"I bake for every emotion" — Zoë François on finding connection through cake

The host of "Zoë Bakes" opens up about love, cake and why most baking competition shows "make me anxious"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 4, 2022 5:45PM (EDT)

Zoë François

 ("Zoë Bakes" / Magnolia Network)
Zoë François ("Zoë Bakes" / Magnolia Network)

Zoë François knows that carob is a lie. She knows a blowtorch is an excellent kitchen tool. And she knows that it's okay to bake your feelings. The baker, recipe developer, author of several books, including "Zoë Bakes Cakes," is also the host of "Zoë Bakes" on Magnolia Network, now in its second season, and was recently a judge on the Magnolia special "Silos Baking Competition." She joined me on "Salon Talks" to discuss working one's way up to croquembouche, and why whatever else happens in life, "There's always a cake at the end of it."

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I want to ask you about this latest season, and the choices that you make in deciding, "This is going to be an episode about cheesecakes. This is going to be an episode about New Year's Eve. This is going to be episode about breakfast," and then incorporating the dishes and the stories of your friends and family. What was that process for you? What is the story you want this season to tell?

Each one is its own individual, and each one has a different inspiration. The cheesecake one that you mentioned was a direct request from my son. He loves cheesecake and wanted to do that episode with me.

I really love all baking and my mood changes daily in what I want to bake. I'm really lucky that with the show I get to do that. I get to play in all the different areas, do all kinds of different recipes. Sometimes it's inspired by somebody that I either know or I've heard about who's doing something really magnificent in my community and I want to go and see what they're up to. Then the recipes get inspired by that field trip. Sometimes it starts with a recipe and I figure out where I need to go in the community to make that recipe happen.

There isn't a basic formula to it, maybe because I don't know enough about how TV really works. They sort of come together organically, and I've been able to just go with whatever mood I'm in. I think I'm really lucky. 

One of the things I really appreciate about your style as a baker is you are ambitious for us, the home bakers. You say, "Look, people are going to be intimidated by pie dough. People are going to be intimidated by merengue." You just put it out there. You're not saying, "I don't know. Take it easy." You're just, "Let's make a croquembouche." You really go for it with us. 

I have to say, I was surprised the network went for that. I was so proud of myself and them and everybody that that happened.

I feel like so much of baking the conversation has to be around "Don't be afraid. It's going to be okay. Don't worry." But Zoë's like, "I'm going to bust out my blow torch." Baking is so much scarier for a lot of people than regular old cooking at the pot is. What do you want us to know about being ambitious for ourselves as bakers?

For me, it comes out of a genuine love of baking. I feel total joy and serenity and absolute love of not just the eating, and not just producing something beautiful. The process of it really is sort of my Zen place. Because that's how I feel about baking, I just naturally put that out into the world. I found out through writing the bread books, really, how intimidated people are by it. My way of being in baking is not necessarily how everybody feels. I really have to show not only my joy and my love of it but also sharing the techniques.

Really, it's one step at a time, and you get to a croquembouche. It's not like you have to know everything in the beginning. I will carry you through the entire process and show you how to do absolutely everything. It's just like any craft. We don't necessarily intuit how to do all of these things. But once you see it, it becomes accessible. It becomes doable.

So I think it's the combination of my genuine, innate love of this craft and my ability to teach. That's what I really discovered — that even more than being a baker, I'm a teacher and that's what I love to do. More than me producing something beautiful, I love to see what other people are making.

It's important to note that you give us a lot of off-ramps. Maybe you don't want to make an entire croquembouche. Maybe you're just going to make the cream puffs. That's okay. Or if you want to know about cake decorating, just work on decorating and do that. Do it with, as you've said, with mayonnaise or with butter and work on that.

That's exactly right. It's that piecing it all together. Going from the beginning.

When you're talking about croquembouche, it's this really basic dough called choux paste. And from there you can get a cream puff and then you just make enough cream puffs to glue them all together. And before you know it you're at a croquembouche.

Zoë, you had such an interesting origin story. You grew up on a commune, where you were told that raisins were candy. Obviously you took a swerve in the direction of the sugar, and yet there is still the influence and the impact of that upbringing in what you do. I want to ask you what that did for you and how that built you as a baker and what you bring into your baking now.

