what we pick up along the way

Did I ever tell you I used to be a pastry cook at a very highly-regarded restaurant here in Maine?

As much as it might have been a dream job for some, it was what convinced me that I wasn't cut out for restaurant dinner service. Partly because of the whole working at night thing, and not getting home until midnight, if I was lucky. This during a period that Josh happened to be working days meant that we never saw each other. So that was no fun.

But mostly it was because I really just wanted to do production, very little of which actually occurred during dinner service. As anyone who has worked in a restaurant will tell you, a lot of food prep happens during the day, which makes it much, MUCH more efficient to get the plates out to the customers in the evening. On the savory side of the kitchen, this translates into ingredients being prepared during the day by prep cooks, but the real cooking happening during service on the line. Line cooks are the rock stars of the savory kitchen.

On the sweet side, however, it's the opposite. Due to the nature of most desserts, production happens pre-service, and the desserts are then simply assembled and plated on the line, with maybe some heating up or bruléeing here and there. So for someone who just wanted to be baking and playing with ingredients all day, the job satisfaction level wasn't very high. True, I got to make some stuff, during lulls in service, or when we needed it now. But whipping out a batch of tart shells or having a massive bowl of ice cream base thickening away on a back burner didn't fulfill my craving to make. A craving that was made even more apparent when the daytime pastry cook had his days off, and I got to take his place.

Being the first to arrive at the restaurant in the morning, when everything was clean and calm, felt luxurious. At 9am a long production list is enticing and invigorating, rather than the stress-inducing event it is when it lands in your lap just as the evening's first customers are pulling up to the restaurant. And finishing a shift with the sweet kitchen fully stocked, rather than depleted and picked over, was a satisfying feeling, regardless of the fact that it would all just have to be made again in the morning. Right then, the fruits of my labor were still visible, and knowing the pleasures they would soon bring to people was a powerful drug.

But with only two pastry cooks in the kitchen, it was clear that I would have to wait my turn before being allowed to move into production full-time. And my colleague was not going anywhere anytime soon. As it was, it only took me about three months to realize that working nights would almost certainly cause me to burn out long before that elusive day job became mine, and so I made the decision to leave while I still loved the industry, even if I didn't love my job.

Anyway, all that was a long time ago. Seven years ago, to be precise. And since then, I got my chance to do lots of pastry production at a local bakery, plus I moved into the realm of entrepreneur/small business owner, something I had never foreseen for myself. Life, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its uncertainty, has a habit of putting you right where you need to be.

But my short stint at the restaurant taught me a lot, for which I am grateful. Some of it I probably could have learned in any number of other eateries. The dance that happens each night in a busy kitchen, the way your body learns to move around and anticipate the motions of everyone around you, the activity that, to an outsider, looks like barely-controlled chaos, but to the participants feels practically choreographed. How the hierarchy of a traditional kitchen works, and how to find your place and make your own way within it. How to plate ten desserts and make zeppole and bring your dirty dishes to the dish station because the dishwashers are too swamped to come get them. All at once. Certainly, none of that was unique to this restaurant.

But there were some other things that I picked up that seem quite proprietary to this particular experience of mine. Such as learning to distinguish between the many varieties of mint in the garden. The merits of doing a complete scrub-down of the kitchen each night. (Honestly. I have never seen such a clean kitchen, restaurant or otherwise!) That picking strawberries or raspberries or the aforementioned mint is just the right thing to quiet one's mind before the rush of the night really begins.

And I learned about cassatta. Now, cassatta at this restaurant was, as with many of the desserts, a reimagined version of classic Italian flavor pairings. There was no cake involved, no bright, unnatural colors, and certainly no marzipan. In fact, it was an ice cream flavor. An ice cream flavor that took the best parts of traditional cassatta (ricotta, candied citrus, and chocolate) and blended them into an impressively rich and creamy ice cream base. It was one of my favorite things to make, not the least because I could freely sample it, as it was gluten-free. (It is an odd experience to make so many amazing sweets every day and not know first-hand what they taste like!)

I have always loved ricotta, due to some lucky childhood experiences with cannoli and broccoli-ricotta pizza, but for quite a while it's been off my radar. But a couple months ago I came across a whole milk ricotta at my grocery store that had just three ingredients in it: milk, vinegar, and salt. No fillers, no preservatives, nothing weird, just the same things I would use if I were making ricotta at home! And it is so creamy! So now there's always a tub of it in the fridge, and I've been having a blast coming up with ways to use it.

