Michael Laiskonis on Pastry Chefs

Michael Laiskonis is the executive pastry chef at Le Bernardin, one of only four three-star Michelin restaurants in New York City. A self-proclaimed “accidental pastry chef,” he traveled around the United States extensively before working in a bakery, where he had his first big “aha” moment working with bread and discovered a passion for cooking.

What turned out to matter more than you expected? Just in the process of actually learning to cook.

I guess that when I started cooking it was just something to do and once I developed a passion for it, I realized that—and I don’t want to overromanticize it or attach some sort of Anthony Bourdain sort of thing to it, but you kind of enter a culture and it’s a completely different culture. I’m sure other professions have it. I’m sure software guys have it. It’s just a weird subculture and once you kind of enter that it becomes a lifestyle, not really a job.

That’s truly how I feel. With other professional cooks there are obviously colloquialisms and certain physical characteristics that they could have. And then there’s also the reality of long hours, bad hours. You’re working when everyone is playing; I’ve come to embrace it and now it’s just ingrained in the fabric of my being that it’s just—I’m a cook before anything else. It kind of informs everything I do and everything I see. I see through that lens of food. For an outsider that might sound a little creepy, but it’s the truth. So when I started cooking, I had no idea that it would take over my life or present so many opportunities to experience other things. I can’t imagine giving anything up.

Being from a software background—from one weird subculture to another weird subculture—I hear you. I would be curious how you would describe your weird subculture.

And actually I’ve spent time thinking about this: what is it about the actual craft of cooking or the act of cooking that does it, and a lot of it is the stress. Granted, it’s a self-imposed stress, meaning we’re not brain surgeons. We’re making people dinner, but dinner is important to a lot of people and especially at the highest ends there is a constant quest for perfection. You’re never going to attain perfect, but you can always push further. So I think it’s more of the environment of restaurant worlds that kind of informs a lot of that.

I think there is a lot to be said for the power of almost the meditative state that you get, even if you’re cooking alone, because you’re connecting with nature. You’re connecting with things.

You’re making something with your hands. You’re hopefully making something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s something that you can’t fully describe in words.

It’s just what I do. My wife works in a different restaurant. She runs the front of the house, so my work and home life—there’s really no separation. We have the same schedule, we come home, and we talk about the business. We wake up and we talk about the business. So it’s a lifestyle.

As a pastry chef, are you more of a “by the recipe, exact measurements” type of cook or one who adds an ingredient and tastes, and makes course corrections as you go?

Both. I started in bread and kind of worked in pastry, but I bounced back and forth between each side of the kitchen, between sweet and savory, for a little over five years before I decided to stick with the pastry thing. There is a cliché that pastry chefs are the calm, measured, exacting, precise kind of person and the line cook or the savory chef is the spontaneous one. There is some truth to that. I think the lines are blurring a little bit, but it’s really cross-training that gave me a solid foot in both, being spontaneous and being precise. Too much spontaneity, and it’s just cook-and-see and you’re ultimately lucky if you get the results that you want, but there is that joy in being spontaneous or even taking it further and taking an attitude of well, if it’s not broken, let’s break it and see what happens. That curiosity and spontaneity are not quite the same thing, but to me, they’re of the same spirit.

So if someone is learning how to cook, it’s not really a question of them thinking about their own temperament and trying to match it up with baking or cooking; they should really do a bit of both to balance things out?

Yes. It almost sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. Because I rely on a recipe, especially in a restaurant situation, consistency is king. Everything has to be the same from batch to batch, day to day. Recipes are useful.

Recipes are important, but they’re also just guidelines or can serve as inspiration. I think it’s a natural evolution for a cook—whether it’s a professional cook obviously or a home cook—that with confidence, the recipe means less and less, that it can be used as simple inspiration.

What would you tell somebody who is just learning to bake to keep in mind?

First and foremost: cleanliness and organization are key, and they’re always going to save you. Pay attention, especially with baking, which is firmly dictated by the chemical and physical realms that you can’t always undo. Also, have that sense of fun and that sense of play and learn from mistakes rather than stressing out about them. It sounds kind of mystical, but I do have this belief that happy people make better-tasting food. I also tell young people: just absorb as much information as you can. It doesn’t feel like it’s sinking in or you’re comprehending it all. Cleanliness, organization, a sense of fun, a sense of play, and always reminding yourself that there is more to learn.

