Johnny Iuzzini's Sugar Rush Aims to Make You a Better Baker

Johnny Iuzzini's Sugar Rush Aims to Make You a Better Baker

Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York's best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we'll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back Thursdays for a new book.

Sugar Rush: Master Tips, Techniques, and Recipes for Sweet Baking By Johnny Iuzzini, with Wes Martin, 350 pages, Clarkson Potter, $40.

Johnny Iuzzini is kind of a big deal in the pastry world. The Culinary Institute of America grad has spent time in the kitchen with some of the country's most renowned chefs (Daniel Boulud, François Payard, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, to name a few). In 2006, he was awarded "Pastry Chef of the Year" by the James Beard Foundation, and he has been recognized as one of the "10 Most Influential Pastry Chefs in America" by Forbes, named "Best New Pastry Chef" by New York magazine, and called one of the "Top 10 Pastry Chefs in America" for two consecutive years by Pastry Arts and Design.

Before all that, though, and before he was the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef: Just Desserts, Iuzzini was pretty much an average teenager. Looking to make some extra cash at the age of 15, Iuzzini applied for a job at the local country club, hoping to work as a caddy, like the rest of his friends. Because of his August birthday, "All the cool jobs were taken," he says, leaving Iuzzini working as a pot washer in the kitchen.

He quickly worked his way up the ranks, from pot washer to dishwasher, earning a 25 cent raise in the process. Soon enough he was peeling carrots with the chef.

When the chef, Brad Goulden, left the country club for a restaurant called C.A.V.U., Iuzzini followed. He still did dishes, but Goulden also put him on the line, where Iuzzini learned how to sauté, broil, and prep.

Iuzzini excelled. He decided to enroll in his high school's vocational cooking program. After earning second place in a regional cooking competition, he made it to state finals -- unfortunately, he was disqualified from winning, because he was caught sneaking out of his room.

Even so, the passion was stoked.

"I gravitated toward this, because it was the only thing I was ever really good at," says Iuzzini.

He now has a new cookbook aimed at helping you to become a better baker (or pastry chef). On the next page, we chat with the chef about his start in the culinary industry, what equipment you need to use, and how to make sweet treats the right way.  

Johnny Iuzzini's Sugar Rush Aims to Make You a Better Baker
All photos courtesy Clarkson Potter

In the book, you said your mother wouldn't allow you to eat sugar. How did you end up getting into pastries? She didn't allow sugar, because I was hyperkinetic, as they called it. If I had a lot of sugary stuff, I'd bounce off the walls and get headaches. My mom would get dried fruits for us instead. So I'd go to lunch and my friends would have Twinkies and I'd have banana chips and try to trade. She did let us get half-gallons of Breyers mint chocolate chip ice cream and big boxes of Famous Amos cookies. I always had a sweet tooth; I'd sit in front of the TV watching Dukes of Hazzard and Frugal Gourmet and eat the whole box of either. Once I graduated high school, I already had been accepted to CIA, and I had four months to kill. The place I was working at, the florist there happened to also be the florist at the River Café, the famous restaurant in Brooklyn at the time. She said, "I'm going to take you to the city and I'm going to introduce you to the chef." She brought me in, got me a stage for a day, and the chef said, "Sure, you're hired." I was 17 years old, my dad was living in Manhattan, I moved in with my dad, and I would go work in Brooklyn every day.

Working in the Catskills, everything came prepackaged. All the meat came pre-cut, everything was already broken down, you didn't see whole animals. So now, I'm working at River Café and it was my job to rip the heads off 20 lobsters every morning. The guy next to me is butchering a whole lamb. Growing up, my mother was a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator and veterinarian. So we grew up on 10 acres of land; any animal that was shot, caught in a trap, parents killed, whatever it was, it would come to my mother from about four or five counties. We would have all these animals she would nurse back to health -- baby raccoons, opossum, and anything you can think of -- at our house at some point. We'd fix it and release it to the wilderness. If it couldn't be released, my mother kept it and took care of it for the duration of its life.