Recently, after making the Lemony-Rhubarb Custard Tart, I had some leftover pâte sucrée that needed a final destination. Spur-of-the-moment, I decided I needed cassatta tartelettes. Unfortunately, I couldn't make them quite as spontaneously as I wanted to, because I didn't have any candied orange peel in my fridge. (That has since been remedied!) But as soon as I got the candying part out of the way, these tarts were really quite quick to come together. I blind-baked the shells while the orange peel was simmering away in its sugar bath, and by the time both were cool enough to use, I'd sweetened the ricotta and chopped some chocolate. I like desserts like these - ones that seem sophisticated and complex, but in reality are no harder than your basic birthday cake. Just another trick I picked up during my long-ago stint as a restaurant pastry cook!

Cassatta Tartelettes
This is really more of an idea than a recipe. I only had a small amount of tart dough to use, so made similarly-small quantities of all the components. Obviously, if you made a full recipe of the dough, you could make lots of little tarts, or one large one, and would consequently need larger amounts of everything else. But (annoyingly, I know), I did everything else without a recipe. And was in a rush, so forget to measure everything out for you! So I'm pointing you in the direction of some assistance, if you're not comfortable with the whole wing-it approach. Really, though, once you make this, you'll be able to do it without a recipe next time, too.

To make:

Gluten-free pâte sucrée, rolled out and blind-baked in the tart pan size(s) of your choice.

Candied orange peel (not dipped in chocolate), cut into small pieces. (I cut mine before candying, since it's much more difficult when the peel is thick and sticky with syrup! Also, when I'm going to be baking with it, I don't lay my peel out to dry - I just store it, refrigerated, in the candying syrup. The syrup itself is delicious, so don't throw that away!)

Chocolate ganache, cooled (I used Scharffen Berger 62%)

whole milk ricotta cheese, enough to fill your tart shell(s)
confectioner's sugar, to taste
vanilla extract, to taste
almond extract, to taste
high-quality semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (again, I used Scharffen Berger 62%)

In a small-ish mixing bowl, combine ricotta and confectioner's sugar to sweeten to your liking. Start with a small amount of sugar, and taste as you go - you'll know when it's sweet enough for you. Stir in a couple drops each of vanilla and almond extract, again tasting as you go. You're looking for a hint of flavor, nothing overpowering or even very obvious. Add the chopped chocolate and candied orange peel, adjusting the amounts of each to your personal taste. Do you want the filling thick and chewy with chocolate and citrus? Or do you want those flavors to be a side note to the sweet and creamy ricotta? You get to decide.

When you've got the filling perfectly adjusted, spread it into your tart shell(s). At this point, if the ganache hasn't cooled to room temperature yet, refrigerate the tart(s) while you wait. When the ganache is thick but still spreadable, spoon it over the tart(s) and spread it to completely cover the surface. I don't like the ganache to be thicker than half the thickness of the ricotta filling, at most, but if you really like ganache, you may decide you want a more even ratio. Go for it. Garnish with candied orange peel and refrigerate. Serve cold. Pairing it with strong espresso is optional, but highly recommended.


  1. I'm reading, and nodding, and thinking, uh huh, I know *exactly* what you mean! And here I was thinking I was the only crazy one :)

  2. Y - Well, I certainly don't think you're crazy. But I'm not really one to judge. :) At least there's comfort in numbers, eh?

  3. wow, what a fantastic tartelette. that ganache looks beautifully rich.

  4. matt - thank you! The ganache really was quite rich. Which is exactly how I like ganache. When I make it, I always hope there's a little left over for me to snack on out of the bowl. ;)

  5. I have been looking for a dessert to take to a dinner party and this may be it. Could I use the barvarian cream recipe as the filling with the ganache on top?

  6. Cathy - I think you could. It would be different, since the Bavarian cream is light and fluffy, like a firm whipped cream, whereas the ricotta filling here is richer and denser, but it would still taste wonderful. I would just go easy on the ganache, as I'm not sure how much of it (it's heavy!) the cream will be able to hold up. Have fun at your dinner party!


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