Baking Lessons From A Michelin-Starred Pastry Chef

Crucial baking advice from a Michelin-starred pastry chef

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It's Baking Month: Switch your oven on and get warm, cozy and festive with us this December.

What does a pastry chef do on her day off? Throw up her feet, order in Chinese and Netflix-binge?

Not so much for Pam Yung, the sweeter half of Semilla, an 18-seat Brooklyn restaurant she co-runs with her partner and chef, José Ramírez-Ruiz. After being open for a little over a year, the two have racked up more than a handful of stars, accolades and awards, making a Semilla reservation one of the hottest in the country. Though we love each and every 10-course dish on their tasting menu, it's the desserts and breads that make us swoon and think, How did she do that?

Yung graciously invited us into her teensy tiny kitchen to show us how she does it.

While Semilla was closed for the day, we "staged" with Yung. Staged is chef lingo for shadowing: watching, tasting and learning new ways to cook food. It was technically her day off, but you don't actually get downtime when you run one of the most original small restaurants in NYC. The dough starter has to be fed, a leak has to be fixed and a new dessert needs to be developed. For Yung, it's just another day. For us, it's a golden opportunity to learn tips from a true pro.

Yung mixes her dough first thing in the morning, letting it slowly ferment overnight before baking the next day.

Yung ferments soaked oats before cooking them, which ultimately become porridge bread for dinner service.

Though Yung sticks to a basic recipe, she says there is always room for experimentation once you understand the feel of the dough.

Quince from the farmers' market.

Sliced quince rings ready for the plancha.

Yung making her Arbois-vinegar poaching liquid.

Charred quince rings.

Charred quince rings gently poaching on the stove.

Yung kneading her porridge dough with the help of a towel to stabilize the rocking bowl.

Quince. It's what's for dessert. Yung uses her day off to tinker with new ideas, and for her next dessert, she's using quince, pear and apple's perfumed cousin. The traditional cooking method is to cook it slow, allowing the fruit to turn soft and jammy. Though this yields a deep, beautiful rose color, the fruit's texture and aroma get lost.

Yung is determined to keep that texture and aroma. After rubbing the fuzz off the fruit's skin, she uses a mandoline to cut perfectly thin, round slices and plops them into lemon water, so they don't oxidize. After slicing two quinces, she punches out the center of each with a small round cutter, saving the scraps, and blots them dry with a paper towel.

Onto a hot plancha they go until charred on one side. Next, they're poached in an intoxicating mixture of white balsamic vinegar, amazake vinegar, a pinch of sugar and a hefty pour of Arbois, a slightly funky Jura wine that comes in a magnum bottle almost as big as she is.

The result? Pickled ribbons of scorched fruit that have never tasted so delicious. We'll be doing the same this holiday, searing quince or apple slices on a cast-iron skillet; poaching them in white wine, balsamic vinegar and rice wine vinegar; and serving them over vanilla ice cream.

Don't throw away fruit scraps. Yung and Ramírez-Ruiz use all rinds and peels making every conscious effort to minimize waste, and also because even those scraps are always packed with flavor. With a little love and creativity, unwanted quince cores turn into jams, jellies, lacto-fermented sodas and simple syrup.

Chestnut cream is delicious, if you didn't already know. The smooth, luscious chestnut cream on Yung's dessert menu will upgrade a bowl of oatmeal, stack of pancakes or PB&J. At Semilla, she scores and roasts them whole, peels off their skins then braises them in a sweet vanilla milk-and-cream mixture until velvety and tender. The mixture blends easily into a silky smooth purée and lightens up with meringue and a generous dollop of whipped cream. At home, a quick and easy cheat is to pour a jar of chestnut butter into a large bowl and fold in whipped cream with a drizzle of honey until it becomes a light and fluffy chestnut-y cloud.

Save your whey. The liquid that accumulates at the top of your (local and organic) yogurt is extremely nutritious and flavorful. The cooks at Semilla use whey to balance rich and creamy dishes just as one would with lemon juice or vinegar. Yung pours water and whey over her oats, allowing them to soak and ferment for a day before cooking them into a porridge and folding into bread dough for her famous bread-and-butter course. (Semilla buys whey from Lucky Dog Organic, a co-op hub in Upstate New York, or from Tonjes Farm Dairy, which has a stand at the Union Square Greenmarket.)

Follow basic baking rules, but not all of them! The grand finale is Yung's famous bread, a crusty loaf with a springy and aromatic sourdough crumb. She uses an exceptionally high-quality flour, which she works hard to source locally, and sometimes she even mills her own in-house. (For the home cook, she recommends using Central Milling, Maine Grains, Farmer Ground and Anson Mills.)

Besides using awesome flour, like any serious baker, Yung relies on a digital scale to weigh out ingredients in grams, which is critical for success. Cup measurements aren't enough to rely on for near-consistent results, and Yung's recipes are based off of a ratio of the total weight of the flour.

Beyond technique and proper weight amounts, Yung never feels like she's bound by the parameters of a recipe and is constantly experimenting. She's on a never-ending hunt to find new local and heirloom grains to make. The big takeaway she has for home cooks? No flour is created equal, but when it's local and fresh, your end result will be nothing short of incredible.