Pure Dessert: Q&A with Alice Medrich

Caramel-Glazed Cardamom Palmiers

She’s known in many circles as the "First Lady of Chocolate", and if you have even a passing interest in the stuff you probably know the name well. Alice Medrich is, of course, the founder of the legendary Berkeley, California patisserie Cocolat (which I’ve previously written about here), and the best-selling author of cookbooks such as Cocolat, Chocolate and the Art of Lowfat Desserts, and Bittersweet. It’s her most recent release, however, that seems to be taking the world by storm. Pure Dessert, published last September by Artisan, is Medrich’s first book not centered on the theme of chocolate, and it features none of the dramatic, complex creations that made her famous. Instead, it’s about dessert in its most basic, fundamental form, and specifically, how we can use ingredients like different flours, sugars, dairy products and aromatics to create things that are as elegant as they are simple. I was so intrigued by the concept – and in love with the results – that I asked Alice if she would mind chatting a bit about the book and how her approach to dessert has changed over the years. Happily, she agreed.

Pure Dessert represents a somewhat new direction for you, as it’s not about chocolate. Where did the inspiration come from to write it, and what did you learn in the process?

Working with chocolate in the last 10 years lead me here. I began to notice that better chocolate seemed to demand simpler recipes. To honor superb chocolate, you don’t want complicated recipes or any dish that is overburdened with too many other flavors, or too much sugar or fat either for that matter.  I took that idea and applied it to other ingredients… It wasn’t big shift anyway. I’ve always gravitated towards simplicity and clarity. I’ve always tried to create recipes that bring out the best characteristics of my ingredients.  This book allowed to to experiment. I learned that whole grains could be used in tender buttery indulgent cookies and cakes without making them taste or feel like health food, how to get the most dramatic results with raw sugars, how to use herbs and spices in unusual ways, how best to showcase fresh cheeses in dessert, what to do with fabulous vodka (other than sipping it) and a zillions other things, all shared in the book.  

I know this is a terrible question to ask a cookbook author, but which of all the recipes in Pure Dessert would you be happiest to see on your own dessert plate tonight?

No it’s not a fair question, so I’ll give you an unfair answer! This would depend on my mood…. If I felt like indulging in sophisticated chocolate, I’d choose the Italian Chocolate Almond Torte with lots of whipped cream or Citron Vodka Chocolates. If I just needed comfort food I’d go to My Chocolate Pudding or Ginger Snaps or Nutella Bread Pudding. If something sexy was needed, I’d pick Saffron and Cardamom or Jasmine Panna Cotta. With a cosy cup of tea I’d pick Sesame Cake or Sherry and Olive Oil Poundcake… I could go on, but you get the picture. 

Your recipes have always been much-loved for being virtually foolproof, down to the last detail. Tell me about your development and testing process. How many incarnations does a typical recipe of yours go through?

Sometimes I get lucky and my idea translates itself into a good recipe in two or three tries. Sometimes I go a little crazy. I occasionally make two dozen tries before I am satisfied with a recipe. This is not because the 8th or 12th try isn’t good, but because I get hooked on how each small change affects the outcome. I rationalize this "waste of time" by calling it an investment in education that will serve me in the future. Sometimes my out-takes get developed into new recipes weeks or even years later…

Your earlier books have a lot of complex, showstopping creations, while the recipes in Pure Dessert are all about simplicity and letting the flavor of the ingredients shine through. Does this shift in recipe style reflect a change in the way you cook and bake generally?

When as a pastry chef in my own shop, it was easy to create new show stopping multi component desserts. I could stroll around the kitchen and find all the elements: different kinds of cake bases, butter creams, caramelized nuts, whipped cream, a variety of liqueur syrups, lemon curd…everything was there for me.  It was easy to concoct a new dessert.  The harder part (and I was good at this!) was breaking down the recipes steps so that the home cook could make those elaborate desserts successfully. I built my original reputation as a cookbook author by empowering the ambitious home cook to succeed with really complex recipes. But when I stopped working as a professional pastry chef, I began to relate more to the home cook (after all I too was baking at home myself!). I started focusing on recipes that were superb but simple, and perfect for busy cooks who had family responsibilities and/or jobs outside the home. I felt I was writing for people who knew good food and wanted to serve it at home, but didn’t have endless hours to prepare a multi part dessert.

