EyeSwoon

  • “As soon as I was in the kitchen, surrounded by some of the smartest, coolest, funniest, kindest people I have ever met, I knew I was home.”

    I mean, this quote is EVERYTHING and resonates so deeply within every fiber of my being. It doesn’t surprise me though because Natasha Pickowicz pretty much sums up my definition of everything. Natasha is the incomparable pastry chef who oversee’s the pastry program at two of my favorite restaurants; Cafe Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar.

    She is also self taught which strikes a sensitive cord personally because for many years my lack of formal culinary education held me back. Natasha masters her craft with such grace and confidence and actually uses her lack of formal training to her advantage. By not being bound by industry “rules” she allows her palette to truly guide her process. We can all learn a bit from this level of wisdom! Natasha is also a brilliantly poetic writer, just read her answers below. And most of all, one of the loveliest humans embodying both joy and warmth along side a collaborative and activist spirit. We spent the morning baking a rhubarb tart together as she shared with me how the Annual Cafe Altro Paradiso Bake Sale, in support of Planned Parenthood, was born.

    Natasha’s conceived the bake sale shortly after the presidential election in the fall of 2016. Bridging together her activism with what she loved most — baking cookies! A bake sale seemed like the perfect high-low concept to capture the feeling of nostalgia and our childhoods, but also involve some of the most fabulous chefs and bakers in the city to raise money for Planned Parenthood.

    I was moved to hear how Planned Parenthood personally touched Natasha’s life, reminding me why their work is so significant to women. “When I moved to NYC in 2013, I made basically minimum wage as a pastry cook — it was about $11.30/hr. For everybody in my world, the question of health insurance was an unanswered joke. Nobody had it. Yet we were these smart, savvy women in the city. I was 27! Of course, I turned to Planned Parenthood, as I have in every American city I have ever lived in, and have never received anything but the most professional, empathetic, and caring support. My debt to them can never be repaid. What they do is so important — equitable, accessible, affordable sexual health care for women and their families, no judgement, all love. 100% of the proceeds from the bake sale will go towards supporting Planned Parenthood NYC — including a lot of their really cool local initiatives, like expanding their mobile health care centers in under-served neighborhoods in Manhattan’s surrounding boroughs.”

    The bake sale, which is open to the public, has expanded leaps and bounds in its short tenure — people love it, chefs love it, and planned parenthood certainly loves it. It began initially three years ago with 20 guest chefs participating and raising about $8,000. This year with over 50 guest chefs and makers represented the goal is to raise $40,000!

    I am always looking to create clean, bold desserts that aren’t too sweet and feel very balanced.

    On Sunday, May 19, please come support Café Altro Paradiso as they host the Third Annual Bake Sale to benefit Planned Parenthood‘s NYC chapter. The event is open to the public and begins at 11am. (And I will be there!)

    Ignacio Mattos, Natasha Pickowicz and the Altro team welcome friends from beloved bakeries and restaurants such as Le Bernardin, King, Frenchette, Atla, Le Coucou, Olmsted and more, along with out-of-town participants like Sqirl in LA, City House in Nashville, Zahav in Philadelphia and Tandem Bakery in Portland, Maine.

Roasted Rhubarb Tart

Chef Natasha Pickowicz

  • Ingredients

    • 3 rhubarb

      1 pack of brisee, rested overnight in the refrigerator

      1/2 cup frangipane

      1 egg white

      1/8 cup white granulated sugar

      the juice of one lemon

  • Method

    • Briefly let the brisee temper, about 15 minutes.Remove the plastic and set the brisee round on the center of a piece of parchment paper sprinkled with flour. Using a rolling pin, roll out from the middle of the pie round in a radius pattern, rotating the paper like a turntable. Apply even and firm pressure so the brisee is a consistent thickness.If the brisee begins to stick to the parchment, carefully flip it over, sprinkle a little more flour on top, and continue to roll out. If the brisee starts to feel too warm or the butter begins to smear, let it refrigerate and rest until chilled again.Roll the brisee out to a 13″ circle. Using a paring knife, trim the edges of briseeso you have a smooth, round circle. Reserve the scraps for patching up the dough if needed. Refrigerate the brisee circle while you prepare your fruit.Cut rhubarb into 2” long batons. Using a sharp knife, score rhubarb lengthwise at least 3-5 times, taking care not to cut all the way through the rhubarb piece. When the pie dough feels chilled to the touch, use a small spatula to spread the frangipane right up to the edge of the circle.

