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Hard and sweet life of a pastry chef




If you think a pastry chef’s job is all frilly and dainty, think again. There’s a lot of hard, physical work that goes into making the pretty, delicate and elegant treats.

The job typically means lugging 50 pounds of flour and sugar, lifting a ginormous mixing bowl with 15 pounds of bread dough to the counter, walking back and forth from the oven with a sheet tray filled with loaves of bread, using a 24-inch rolling pin to make pies and tarts, and being on the feet for an eight-hour shift, making everything from bread to pizza dough to cocktail syrups and garnishes to after-dinner chocolates to pastries.

“It’s definitely manuel labor,” says Lisa O’Connor, one of the two pastry chefs at Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown. “People don’t realize all what we do.” Her partner in crime, Amanda Williams, says: “It’s a lot of hard work. It’s not like baking cookies at home.”

When they are not standing shaping dough into loaves or folding egg whites into whipped cream for a mousse, or cooking down and dehydrating fruits for cocktails or icing and decorating cake tops or plating desserts, they are bending to check the oven or schlepping ice creams and sorbets from the refrigerator to be served with cakes and tortes.

Something else that people outside the kitchen circle don’t realize is that pastry chefs cannot dress down to feel comfortable. “It is not too bad in winter, but in the middle of summer when we are pushing 80 degrees, it’s another story. We cannot come in shorts and flip-flops for safety reasons,” says Ms. O’Connor, who wears a jacket, apron, hat and slip-resistant shoes all through her 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift.

The pastry chefs have been at Six Penn Kitchen (146 Sixth St., Downtown) from when it first opened almost 11 years ago. While Ms. O’Connor focuses on baking breads and desserts for lunch, Ms. Williams comes in at 5 p.m. and works until 1 a.m., spearheading the dinner scene.

Both graduated from the International Culinary Academy, and Ms. O’Connor also has a diploma in pastry arts from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school.

She starts her day with baking baguettes, brioche rolls, caramelized onion, sourdough, marble rye and garlic breads for the bread basket. “In school, bread was the first chapter,” she says. “We started with quick breads such as scones, muffins, banana bread. And then moved on to yeast breads like Italian and baguettes.”

Although she spends half her day making breads, the Dormont resident is constantly multitasking. So while the dough rests to double after it gets mixed and again after it gets shaped before being put into the oven, she starts diving into her tasks for the lunch crowd that include making the dough for pizza and croutons out of bread from the previous day.

The leftover onion and garlic bread is converted to crostini, which is plated with a mussel dish for dinner. Croutons from day-old baguettes are served with French onion soup “as the round pieces fit in the soup bowl nicely” and with Caesar salad while those from the foccacia are served with other salads and soups. “We try not to waste any of the bread,” Ms. O’Connor says.

And, of course, there are the desserts. She makes the signature Six Penn Circus, made with a bowl of cotton candy, homemade cracker jack, whoopie pie and cinnamon-sugar beignets.

Both the pastry chefs also help out with the cocktails by making the simple syrups and garnishes. Ms. O’Connor prepares a blackberry syrup by cooking down the berries with sugar and water and dark cherries for sangrias and Spring Spimoni (lemon vodka infused with pistachio, tuaca and honey syrup) with star anise and almond extract.

Ms. Williams’ specialty is to make apple chips, lime chips and candied ginger. She slices the fruits and ginger, tosses them in sugar and lets them sit overnight in the dehydrator. Lime chips garnish the Hibiscus Bubbles, made with tequila infused with hibiscus, blackberry syrup and prosecco. While the apple chips gussy up the Jacked Apple, a concoction made with Jack Daniel’s and ginger ale that also has apple butter puree made by Ms. Williams.

The Millvale resident begins her evening shift by baking cakes and frying cannoli shells. While they cool, she makes the easier desserts such as creme brulees. She also makes the after-dinner mints with fondant and peppermint and dips them in chocolate once they are molded. And that typically means 200 mints a night.

For the pastry menu, the chefs come up with the flavors based on what’s there in the kitchen and the seasonal availability. So a lot of berry flavors show up in summer, and they lean toward cinnamon in winter. Cheesecake flavors rotate all the time.

Ms. O’Connor and Ms. Williams firmly believe that science plays a role in the rise and fall of every baked treat. Recipes need to be followed to a tee, and precision is key. “If you are short on eggs, the cake will be dry; if you add too much liquid to a cake batter, the cake won’t rise; and if you add too much water when making bread, it will spread and not rise,” Ms. O’Connor says.

Things can be fixed along the way in cooking, Ms. Williams says, but the same cannot be done in baking. “You will have to throw the whole thing out and start all over again,” she says.

But despite all that heavy-lifting, being on the feet and fussing over details, neither chef would trade her job for anything else. “This is what I always wanted to do, and I enjoy being here and working with the people here,” Ms. O’Connor says.

Arthi Subramaniam: asubramaniam@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @asub.

SHE SAYS, SHE SAYS

• Most stressful part of the job.

O’Connor: “Making sure everything is done on time. Sometimes I have to plate desserts for lunch while I’m baking the bread. So I need to time it right so that everything gets done. I cannot just leave the bread in the oven or it will burn or leave when I am cooking caramel on the stove.”

Williams: “To supervise the night staff and do my job.”

• Eating at work.

O’Connor: “I might grab a cup of soup but I don’t sit down to have a meal. I don’t take a break to eat.”

Williams: “I usually just pick; I don’t eat, eat. One of the guys will usually create something.”

• Favorite dessert when eating out.

O’Connor: “It’s usually for an ice cream with my kids. I don’t go out much but if I do go for a nice dinner I would get something to see what other chefs are making and critic what it tastes like.”

Williams: “I don’t order dessert. And when I do, I go out to Dairy Queen.”

Tips to make a cannoli

• “When making the dough, make sure the butter is well broken up. There should not be any clumps.”

• “The dough needs to be chilled. It will be hard to work with if it is not.”

• “When rolling the dough over the cannoli rod, the seams should be well pressed together. This way the cannoli won’t blow open when placed in the hot oil.”

• “When frying the cannoli, flip it over a couple of times so that it gets evenly brown.”

• “Drain the excess grease off the cannoli so that it stays nice and crunchy, and not soggy.”

— Amanda Williams

Tips to bake a cake

• “Most importantly, follow the recipe.”

• “Scrape the bowl in between additions.”

• “Don’t open the oven more than you have to.”

• “Be careful not to overbake as it will make the cake dry.”

• “Cool the cake completely before you ice or cut it. I personally like to refrigerate the cake overnight.”

— Lisa O’Connor

Cannoli

For shell

1 pound all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons butter

3 egg yolks

1½ cups white wine

In a mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Add butter. Mix in food processor until butter is broken up.

Add in yolks and wine, and mix until incorporated.

Chill in refrigerator for 30 minutes. Roll out dough almost paper-thin. Cut dough in circles and wrap around metal cannoli rods. Deep fry until golden brown.

For ricotta filling

2 cups heavy cream

Zest of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 pounds ricotta cheese, drained

2 cups chocolate chips

With a hand-mixer, whip heavy cream to stiff peaks.

Add lemon zest and cinnamon and combine well.

Gently fold in ricotta cheese and chocolate chips.

Using a piping bag, fill cannoli shells with ricotta filling.

— Six Penn Kitchen







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