James Beard Award winner Dominique Ansel heralds a message for the times: "Everyone can bake"

Ansel gives us the foundation we need to bake beautiful pasties like banana bread, brownies and pound cake at home

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published April 25, 2020 5:30PM (EDT)

Everyone Can Bake by Dominique Ansel (Photos provided by publicist)
Everyone Can Bake by Dominique Ansel (Photos provided by publicist)

James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dominique Ansel is famous for his inventive pasties, including Blossoming Hot Chocolate, the Cookie Shot and the Frozen S'more. He became a household name in 2013 after he invented the Cronut, the croissant-doughnut hybrid regarded as the world's first-ever viral pastry. 

The Cronut took more than 10 different recipes to perfect across two months. After laminated dough is proofed then fried in grapeseed oil, each pastry is rolled with sugar, filled with cream and glazed. The labor intensive process takes not one, not two but three days to finish. 

These days we've been forced to make two week-long disaster grocery lists, which include items for at-home baking. "Everyone Can Bake," the second cookbook by Ansel, is thus a perfect guide for the times. Unlike the Cronut, the recipes don't take three days to make. They are incredibly approachable and don't require a certain knowledge level or too many tools to get started. 

RELATED: James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dominique Ansel shares his go-to brownie recipe with Salon

Whether you're baking our way through survival or just eager to learn a new skill, Ansel's new book will give you the foundation you need to conquer your fears of the kitchen, gain confidence and bake beautiful pastries such as banana bread, brownies and pound cake. The book is sectioned into three categories: bases, fillings and finishes. Once you've got the basics down, you will have the building blocks you need to mix-and-match your own inventions in the comfort of your own kitchen. 

Ansel recently spoke with Salon Food about "Everyone Can Bake," and you can read our conversation below. You can shared his go-to brownie recipe with us, and they taste even better with a drizzle of soft caramel on top. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

If you have the luxury of time right now, it's a great moment to learn a new skill. For others, we're forced to learn new skills. Many Americans who eat out or order take out on a regular basis have suddenly found themselves in the kitchen, where they have to cook for themselves. Your book book provides a strong foundation for at-home pastry chefs, and it encourages us to get comfortable in the kitchen. 

I'm very lucky and fortunate to have a team that has been supporting me through this second book. It was two years of work — that's a long time. And it's coming out, because we were launching this spring. We did not planning for any of this. I think this book is exciting to me, because it's my second cookbook. It offers people a chance to be creative in their own kitchen at home and to explore their own creativity.

The book is sectioned in three categories. The first category is the base: all the foundations for building a cake or a tart. So you have all of the doughs, all of the sponge cakes, all of the meringues, all of the bases for what would be like a cake that you build. Then you have a section that is all the fillings: so all the creams, all the mousses, all the ganaches, all the fillings that go into the cake. The last part is the finishes: so the fruit or the glazing of the cake. 

I'll give you options — the stack of building blocks for each category — and you can mix and match your own your own flavors, and you can tweak and twist all the flavors into each category into making your own creations. All these are like very simple recipes that anyone can do at home.

You created the viral cronut, and that takes three days to make, correct? So these are recipes that you can do at home with a lack of training?

Yes, these are much, much simpler recipes. Like I said, the first book was little bit more elaborate. I wanted to showcase my creativity and what I do in my kitchen. This book is for the home cook. It's for beginners and intermediate level, for people who don't like baking at home. You don't need a lot of skills. You don't need too many tools. It's fairly simple. It's very approachable. And the best part of this book? Again, it gives you your own creativity, your own way off interpreting each recipe and you can mix-and-match from other sections to make it your own.

Basically you compared the book to playing with blocks as a kid. What you're doing essentially is giving us the building blocks we need. Then once we're comfortable enough to master those skills, we can get creative, right?

