Today I'm thrilled to have cookbook author and blogging friend Gesine Bullock-Prado.
Gesine is the author of the memoir “My Life from Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over One Cake at a Time”” and the cookbooks “Sugar Baby” and the newest “Pie it Forward”. She lives in Vermont with her husband, is a chef instructor at the King Arthur Flour Company in Norwich, VT, and is slowly learning the process of becoming a gentlewoman farmer while remodeling their antique home and semi-working farm. And if that’s not enough, is currently on a book tour promoting her third book “Pie it Forward” via radio and television. (you might also have seen her doing cooking segments on the Today Show as well). It also needs to be noted that she did have a small pastry shop in Montpelier, Vermont: Gesine Confectionary and it has since been closed. I can’t imagine doing all this; I’m tired after typing it all. And don't forget to see her website: gesine.com It's just adorable and for me, literally sums up what her new life is like in rural Vermont. (read through to find out about a giveaway to win a copy of Pie It Forward!).
Gesine (geh-see-nuh) was incredibly kind to answer a few questions for me about her latest cookbook, and how she does it all in life, as well as her next steps in life.
What does “Pie It Forward” entail? It’s a new frontier in pies; sweet and savory pies that is; a different take of the classics; a creative twist with a heavy dose of Gesine imagination. Her press release says it perfectly: “….Gesine imagination—riffing on her German roots, her Hollywood background, and life on her Vermont farm. A blueberry brown butter tart, an Italian plum tart with a yeasted-dough crust, a tiramisu-inspired espresso tart, a Vermont pizza pie….”
And with each new pie recipe has its own crust recipe since Gesine states “not all dough’s are created equal!” Good point.
Bonus part of the book? A savory chapter filled with pork pies, Cornish pasties, Bavarian calzone…
Brief history of Gesine: she lived a large, glamorous, yet overworked stressful life in Hollywood working as a lawyer, film executive for many years. She left the Hollywood life to set her eyes on pastry-making, open a bakery, and start life again, from scratch, in an antique home, living as a soon-to-be gentlewoman farmer (with her husband, and I’ve lost count how many animals, and farm animals). And if you’re curious to find out why she left all that glamour and glitz for the simple life, starting from scratch, and choosing the baker path, I HIGHLY suggest you read her book “My Life from Scratch: A Sweet Journey of Starting Over, One Cake at a Time”.
chocolate fleur de Sel caramel tart, pg 153
Her blogs include:
Confections of a (closet) Master Baker – splendid recipes, secret tips and yummy pictures from a professional pastry chef
Sugar Baby Cookbook – a companion website for the cookbook: Sugar Baby. It includes extras like videos, extra pictures and ideas of what else you can do with the wonderful recipes in Sugar Baby.
Running in Circles – A blog dedicated to reconfiguring traditional recipes so that they work as the perfect fuel for runners while staying as delicious as the original. Also great advice of you want to run a marathon and never thought you could.
Freegrace Living – Living life completely from scratch: from raising farm animals, to growing food to restoring a Tavern built in the 1700’s. There’s more to life from scratch than baking.
Pie It Forward – The companion website for the cookbook: Pie It Forward.
Gesine's gorgeous homestead in Vermont (looks as if the renovations are going quite well)
Geese, she has lots of them. Chatty little critters too.
The newest additions to the farm. Precious right? Gesine takes really good care of the babies: they all sleep on flannel sheets!
Just typing up the intro, and all that you do, all that you have done in your past life, I thought to myself, where does she get the energy? It’s obvious you have a zest for life and taking on multiple projects.
I was under the impression that you just completely set your eyes on starting life over with pastry making. I had completely forgotten that in your busy Hollywood days you baked, a lot actually, as a stress release. Did you start out making fancy pastries? And is it true that you’ve had no formal training?
How did you learn all these fine pastry making skills?