      Using the tips of your fingers, gently lift up a small section of the perimeter of the pie dough and fold it over on itself, crimping with your fingers to create a neat look. Continue to work your way around the brisee round, creating the “wall” of crust with the brisee crimps.Arrange the batons of rhubarb into a checkerboard pattern, arranging three batons in a row to form a square, and then arranging adjacent rhubarb batons the opposite direction. Trim the rhubarb to fit neatly around the perimeter of the tart.At this point, the tart can be wrapped in plastic and placed in the freezer to be frozen completely.When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Prepare a baking sheet tray by spraying it with non stick spray, laying down a piece of parchment paper, and then adding non-stick spray again. Brush the crimpededges with the egg white wash. Sprinkle sugar generously on the crust and the fruit. Rhubarb is quite sour, so be generous with adding sugar. Bake until the briseeis deeply golden and the rhubarb is starting to slightly blacken on the edges, about 30-35 minutes. The fruit should darken and caramelize around the edges—don’t be afraid to take it too far!When the tart is out of the oven, transfer to a cooling rack and let rest before slicing. Serve with full-fat yogurt or creme fraiche.

Chef Natasha Pickowicz

Q+A

  • How did you find your way into pastry? What was the catalyst that initially took you into the kitchen?

    My journey into pastry was long and circuitous. I spent most of my 20s pining to be an academic or a writer. I spent years at newspapers and magazines struggling to get published. As a freelancer, most of my time was spent in my apartment, alone, with my computer. I started feeling detached from reality. I barely knew a thing about pastry. All of my money went to going to concerts or buying records; not going to fancy restaurants or buying cookbooks. When I moved to Montreal in 2012, I started baking part-time at a small cafe to make ends meet. As soon as I was in the kitchen, surrounded by some of the smartest, coolest, funniest, kindest people I have ever met, I knew I was home. The adrenaline of physical creation was enough to win me over completely.

    Can you speak about how you landed at Estela & Flora Bar?

    I met Ignacio through a mutual friend — who used to deliver whole pigs to him at Estela! I heard that Ignacio needed a pastry chef to help him open his first Italian restaurant, and even though I felt far from ready, or deserving at all of the title, I was intent on learning from him and studying his palate. From there, my role blossomed to include the opening and overseeing the pastry programs at both Flora Bar and Flora Coffee.

    What is the process like working with Ig in developing your recipes? What have you learned? How has he inspired your flavor profile?

    We work very closely together in developing new dishes for the restaurants. It’s an extremely collaborative process. Often an idea for a dish will start with a simple concept (“Flan!”) or ingredient (“Sorrel?”), and from those conversations, the dish will gain momentum and start to come into focus. It is a very intense, laborious process to create a new dish. There is a lot of revision and repetition and failure. There is a lot of discarding ideas that aren’t that special or that practical. It is physically challenging to anyone’s palate to be tasting sugar all day long. That was a very challenging aspect to our relationship at first — the way Ignacio runs tastings and recipe development, it’s athletic. It’s a workout. It’s extremely demanding. You brush your teeth like 5 times a day to stay fresh. It’s extremely hard work. But then, when a dish comes together, the dance in your mouth, on the palate, the way it feels, the vibration of total balance — it’s indescribable, that feeling of accomplishment.  

    Can you share a little bit about your philosophy on developing a dessert and what you always look for in a bite and on the palette?

    I am always looking to create clean, bold desserts that aren’t too sweet and feel very balanced. I didn’t go to culinary school. I’m a bit of an outsider in the industry in that way. But I try to use it to my advantage — instead of being mentally corralled into what I think a dessert “should” have, I focus on trusting my palale to sense conversations between textures, temperatures, and aromas. It’s a very full-body, sensorial process. Mostly, I try to downplay the sweetness of everything — I find sugar mutes the experience of a truly memorable dessert. It’s not a flavor. Finishing salt on desserts is pretty common now, but I train all my pastry cooks to season with the same palate as any of the cooks on our savory side — everything should be seasoned properly, even dessert!  