Yes, exactly. We'll take something as simple as — let's say like assembling a base for a tart. I will show you every way you can incorporate different things. We can do that — mix a little bit of seed powder in the sub layer, a bit of vanilla, bit of lemon zest and then we'll go with a filling like a pastry cream or a curd.

Then I'll show you all different ways of flavoring it and assemble the finishes. So you can use each step and each element that you take from the recipe to make it your own and develop your own creativity there. So it's fairly simple — like very simple recipes.

That's what a chef does in the kitchen. I have all my foundations in my personal kitchen. I have all my basic recipes and then tweak them and show them differently. I don't create new recipes all the time, either. I have a good line of foundations that I have, and then I tweak those recipes as I go, depending on what I work on. So this is the same idea but on a much more approachable level.

RELATED: Dominique Ansel's go-to soft caramel adds a drizzle of decadence to brownies

I read the list of necessary tools you recommended in the book, and you really don't need the whole gamut to start baking at home. I did notice that you recommend a digital scale versus using cups. What is the reason behind the digital scale?

Well, probably because metric is more precise for sure. Metric measurements is a lot more precise than measuring cups,  and especially depending on the volume, what you are scaling can be a lot different when you use measuring cups or teaspoons and such. So scaling will always be more precise, and precision is a big part of what we do for baking. I'll always suggest you use a digital scale — it's a lot more precise. But if you don't have one, you can also use measuring cups. We'll show both measurements in the book.

As far as baking, measuring is really the basis of everything, correct?

Yes. Pastry is science. Pastry is defined by the precision of the execution. So the more precise you are, the better results you get and the more consistent results get. It's very simple: If you have a recipe, you follow the recipe. You measure everything precisely. You get a good result. It's not like cooking.

With baking, you have to be precise. With cooking, you can still add a little more salt, cook a little bit more, little bit less, season. If your carrots are not cooked enough, you can boil them again. With baking, you have to be precise, you have to do it perfectly the first time. It just takes a little bit of discipline. I love cooking as much as I love baking, and I know cooking is a little bit more intuitive. It's a lot more feeling, tasting. And baking is a lot more precise, a lot more scientific. So that's why I always suggest scaling with a digital scale.

In addition to being precise, baking requires a certain amount of focus. One thing that we've written about at Salon Food over the past couple of weeks is the notion of stress baking. I was interested in if you agreed with that notion, because it seems like baking is a really therapeutic act we can perform now more than ever during these uncertain times.

Yes. For me, there's a lot of things: The kitchen has been soothing, and calming and relaxing. It's the same motion, the same movement and that's very relaxing. The question I often ask people — and 95% of the people have the same answer. I always ask them, "What is the first thing you've ever, ever done in the kitchen as a kid?" And 95% of the people tell me it's something sweet. It's baking — it's either making cookies or making a pie with mom. It's fairly simple stuff that you do with someone.

Sometimes people say, "Pastries are too difficult, too scientific for me, too precise." When you look at childhood memories, it's funny because 95% of the people have the same answer. They baked. Baking is not scary when you're a kid, and you have someone with you to guide you through all the steps. That's actually fun for kids. It's exciting — it's something that you remember forever.

You might say it's the idea of being prepared, having someone with you and someone who wants to be with you. You read the recipe, you have all the ingredients and you're precise. Its actually invaluable. Yes, I think that baking has this effect on people, and I see it in my kitchen, as well. When chefs roll brioche and doughs, they're very focused. They're very calm. They're very relaxed. When you steam something and you whip cream, you mix something in that is boiling — it's very relaxing. It's just things in motion that put your mind into a stage where it's comfortable, and it's very soothing for me.

I was curious too when I was reading that in the book. Is one of your earliest memories of the kitchen also baking?

Most certainly, yes.

Do you remember what was one of the first things that you baked?

I think it was two things: I remember making crepes with my mum, and I also remember making what we call the yogurt cake in France, which is a very simple cake that we would do at home with yogurt. And we you used the yogurt cup as a measuring cup to scale out the rest of the ingredients. So, yes, baking was probably like one of my earliest childhood memories, as well.

