The Sweet Spot
Dialing Back Sugar and Amping Up Flavor
By Bill Yosses and Peter Kaminsky
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book Podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Bill: My name is Bill Yosses, and my cookbook is called The Sweet Spot: Dialing Back Sugar and Amping Up Flavor.
Suzy Chase: Your motto is "dialing back sugar and amping up flavor." These recipes in the cookbook were inspired by your years under the Bush and Obama administrations. Talk a bit about using sugar like salt, and how you use sugar as a flavor enhancer.
Bill: That's exactly my philosophy, is that I feel like sugar has become a crutch for many bakers today, and too much of it finds its way into our desserts. Nevermind the rest of the meal, like even in savory cooking, a lot of sugar shows up. What I like to do is use it like salt in the sense that you put in just enough that you know that you're having a dessert, but not so much that it overpowers the other flavors.
What's amazing about desserts is that we've kind of forgotten that there's a whole range of ingredients which really taste good, like all the different fruits. Especially now, you have the plums, the pears, the apples, of all different kinds in the farmers market, and the berries. Then in addition to that, you also have a lot of grains in desserts. There's not just wheat flour. There can be quinoa flour or millet or rye, for example, which we use in the book.
All of those things, as well as nuts and herbs and spices, can be brought to the fore by reducing the sugar. It's not as easy as it sounds. You can't just take the sugar out of a dessert because sugar also makes for texture and structure. But if you calibrate it just right, I think we can improve our deserts with this method.
Suzy Chase: In developing these recipes for the cookbook, you asked yourself three questions, one of which was, what would make each bite more interesting and flavorful. You have focused on flavor and deliciousness throughout this cookbook. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Bill: One of the negative effects or negative paths that we've been following as bakers and pastry chefs is what I would call too much efficiency, too much thought that, "Let's streamline the process, make everything in advance, freeze it, and then pull it out of the freezer and just decorate it for the customer when the time comes."
Now, that can be part of any bake shop or any pastry chef's repertoire, is to have some very basic products. Freezers are much better today than they used to be. They don't fluctuate in temperature as much, so you don't have the damage to the cell walls of your product. However, I think there's an overuse of freezers, and what I'm advocating in this book is more freshly-made desserts, yeast-ed desserts, more the way a chef or cook thinks about cooking, where you bring fresh ingredients together, put them together in a way that can be served fresh to their guest. That's one strain.
The other strain is, in baking and pastry, there's, I think, too much emphasis on decoration. Even in the fanciest restaurants or in any bake shop, a lot of effort is put into making the desert look in a particular way, and that sometimes is for the demise of flavor. You lose flavor when you're spending too much time putting these finishing touches or these elaborate sugar decorations on a dessert.
Suzy Chase: And you never eat those sugar decorations. You take them off and put them to the side.
Bill: Right. They just push them away anyway.
Suzy Chase: I hate those.
Bill: I hate them, too. I'm glad we agree on it. No, but it's really true. I wish people would spend more time ... I'd rather have a freshly made souffle. One of the desserts we make in the book is the babas, or what the French call savarin. So those baked fresh and then soaked in a delicious infusion can really be a great dessert. But they don't look like that much on the plate. They look like little blobs of soaked bread, which is what they are, but they're delicious.
Suzy Chase: I can't imagine it's easy to get a job in the White House. How did your position with the Bush family come about?
Bill: I was quite surprised. I actually just received this call one day, which I thought was a joke, from the person who sort of is in charge of this, is called the social secretary. It's a very important job in every White House. It's the person, man or woman, who is the liaison with the First Lady for all the entertaining. That office works together to determine not only things like the menu, the tablecloth, the flowers, but also who will be invited, where they will be seated. They work out the seating plan. They liaise with the security organization. It's a very important job, and that person is the one that called me and asked me to come try out for the job. There were four or five other people who did, as well. I was lucky enough to get the job.
Suzy Chase: Oh my god, how nerve-wracking was that?
Bill: It was quite nerve-wracking, I must admit. But at the same time, I felt certainly very proud and honored to have been asked, even if I didn't get the job. It was a chance to go and work in the White House kitchen to do my little sample tasting. I just looked at it as ... I think the healthiest way to look at these things is if you don't get it, you don't get it, it's an interesting experience to have gone through. That's how I did look at it. But then I really put heart and soul into it. I felt gratified when the final result came out.
Suzy Chase: I adore the White House. I come from a really, really old American family, and was so fortunate to attend the very last White House tour of the Obama administration.
Bill: Oh, really? Oh, wow.
Suzy Chase: It was incredible. My little boy and I stopped and looked at the garden for a long time, and we wondered if the new administration would keep it up. Talk a little bit about your involvement in Michelle Obama's garden. Did you use the fruits and vegetables out of the garden for your pies and pastries?
Bill: Absolutely. Yeah, it was an amazing thing. Early in the administration, Mrs. Obama asked the chefs to help work with her on improving food choices in America, especially kids' food choices and school foods. In general, just to have a conversation about how we eat, how can we eat better, and how can we improve the health outcomes related to food. The first thing she did was plant this garden on the south lawn. All of us chefs were part of that and proudly so.