It was my mother’s death that really put the coal in the pastry engine. She died far too young of cancer, especially for a woman who was a health food nut (macrobiotic) and a marathon runner. But she was also a wonderful and adventurous cook, primarily during the holidays when she let loose with the butter and sugar. She was German and I was raised in Austria and Germany when I was younger and we returned most summers thereafter. Suddenly, my mother’s strict culinary regime went out the window. Kaffee und Kuchen (cake and coffee) was a daily meal, whether we baked at home with my aunt and family or whether we went into Salzburg and hit up a pastry shop where pastries are an intricate and edible art. When we were back in the states, I coveted my friend’s Oreos and Nutter Butters. Once I had my own kitchen and I set about baking earnestly, I drew from my childhood influences and the stubborn streak I’d inherited from my mother. The first task I gave myself was mastering laminated doughs and I wasn’t leaving my kitchen until I’d made those doughs my bi…well, you know where I’m going. And that’s how it progressed. If there was a treat I loved from childhood and couldn’t find in the states, (mandelhoernchen, macaron, millefeuille etc) I figured out how to make it myself.
And you do all this on your own, very little in the way of assistants I see? Does this energy stem from your busy Hollywood life? Always wanting to continue taking on more? I’m a loner and a perfectionist. Tina Rupp, who is the photographer on the books, always looks at me like I’m nuts for doing all the baking for the photo shoots alone. But it’s my work. I wrote the book. These are my recipes. So I feel like the reader should see how I do it. And under that kind of pressure, where you’re baking 100s of things in a few hours, it’s a great test to the workability of recipes and proof that they can look beautiful even if you’re losing your mind and have 5 minutes to finish.
I also bore easily. My husband is my true helpmate in life but in the pasty department, there’s no trespassing in my baking cave. On the other hand, when I’m teaching, I love everyone to get their paws in the mix: to feel the croissant dough as it’s rising and the butter block when it’s the perfect temperature for folding, just to play with the ingredients. I want to share what I know and love, so when I’m in that mode, I not only want people in my space, I want them literally poking my dough.
raspberry-lemon coconut panna-cotta tartlets, pg. 46
In one of your blog title’s you’ve dubbed yourself with the name “I’m gesine, helga’s daughter” tell me the story behind that title? This is in memory to your mom? You’re mom was the one that put that sparkle in your eye for baking at an early age? I’ve heard from your podcast on NPR how much of an influence that was. (listen here).
That’s actually my “handle” on Blogger, so whenever I post or comment that’s what turns up. It’s because I am truly my mother’s daughter. I wrote my memoir Confections of a Closet Master Baker/My Life from Scratch as a pastry journey and as a love letter to mom. I bake and she’s conjured before me.
Also, from that NPR podcast I learned and I admire that you said, regarding watching your mom slowly die of cancer, you said, and quite simply but with such intensity, “watching my mom slowly die of cancer, I realized life is too short….I can’t stop her cancer but I can certainly make my life happier…” And this is essentially, leading up to now, what you’ve done: make your life happier? Yes?
Absolutely, Life’s too short. I know she was proud of me before I changed my life but she’d have reveled in the life revolution we’ve made. At once it’s heartbreaking that I don’t get to share Vermont, the animals, the pastry and the peace we’ve captured. On the other hand, her hand is in all of it so I see her in everything I do.
And speaking of your strong German mother, she was the one that lived a macrobiotics lifestyle, but still baked buttery, rich goodies such as German tortes, tarts. Was this a contradiction or her balance of good food with bad food?
The wonderful thing about my mother is that she never saw beautifully made food as “bad” food because it isn’t. She saw processed food and unnatural food as bad. I think she was just incredibly honest with herself and her self-control. You put a pint of ice cream in front of her, she’d eat the whole thing. Same with a box of marzipan. But my mother was a huge advocate of using butter and gorgeous, real ingredients. When we were back in her home, in Germany, she relaxed and she let the dietary vice grip loosen and she’d enjoy her slice of cake and then we’d climb a mountain. Had she lived her entire life this way, you could make a good argument that she’d be alive today.
All those years, in your past life, of living the fast life of Hollywood--any of that make you now look back and say “Hey I learned something from this?”
The honest truth is if you work in Hollywood, it’s anything but fast. Film production is a “hurry up and wait” life. I didn’t party or schmooze. But that “hurry up and wait” actually does apply to baking. So often there are processes that require you to whip this, whip that, fold gently but quickly, IMMEDIATELY put it in the oven….and then wait wait wait until it’s done. Thankfully, I can make something else while I’m waiting.
I understand the meaning of wanting to write your first book “My Life from Scratch: a sweet journey of starting over”. And can see the connection to then write your second book “Sugarbaby” a wonderful yet hard task I might add. But tell me how/why you choose the direction of pie for book three?
