1. Cracker The first cracker dough I learned was lean and simple: flour, salt, fennel, and water, rolled thin and baked hot. By a series of improbable events I’d wound up a pastry assistant at Cue, a restaurant in Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater. I had no experience, so the first assignments were tedious. Sake-soaked apricots had been cut into small dice that were not small enough, so it was my job, on my first day, to cut them smaller. I went at it in the sort of chiffonading flurry you see on cooking shows until the pastry chef—a fine talent who was a sufficiently difficult person that she’d be fired later that year—explained to me brunoise: perfect cubes of about an eighth of an inch square. (The actual phrase she used, not for the last time, was “very perfect.”) After I brunoised the apricots I peeled rhubarb, which is too fibrous to be peeled with a peeler: you take a knife to each end and, piece by piece, pull away the skin. It’s a graceful-looking act but it takes a long time.
The bakers across the counter from me rolled their cracker dough into perfect squares. Mine looked like somebody had thrown up shoe leather.
2. Puff pastry and croissant It was Margaret who later explained to me about dough: roll it diagonally, toward the corners, rather than top to bottom or side to side. Margaret, as I recall, was one of 13 children, from Catholic parents. All the boys were named Joseph and all the girls Mary and the kids went by their middle names: so Mary Margaret. Margaret lived with her dog. She’d come in to work at 2:30 or 3 AM just because she wanted to. She had a terrible attitude and I took to her immediately.
At Margaret’s pastry station she measured flour on an old-fashioned scale, with counterweights, and she rolled dough with the heaviest pin I’ve ever seen. I suppose I’d thought the culinary arts were all art until I learned from Margaret how much science—raw skill—is involved. The edges of the dough she rolled were perfect, like hospital corners.
Margaret taught me puff pastry and croissant. Both involve the same general method: You make a dough and a butter block—literally pounds of butter, kneaded to a uniform mass—and then you encase the butter in the dough, forming a sort of envelope. Roll it out, fold it over itself, rest it; repeat until dozens or hundreds of discrete layers have formed.
3. Bread Margaret made rolls for dinner service until she handed the job off to me. Every day I’d poke around the prep cooler for herbs and cheeses I could throw into the next day’s bread, making the dough that day, chilling it overnight, and baking it in the morning. The Guthrie was a godawful-ugly new building with a clunky balcony stretching over the Mississippi; sometimes I’d go out and watch the steam rise over the river at dawn. The finest skill I learned was to shape two rolls in each hand at the same time, pushing them in circles against the counter. It had a pretty suggestive look to it.
4. Pie After I moved to Chicago—Margaret gave me a Julia Child cookbook and a tie-dyed shirt as a parting gift—I worked for a slew of bakeries simultaneously, among them Celestial Kitchens, Floriole, and Hoosier Mama Pie Company. They all operated out of Kitchen Chicago, at that time a tiny space in Ravenswood Manor. On Fridays I’d work for them all in succession, ending late at night with HMPC (for whom, over the years, I’d peel a lot more rhubarb). The counter for rolling dough was set off from the rest of the kitchen, so I often worked there by myself, listening to This American Life and later, after midnight, bagging up the miniature fruit pies for the morning farmers’ markets.
5. Red velvet There’s little I hate like red velvet cake, of which I’ve only had one good version: at Big Jones, a couple years ago. It was a little disk of cake that tasted, in the best way, like soil—rich and iron-y—with a cream cheese semifreddo or cremeux or something. At the time I was working at a nearby restaurant where red velvet was the draw, so I was sometimes literally up to my elbows in the batter, which practically glowed—there was more than a cup of red food coloring in it. I had autonomy over the menu but for this one house recipe. The icing was a wet mass of powdered sugar. Even though it wasn’t my cake, people still ask me about it every time I’m in the restaurant.
6. Other cakes I made a lot of other cakes, too, none of which were as salable but all of which were better (in my opinion) than red velvet. Maybe the second most well received was a simple roulade, filled with lemon curd and strawberries and finished with whipped cream. I made it in June, four years ago, for the birthday of a boy I’d then been dating for only two months.