So growing up like that, I'm a huge animal lover. And now it's my job to kill animals; even a lobster, it's looking in my eyes, I'm doing Hail Marys, the guy next to me is chopping up lamb. It was brutal; I'd have to leave the kitchen and not let anyone see me. I was really upset about it. Meanwhile, the pastry chef, Eric Gouteyron, would be making these chocolate bridges and butterflies, and pulling sugar, and all these fantastical things, like crème brûlée. I'd go to him after my shift in the morning and say, "Can I learn from you?" I'd come and work for him every day after my shift and work for him at night for free. Every day he'd teach me something and he'd quiz me on it the next day; if I got it right, I was allowed to work for free again that night. I just fell in love with the precision of the pastry station, how creative he was, and how there were no restrictions. Two to three months into it, I switched into the pastry side of the kitchen versus the savory. I called the school and told them I didn't want to be a culinary chef, I wanted to be a pastry chef. At the time, it was a pioneer program that was only a year old at the CIA.

There's a section in which you mention your favorite appliances. Which do you consider to be essential to baking and pastries? There's a few appliances that, for me, are obligatory. I think the Kitchen Aid mixer, and not only because it's a stand mixer. It's the way they've developed it, how strong the motor is, and the attachments. You can make everything from pasta to ice cream to juice to sausage, with all of the different attachments. It's the most versatile machine in my kitchen, for sure. The second tool I can't live without is a digital scale. I hate volume measure. We put it in both books, because we don't want to alienate people. But if I were to give 10 people a recipe with five ingredients, maybe one person dunks their cup, another scoops and levels, just imagine how much of a variable there is for all five ingredients. Imagine how different recipes one through 10 can be, because the ingredients one through five have different weights for different things. By removing the variables that allows for human error, you're making a conscious decision to be more precise and control your final product that much more. For me, a kitchen mixer, a digital scale, and I always have a ton of rubber spatulas in different sizes and little offset spatulas in different sizes. And my go-to knife is a serrated knife; you can chop chocolate with it, cut delicate fruit with it.

You break everything down into the basics and incorporate the techniques and ingredients into the recipes. What made you decide to go about it that way? My first book, Dessert FourPlay, was a snapshot of what I was doing at Jean-Georges at the time. It's a four-star restaurant, super high-level, avant-garde, modernist ingredients, modernist techniques. This book is geared toward the people who are actually baking at home. So we had very strict parameters. We had this game where my co-writer Wes Martin, who is absolutely amazing, created this fictional character called Margie from the Midwest. I'd say, "I want to make this, and this, and this." And he'd say, "Here's the problem: Margie can't find that ingredient at her Stop & Shop; Margie doesn't have that piece of equipment in her kitchen." So everything in that book is geared to the fact that you can find that ingredient locally, no matter where you are in the country, and there's no special order or weird modernist ingredient. Same thing goes for equipment: I didn't use any equipment that someone who doesn't bake on a regular basis wouldn't have in their kitchen. It's very approachable and accessible. But it's also going to be a huge asset to professionals; it gives them all the tools they need to develop a diverse dessert menu.

Some of the recipes mention your mentors. Which is the most nostalgic recipe for you? If you look through all the recipe headers, a lot of them give homage, but there's one that notes that pastry chef, Gouteyron, at River Café, who gave me a chance to work with him and open my eyes to pastry and what it could be. At that point I was contemplating quitting cooking totally, because I was like, "I can't handle this, if this is what it is, butchering whole animals; I'm going to give this up." If it wasn't for that pastry chef giving me the chance, I probably would have quit and had to figure out something else to do in my life. The bitter orange ice cream that's in there is that first recipe from that chef. It's one of the first recipes I learned in becoming a pastry chef.

