Interview: Baker Nick Malgieri
Since I’m on an Italian fling here, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to interview Nick Malgieri, whose fabulous recipe for Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies I recently featured on the site. Nick is one of the most knowledgeable bakers in the world, frequently hobnobbing with such luminaries as Pierre Hermé and Dorie Greenspan, swapping recipes and baking techniques. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from Nick’s books myself, which range from the ultimate treatise on cookies, to one of the most beautiful books on chocolate in my vast collection.
Nick was the pastry chef at Window’s On The World restaurant, and recently voted one of the Ten Best Pastry Chefs in America (I am sure I was #11…) by Pastry Art and Design and Chocolatier magazines. Currently, Nick instructs professionals at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, and is a popular teacher across the US.
I also owe Nick quite a bit of gratitude, since when I started writing cookbooks, he was extremely generous with information and guidance when I was learning the process and I think this generosity comes across in his writing, as he shares his repertoire of recipes to home bakers everywhere. And I also have Nick to thank for a terrific quote that I’ve referred back to many times in my life, mostly when I’ve needed a little emotional pick-me-up:
“Bake something…you’ll feel better,” he says.
Which somehow always seems to work!
David: Before we get started, I just have to say that I love the last part of the title of your new book: Perfect Light Desserts: Fabulous Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and More Made with Real Butter, Sugar, Flour, and Eggs, All Under 300 Calories Per Generous Serving.
Nick: There are those of us who really like to bake, but having a whole cake around can be awfully hazardous for someone living alone. So this book is a pretty welcome gift to those of us who love to bake but are wary of having a towering, three-tiered chocolate cake with buttercream frosting sitting on the counter everytime we pass by.
D: Really. And as mentioned, the ‘Per Generous Serving’ is also intriguing, because if you look at the small print on many ‘light’ recipes, the serving size reads, “1/4 cup of chocolate pudding per person”. Who the heck eats 4 tablespoons of chocolate pudding for dessert? Why did you feel that was necessary to include that in the title?
N: Too many recipes are ‘lightened’ by merely reducing the portion size. I remember I once got a low-fat baking book to review and realized that the breakfast scones in one of the recipes were 2 inches in diameter…hardly what we would consider a real portion size. So, early on, I decided that all the portions had to be the same size as for higher calorie desserts.
D: What made you tackle the particular difficult subject of lightening up desserts?
N: About 12 or 13 years ago, my co-author David Joachim was the cookbook editor at Rodale, a health-oriented publishing house. He asked me to do a book like this one, but I was too busy with other projects. In the intervening years, David left Rodale. I ran into him at the IACP conference about 4 years ago and suggested we follow up on his idea and do the book together. I had done some low-calorie dessert recipes for classes over the years, so I felt confident in developing the recipes. David supplied the healthy eating expertise…
D:…and you supplied the chocolate! You know, Nick, I own a gazillion cookbooks, but I am fairly certain I have each and every one of yours. You’ve covered everything a baker could want, from cake-making, to perhaps my favorite of all your books, Cookies Unlimited, a very comprehensive collection of cookie recipes from all over the world. Where do you come up with all the ideas and recipes in your books?
N: Why David, I thought you knew…I steal all the recipes from your books!
Seriously, though, I worked in lots of hotels and restaurants early in my career and have been a passionate recipe collector since I was a teenager. Plus, I own over 8,000 cookbooks and frequently adapt recipes from the classics of baking literature. I’m also very careful about attribution, and if I use a recipe from a written source, or even one passed along by a friend, I always state it.
D: No wonder I like your recipes so much!
On second thought, my agent will be in touch…
Anyhow, since I seem to be going backward in this interview, let me ask you about your background. You were a highly-regarded pastry chef until you became a full-time teacher and cookbook author. And now you teach baking, both to professional and home cooks. Do you miss working in the restaurant world?
N: I developed my love of baking from the example of my maternal grandmother who lived with us when I was a child. She loved to bake and was also very good at it. Though I never learned a recipe from her, I credit her with inspiring me. After college, I attended culinary school instead of graduate school and made an apprenticeship (all around the kitchen) in Switzerland. My first all-pastry job was for the opening of the new Sporting Club (casino, fancy restaurant, and floor show during the long summer season) in 1974. I did 3 summer seasons there and once also worked a winter season at the Reserve de Beaulieu, a lovely small hotel with a 2-star Michelin kitchen, not far from Cap Ferrat.