There is a lovely symmetry in all this: I started my career with the simplest French chocolate desserts and chocolate truffles. Now, I can’t literally say I am coming full circle, because I am in a different place than when I started. I am working with different ingredients and different influences. You could say, that after 30-plus years, I am still learning and growing. I could say that I am re-inventing my own idea of simplicity.  

When you opened Cocolat in 1976, you were quite a culinary pioneer. Even in Berkeley there wasn’t anything comparable to the sophisticated European desserts you were producing, but thanks to Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, the city was already gaining notoriety as a gourmet hotspot. Do you think being in Berkeley contributed to Cocolat’s success? How did your customers’ tastes evolve over the years you ran Cocolat?

There was so much excitement around the corner of Shattuck and Vine. We (Alice Waters, Jeremiah Towers, Alfred Peet, the Cheeseboard collective, Lenny the Butcher, etc.) were showing people what food, coffee, cheese, chocolate, and desserts could taste like. We weren’t conducting focus groups to provide what people thought they wanted so much as teaching people what was possible, what they COULD want! Sounds arrogant, but it’s really true. One of the things that made it work was Berkeley. Everyone in Berkeley was hungry, curious, and enthusiastic about new tastes and experiences.
One thing that astonished me when I read it was that when you started Cocolat, you had no experience baking professionally (or running a business!). Tell me about what prompted you to start the business, and some of the challenges your inexperience posed. Did you ever in your wildest dreams suspect the business would be as successful as it was, and make your name as well-known as it did?

I suppose
, like many of the Shattuck and Vine innovators of the time, ignorance was bliss and passion was our fuel. I wanted to do it. I knew my desserts were better than anything sold, and I didn’t have any ideas how difficult it might be. But then, there were others on the street that were similarly idealistic and they seemed to be doing it. And, purely from a business perspective, the cost of getting started was far less then than now, even in relative terms. I was able to start out with a fairly simple store front decorated with vintage posters and outfitted with used showcases and equipment. It wasn’t necessary to seduce the public with a glamorous store that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in borrowed capital to build. The desserts and chocolate themselves wooed the clientele. It was all about delicious and beautiful hand-made desserts made with excellent ingredients….always excellent ingredients. The idea of Pure Dessert actually started there and then for me.

I think everybody had their favorite Cocolat creation, but for me (like many, I’m sure!), Cocolat’s highlight was unquestionably the truffles. I loved the funny story you put in your book Bittersweet about how they were born of ignorance and ineptitude, far bigger than they should have been and requiring constant refrigeration because the chocolate wasn’t tempered. Despite that, I can honestly say I’ve never eaten better truffles anywhere, and I think a lot of people would say the same. How did you hit upon that completely untraditional but sensational method?

Actually I learned to make those very untraditional truffles dipped in untempered chocolate from a little old lady in Paris. (This was a different little old lady from my French land lady. From her I learned to make truffles with eggs and butter instead of cream—my personal favorites–the recipe for which is also in Bittersweet).  At the time, I knew so little about the technical aspects of chocolate that I didn’t quite realize the down side of not tempering (having to keep the product refrigerated). But neither did I understand the enormous benefit of not tempering, which was the quick and exciting melt in your mouth sensation on the palate. The truffle technique she taught me should never have been applied to a commercial product; it should have remained at home. But luckily I didn’t know any better. Later when I realized that what I was doing was "not very professional", I also knew that people were over the moon about the truffles precisely because of my "not very professional" technique. And also because the truffles were very chocolaty compared to the very sweet chocolate candies of the day. The truffles were an entirely new experience and they blew people away. Many people remember them as you do. I am not sure that they really are better than the best on the market today, but I love hearing that they are!