There are certain ways of doing things that ultimately find their way into the dish, whether they’re perceivable or not. Sometimes it’s about things like cleanliness and organization. When you’re eating a dish in a dining room, you’re not going to know whether the cook who made it has a dirty apron, but I like to think that that does work its way into it.

Can you give me an example of how you go about thinking about a recipe and putting a dish together?

I have two. They both go toward understanding your ingredients and composition.

We used to make brown butter ice cream, but to give it enough brown butter flavor, we would have to add a ton of fat to the ice cream, which makes the ice cream really texturally challenging. Then I learned about the reaction and the composition of different kinds of dairy products. It’s actually just the milk solids in the butter that give us the flavor, but the butter by weight is only 2% solids. We stepped back and looked at heavy cream, which we produce butter from. That heavy cream has three times the milk solids that give us the flavor of butter. So if we take heavy cream and reduce it down to the point where we’re left with milk solids and clarified butter, we actually produce more extractable and arguably better-tasting brown butter solids than we could from butter. Then we separate it from the fat and add that to the ice cream.

We also do a lot with caramelized white chocolate. Sometimes I describe it as “roasted chocolate.” It sounds kind of counterintuitive, that you’d never want to scorch your chocolate. But if you do it in a controlled way you get an almost dolce de leche–like flavor. Dolce de leche is usually made by cooking condensed milk; usually, people just boil the can for three or four hours. This gives you more complex flavors, because the proteins and the sugars in the milk and the added sugar are cooking together. If you look at the composition of white chocolate, it’s about 40% sugar and 23% milk solids. I researched the composition of condensed milk; the proportion of milk solids and the proportion of sugar are nearly identical. This was a huge connection for me to make personally in terms of substituting ingredients. From there, we’ve gone on to do all kinds of stuff with caramelized chocolate.

Caramelized White Chocolate

Inspired by Valrhona’s L’Ecole du Grand Chocolat

The extent to which the white chocolate is “roasted” will determine the color and flavor of the finished cream. Also, depending on the final application, the amount of gelatin needed will vary. Add more gelatin for a freestanding component, less for a cream that will be put into a shell or glass. Like many similar preparations, the blending phase is vital for achieving the ideal texture.

Caramelize 1 cup (170g) of white chocolate by placing the white chocolate in a sauté pan and heating it over medium-low heat, keeping a watchful eye on it. Stir occasionally, taking care to prevent any bits from turning darker than medium brown. Remove from heat. Add 1.5 teaspoons (10g) of glucose (or corn syrup).

In a separate pan, bring ½ cup (125g) whole milk to a boil. Stir in 2 to 3 sheets of bloomed gelatin (i.e., presoaked in cold water; you can use 2 teaspoons of powdered gelatin, although sheet gelatin is of higher quality). Remove from heat and slowly incorporate into the white chocolate mixture.

Add ¾ cup (175g) of heavy cream (36% fat) to the white chocolate mixture. Emulsify for a few minutes with an immersion blender. Transfer to a container and chill, allowing to crystallize, or dispense into desired forms.

Beurre Noisette Ice Cream

Create a batch of browned milk solids by reducing a quart of heavy cream in a saucepan over low heat, stirring occasionally. After a while—possibly as long as an hour—the heavy cream will separate into clarified butter and the milk solids. Save the clarified butter for some other purpose.

In a clean saucepan, measure out, whisk together to rehydrate the dry milk, and bring to a boil:

1 quart (1000g) skim milk

50g browned milk solids

½ cup (60g) nonfat dry milk

¾ cup (150g) granulated sugar

60g glucose powder

40g trimoline (inverted sugar syrup)

In a separate bowl, measure out and whisk together:

¼ cup (50g) granulated sugar

8g ice cream stabilizer

200g egg yolks (yolks of about 3 large eggs)

Temper the hot milk into the yolk mixture by pouring a quarter of the hot liquid into the yolk mixture and whisking to combine. Add another quarter and whisk to combine. Pour the yolk mixture back into the saucepan, mix thoroughly, and return to low heat and cook, stirring, until slightly thickened (184°F / 84°C).

Remove from heat and whisk in:

⅔ cup (150g) heavy cream

Chill the ice cream base in an ice-water bath, and then transfer to your fridge and allow to mature for at least 12 hours. Transfer the base to an ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

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