Then I worked the opening of Windows on the World in 1976 with then-executive pastry chef Albert Kumin, who had been one of my teachers at the CIA and was the one who urged me to go to Switzerland. I stayed at Windows on and off until 1980, when I pretty much started teaching full time at the old New York Cooking Center which eventually became the now-defunct New York Restaurant School.
I left there in late 1983 and started teaching for Peter Kump at his new location on East 92 street in September 1984, mostly part-time and still working as a pastry chef, until late 1985 when I started my 100 jobs in one career of teaching, writing, traveling to cooking schools all over North America and doing my first book, Perfect Pastry, which was published in 1989.
I don’t really miss working in restaurants, mostly because of the repetitive nature of that type of work, plus the awful hours and working every holiday. I don’t think I work less hard now, but I have more control over my own schedule, which I love.
D: Wow, 1989…you were writing cookbooks when I was still in diapers!
Okay, just kidding. I’m getting you back for the earlier comments.
That’s actually pretty amazing that you’ve been doing this successfully as long as you have. Especially nowadays when quality cookbooks seems to be getting edged off the shelf in favor of gimmicky books. I’m glad that people are still baking at home.
Since you teach both home cooks and professionals, what’s the difference between what you teach them?
N: Although I explain a lot about techniques, in general, when I teach home-baking classes, the emphasis is on the recipe. I believe home cooks want to learn some great recipes that they can accomplish with a minimum of time and effort, whether it’s cooking or baking.
Career-training instruction stresses lots of information about ingredients, how they work together, and how formulas work, as well as a lot of emphasis on technique over recipes. Our professional baking curriculum might cover ways to prepare a fruit-based Bavarian cream for example, and then let the students loose with everything from fresh strawberries to frozen passion fruit puree to turn the basic technique into finished desserts.
D: You teach all over the world, so what are your favorite things to teach?
N: Well, I teach mostly in the United States and Canada, though I have been to Australia twice to teach and once gave an impromptu class at a fancy home-cooking school in Italy (I made apple pie and chocolate chip cookies!). I don’t necessarily have favorites, though I try to balance the things I teach, whether they are pastry dough based, cakes, cookies, creams, ices, or chocolates, with a range of difficulty, so that there are some great tasting recipes that are really easy to make and some others that are a little more challenging for the experienced bakers.
D: Here’s a tricky subject, but it’s been on my mind and I wanted to get your opinion. With globalization and the international popularity of food blogs and the internet, it seems recipes and food writing has to have more international appeal. Yet Americans in general are reluctant to adopt the metric system. Why do you think that is?
N: We were all set to go metric about 30 years ago and it got stalled somehow, then never surfaced again. I don’t necessarily think it’s up to the population to decide; it was a government issue when it was being considered years ago. The fact remains that American home baking uses volume measure in cups and spoons, just as the British use pounds, ounces and 20 fluid-ounce Imperial pints. Most of the rest of the world uses metric weight for non-liquids and metric volume measure (liters, milliliters, etc.) for liquid. The Canadians have created a hybrid metric system and use milliliter measuring cups for dry ingredients, something unique to them. It all boils down to one thing, though: if you measure accurately, whether in pounds, grams, or cups your recipe will turn out successfully.
D: Well, my theory is that American like high numbers. It doesn’t sound so exciting to say, “Wow, it was 30 degrees today!” as it does to say, “Wow, it was 100 degrees today!”
I’m now writing recipes in both, including the recipes for my forthcoming book, which was a challenge double-testing everything. It was like writing two books at once!
N: Since you live in New York City, there are so many new and exciting dessert places opening, like Room 4 Dessert, Chikalicious, Chocolate Bar, and Magnolia Bakery. What exciting you the most right now about American baking?