What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you before you opened Cocolat? What advice can you give to others looking to enter the baking and pastry professions?

Passion is very important. And the ability to work harder than you ever thought you could will help as well. But planning and financial expertise is essential too, more than ever. If you don’t have it, find it.

Can you reveal what’s next on the horizon for you?

I love to create cookbooks because I learn so much doing it. I may never stop that activity. But I still love to create new products, even if it is for other people…. We’ll see.



Caramel-Glazed Cardamom Palmiers

If you like the classic puff-pastry palmiers, you will love these kissing cousins with their haunting fragrance and sweet-salty crunch. I made a batch of these last week, planning to give most of them away, but made the mistake of not packaging them up immediately. Within twenty-four hours they were gone. I would like to believe that little fairies came during the night and helped themselves to the vast majority, but that would be unfair to the cookies. Yes, they are that good, and yes, you have been warned.

Source: Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich
Yield: 48 cookies

2 1/2 cups (11.25 oz/320g) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
8 ounces (225g/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
8 ounces (225g) cold cream cheese

For the cardamom sugar:
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom (freshly ground if possible – it really does make a difference)
2 large pinches fine salt

Combine the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly to distribute the ingredients. Cut each stick of butter into eight pieces and add them to the bowl. Pulse until the butter resembles coarse bread crumbs. Cut the cream cheese into pieces and add them to the bowl. Pulse again until the dough begins to clump together, about 30 seconds. Divide the dough in half and shape into 2 square patties. Wrap and chill until firm, about 4 hours.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it rest on the counter to soften slightly, 15 to 20 minutes. Meanwhile make the cardamom sugar. Mix the sugar with the cardamom. Transfer 2 tablespoons of the sugar mixture to a small cup and mix in the salt. Set aside.

Set aside half of the unsalted cardamom sugar for the second piece of dough. Sprinkle the work surface liberally with some of the remaining cardamom sugar. Set the dough on the sugared surface and sprinkle it with more of the sugar. Turn the dough frequently and resugar it and the work surface liberally as you roll the dough into a rectangle 24×8 inches (60x20cm) and less than 1/8-inch (1/3-cm) thick. Use the sugar generously to prevent sticking and to ensure that the cookies will caramelize properly in the oven. Trim the edges of the rectangle evenly.

Mark the center of the dough with a small indentation. Starting at one short edge, fold about 2.5 inches (6.5cm) of the dough almost one-third of the distance to the center mark. Without stretching or pulling, loosely fold the dough toward the center three times, leaving a scant 1/4” (.5cm) space at the center mark. Likewise, fold the other end of the dough toward the center three times, leaving a tiny space at the center. The dough should now resemble a long, narrow open book. Fold one side of the dough over the other side, as if closing the book. You should have an eight-layer strip of dough about 2 ½ inches wide and 8 inches long.

Sprinkle the remaining cardamom sugar under and on top of the dough. Roll gently from one end of the dough to the other to compress the layers and lengthen the strip to about 9 inches (23cm). Wrap the dough loosely in waxed paper (not plastic wrap, which causes moisture to form on the outside of the dough); set aside. Roll out, fold and wrap the second piece of dough with the remaining cardamom sugar. Refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes.

Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and heat the oven to 375F/190C. Remove one piece of dough from the refrigerator, unwrap it, and use a sharp knife to trim the ends evenly. Cut into 1/3-inch (.75cm) slices and arrange them 1.5 (3.75cm) inches apart on two ungreased cookie sheets. Bake until the undersides are golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes, rotating the pans from top to
bottom and front to back about halfway through baking.

Remove the pans from the oven and turn the cookies over. Sprinkle each one with a pinch or two of the reserved salted sugar mixture. Return the sheets to the oven until the cookies are deep golden brown, another 3 to 5 minutes. Rotate the pans and watch the cookies carefully at this stage to prevent burning. If the cookies brown at different rates, remove the dark ones and let the lighter ones continue to bake. Transfer the cookies to rack and let cool completely.

