Talking Cake with Star Baker Pichet Ong

By Jessica Wolfrom, photography by Jennifer Chase

For Pichet Ong, a four-time James Beard Award–nominated pastry chef, dessert will never be just the afterthought: It’s the entire idea.

For Pichet Ong, a four-time James Beard Award–nominated pastry chef, dessert will never be just the afterthought: It’s the entire idea.

There’s no need to save room for dessert when you can make it the star of the meal.

For Pichet Ong, a four-time James Beard Award–nominated pastry chef, dessert will never be just the afterthought: It’s the entire idea.

Ong has made a name for himself reinterpreting classic desserts and infusing them with Asian ingredients from his childhood, like the Ovaltine Kulfi or the Vietnamese tapioca coffee affogato he created for Spice Market in New York.

But cake has become a constant in his current role leading the pastry team at The Line Hotel’s Brothers and Sisters and Spoken English. And these aren’t just any cakes. They are pillowy, meringue-based confections with multiple layers. Even for those who foreswear sweets, Ong’s cakes have proved hard to resist.

Cakes are celebratory, but Ong shows us that they can also be cerebral.

This June Edible DC is celebrating its fifth anniversary and we thought there was no one better to cut into a birthday cake with than the master himself, Pichet Ong.

Edible DC’s fifth birthday cake, made by the master Pichet Ong himself.

Edible DC’s fifth birthday cake, made by the master Pichet Ong himself.

What makes the perfect birthday cake?

When I make a cake for someone, I try to incorporate the personality and emotion of that person into the cake. Cake has a long history and different purposes, but for me, I want it to be celebratory—something that is meaningful.

How did you think about creating Edible DC’s birthday cake?

In the process of making the cake for Edible, I wanted to do something seasonal and very current. Edible DC is a publication about food, but not just food—it’s also about the history of food, about agriculture and the local food scene.

And certainly, the emotion and the feeling that evokes from using these strawberries, I wanted it to taste and feel like spring.

I used a layering structure on the inside and a very simple covering on the outside so that there is an element of surprise. I want people to be, like, ‘Oh, wow, there is so much going on inside the cake.’ Which is maybe also how my personality is—there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

You make cakes every day, and I’ve heard you eat sweets to start the day. What’s your philosophy when indulging in dessert?

I grew up in a culture of eating desserts. I’m Chinese, but I lived in Thailand for a little while with my dad and my mom. There weren’t particularly strict rules with eating, but there were very strict rules with everything else. My dad had a very eclectic habit: He liked to start the day with some kind of sweet item.

I see dessert as food, as sustenance—as a meal. That’s why I keep the ingredients fresh and real. I think real desserts should be highly perishable, like salads or seafood.

The best desserts often provoke nostalgia—they remind us of our favorite childhood foods. How important is nostalgia to you, and how do you play with this idea in your desserts?

If you look at every dessert I’ve done, it’s always based on something that’s intended to be reminiscent of something you’ve had before. Ironically, it’s extremely challenging to do a dessert that you’ve had a million times before and make it as good or as interesting.

Take apple pie or strawberry shortcake, for example. I am telling you, it’s very hard. To duplicate that emotion or taste is not easy.

But I use that as a jumping off point to create a new dessert. People like being reminded of the familiar. But then, to make it my own, I’ll add saffron or spices into it and make it something new.

What is the most underappreciated ingredient or flavor when making dessert?

I like savory ingredients a lot. I think savory flavors can be successfully translated into desserts. Probably the most extreme example would be onion or shallot. If you caramelize shallots or onions, they become sweet and complex and very aromatic.

Crème fraîche ice cream with caviar was something that I kept on the menu at P*ONG in New York. I’ve also made black garlic ice cream. It was a true blend of a sweet and savory and people remember it.

Here at Brothers and Sisters, I love saffron. Typically, when people think of saffron, most think immediately of risotto, seafood and paella. But it’s beautiful in dessert. I like to take a very popular item and add something like saffron. Right now, we have a molten chocolate cake with a white chocolate ganache center that I have infused with saffron.

 ou’ve become famous for eschewing super-sugary desserts and focus instead on flavor and structure. What is your attitude about sugar and fat these days?