My life change was as much to write as to bake. Once my pastry shop opened, I had no time to write. Starting at 3:30 a.m. and closing up shop at 7pm leaves you with nothing left but a strong desire for red wine and a bed. But Vermont is filled with artists and writers and it turned out that a vast majority of our customers were writers. So we started a writer’s group that met in the shop after we’d shut the door. We’d nosh on left over goodies and share our latest and not so greatest. I had to produce something for the group so I started to write my pastry journey. Originally, the memoir had no recipes. It wasn’t until we were about to go to publishers that I rewrote the manuscript to accommodate them. The cookbooks are simply my need to share specific techniques. SugarBaby was the book I couldn’t find when I was training myself. I didn’t understand why you could get a candy-making book but there was nothing in it that explained that those techniques were the same as in making an Italian meringue for macaron or a Sacher glaze or pate de bomb for chocolate buttercream or croquant. It was as if there was a conspiracy to keep this knowledge away from home bakers and this ticked me off. As for pie, I have a really broad view of pie and I’ve heard so many people lament that pie crust is the bane of their existence. I wanted to produce a book that explained what makes up the flaky, tender crust and then show that there are many versions on the same theme and how to coordinate with various fillings. You can make a traditional American crust or you can blast it with 50% more flaky and buttery by making a quick puff and then you can take it to the moon by making traditional puff. And then there is the simple tart dough, which is my version of pate brisee, and so much more. Like SugarBaby, I find that when you get knee deep in the pastry world, you see these techniques that are interrelated and I wanted to share that pie can be so much more than what we’ve traditionally thought about in the home kitchen.
I know when I test recipes I often rely on my husband to taste test first. He’s not a foodie so he isn’t all that reliable, as he says “this is good” to just about everything. Does your husband have a good palette? Is he a good taste-tester?
He’s got a very sophisticated and broad palate. And he’s honest. So he’s my true barometer of what’s what in the kitchen.
vermont apple pie, pg. 91
Your bakery Gesine Confectionary in Vermont is closed now? Was this let go because of too much on your plate? I heard it was a fabulous little cake shop. Think you’ll ever own another bakery again—you know when things calm down a bit for you?
I’ll never say never.
Do you still sell those infamous macaroons online?
Instead of mail order, I’m partnering with someone to get them in retail stores nationwide. This takes more time than I’d like but it’s an interesting endeavor.
In “pie it forward” you literally live up to the title of “redefining the pie classics”. Going into this cookbook, did you have a set list of pies that you wanted to recreate or should I say re-design?
I usually develop recipes based on what I’m craving. Which can be really dangerous.
Years ago when my husband and I first moved back to cape cod, we rented a very old (like 1700’s old), antique house that belonged to one of the first constables of Sandwich, MA. The amount of money we poured into that place made us deem it “the money pit”. I know you and your husband bought an old house and farmhouse? Was this something you wanted to do? Do you still love it? My memories of living a our antique rental, made me coin it up in this phrase “living in the money pit was like owning a convertible car that had piles of money in the back seat, and every time you drove the car the money would just blown away…”
I grew up in a family that restored houses so I can’t imagine not having a project. The second a house is “done” I’m ready to move on. Thankfully, this house will always have a project in store. It was built in 1786 and has a lovely history but is in better shape than most new construction. I don’t think of it as blowing money as much as being a steward of Vermont history. I’d rather spend money on maintaining the property than buying shoes or clothes. Not unlike how I’d rather blow $100 on great chocolate than $300 on a purse. I’ll enjoy the chocolate and my carriage house turned bakery a hell of a lot more.
With all the skinny pastry chefs I know (and there are not a lot of skinny ones out there). I have to ask, and a few fans have asked me to ask you: how do you stay so thin? Is it because you’re always on the move?
The adage “never trust a skinny chef” is so so wrong. I say, “never trust a fat chef” because who is more likely to scarf the best stuff in the kitchen before it gets out to the customers? You always have to taste for quality and balance but leave the best for the customers.
nutella tart, pg. 182 and classic pecan pie, pg. 183
Personally, I learn a great deal from you, and your recipe posts at Confections of a (closet) Master Baker; you easily show us how easy it is to make macaroons. Watching your videos at your website www.gesine.com; you have a wonderful video about making a wild blueberry pie. I couldn’t agree with you more when you say the best part is the crust. And one of your tips: everything must be cold; even the flour. Where did you learn that from? Any other tips for exceptional pies and pie crusts?