N: Well, there’s a distinct difference between baking and the kinds of desserts you’ll find at Room 4 Dessert or Chikalicious. Those are mostly ices, mousses, foams, and crumbles…actually very little of which has ever seen either a stove top or an oven. Other places, mostly retail bakeries, are falling back on old-fashioned American baking traditions, and some are actually doing it very well. I love Billy’s Bakery on 9th Avenue in Chelsea, where they make cupcakes, tall layer cakes, and nostalgic desserts of all kinds, and they actually taste as good as they look, unfortunately not always the case with some of the other places…
Chocolate Bar, by the way, is a great place too, especially since they buy in most of what they serve, allowing them to choose the best available.
N: No idea, it sounds disgusting.
D: Do you find any current or upcoming culinary trends troubling or annoying?
N: Well, some of the “science project” food can be a little troubling at times…I don’t know if I would really like to have a dish in a restaurant that included sniffing Kleenex sprayed with different scents to accent the flavor of the food. But at the same time, if no one ever tries anything new, then things would stagnate. Nouvelle Cuisine was considered outlandish 30 years ago, yet many of the dishes and approaches to preparing and serving food that developed then have been absorbed into our everyday culinary vocabulary and are no longer considered strange, though I don’t think the scented Kleenex will ever become very widespread.
D: Thank goodness. I don’t like the idea of eating a used Kleenex either.
Okay, it’s hero worship time. You were one of my role models with your excellent cookbook, Chocolate: From Simple Cookies to Extravagant Showstoppers, presenting an array of recipes, from easy to more challenging. I love that! So if you want to make some brownies or chocolate cookies, you can pick up the book and go to the kitchen. Or if you want to make the ultimate chocolate cake with elaborate chocolate ruffles and embellishments, you offer details for the home cook to do that too. Since I’m asked this all the time, can you tell us a little about what kinds of chocolate you like to use, and why? What’s important to look for when evaluating chocolate?
N: In the past 30 years I’ve used a lot of different chocolates and tasted even more. Nowadays we’re lucky…we can get chocolate from all over the world in an average supermarket, something that wasn’t true when I started teaching in 1979. When Peter passed away and our new owner, Rick Smilow changed the name of the school to the Institute of Culinary Education, we lost most of our staunchly French orientation and became an American cooking school. I wanted to find an American chocolate that could function like the European ones I was accustomed to using: Callebaut, Valrhona, Lindt, etc. After tasting a variety of what was available, I settled on Guittard’s E. Guittard line of chocolate, made very much in the European tradition, but right in the United States.
The only way to know what chocolate is best for you is to taste what’s available, then make a few recipes you know well with them: it’s the only way to really know if the chocolate that tastes good all alone will work well in the things you like to bake and prepare with chocolate.
D: Do you ever use chocolate extract? It’s not a product many people are familiar with, but I love it and add it to just about everything I make with chocolate?
N: I had some a while ago, but never really tried it…sounds intriguing.
D: It’s actually one of my favorite products. When my first book came out, I got an email from someone who went to the same college as I did, saying his family’s been making it for over 100 years. I love adding it to chocolate desserts. It’s a pretty nifty product.
Do you have any favorite chocolate desserts in your new book?
N: Well, the first chapter of the book is all chocolate desserts…there’s a really great Chocolate Mousse (photo above), a Devil’s Food Cake with White Icing, and a Chocolate Banana Custard Tart that are particular favorites of mine.
D: I’m not just saying this to flatter you, but you probably know more about baking techniques and ingredients than anyone else I can think of. You’re really a walking encyclopedia of baking knowledge. What subjects are you curious about? What’s next for Nick?
N: Next is a big book about how we bake nowadays. I just finished it and it will be published worldwide by Dorling Kindersley in Fall 2008. It’s actually going to include a bit of encyclopedia; 25% of the book is a glossary of terms, ingredients, techniques, and equipment. Curiosity is never something I’m lacking and lately I’ve been reading up a lot about flour technology, new techniques for bread making (including minimal mixing to preserve the intrinsic flavor of the wheat used to make the flour), and my continuing quest, started about 40 years ago, to learn as much as possible about herbs, spices, and flavorings.
D: Well, you better get back to work. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat and next time I’m in New York, sounds like we have some seriously sweet eating to do!
Big thanks to Nick, who has graciously given me another recipe, Banana Loaf Cake, from his new book, Perfect Light Desserts, which I’ll be posting soon.
(Photos of chocolate truffles and chocolate mousse from Perfect Light Desserts by Tom Eckerle, used with permission from Morrow Publishing.)