like baking powder and home ovens meant that fancy cakes were no longer the exclusive preserve of those with full-time servants. No one knows who came up with the American layer cake, but these buttercream-topped tiers quickly spread across the country.
Although these cakes were decidedly different from their European counterparts, American bakers still tended to look across the Atlantic for clues. French pastry was often considered the gold standard of the genre, while English “puddings” with fruit and nuts and rich German and Austrian baked goods found their way among immigrant communities.
The pastry shop has never been static. A look at cookbooks through the decades shows bakers adapting to economic crises, wartime rationing, and the meteoric rise of Betty Crocker. Yet for generations, the archetypal American cake resembled the kind of majestic tower seen on the covers of Gourmet magazine.
Don’t get me wrong: I love you as much as anyone. But there is a whole world of desserts out there. One of the most exciting changes in pastry in recent years is seeing American bakers taking inspiration from around the world. An American cake these days might taste the same with ube or pandan as it does with chocolate or vanilla, and bakers are as likely to emulate a Hong Kong bakery’s mille-crêpe as the gâteau of a Parisian bakery.
Natasha Pickowicz has a long history of baking off the lines. A three-time James Beard Award nominee, she has dabbled with ingredients ranging from worm salt to sunchokes in her innovative and utterly delicious desserts.
Before the pandemic, she was a pastry chef at Flora Bar and Altro Paradiso in New York. Since then, she has become known for the ongoing pop-up series Never Ending Taste, as well as her community bake sales, which have raised tens of thousands of dollars for Planned Parenthood and other organizations.
And while she’s tackled all kinds of cakes, it’s her layered cakes that have turned heads and left jaws dropping. Often garnished with the flowers and foliage of a garden, the confections bear little resemblance to traditional American layered cakes. Rather, they feel like a new evolutionary step.
I spoke with Pickowicz about his next book, More than a cake: 100 baking recipes created for pleasure and community, and the beauty of the different baking traditions. Here is our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Q&A with Natasha Pickowicz
First of all, I just want to congratulate you on the book. Could you tell me a bit about it?
Thank you. It was obviously an incredible amount of work, a total labor of love. I developed all the recipes. I designed each photo. My mom illustrated the book. I feel like the pictures are really fun and personal because I took them in the house that I grew up in. And I feel like the recipes really work because I tried them in my little kitchen in Brooklyn instead of in a fancy restaurant with fancy tools.
What do you hope readers take away from this?
I hope my love of baking and the process and technique really speaks to people. I’m someone who didn’t go to culinary school. I am mostly self-taught.
I’m thinking about [baking] from a different perspective. I don’t know how to make a sugar rose, but I think that cakes with more natural decorations, like the plants around us, are actually a more beautiful aesthetic choice for me.
At its core, this book is really about why I’m baking and how closely it’s tied to my relationship with grassroots activism. It’s about how baking is a skill set that a person can develop as a way to give back to their community.
The aesthetic of your cake is so distinctive. How did you start developing it?
When I started working at Altro Paradiso in SoHo, I spent months and months developing my tiramisu recipe. The way I make tiramisu is the entire foundation of how I make layered cakes, which are not-too-thick layers of cake that are evenly mixed and paired with creamy fillings. The cakes are saturated with another layer of flavor, similar to how a tiramisu is enhanced by a coffee steep. I’m thinking of building layers of flavor and moisture.
[In this book]You won’t really see American-style layered cakes, where maybe it’s a three-inch-thick layered butter-based cake with a big buttercream separation down the middle. Those are cool things. It’s not about that.
I constantly reiterate this idea that these thinner cake layers that are super moist and have built-in flavor are designed to be delicious on the palate. Running your fork through a slice of cake when you get those even, creamy layers of cake is just one of the best feelings. I’m trying to design cakes that aren’t too ambitious, but give you that kind of fulfilled feeling.
As someone used to working with very high-end professional bakers, what is your process like for trying to translate some of that for home cooks?
I think we have a lot to learn as home bakers from how things are done in these types of higher production environments and the way professional bakers work in restaurants, not just how organized their work space is, but how That works. it is designed for replication and consistency.
It’s very reassuring to know that if you do this, it will come out the same every time. It is up to you as a baker to decide if and when you want to make any changes along the way.
Your parents have lived in Hong Kong and Singapore, and you have spent a lot of time there. Could you talk a bit about your experience with bakeries throughout the Chinese diaspora?
I’m not a historian or an expert on this, so I don’t want anything I say to be the definitive version of a great baking tradition. But I think what I noticed when I was going to visit [my parents in Singapore] It’s that many of these pastry and pastry traditions are partly the result of centuries of colonization.
You are seeing western techniques that are coming to the countries of East Asia. In places like Hong Kong, specifically, where British colonial rule was for so long, they are bringing with them the tradition of making shortcrust pastry with butter or making egg custard. And those things are remixed endlessly.
In Singapore, it’s not just Chinese and Western influences. There, you’re really looking at a mix of this deep diversity. If you only go to a hawker market, you could have Malaysian, Indian, Taiwanese, Cantonese food, and on and on.
[Singapore] it truly is one of the craziest eating countries I have been to in my life. It’s a lot of fun to be there. With pastries specifically, I think a lot of those pastries that we think of when we think of Chinese bakeries are really like that because of that interaction with the colonialist influence.
Here in New York, I think what’s really interesting to me is seeing how the children of immigrant parents are reinterpreting traditions, not just for an American palate, but also for this distinctly Gen-Z palate.
And there are so many interesting ideas being expressed by young people who really see these traditions not as precious, but as a way of paying homage to the culture by playing with it, subverting it, or reinterpreting it for their context in their situation.
Is there a particular place in New York that stands out in this way?
Obviously Wenwen and Bonnie’s are hot spots here in New York right now, but I think it’s for exactly those reasons. I think people are excited about presenting culture through this different, younger generation. It feels so fresh and energizing.
I also love Kopitiam. They do a big kaya toast which is an example of that British colonialist presence [in Southeast Asia] and how they are putting custard and pan de leche together, but in this totally different way.
How has this type of intercultural hybridization influenced your work?
I made this popup at Golden Diner [in Chinatown]. We’re working on this super fun menu for the weekend after Thanksgiving. So I ordered my version of the Thanksgiving pie, but it was filled with red adzuki beans. This is a texture or presentation that feels distinctly Western or American, but you try it, and there’s Chinese five-spice powder, there’s condensed milk, there’s brown butter, and there’s red bean. It tastes like the inside of a red bean sesame ball.
That sound delicious. Do you think we will see more of these types of mash-ups in the future?
I think as it becomes easier to buy and get these kinds of ingredients outside of a Chinese grocery store, whether it’s a specialty oil or a fresh seed or a spice, you’ll see people playing around with these ideas more and making it their own.
And I think that’s really cool. I think the most interesting thing about recipes and food culture is how these things change and adapt and how we discuss and share the stories and the context that makes that happen.
Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wonderful food and drink.
Sign up to receive our email, delivered twice a week.