We all like to cook or bake to feed something. For me, it connects me with my Mexican American culture. My grandmother is from Mexico, and some of my earliest memories are in the kitchen with her and my mom, who has since passed away. I feel like I cook to feed and nourish those memories. Why do you bake? Are you nourishing something?

I think that baking for me is very emotional. It brings people together no matter how, when, where. It doesn't matter — it brings people together. Some of my earliest childhood memories actually are family dinners, where we were like 12, 14, 20 people eating together. The food was good, but the food was just an excuse to bring people together. I see that in the bakery now every day. I see it in a different way now, because when people come to the bakery, I see their eyes wide open when they bite into something they really enjoy and the smile on their face — and it's very emotional for me. I bake to bring those emotions to people now, and I bake to make sure that they have the memories of those moments. It means a lot to me. It means that people appreciate, they understand and they won't forget it for a lot of different reasons.

I used to work at Martha Stewart Living, and we were big fans of you there. How did working with Martha influence you?

When I first came to America, I didn't know Martha, but I learned about her and I watched her show. I love everything that she does — not just when it comes to cooking or baking. I love that she's very knowledgeable, and she's very willing to learn and teach, as well. She knows a lot — she knows a lot of things, and she's passionate. I love that about Martha.

I remember going to her house once. We were doing an event there, and I was trying to get some pomegranate seeds out of the pomegranate. It's not something I had worked with a lot at the time, and she came to me. She was like, "Oh, that's not how you should be doing everything." She took the pomegranate in the house, and she flipped it upside down. She took the back of a spoon,  she tapped it and all the seeds came out. I was like, "Oh, my good, I've never seen this before." My mind was just blown away. I was like, "Oh, of course it makes sense."

She's very knowledgeable about baking and cooking, and she shares everything she knows. She has the biggest heart, and I love this about her. She's very humble, and when she's on the show or she's with people, she asks questions because she cares. And she really wants to know, and she truly wants to learn. We've done a lot of things together, from the radio show to shooting different TV shows together. I love being with her. I love seeing her every time.

I just had a few quick questions about some of the recipes our readers will be sure to love. When it comes to chocolate, you said you believe more is more. Why is that?

I think the chocolate is such a novel product and if you do something with chocolate, it has to be very chocolatey. You shouldn't skimp on the quality of chocolate you buy. You shouldn't skimp on the chocolate that you mix together, the textures — so always, more chocolate. If you do something with chocolate, do it very chocolatey.

When it comes to brownies, you love the end pieces. But the recipe in your cookbook yields the perfect compromise for someone who likes a soft and gooey brownie and someone who likes a crunchy brownie. How do you kind of achieve that equilibrium and please everyone?

I think it's the baking process — the way you bake it, the pressure of your oven and the pan that we use. It can get all tricky. I know people that like both the crunchy part and the soft part. Depending on how you bake it, you can really adjust this. If you like a softer brownie, cook it at a lower temperature for a little bit longer, so you keep everything pretty moist. And if you like something a little bit crunchier, bake it at a higher temperature for a little bit shorter period of time.

You like You add espresso syrup or a liqueur to your chocolate sponge. How does that elevate the flavor?

It's about these hidden ingredients. When you don't tell people, it gives a different dimension to the pastry. It gives a different dimension to the flavors. Sometimes, I make jams and add a little bit of a liqueur, and it just enhances the flavors of what you're working with. The coffee works very well with chocolate. If you put a tiny bit of coffee with chocolate, it gives a different dimension to the chocolate. And it makes you salivate a little bit more — makes everything change in your mouth when you taste it without even knowing it. It's that hidden ingredient that makes everything taste better. 

Like this interview as much as we do? Click here to purchase a copy of Dominique Ansel's "Everyone Can Bake."

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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