Sugar and fat are first and foremost a seasoning ingredient. Because I do pastry, I need to use sugar for chemistry. For all the recipes, I use enough for it to interact with the yeasts in the bread and doughs. Same thing with salt. It should enhance but not overpower. I am not a big fan of extreme tastes or foods with one note. You need balance.

Speaking of structure, you got a master’s degree in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. How does this expertise play into your desserts today?

I do think about structure but it’s not the focus. But what I learned most from architecture is the idea of the contextual. That everything you do needs to make sense—in terms of style. It has to be tasteful and cohesive. It is the same thing when you dress [or cook]. It all needs to go together.

I’ve heard you were a self-taught chef. Who influenced your desire to cook?

My mom and my aunt who taught me how to cook. I was surrounded by women in my family who cooked. I think I’ve always had a knack for cooking and I’ve always had the palate. My parents used to tell me at a very young age that I was an adventurous eater.

Often when we think of pastry chefs, we assume they are women. Do you see this norm changing? How much does your identity matter in the kitchen?

Now, it’s not as relevant, but when I first started, things were different. There were more women than men in pastry. Now it’s not so much an issue.

But the most drastic difference is in diversity. We have come a long way, especially in management. There is more and more representation and it isn’t just about race. Now there are more gay chefs, and women chefs, too. But we still have a long way to go.

On Twitter, you are a self-proclaimed “food pimp.” Can you tell us what that means?

I am a big fan of OPD—Other People’s Desserts. Pastry chefs, and chefs in general, can often get closed off in cliques. But I am a fan of stepping outside of that and just showing up and elevating other people’s work.

Speaking of Other People’s Desserts, what is the best dessert you’ve had in DC that you haven’t made yourself?

I don’t want to pick! But I Like Caitlin Dysart’s desserts at Centrolina.

When you crave foods, do you crave sweet or salty?

Both for sure, but I would say mostly salty. My ideal meal is always raw fish, steak and cake—in that order. So, like a sashimi starter or a seafood tower, followed by a steak and then finished with some sort of creamy cake.

If you could make dessert for anyone, who would it be?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’d just want to sit down with her and share a conversation and a piece of cake.

What’s your favorite cake?

Strawberry shortcake.

 

Caroline's Contribution: Tomato Soup Cake

By AJ Dronkers

This recipe for tomato soup cake is a testament to the resilience of Depression-era Americans, and makes a delicious dessert to boot.

This recipe for tomato soup cake is a testament to the resilience of Depression-era Americans, and makes a delicious dessert to boot.

One of my life’s great fortunes was that I knew my great-grandmother, Caroline. She was a part of my life until I was 12 years old, and in my earliest recollections I remember sharing a real connection with her instantly. She performed and sang live on radio back in the early days. When I knew her as young boy, she lived in a house with an overflowing teddy bear collection, lugging around an oxygen machine through rooms that, of course, smelled of cigarette smoke.

So even though she grappled with the setbacks of age and bad health, Caroline was incredibly upbeat. We sat side-by-side on the piano bench while she played and sang, breathless by the end. She would make drinks with her vintage stirrers (I was obsessed!) from Vegas, offer me treats from her ceramic cookie jar and make delicious spaghetti dinners. I felt incredibly special when she made ice cream cones, taking particular care to stuff the ice cream all the way to the base of the cone so every last bite was just perfect.

Caroline lived through the Great Depression and knew how to make a little go a long way. She also passed down a recipe to my grandmother and my mother for Tomato Soup Cake. Disclaimer: I usually don’t tell people the name when I serve it so they keep an open mind. This Depression-era recipe essentially tastes like a delicious spice cake with the benefit of only needing a little butter. Lacking other hard-to-find ingredients like eggs and milk that were often short in supply back then, tomato soup offers the moisture this cake needs. There have been many iterations of this recipe over the years and, at one point, cream cheese frosting was introduced as a topper, which is how I like to serve it.

Mix the ingredients and use a 9- by 13-inch pan for a sheet cake, or use 2 (8-inch) rounds and stack them.