"The biggest lie they told me was that carob was chocolate."

In the beginning, I was so mad and resentful. What are you talking about? Raisins? And then the biggest lie was carob. They told me carob was chocolate. I don't even know that people still even know what carob is, but it's not chocolate.

At first it was a real rebellion to get into baking and pursue this thing that I was just not allowed to have as a child. As I got older and I learned more, I came to appreciate my parents, as we do when we get older, and how cool they were and what they were doing and what they were building and growing. They grew all of our food. They raised bees for honey. I realized — somewhat I have to admit, through making the show — how cool my folks are. And that they really weren't wrong in limiting the amount of sugar for a small child.

But it was that upbringing. It was that void of sweets that brought me to the career I'm in. Because I craved them and I wanted them and I wanted to know more about them.Now I feel like I have this better mix of understanding. And I love honey and maple syrup and whole wheat and all of the things I grew up with. I just have them in balance with all of the sugar and chocolate and delicious other things that there are on offer.

I can see in your story this love of community, love of food as a shared conversation. Bringing people together at the table, in the preparation, in the eating. It's very clear from your show, that is authentic. 

Thank you. That's the highest compliment. Because it's not just the food that's bringing us together, but it's also me going out and exploring my community. I don't think very many people know Minneapolis or Minnesota at all. We are such a food producing community, from the farming, from the agriculture standpoint, but also the bakers and the chefs and the restaurants that we have. It's been such a joy to have the freedom to go out into my community and show off all the incredible things that are happening here. It's also a little bit selfish because I get to learn what they're doing, I get to bring everybody into Minneapolis, but I also get to learn from what they're showing. It's basically a dream. 

And showing in that way that food is such an expression of love and is such an expression of joy, expression of grief, even. Food is a language for all of that and baking is a language for all of that.

"I bake for every emotion. When I'm stressed out or down or overjoyed or celebrating, there's always a cake at the end of it."

I bake for every emotion. When I'm stressed out or down or overjoyed or celebrating, It all happens. There's always a cake at the end of it. Everything that I need to say, I can say in food. It's also one of those things that there isn't an occasion, a wedding or a funeral, that you don't gather around a table and share a meal together. Or bring somebody food when they're in need. It's such a natural medium for gathering and community and expression. There's so much to be said with so many different things to eat.

And sometimes you want to say it with a Baked Alaska. But maybe that's not where we start. For people who are just considering going into the kitchen and want to get a little taste of the absolute high that I understand that comes from giving people cookies, what are some recipes or what are some dishes that you think are a good starting place?

Well, also I don't bake a croquembouche or Baked Alaska every day. I make chocolate chip cookies and I make blueberry muffins and banana bread. Those are my day to day things, or a loaf of bread. So I take you through all of my different moods. Sometimes it's the perfect blueberry muffin, or I make a star bread. That's so easy, and one of those things that's get the kids in the kitchen and get their hands in the dough. It's one of those things that's really fun to do together. There's very, very simple recipes on the show. And then, , there's some that are a little bit more of a project and a little bit more aspirational. They're both fun and I take you through how to do all of it.

The cool thing about baking is that it really doesn't take much to get a wow factor. The Dutch baby is one of the easiest things in the world to make. Or a parfait. You don't have to have a great deal of technical skill. 

Absolutely. Or equipment. I sent my son to college with a cast iron pan and that Dutch baby recipe. He makes them for himself at school. It's just one of those things that he will always make. We used to do it when he was little little. And like you're saying, the wow factor. That's a super basic simple recipe, but the wow factor is the seasonal fruit that you'd put on it or powdered sugar. You wouldn't think of powdered sugar as a wow factor, but it's that last little step that brings it all together. Simple can be spectacular.

For beginning bakers or bakers who are in a small kitchen, what are your absolute, ride or die, this has to be in my pantry these are the pieces of equipment that I'm in love with.

