Self-taught baker and confectioner Valerie Gordon believes making a pie is, well, easy as pie.
To prove her point, she made a mixed berry pie for a captivated audience at last weekend’s Food & Wine Festival in Palm Desert, while sharing her tips for memorable baking. Gordon is currently riding a tsunami of success with her three Los Angeles shops, and her recently published cookbook, “Sweet,” which is nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award.
Gordon founded her first shop, Valerie Confections, in 2004 with her partner, Stan Weightman Jr., and six flavors of chocolate-dipped toffee. Since then, she has expanded her baking and confection repertoire to include chocolates, cakes, petit fours, pastries, preserves, and catering.
Palm Springs Life sat down with Gordon to get the low down on her path to becoming a celebrated baker and what she recommends to get your sweet tooth singing.
During our discussion, her two young children popped in and out, instigating laughter about the sometimes hilarious trials of balancing motherhood with a successful professional career.
How do your children feel about mom being a baker? Is there anything more tantalizing for young kids than a mom who makes delicious desserts?
“They’re OK with it. We do this wonderful Christmas cookie party for my oldest, August, and all his friends every year. We started when he was 3 years old, he’s 6 now. Each year the party gets bigger. Everyone who’s invited RSVP’s positively, which is hysterical and both parents always come. You know some kids’ events, the kids get dropped off. Not for our cookie party, no, no. This party, everyone comes, it’s a full family thing. It’s great.”
Did you always want to be a baker?
“I have always found enormous satisfaction and comfort around desserts, around chocolates, whether it’s in a bakery or a chocolate store, whether I’m consuming it or making it. It’s the happiest place for me. My earliest memories are that every time I walked into a bakery, I felt that sense of ‘awwww,’ you know what I mean? There’s something elevating about dessert, about confections, and it feels almost like a break from the rest of life. The word ‘treat’ really takes on a more interesting and complex meaning, which is you’re ingesting a treat but you’re also treating yourself, you’re taking care of yourself, you’re giving yourself a little gift and there’s something really lovely about that.
I started baking cookies when I was 8 years old. From the time I was very young, people said I was really good at it. But I didn’t think baking was what I would want to do as a career. I was an actress. I got a degree in drama which is very funny, because I never liked acting. I always preferred to be in a kitchen or in a restaurant. Then I was sick for a while. I had some things happen and I started to ask myself questions like, 'What do I actually enjoy? What’s really important to me?' At a certain point, I figured out baking is what I should be doing. It did take me a minute to get there, to realize what I should be doing. I felt a great sense of place and a really huge sense of relief when I finally figured it out."
You describe your chocolates as “artisanal.” That word is used a lot these days. Can you tell us how it applies to what you create?
“Artisanal is a slightly overused word right now, but we truly do create things in an artisanal fashion, meaning everything is completely handmade. We do really small batches. We go to great lengths to source the best ingredients. I always say, I’m sourcing for the highest level of deliciousness. If a flavor doesn’t have a beginning, middle and an end, if it’s not memorable, if you have a truffle or a piece of toffee, or a muffin or a piece of cake that you can’t remember what it tasted like an hour later, then that’s a fail. You should absolutely be able to remember that experience an hour later, a day later, a week later, a month later. So I work really hard to secure that experience for people. Artisanal also means there’s artistry put into it. Every piece of our chocolates is hand dipped or hand molded. For all of our baked items, I source directly from farmer’s markets, and we work directly with farmers. We use the best quality butter… all these things come into play to create something that is truly artisanal.”
You have resurrected some interesting desserts in your baking repertoire – petit fours, the Chasen’s Banana Shortcake, and the Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake, for instance. Why did you decide to create modern interpretations of old favorites?
“The resuscitation of historic cakes is huge and it feels important. It feels like an important part of my job at this point. It’s sort of an ongoing project that I really embrace. People talk to me all the time about desserts that their grandmother made, or cakes that they had at X-Y-Z restaurant that they can’t ever forget. The thing about food, in order to keep it prescient, you just have to make it – unlike architecture, or other things that can deteriorate with time. All you have to do is make that cake to keep it current in someone’s mind. I’m very much a preservationist. I always like to look back as I look forward. It’s this funny thing where it’s sort of like that ultimate Proustian idea of the memories of food, and to facilitate people’s food memories of food is a very, very satisfying thing.
Petit fours are something I remember from when I was very young. I always sort of idealized this idea of petit fours and what they looked like, and how fabulous they were, yet I hadn’t tasted many delicious ones, honestly, so it was a big project that I set out to do. I spent months and months developing petit four recipes that could be shipped across the country and still taste fresh when you eat them. The different coatings, and the way they needed to be packaged, and the box design, were all just as important as the actual cake recipes, the filling recipes. The petit fours to me, they really sum up what I do. There’s a lot of layering of flavors where they complement each other. There are a variety of textures and it’s this really lovely little package. There’s something about a petit four that feels like a little gift. Like a self contained little gift. They’re teeny. They’re gorgeous. And they’re delicious.”
You use ingredients not normally associated with desserts, like smoked paprika.
“I love smoked paprika. This is really an advent of being self-trained. I don’t look to any limitations to what I’m allowed to do or not allowed to do. I might smell an ingredient or taste an ingredient and just be completely stimulated by it and I’ll think, what can I do with this, what else can I do with this. I learned how to bake from cookbooks. I’m a very, very avid cookbook reader and that really is where I go for research. I gather information and then I experiment and then I come to a product.
What I’ve found is that flavors that work together can work together in a variety of forums. So if you can put, say, fennel and blood orange on a salad and it’s delicious, how else might you be able to use those ingredients. Fennel is one of those things that can be carmelized. Blood orange has some lovely berry, acidic and sweet notes. So doing something like a blood orange tart with carmelized fennel absolutely works and it’s not absurd at all! So I think it’s about looking at food and ingredients without limitations and trusting your own instinct and playing a little bit and seeing not what the rules are, but what tastes good.”
If someone can only buy one thing from your shops or website, what would you recommend as an introduction?
“The Durango cookie. A Durango cookie has milk chocolate chips, roasted almonds, coconut, and smoked salt. It’s a wonderful, wonderful combination of texture, of sweet and savory, and it has that thing of something very traditional – meaning a chocolate chip cookie – where some new elements have been applied, so it has that message of try something new, go with what you like. And it’s a delicious, addictive cookie.”
You made a pie during your demo at the Food & Wine Festival in Palm Desert. Making a pie can be intimidating for non-bakers. What’s your one pie making tip for amateur bakers?
“Don’t be scared! That is my general tip about all things bakery or confectionary. There’s a real intimidation coming from folks, the home baker. “Will I mess this up?” No, you won’t mess it up and it doesn’t matter if you do! Nothing’s going to happen. You know what I mean? If something goes a little awry with the crust, or the fruit, it will still be delicious. That combination of flaky crust and fresh fruit, you can’t go wrong with it.”
For more information, visit www.ValerieConfections.com