I’m a geek, I like to know the true nature of things. The “cold” in crusts is a standard issue instruction but the why of it interested me more and the bottom line is that the nature of flour is to absorb moisture. If everything’s warm, the flour will absorb the butter and the crust will be tough. If you chill everything, the butter won’t be absorbed but will remain suspended in discernable chunks in the dough. In the oven, the moisture evaporates, creating a lovely puff and flakiness, leaving the proteins and the butter to create structure and gorgeous flavor. The other truism of pie dough is not to over process it, otherwise you’re working the gluten (proteins) in the flour which also leads to a tough dough AND warms the dough so your butter is going melt and then that whole absorption thing happens. The other thing is not to add too much moisture to most butter flour doughs (traditional pie crust and puffs) which will make the dough goopy and tough. Often, the dough will look too dry and a baker will add more water until the dough comes together and “looks” right. However, this is usually the sign of a grossly overprocessed dough. Instead, add just enough liquid so that when you pinch the dough between your fingers, it holds together. Then press into a round, cover with wrap and refrigerate. This allows the dough to rest and for the flour to start hydrating. About 20 minutes. You’d be surprised how 20 minutes can turn a round of dough from a rough, dry mess into a smooth, workable dough.
In a typical day, what do you eat? I know sugar is a staple in your diet for recipe taste-testing.
Eggs. We have so many laying birds from hens to geese to ducks, eggs are on constant rotation. I make fish stews and cassoulets for lunch. We have ramps and fiddelheads in the fridge now and hopefully a foraging jaunt today will turn up some morels for a nice tart. It’s a seasonal free for all here.
Most memorable travel destination for food? What did you have?
We’ve had so many memorable meals together, my husband and I. When we travel, it’s 1% exploring the new town and 99% food. But my favorite was an unexpected meal in Morocco. We detoured into a truck stop for a minute. We smelled a gorgeous tagine and suddenly we were ravenous. We ended up ordering beef kefta and washed it down with Coke, feasting in the middle of the dessert. It was one of those food experiences when you catch yourself gleefully humming while you eat, your feet doing that “I just put something unbelievable in my mouth and there’s more in the bowl” happy dance.
Favorite junk foods, if any?
Too many to list. I still crave cheese filled Combos whenever I drink too much beer. I won’t let you near my bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese. And bacon.
Does your husband like to cook or bake?
He’s a great cook. He’s become an expert at Japanese pub food. He’s our weekend chef.
If someone wants to open their own bakery, granted they are going to be on their feet all day. I know you’re on your feet all day; a good pair of chef clogs goes a long way, but what about keeping your back strong? Any tips in that area?
Don’t lock your knees and stretch. Get a rolling counter at the right height for you. I roll laminated doughs by hand al day and while this is a phenomenal workout, it’s awful on the back. If you get the counter to just the right height, it takes so much burden off your vertebrae. And take walks. I actually find that a good run cures all my bake and back ailments.
strawberry love pie, pg. 226
Is there another book in the works? Something about ‘complicated desserts’?
The next book is a cake book, geared towards creations that are beautiful when you slice into them as much as the are beautiful on the outside. And by “inside” that means they look great slice and that they better taste damn great when you put them in your mouth. Some are complicated but others are painfully easy and just look complicated (my favorite kind). And we’re filming a PBS series called “Life from Scratch” (gee, wonder where that came from) that’s part homesteading lifestyle show part baking show. Want to know how to hatch and raise ducklings and then use your extra duck eggs to make an unbelievable pound cake? Want to make your own farmer’s cheese and turn it into the best cheesecake ever? Curious about keeping bees but want someone else to get stung first (i.e., me), this is the show for you.
Thank you so much Gesine! Your answers were just a joy to read and comforting to know I'm not the only one that has an obsession with those darn Combo pretzel things. Thanks for the back tips too!
To enter the giveaway for a chance to win a copy of Pie It Forward, simply leave a comment here telling us which of Gesine cookbooks you've read, or which ones you'd like to read.
We'll do the drawing May 29, 2011.
One entry per person please. PLEASE have a valid email in your link and/or comment.
Today I'm thrilled to have cookbook author and blogging friend Gesine Bullock-Prado.