Books

How to Repurpose Leftovers, According to a Professional Baker

Armed with Ansel's pastry building blocks, everyone (yes, you!) can bake everything.

by:
April 24, 2020
Photo by Evan Sung

For many, Dominique Ansel and the Cronut™ are synonymous. Since its birth in 2013, thousands (if not tens, hundreds) have lined up outside Ansel’s eponymous bakery in SoHo to try the confection, a feat of pastry engineering: a cream-filled, fried ring of croissant-ish dough.

Restaurant critic Tejal Rao deemed the creation a “masterpiece," Time Magazine called it one of 2013’s best inventions, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office dubbed it an idea worth trademarking. Its popularity even spurred the release of a cookbook, Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes, in which there is the secret recipe (it takes three days from start to finish).

Whether you agree with them (and most of America) or not is besides the point. A trend is, well, just that—an idea that burns brilliantly and brightly, but rarely stands the test of time.

Skill, though, is a slower burn. Everyone Can Bake, Ansel's newest book, an uncomplicated tome of complicated skills (fonçage, nappage, assembling a mousse cake), is filled with this quiet power.

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Top Comment:
“My 10 year old daughter once baked an olive oil chocolate cake but forgot to add the oil. The result didn't taste bad exactly, but it was dry and somewhat dense. We were about to throw it away when I thought it might be good as part of a trifle, which then gave me the idea that it would be good instead of ladyfingers in a tiramisu. That tiramisu (with somewhat improvised ingredients we had on hand) was the best dessert.”
— Matilda L.
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The book opens with the idea that all things are built of building blocks. In pastry, there are the bases: pâte à choux, ladyfingers, almond cake, vanilla pound cake, meringue. The fillings and finishes: pastry cream, ganache, jams, mousses. Then, the assembly: building a fruit tart, layer cake, mousse cake; how to glaze a cake.

Armed with these blocks, the reader is well-equipped to combine and recombine them endlessly, limited only by their imagination. Armed with these blocks, everyone can bake everything into existence.

Paging through the beautifully detailed tutorials, heartwarming personal anecdotes, and images of perfectly (though not frighteningly so) crisp tart shells feels as if he is right there, across a marble island, rolling sablé alongside you.

Ansel is there to course-correct if your pâte à choux looks a bit dry: “Sometimes the dough dries out a bit more in the pan and can take on more eggs," he writes. And to share in your celebration (and relief) at a kaleidoscopic croissant cross-section: “We let out a simultaneous sigh—for the [baker], it’s one of relief; for me, one of satisfaction."

What is the voracious reader to do with all these leftovers building blocks when dessert playtime is over? This is the ultimate, delicious challenge—for professional pastry chefs and novice home cooks alike: Can cake crumbs, dough scraps, and extra frosting be re-imagined, given a second, third, fourth life? Ansel offers a resounding yes—in this excerpt from his new book, we learn there’s no such thing as scraps—only more dessert.


Growing up with few resources left my family scrambling to put food on the table. We were a household of six—my parents, my three siblings, and my grandmother, plus all our cats and dogs—living solely off my dad’s factory-worker salary. In France, salaries were paid out on a monthly basis, and without proper budgeting, we’d often be out of money for food toward the end of the month. The thing is, when you have only a little, you learn to do a lot with it.

This was especially true of food. It was mesmerizing to watch my mom pull together dinner each night. On the first night, she would slow roast a whole chicken over diced root vegetables. The next night, she would pick off whatever meat was left on the chicken carcass and toss it with pasta, adding the leftover roasted potatoes and carrots from the night before. Finally, on night three, she would stew the chicken bones and any leftover vegetables in water, then blend it all together to create a flavorful broth. My mom was not a great cook, but I still loved watching her and offering my hand. How magical it was that we could resurrect a handful of humble ingredients each night, allowing them to live out three lives instead of one. It was during these moments that I first understood what it means to truly know how to cook. To cook is to love each component or ingredient for its entire lifetime.

We didn’t eat dessert often. Once in a while, for a special occasions, there would be something sweet—a simple vanilla cake with pastry cream, Chantilly cream, and fresh strawberries from the supermarket. No matter how full I was, I would always clear my plate for that rare piece of cake. But leftover cake was nowhere near as magical as leftover chicken. You couldn’t repurpose it into something else entirely, so we would send the remaining slices home with our guests, or eat them ourselves until the cake was too stale to enjoy. The life of a cake felt disappointingly short. And for years, I mistakenly thought I couldn’t be creative when it came to leftover desserts.

On my first day of culinary school, I realized the opposite was true. Opening up the pastry walk-in freezer, I realized that almost nothing was ever thrown away. Each ingredient was wrapped tightly, labeled with the date and ingredient name with a Sharpie on kitchen masking tape, and stacked on sheet trays. All the purées were on one side, finished items and ice cream on the other side, and the prep in the middle. There was a stash of doughs and creams lying dormant, waiting to transform into a dessert. Cake scraps, left over from trimming sheets of chocolate cake for chocolate mousse entrêmets, were not thrown away; they were toasted and crumbled over ice cream. Ganache could be frozen and rolled into truffles.

Some might have seen these rows of labeled components as leftovers, but not the way I did. I felt the same wealth of possibilities that I did when I watched my mother roast a whole chicken. I was raised not to see lack, but potential. In between lectures and demonstrations, imagining the possibilities of each building block in the pastry walk-in freezer became one of my favorite activities. And that’s what I want to teach you about cooking and baking: each recipe is never just for one dessert, but the component for an infinite variety of desserts.

At the end of a long day of classes, we’d always clean up the kitchen and classroom together. I noticed how flimsy the trash cans were, with just a ring on top to hold the bag and a base. Each trash bag was thin and transparent, and I wondered why we didn’t go for more durable options. Then one day, I saw the chef looking intently at a trash bag. I watched as he opened it and started to dig into it, removing its contents. A student had tossed away some bruised berries that were not suitable for a tart. Furious, the chef picked out the berries one by one and made the student wash and dry them. The bruised berries were eventually turned into perfectly delicious jam, and everyone realized the purpose of the clear trash bags. I laughed as I realized I was just where I had started: making treasure out of trash—and, most important, knowing that the “trash” was always a treasure to begin with.


2 more recipes to treasure

What is your favorite, sneaky way of repurposing pastry scraps? Brag about it in the comments!

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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.

3 Comments

Elana I. May 3, 2020
When I have half a cake left in the fridge and no obvious way to eat it all before it gets too stale, I smash it up (icing and all) and make cake pops (or just balls since I never have the sticks on hand) that keep in the freezer for much longer. It provides a fun, single serving dessert going forward.
 
Matilda L. April 24, 2020
My 10 year old daughter once baked an olive oil chocolate cake but forgot to add the oil. The result didn't taste bad exactly, but it was dry and somewhat dense. We were about to throw it away when I thought it might be good as part of a trifle, which then gave me the idea that it would be good instead of ladyfingers in a tiramisu. That tiramisu (with somewhat improvised ingredients we had on hand) was the best dessert.
 
bjm May 3, 2020
What a wonderful story. I'll bet that you daughter was delighted that you found a way to use her creation and also perhaps encouraged her to continue her baking attempts.