Tomato Soup Cake

  • 2 cups sugar

  • 2 tablespoons butter, softened

  • 2 (10½-ounce) cans of 10.5 Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour

  • 2 teaspoons baking soda

  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

  • 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg

  • 2 pinches cloves

  • 1 cup raisins

  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Prepare baking pan(s) with butter and flour, or spray with nonstick product.

Mix together sugar and butter first then add soup until butter is dissolved; set aside. Mix together all dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Add the raisins and walnuts.

Add the soup mixture to the flour mixture, stirring by hand till everything is mixed together. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.

Depending on the size of the pan, bake for 40 minutes to an hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened

  • 1 tablespoon whole milk, and more as needed

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  • 16 ounces confectioners’ sugar

Beat the cream cheese with the milk and extract in a medium bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until creamy. Slowly beat in the confectioners’ sugar until the frosting has the desired consistency. The icing needs to be stiff, so my tip is to only use 1 tablespoon of milk to start and then add more as needed.

 

Sweden's Ambassador of Cuisine

By Susan Able, Photography by Nicole Crowder

Chef Frida Johansson, the Executive Chef to the Ambassador of Sweden to the U.S., makes holiday saffron buns.

Chef Frida Johansson, the Executive Chef to the Ambassador of Sweden to the U.S., makes holiday saffron buns.

The life of an embassy chef is a busy one. Just ask Chef Frida Johansson, the Executive Chef to the Ambassador of Sweden to the United States. We meet Frida where she spends her working hours: the kitchen in the residence of Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter, Sweden’s first female ambassador to the United States.

As I arrive, Chef Frida is prepping dessert, a white chocolate cheesecake with cloudberry sorbet. On the stove is the main course, a Swedish crawfish soup, where stock made with crawfish shells that have been roasted and torched with cognac is bubbling away; cream and crawfish meat will be added in before serving. Just another dinner at the Residence, that night for 16. She cooks for parties for two to 500; it varies week to week, and with big events it totals over 7,000 people a year. She laughs as she tells me, “You gotta remember that I’m only one person.”

Even in mid-October, Frida was already well underway with plans for her biggest party of the year, the St. Lucia’s Day celebration held at House of Sweden in Georgetown. And since Chef Frida has raised the bar on herself for this already popular event, she is committed to making each year even more magical and exciting than the ones before.

The 32-year-old culinary powerhouse tells me she is from a “super super small place in western Sweden, about 70 kilometers outside Gothenburg,” and decided to go to culinary school after thinking about fashion design. Her creative expressions are as strong as her chops in the kitchen and she tells me, “What is important to me is putting my signature on every dish from Sweden, taking something traditional and making it modern, or giving it something unexpected.”

Equally unexpected was her journey to the Embassy and the United States. Frida worked abroad after graduation, including a stint cooking in New Zealand. She returned home to Sweden for a month, only to be involved in a near-fatal car accident which required extensive recovery, waylaying other plans.

Frida laughs, “It was the right place at the right time. Because of the accident, I ended up staying in Sweden, cooking for a very well-known chef who was good friends with an even better-known chef, Leif Mannerström. The Ambassador [then-Ambassador Jonas Hafström] was friends with Chef Leif, and he recommended me from knowing my work. They trusted his opinion and hired me. I came to the U.S. in 2010 to spend what I thought would be one exciting year. As you see, it is now eight and a half years later.”

“I’ve stayed because I love my job. It is up to me to be creative, to come up with new ideas and try them. Obviously, I also like living in DC; this is such an interesting multicultural city. I take very seriously that I have a great opportunity to represent Sweden and Swedish cuisine. People think Swedish food and think ‘meatballs at IKEA,’ that is all that we have. But it is not. Our day-to-day food culture is so fabulous and healthy—the Nordic diet is just a healthy way of eating. Vegetables and lean protein, the way you should be eating. Sustainability is big for us and eating seasonally is just something we do. The winter for me means root vegetables and game, winter seafood.”

Frida talks about ingredients too. I taste a cloudberry marinating in a spiked punch; it looks like a golden raspberry but tastes so different. She explains, “I use things like produce and meats produced locally here all the time, but there are certain things that are only in Sweden, like cloudberries, tiny North Sea shrimp, sea buckthorn, crawfish, wild Norwegian salmon, and herring. These are things I have to bring over, mainly for the big holidays or in season, because they define our cuisine. For a Swede, what is a party without pickled herring?”

