Claim to foodie fame: Executive Pastry Chef, Le Pichet and Café Presse; she will be opening her own restaurant in 2012.
Quote: In France, food is so much a part of taking in the culture, especially for visiting Americans. That trip was the first time it really dawned on me that food could be different.
What is your earliest memory of cooking?
Both my mom and my stepmom and my dad joke about where my interest in cooking came from, because none of them are really very interested in cooking. I distinctly remember as a kid deciding to make some apple muffins with this little miniature muffin pan I had. I didn't use a recipe — I just pulled together things I knew were in muffins. They weren't terrible... I guess they were edible, but they weren't good at all. I remember being really disappointed that those muffins didn't turn out perfectly. I gave some to my mom and I brought some to school, and I remember being incredulous that people kept telling me they were good, because I knew deep down they tasted really bad. They weren't right, those apple muffins.
After that, I started to rely on recipes a bit more, as opposed to making things up. I read a lot of cooking magazines and books, trying to make these really complicated things — not appropriate to my skill level. I did the same thing with sewing — always attempting to make things I couldn't really do. I remember making a lemon roulade — lemon spongecake rolled up with lemon cream. I learned 15 years later that the lemon cream was a famous Pierre Hermé recipe that was very popular in the early '90s when I came across it and insisted we make it. I assembled the cake but when I went to roll it up, the top cracked — which happens, in fact it still happens to me all the time — and I was beside myself! My mom saved the day by putting some more of the lemon cream on top, and she went to the store for some raspberries to cover it. It was much better than the apple muffins.
What is your idea of comfort food?
My palette for comfort food has shifted since I attended culinary school. When I was younger, there was no limit to the amount of sugar I could eat or wanted to eat. After a year of cooking almost nothing but sweets, and also maybe because I'm just older, I now reserve desserts for a more appropriate place in a meal. Comfort food for me is now really about pasta.
My mom comes up a little bit around this question. She used to have a small garden, and one year she planted a bunch of basil, and the plan was for us to make a bunch of pesto and freeze it. I was enamored with industrious things like that, and I remember noticing how much better the pesto we made fresh from the garden was than the jarred kind. Pasta with pesto is one of my favorite things to eat.
Did you see the documentary Kings of Pastry? Was your schooling like that at all?
I did! Kings of Pastry really took me back to culinary school. Because of the type of food I like to make and the restaurants I've worked in, there are a lot of things I learned in school that I don't do any more — pulled sugar, sugar sculpture, and chocolate sculpture are really separate from what I do every day. These are interesting art forms, but as techniques, can almost seem antiquated.
We had to watch these videos in culinary school that were called Das ist Zucker— they were all in German, with subtitles, because the master of pulled sugar is this guy named Ewald Notter. He would do things in these videos like make Marie Antoinette dolls out of sugar — it was so bizarre. We were all just hoping to get restaurant jobs, and it just seemed so irrelevant to that goal. Occasionally I'll pull off a showpiece garnish, say for a cake, but for the most part, it's pretty peripheral.
How did your family honor food traditions in your household?
As I've gotten interested in cooking, as has my sister-in-law, who is also a professional cook, most of our family food traditions are pretty recent. Traditions have emerged as we all have started paying attention to the food we're preparing. I can think of little things my mom and I used to make together, but they are sort of strange recipes — like holdovers from when my mom went through a long macrobiotic phase, which was sort of painful for me as a teenager. I was just thinking about this dessert she made — they were baked apples with barley malt on them. My mom is a good cook, but they were really bad.
Who do you credit with inspiring in you a love of food and cooking?
My mom has a very good friend with whom she worked about 20 years ago — he's French — and he and his wife, more than anyone in my immediate family, were people I knew who paid a lot of attention to food, and I could talk with them about food. I have more memories of things I did with them, because it was just such a part of their lives. They have a sour cherry tree in their yard, and each year they would make a clafoutis. Marc, the husband, was very adamant about leaving the pits in the cherries to impart that nutty, amaretto-y flavor to the clafoutis. He and his wife have us over every year for the French holiday Chandeleur, which is essentially a holiday designed around eating crêpes. We'd have ours with Meyer lemon, and they would show me how to cook the crêpes and talk to me about the batter. They were a pretty interesting couple and very influential to me, because of the care and attention they gave to food.
My parents took me to France when I was 16, and I think one of the things that was really great about France is that even though I was part of this family that wasn't very into food, in France, they kind of had to be. In France, food is so much a part of taking in the culture, especially for visiting Americans. That trip was the first time it really dawned on me that food could be different.
What is your favorite dish or meal to cook?
I do really love to make crêpes. Especially these days, because I'm doing a lot of testing [as a part of developing her restaurant plan]. I've started making a lot of late-night crêpes, which has been good, if a bit dangerous, because you can eat a quantity of them before you realize you've already downed a stick of butter. But still one of my favorite things to do is make homemade macaroni and cheese — it is not an uncommon thing among the other chefs I know to literally obsess about the way they make macaroni and cheese.
If you could invite anyone to your holiday dinner — living, dead, or imaginary — who would it be?
If I can go alive or dead on this, strangely enough, I'd probably go with Danny Kaye. It may sound like a very odd choice, but if you read food memoirs, you learn he is mythologized among cooks. He was a big cook himself and he had this table in his kitchen oriented around the stove, where he would cook these elaborate meals for friends; by all accounts he was a phenomenal cook. As a kid I was also really into musicals, too, so that kind of brings both passions together.
Rachael Coyle's Butter & Lemon Apple Cake
Makes one 8-9" cake
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus a little extra for the pan
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
Zest of 1/2 a lemon
*I like Honeycrisp or Braeburn for this. If the apples are small, feel free to use four.
Peel, halve, and core the apples. Cut them into 1/4” slices. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter an 8-9” pan (I use a deep-dish Pyrex pie plate) and dust with sugar; tap out the excess sugar and set aside. In a large sauté pan, melt the butter and pour out about 2/3 to be used in the cake batter. Sauté the apples in the remaining butter over medium heat until soft but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Let the apples cool slightly. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients, including the reserved melted butter. Fold the wet and dry ingredients together until just incorporated. Gently mix in the apples. Pour into prepared pan and bake for about 45 minutes, or until golden brown and baked through — this will take a while, as the apples are quite damp — but if you use a clear pie plate, you can easily check the underside of the cake. Let cool, cut in wedges, and dust with confectioner’s sugar. Enjoy!