I'm on a bit of a crusade to get Americans to use scales. It's something that the rest of the world has all used and has been using forever. We are really the last people not to be using weights. It's just so much easier. It's so much more precise and consistent in your baking. So I would say a kitchen scale. They range in price from $20 to $100, so just a simple kitchen scale is great. I love my Danish dough whisk. It's a super basic, cool tool that I use for mixing bread dough and thick batters. Because it has this wire instead of a flat surface, it doesn't give as much resistance. I even travel with this. If I'm going somewhere, I always bring it. And it's a great gift too.

Of course my stand mixer, but not everybody has the room, the budget. And so you can really get away with not having one. If you can, great.

The pantry. There's some real basics for baking that almost every recipe has. Sugar, brown sugar, flour. One of the things that came out of the pandemic was the flour shortage. I think now we're back to having flour. What came out of it is that the big commercial flour companies weren't able to keep up with supply. So these tiny little local flour companies and millers took up the slack because they had flour. People discovered how delicious they were. So experiment with different kinds of flours in different recipes. And of course, baking powder, baking soda, all of those. Oh, I almost forgot butter.

Good butter. And good chocolate.

And good chocolate. Absolutely use whatever is your favorite chocolate. But if you ever have the opportunity to do a chocolate tasting. There's really a big difference in the different brands of chocolate. Give them all a try. There's a whole world out there. It's like wine. They all have their different flavor profiles, so it's fun and geeky.

One of the things this show does really well is it makes it clear that there is no one sacred text. There is no one ultimate anything. You talk to Sarah Keiffer about her absolutely wild, amazing, fantastic pan banging cookies. I'm curious, do you have a recipe that you feel, "I've stopped, I've done it. This is the perfect one." Or are you always tweaking?

I would say I'm always tweaking. That's mostly because of curiosity. Part of the love of this for me is the process, so I can never stop fiddling with it. I have to, because my publisher says I have to. I have to hand in the manuscript at some point. But there will always be more and more cakes I could have made. I could have put 500 cakes into that book.

I just love the process of it. I love what other people are doing. You brought up Sarah Keiffer. She's terrific and such a brilliant baker and thinks of things in different ways. I love that I get to collaborate with other bakers like that, too. Because even though I've been doing this for 30 years, I'm always learning and I'm always striving to learn. 

I want to ask you also about the "Silos" competition because that was such a lovely thing to watch. It's such a different thing outside of your usual zone. What did you learn from watching those bakers and their process?

I'm so glad that you described it as being a lovely thing to watch. Sometimes these competition shows make me so anxious. My whole spirit of being a baker and the spirit of my show is sharing what I know with people and trying to get them to love it and relaxing people into baking. Sometimes I feel like these competition shows are just frenzy and anxiety ridden. And I loved this. It was just a group of the most dedicated, passionate, not necessarily professional bakers. But they were so into it and they loved it so much and they loved it for each other. Which is a very rare thing to see on a competition show, that they're rooting for each other.

I'm getting goosebumps just talking about it. It all had just that right feeling. It shared. It was generous. There was definitely competition going on. I think each one of them had their own way of going through it. Now we know the winner, but she was just confident and quiet and steadfast in what she was doing. Others baked their things multiple times to make sure that they had just the right one.

It was a really fun experience for me. I think it's different than just about every other competition show out there. I'm glad for that. 

Zöe, I can't let you leave without asking you one last question I'm going to be an empty nester soon. I bake with love. I bake for the people I love. I will continue to bake for my guests. But also I want to know what can I do as a baker when I'm just baking maybe for one or for two. What's my thing? What am I going to do?

There's a couple of things that come to mind for me. One is going back to the scale. If you're baking with weights, it's really easy to cut a recipe in half. You can do that and just use a smaller pan. The one thing that you have to keep in mind is the baking time. If you're baking something smaller, it's not going to take as long to bake so you may want to check it halfway through and get a feel for it and figure out how long. The other thing is freezing. So if you're making a batch of cookies, what I do is I make the batch of cookies, I scoop them out and I freeze them, so that when I'm in the mood for a cookie I just take one of those cookie balls out of the freezer and I bake off one or two. That way I'm not feeling rushed to eat them because they might go stale, or feel compelled to eat them all because they're sitting there. The freezer can be a really good friend.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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