Zac Young was, by his own admission, a bit of a wild child. He misbehaved, wrecked a car or two in his teenage years, and his mother, Sue, took it all in stride—until the day she peeked under his mattress.
"She lost it and was yelling things like, 'I did not raise you like this! I'm so disappointed in you!,'" Young recalls.
But it wasn't that she'd found raunchy magazines or other contraband atop the box spring. This was a greater violation of the tenets with which his dedicated vegan and gluten-free mother had raised him: She'd found a wrapper from the stash of candy bars he'd been buying on the sly, and it broke her heart.
Nearly two decades later, Sue is mighty proud of her sugar-smuggling son, and she has every reason to be. After setting his sights on the musical theater stage and attending The Boston Conservatory, Young realized that he actually hated performing. He'd always gravitated toward the wardrobe department and costume shops of any show he'd been in, and it was while he was working in the wig department at Radio City that he began to teach himself to make cookies by baking two batches before work each day to share with his colleagues.
"People started asking me if they could buy them. That's when I realized I could make money doing it," Young recalls. He enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education and worked as a pastry chef at Alex Guarnaschelli's Butter restaurant, then Flex Mussels, before taking up his current posts as executive pastry chef for the David Burke Group and cast member on Cooking Channel's Unique Sweets. He's brought a little bit of the showbiz glitz with him every step of the way.
Young calls the style of pastry he serves at David Burke's restaurants "rustic glam"—treasuring the practice of handmade craft ("Spatulas are for wimps! You need to feel the dough," he says.) but making sure each element packs maximum wow factor. In the case of the frozen margarita pie he's obsessed with this summer (see the recipe), that means achieving a distinctive texture in each part.
For the crust, plain old graham cracker crumbs just won't cut it. "That's a little too store-bought," he says, and instead blends them with flour, sugar, salt and butter to achieve a chewiness akin to a cookie dough. The filling is an ice cream-like lime curd Young stirs carefully until it's emulsified almost like a "citrus mayonnaise" and spikes with tequila (optional, he notes) to keep it soft in the freezer. As for the topping, plain old whipped cream would probably suffice, but Young whisks in powdered sugar, lime zest and tequila, then snips off the corner of a pastry bag (a Ziploc baggie will do) at an angle to pipe the cream onto the pie in layers of ribbons.
And he's not finished yet. As a proud native of Maine, Young loves to incorporate blueberries (wild, ideally, rather than highbush) whenever possible and finds them particularly appealing in a sweet "goopy" compote ("I love goopy!") as a counterpoint to the slightly tart shock of the lime curd and delicate cream. Maldon salt lends a layer of crunch, and for the final bit of margarita magic, Young sprinkles green sanding sugar around the whole pie. "It's an homage to the usual rim, but it's also saying, hey, we're not really that serious!"
It's also not knock-your-socks-off sweet, either. "For me, pastry isn't about the sugar. It's about balancing the sugar. It's about using acid, like from the lime juice, or alcohol, like the tequila," Young says. And it's also about shaking things up. "I'm drawn to pastry, because it's the merger of science and art. It's creativity within constraint. I'm always trying to push the boundaries, but there's only so far you can push science before it fails."
His next experiment: possibly tweaking the booze composition of the pie, swapping in gin and Campari for the tequila. "Oooh, I could make Negroni pie. Maybe that's next summer's dessert!"
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