Remove the second piece of dough from the refrigerator, cut and bake. Let cool. The cookies can be kept in an airtight container for at least a week.


20 thoughts on “Pure Dessert: Q&A with Alice Medrich

  1. Thank you for this fantastic interview and insight! I have yet to get this book but it’s now on my list.And, as always, gorgeous gorgeous photo!

  2. I bought the book a few weeks ago and baked the coffee hazelnut cookies which turned out fantastic. She is truly talented at pairing flavors and keeping it simple. Thank you for the lovely interview. It was great to learn more about her.

  3. Hi, I love your blog. Was looking over the recipe for the palmiers. How much sugar did you use to make the cardamon sugar? I see the quantities for the cardamon and the salt, but no sugar.

  4. Nina – Sorry! The cup of sugar was listed in the wrong place. Hope everything’s clear now πŸ™‚

  5. Great interview Melissa! I was lucky enough to get to ever so briefly meet Alice here in Seattle this week. Such a lovely spirit! And Pure Desserts is such a great cookbook! Your palmiers look stunning.

  6. Thank you so much for this interview! I learned so much about chocolate from Alice’s Bittersweet book, and I’m so excited to dive into making recipes from Pure Dessert to learn more about her take on an even wider breadth of ingredients. She’s truly a genius.

  7. What a charming interview, and a lot of food for thought.Ms. Medrich is a real creative force, and also, seems to be a very nice lady. I am a total fool for anything cardomom, and must make some of these for my Christmas guests…and self. Do I really need another cookbook? Apparently, I do.

  8. she came by Portland, Oregon in November to promote her book too but sadly I couldn’t attend. she’s very creative lady, I like all her books.

  9. Hi, Melissa,I made these yesterday and they were astounding. But I had trouble achieving that deep caramel color. I used plenty of sugar to roll out the dough and they baked into perfect shapes, but that color alludes me. Any thoughts?Thanks,Sally

  10. I’ve just finished making puffed rice chocolate balls for Christmas, using an old, traditional Norwegian recipe. Then I came over here to read more about chocolate…….I am craving πŸ™‚

  11. I made these and served them with the Saffron Sherry Flan and they were a hit. Now, I am off the buy the book.

  12. Alice Medrich is simply brilliant. Last August, I flew from east coast to west coast just to attend her Professional Chocolate techniques class in San Fran. Recently, she was in DC just an hour and half from me and I attended her class there too. I simply cannot stop baking from her Pure Dessert book. I have made her saffron-card. panna cotta, her buckwheat cookies, chestnut pound cake , iced citron vodkas, Desire Brioche, chocolate almond torte and yesterday her sherry and olive oil pound cake. Everything was delicious and I agree all her recipes work!

  13. Sally – I wish I could offer some advice, but I’m kind of at a loss. Could it be the color of your baking sheets? Mine are black. That said, the sugar itself didn’t caramelize much on my cookies – the color mostly came from the browning of the dough.

  14. I bought this book after reading one of Orangette’s posts a few days ago. It just arrived in the mail and I so pleased with it! Absolutely beautiful and a great Christmas gift to myself!Happy Holidays!

  15. Hi, Melissa, Just was recalling Cocolat which I Googled and I came upon your most attractive blog. Ah, Cocolat…. I remember it well. Used to drive from Sacramento weekly to attend classes and always picked up a sweet morsel. I was aware that Cocolat was sold in the early 1990’s. I have found that the subsequent owners mismanaged a gem of a business. I have my own thoughts on turning a business like Cocolat into a Jr. Starbucks. Forget it. Cocolat was art. The men who purchased Cocolat were not artists and they failed. Thank goodness Alice M took to writing.

  16. Hey,I remembered seeing these from the book – had no cardamom so I used cinnamon instead. They turned out awesome! Thanks for putting up the recipe. I also had trouble making the dough brown (well, there were certainly some that browned but I think that was more from burning than from caramelizing). Regardless…A note to those who make it – don’t panic like I did when the shapes look very ugly upon first cutting them. They puff up perfectly πŸ™‚

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