    Can you tell me how the bake sale was born and how it has grown from year to year?

    The idea for the bake sale was born shortly after the presidential election the fall of 2016. I wanted to find a way to marry my activist spirit with what I knew how to do (bake cookies). The bake sale seemed like the perfect high-low concept to capture the feeling of nostalgia and our childhoods, but also involve some of the most fabulous chefs and bakers in the city. The way it has grown honestly blows me away. The first year, we raised about $8,000 and had less than 20 guest chefs participating. Two years later, we have over 50 guest chefs and makers represented and our goal is to raise $40,000! It is humbling to watch it grow and to feel the love from everyone in our world. It just goes to show you how generous of spirit the people in our community really are.

    What does it represent to you and how does it help Planned Parenthood?

    When I moved to NYC in 2013, I made basically minimum wage as a pastry cook — it was about $11.30/hr. For everybody in my world, the question of health insurance was an unanswered joke. Nobody had it. Yet we were these smart, savvy women in the city. I was 27! Of course, I turned to Planned Parenthood, as I have in every American city I have ever lived in, and have never received anything but the most professional, empathetic, and caring support. My debt to them can never be repaid. What they do is so important — equitable, accessible, affordable sexual health care for women and their families, no judgement, all love. 100% of the proceeds from the bake sale will go towards supporting Planned Parenthood NYC — including a lot of their really cool local initiatives, like expanding their mobile health care centers in under-served neighborhoods in Manhattan’s surrounding boroughs.  

    Can you share who is involved? And how people can participate or come?

    EVERYBODY is welcome! That is really, really important to me. Not everybody can afford to eat at some of the fancier places participating at the bake sale, but everybody can afford to stop by on a Sunday afternoon and have a cookie or a piece of cake. $5 per pastry seemed like the magical accessible number to me. Some people will buy 20 pastries, some will just have a snack and enjoy the energy. Many of our chef participants have been a part of the bake sale since the first year (like Superiority Burger, Le CoucouLe BernardinOvenly, and Morgenstern’s), but we have SO many exciting additions to the bake sale this year — like Cervo’s, KingCosme, Ops Pizza, La Mercerie — not to mention all of the wonderful women who are flying in just participate! (That’s Sqirl, Tandem Bakery, Zahav, and more!) We’re telling guests to come by anytime — we’ll be at Altro from 11am-3pm— and you can buy tickets at the door for $5, which you’ll then use as “currency” to exchange for your baked good of choice! We have a beautiful website which lists all of the participants.

    When you bake at home — what’s your go-to?

    To be perfectly honest, I rarely bake at home! What I will do is bring home a little treat I’ve made at work and then dress it up in some way. I’ll bring home a wedge of cake, and douse it in olive oil and a handful of strawberries. I’ll bring home a slab of focaccia, and split it open and stuff it with sprouts, arugula, avocado, cucumbers, radishes and hummus.

    Three ingredients you couldn’t live without.

    Kosher salt, olive oil, chickpeas.

    Greatest mistake you see people make in baking? Any tips + tricks you can offer when baking or creating pastry?

    Not reading the recipe all the way to the end! One of my biggest pet peeves. Mostly, when I see people rushing or trying to cut corners, that’s a sure-fire way to end up with a sloppy, sub-par product. Pastry rewards planning, patience, and care. My pastry cooks are extremely detailed-oriented but also work with focus and speed. A few tips to offer up: always bake in metric and use a scale; find a great book you like and bake your way through it, it’s the greatest way to learn someone’s style completely; buy the very best ingredients that you can afford; keep a notebook and track all of your recipes and annotations; and don’t take yourself too seriously! Failing is part of the pastry game. I try to see every failure as an opportunity to make it better the next time.  

    To date, your most spectacular baking experience is..

    Without a doubt, the very first Planned Parenthood bake sale in 2017. I was still relatively new to the company, and I remember feeling nervous that nobody would show up! Everyone’s worst party nightmare. But the enthusiasm that all the guest chefs brought to the event, the way everything sold out SO quickly, and just the incredible energy and love and gratitude in that room that day — I had never felt anything so powerful or so moving in my work life before.

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