A lot of people are fearful of baking and pastries. Why do you think that's the case? This is why I preach the gospel that I preach. Baking, you need to pay attention; it's not something can just walk away from, come back, taste, and adjust it. A lot of the baking is done in advance. Then there's the baking aspect or the freezing aspect of it, or the setting aspect of it. A lot of times a lot of multitasking goes on during baking. What I always tell people before you start any recipe is read the recipe first, start to finish, before you do anything. Sit down, pay attention to what you're reading, be focused, making notes not only of ingredients, but equipment and time it tells you it's going to take. Make sure you have an idea of what really is going to go into making this recipe. The next thing I always suggest is getting everything measured out before you even start. The next step is taking out all the equipment, so you're not rummaging through cabinets looking for attachments or machines. So that's half the game. Being a pastry chef or even being a good baker is about being organized and prepared. If you have all of your ingredients already ready, if you have all of your equipment you need ready, your oven is preheated, that's most of the game right there. So now you're ready to multitask and you have everything staged and ready to go. Set it up. You're following the directions and you take your time to pace yourself and follow the recipe instead of rushing. If you change the way you approach just that alone, it will change your baking game. So many people rush through it and wait that 45 minutes or half-hour for something to set; that's very discouraging. It's all about mental preparation and physical preparation before you start.

Click to the next page for a recipe.   Bitter Orange Ice Cream Yield: One Quart

Two large navel oranges, unpeeled, washed, and quartered lengthwise Two cups whole milk (480 grams) Two cups heavy cream (480 grams) 3/4 cup sugar Six large egg yolks 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (two grams)

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and set a rack on it.

2. Set the oranges, cut side down, on the rack and roast until the skins are blackened and crisp, about 45 minutes, flipping the oranges halfway through the cooking time. Remove from the oven and cool.

3. Prepare an ice bath in a large bowl.

4. Put the cooled orange pieces into a blender with one cup of the milk and puree until smooth, adding more milk if needed to liquefy it. Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan and add the remaining milk, the cream, and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, for about four minutes, until very hot and steaming but not boiling.

5. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, remaining 1/2 cup sugar, and salt together until lightened. Continue as directed in the recipe for Vanilla Ice Cream Sauce (below). Strain the custard the next day instead of after cooking. Press on the mixture in the strainer with a rubber spatula to remove the orange pulp. Discard the solids and freeze the custard in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions, transfer it to an airtight container, and freeze for up to two weeks.

Vanilla Ice Cream Sauce (Crème Anglaise) Yield: 2 1/4 cups

Six tablespoons sugar (72 grams) Two cups whole milk (480 grams) One vanilla bean, split and scraped Six large egg yolks 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

1. Prepare an ice bath in a large bowl.

2. In a medium saucepan, whisk 1 1/2 tablespoons of the sugar with the milk and vanilla bean and seeds. Heat the milk over medium heat for about three minutes, only until it is steaming and beginning to bubble at the edges of the pan (called a scald). Do not let the milk come to a boil.

3. When the milk is hot, whisk the remaining 4 1/2 tablespoons sugar, egg yolks, and the salt together in a bowl until very light and fluffy and the whisk begins to create a trail, of "ribbon," in the yolks. Do not do this before the milk is hot, as the yolk proteins can actually start cooking and coagulating if the sugar is introduced too soon.

4. While whisking, very slowly pour about half of the warm milk into the yolks and whisk this mixture until everything is dissolved and equally homogenous. This is known as tempering, or bringing the egg temperature up to that of warm milk.

5. Off the heat, slowly whisk the egg yolk mixture into the remaining milk in the saucepan until combined. Switch to a spatula. Return the pan to medium-low heat and stir constantly until the mixture is hot to the touch and the custard holds a trail without running when you dip the spatula into it, which happens when the custard hovers around 180 degrees; this should take about five minutes. To test this, dip the spatula into the mixture and hold horizontally over the pan. Pull your finger across the spatula; if the cream sauce does not drip or run into the trail you created, it is ready. If it runs easily, it needs to be cooked further. Do not boil the custard.

6. Turn off the heat. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean bowl and set the bowl into the ice bath; discard the vanilla bean. Stir occasionally until cool; cover and refrigerate immediately.

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.

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