 

Frida’s saffron buns make for an excellent shareable dessert.

Frida’s saffron buns make for an excellent shareable dessert.

Frida’s Saffron Buns
By Frida Johansson

Your journey to the world’s most delicious saffron buns starts the day before you actually put them in the oven by letting the saffron infuse the milk you will use in the sponge. This is my take on a traditional holiday bun that everybody makes at home and you will love it. Our cuisine has been very influenced by international trade for centuries, so that is why you will see spices from the Silk Road and Asia in our food like saffron, cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon.

Makes 40 buns.

Ingredients

Sponge

2⅛ cups milk
¼ cup fresh yeast
1.2 grams saffron (1 hearty pinch or 1 packet)
520 grams all-purpose flour (3.6 cups)

Dough

10½ tablespoons butter, at room temperature
¾ and 2 tablespoons sugar
2 grams salt (2 hearty pinches)
320 grams all-purpose flour (2.3 cups)

Almond filling

300 grams almond paste
2½ tablespoons sugar
1 vanilla bean OR 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
9 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

Topping

1 egg
1 tablespoon water
1 pinch salt
Sliced almonds
Swedish pearl sugar, available at Whole Foods (or regular sugar)

Instructions

Start with ¼ cup of milk, warming it gently without reaching a simmer. Add the saffron and let it infuse the milk for about 15 minutes. Then add the rest of the milk and put it in the fridge overnight, or for at least 12 hours.

The next day, warm up the milk to body temperature and dissolve the yeast into it. Add the flour and mix. Once it comes together, knead the dough for 5 minutes. Let it rest, covered by a dish towel, for about 15–20 minutes. If you are mixing with a stand mixer, you will want to use the dough hook for this. If you are mixing by hand, consider this recipe to be your cardio for the day!

Once the sponge has rested, add the ingredients listed under the “dough” section: butter, sugar, salt and more flour. Knead or mix until the dough is smooth, glossy and starts to release any hard edges. If you are kneading by hand, just keeping kneading until you can’t do it anymore!

Let the dough rest under a dish towel again for about 20–30 minutes.

While the dough rests, prepare the filling. Mix the almond paste with sugar and vanilla sugar. Add the butter gradually until you have a smooth and fully combined filling. Don’t forget that the butter needs to be room temperature.

Roll out the dough in a large rectangle on a lightly floured surface. It should be about 18  by 27 inches, and about .2 inch thick (half a centimeter). That’s about the size of a full-size sheet pan, for reference. Spread the filling evenly over the dough, all the way to the edges.

Now it’s time to knot your saffron buns. Step one: Looking at the rectangle of dough and filling in front of you, grasp the top edge of the dough and fold it toward you, so that you have a long, skinny rectangle in front of you. Try to fold it as smoothly as you can, with the edges from the top layer of dough matching the edges on the bottom. 

Step two: Cut the folded dough into long skinny strands about 1½ inches wide. You can cut the strips with a knife, a pizza cutter or scissors. 

Step three: Imagine you’re playing rock, paper, scissors. Make the “scissors” with your non-dominant hand, and then wrap a strand of dough around your 2 fingers twice. Then tie the dough into a loose knot by wrapping the dough around the middle of the loops you just created and tucking the middle into a loop. Overall, this action will remind you of wrapping up a pair of headphones.

Wrap the strips of dough around two of your fingers as though they were a pair of headphones.

Wrap the strips of dough around two of your fingers as though they were a pair of headphones.

Repeat with the rest of your dough pieces, placing each knot onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Once you’ve finished making all of your knots, cover the buns with a dish towel and let them rise for about 1–2 hours.  

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Now that your buns have risen, beat the egg with the water and salt to make an egg wash and brush each bun with it. Sprinkle the sliced almonds and pearl sugar over the buns. Bake 13–15 minutes, or until your saffron buns are golden brown. Alternately, bake without the topping, let cool, then brush with melted butter and dip in sugar.