We had young elementary school students from Washington DC and other cities come to help plant the garden, then they'd come back a few months later and harvest the very things that they had planted, and then we would cook with them on the south lawn. What better way to spend a day? No matter what's going on in the headlines, if you can see kids having fun in a garden and cooking with the things that they pulled out of the ground, you really feel like there's hope for the future.
It was a wonderful part of my time there, and it's really what inspired me to leave the White House and to go on and do educational projects with schools that include cooking in the classroom and getting kids to eat better.
Suzy Chase: I believe the perfect pie starts with a perfect crust. Can you give us some perfect crust tips?
Bill: Sure. The one we always say is, don't overwork the dough. You can mix it in the food processor or an electric mixer, but don't have a heavy hand on the button. You have to turn it off and on frequently, just until it comes together. The other thing I do is I put ... You cut the cold butter, small pieces, mix that with half the flour, and let that come together until it's a crumbly kind of mess. Then add the rest of the flour, and finally the water, and turn the machine on just the minimal amount of time.
The reason I do that flour in two parts is that if you put all the flour in, it takes a long time for that to become a sort of homogenous mass. What you want to do is just the minimum mixing, so you do it halfway first, half the flour, then the rest, then the water. Make sure that the dough is very cold when you work with it. Gluten strands don't form as quickly when the dough is cold. You're trying to avoid gluten formation, which is what makes a pie dough tough or leathery.
Suzy Chase: One holiday tradition at the White House is the gingerbread house. Where did you get your inspiration for it every year?
Bill: Yes, exactly. It's a tradition and it had been for many years. I mean, there's even a gingerbread house photographed with Pat Nixon next to it, so it goes back to the '60s. The inspiration, I took from the historical elements of the White House. There's a book by William Seale about the White House, which really covers it from the very beginning, from George Washington's early surveying of Washington DC, and it's fascinating. I tried to use those historical background in order to come up with a new idea each year.
Suzy Chase: What were President Obama and Bush's favorite pies? I'm sure everyone asks you that.
Bill: No, not so specifically. President Bush, I would say peach pie. He's famously on the record as loving desserts, I think peach pie was his favorite. President Obama, it sort of grew over the years. He started out loving banana cream pie, and that never left. But then he moved into he did love pumpkin pie in season. He wound up, I think towards the end of his administration, with the fruit pies because we were getting fruits from the farmers markets, so they were very fresh, in season. He loved that.
Suzy Chase: I ordered a pumpkin pie from your company called Perfect Pie. I have to tell you, it's the best pumpkin pie I have ever tasted.
Bill: Oh, you're very sweet. Thank you.
Suzy Chase: The packaging was exquisite, too, in this beautiful wooden box with a red bow. Tell us about about Perfect Pie company.
Bill: Yeah. It's an online company. It's perfectpie.com, and you can order pies. We send them to you overnight. They're traditional pie recipes, but they're crowd-pleasers like cherry and pumpkin, pecan and apple. They come in this really beautiful carved wooden box that keeps them nice and sturdy. Even though they get mailed, they arrive in good shape.
Suzy Chase: Since I live in the West Village, I was able to pick the pie up at the Barrow Street Theatre. Now, what's your involvement with the Sweeney Todd production there at the theater?
Bill: If you try to plot your life out in early years, you can't imagine the crazy things that you get involved with. When I opened my pie company, the producers of a new production of Sweeney Todd were looking for somebody to make the pies. I just happened to see the same week they were here, they're from London, that this pie company opened. So they called me and asked me if I would do it.
I do have to say, I didn't say yes right away, because if people know the story, it's about the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who he kills his customers and then gives the bodies to his friend who makes pies out of them, Mrs. Lovett. It's kind of a gruesome story, and I didn't want it to turn people off to the whole idea of pie-making. But it's worked out well. People can separate between theatrical fantasy and the real world.
What we do is, we make pies, and you can order a pie to enjoy in the theater an hour before the show. It's not really a theater, it's been converted into a pie shop. There are benches and tables that you enjoy your pie on. We make a chicken pot pie and a vegetarian pie. You can have your pie in the pie shop, and then the show starts after that's finished, and the actors actually dance and sing and kill each other on top of the tables. It's a very in-your-face kind of production.
Suzy Chase: I walk by there all the time, and I always saw the big sign that said "hot pies" and I was wondering, "What do hot pies have to do with a theater?"
Bill: That's actually ... It's one of Sondheim's songs in the second act, is Hot Pies, and it's after Mrs. Lovett has started using humans as the meat in her pies, and her pie company takes off. It becomes very successful and lucrative because she doesn't have to buy the meat anymore. If you hear this gruesome story and then you hear it's a musical comedy, it doesn't seem to add up, but Sondheim is a genius, and somehow he pulled it off.
Suzy Chase: Thank you, Bill Yosses, crust-maker, for coming on Cookery by the Book Podcast.
Bill: Thanks. It's fun to be here.
Suzy Chase: Follow me on Instagram at CookeryByTheBook. Twitter is IamSuzyChase, and download your Kitchen Mix Tapes: Music to Cook By, on Spotify at CookeryByTheBook. As always, subscribe in Apple Podcasts.