A star has risen.
Dana Cree knows a thing or two about the sweet life—nominated for the Outstanding Pastry Chef Award by the James Beard Foundation in 2014 for her outstanding work at Chicago’s renowned Blackbird and Avec—Dana is also the founder of The Pastry Department a blog that shares tips and sheds light on the ins and outs of a restaurant pastry department. Home pastry enthusiasts listen up!
Here, Dana generously shares her story and her stellar Ginger Chip Cookie recipe, just in time for the holidays.
Who inspired you to become a pastry chef?
My grandmother was a home economics teacher, and weekends with her were like little baking and pastry workshops. By the time I was in high school I was receiving dessert cookbooks, and making chocolate tortes from Jacque Torres’s books to bring to school for class parties. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t baking something, and I knew by the end of high school I wanted to work in the field. I envisioned myself with a little bakery of my own one day.
What I didn’t know was that there was a world of pastry outside of bakeries. When I was a senior in high school my dad, who worked construction, was invited to dine at a restaurant he had helped build. It was modern fine dining; something I didn’t even know existed. At the end of the meal we were handed dessert menus, and when I opened the up I saw a woman’s name at the bottom, with the title “pastry chef” at the end. I knew in that instant I wanted my name on the bottom of a menu like that someday.
I enrolled in The Art Institute of Seattle’s culinary school after finishing my associates degree, thinking the way into restaurants was to cook. When I neared completion of the culinary program, I transferred into the schools new baking and pastry program when it opened. I started working in boutique fine dining restaurants on the savory side, and after 3 years found myself at The Fat Duck. I saw a fully functioning pastry department in that restaurant, and my path became much clearer.
I returned to Seattle, and took a pastry chef job at Eva, a small farm-to-table wine bar tucked away in a neighborhood called Tangletown. I had no business taking on a pastry chef title, but they gave it to me anyways, and I worked hard to prove to them their faith in me was not misplaced.
How does your blog The Pastry Department and your work at Avec and Blackbird coincide?
The blog was titled The Pastry Department; a simple clue to let you know the blog is a look inside a professional pastry department in a restaurant setting. I wanted to open a window into what we are doing, so other professionals and curious enthusiasts could look in on us. The materiel for the blog comes directly from our daily adventures and a dish we are currently featuring on our menu inspires each post. I’ve found each dish often has quite a story behind it, either in its origin, or in the unique and interesting ingredients or techniques we are using.
When I took my first pastry chef title, I was ill prepared having never worked for another pastry chef before. I combed the Internet and every book I could find for any scrap of information that would help me become a pastry chef. This blog is our way of putting that information back out into the world, sharing everything we are working on at Blackbird and Avec with other pastry professionals, in hopes that if we have something they are looking for, they will find it on the blog.
What’s most exciting about the Chicago food scene right now?
I’ve been really excited to see Food Trucks starting to emerge in Chicago. When I moved here 3 years ago there weren’t any! I had become used to the vibrant food truck scene in Portland, Seattle, and LA when I lived on the west coast, and was really disappointed when Chicago was vacant. Food trucks allow people to create really personal food on a small scale casual level, and is always so much fun to eat. I really like The Salsa Truck, their tacos are ridiculously delicious, and the Salsa de la Casa is the best salsa I’ve ever had. I also really like the Doner Men, who are making the kind of Doner Kebap I get when I visit my sis in Germany, are really killing it.
What would you do and where would you eat on your perfect day off in Chicago?
On my perfect day off in Chicago, I’d love to wake up a little late, then have a breakfast of coffee and an everything croissant at Beurrage in Pilsen. After that, I’d love to drive up to Evanston, and visit the Bahai Temple, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. A walk along the beach there, then maybe just some wings for a snack before heading back down to Paulina Meat Market on my way home, and maybe a couple howlers at Half Acre. My guy is a better cook than I am, and my perfect evening would end with us cooking dinner together, then settling into a quiet evening at home with some good beer, a game or two of darts, and a movie.
Do you have one simple recipe you could share with us?
This is my favorite cookie anytime of the year, but it’s particularly fitting around Christmas with its spicy ginger and molasses flavor.
The secret to these cookies is a little brightness from the addition of fresh grated lemon zest, and a heap of chopped crystalized ginger. I buy the flat disks of crystalized ginger, then hand chop them into 1/4 inch pieces. It takes a little while, but it’s the hardest part of making these cookies, which require a simple mix of the wet ingredients, then the dry. If chopping candied ginger deters you from trying the recipe, leave them out instead. I’d hate for this delicious cookie to slip through your fingers. The batter can be scooped immediately, but is easier to handle after a good chill in the refrigerator, and is extra tasty rolled in large crystals of raw sugar before being baked.
Ginger Chip Cookies
2/3 cup canola oil
1/3 cup dark molasses
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
3/4 tsp sea salt
zest of 1 lemon
2 cups AP flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground clove
1/2 tsp fresh grated nutmeg
1 cup chopped crystallized ginger
2 cups large crystal raw sugar for coating the cookies
1. Place the oil, molasses, sugar, egg, vanilla, sea salt, and lemon zest in the bowl of a kitchen aid stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed for one minute.
2. Add the chopped crystallized ginger and mix until evenly distributed.
3. Sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg. Add to the batter and mix on low speed until the dough is even. Transfer the dough to a bowl and cover with plastic. Chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
4. When the dough is cold enough to hold it’s shape when scooped, begin scooping out batter, about 2 tablespoons at a time, into the raw sugar. Coat each cookie in turbinado and roll into balls.
5. Place the cookies on a cookie sheet, giving them room to grow over twice their size. Bake the cookies at 350 for 8 to 10 minutes, turning the pan half way through. The cookies should be removed after they have puffed up, formed a crackled crust, and are just beginning to collapse, which happens between 8 to 10 minutes. If you prefer a crispier cookie, bake them for 3 extra minutes. Allow the cookies to cool on the cookie sheet before removing them.
These cookies hold well in an airtight container for up to 5 days, or a month in the freezer, and extras make incredible ice cream sandwiches.