Pastry chef Becca Punch has worked in a range of top tier kitchens, from Boston’s L’Espalier to Eleven Madison Park, but it was her grandma’s kitchen that served as the initial training grounds for the Montana native. “During the holidays, all of the women — my mom, aunts, and grandmothers — would always be in the kitchen together cooking and baking,” she explains. Those formative years led to pastry internships at the Tom Douglas Restaurant Group in Seattle and back east to L’Espalier, where she worked for three years before starting at Eleven Madison Park. Last month, she joined The Musket Room, where she creates poised and playful desserts in line with chef Matt Lambert’s New Zealand-driven menu. Here, we chatted with Punch about the family dessert she puts in the mail, the kitchen technique she swears by, and the onsite garden she can’t wait to dig into.
Is there a dessert from your childhood that you continue to make?
My grandma would make this white nut cake — it was a walnut cake with a white fudge frosting. Every year on my brother’s birthday, I have to make it and mail it to him. I would say for everyone in our family that it is our iconic family dessert.
What dessert do you wish someone would mail to you?
I love napoleons — classic French napoleons. They’re so sweet. I love things that are very sweet; I have a crazy sweet tooth.
How would you describe your culinary style?
My style is modern and fun. I always want a dish to have a fun element, such as something that holds liquid that breaks open or something really dramatic that swoops across the plate.
When did you start to develop your more whimsical approach?
When I worked at L’Espalier, I worked with a pastry chef who had an extremely modern style, and I learned a lot of cool techniques from him.
When diners see and taste your desserts, what do you hope goes through their minds?
Most of all, I hope that it was delicious! I hope it brings a smile to their face when they see it and eat it. That’s the main point of dessert, I think — to draw a smile and for it to taste delicious.
How do hints of New Zealand cuisine work their way into your offerings?
I don’t know a lot about New Zealand, but I’m learning about new flavors, new fruits, and different ingredients that I wouldn’t have thought were popular there but that apparently are. They’ll tell me, “Back home, we have this or that,” so I just think about ways to incorporate those flavors into a dish.
What kinds of ingredients or dishes have you experimented with that stem from classic New Zealand fare?
Even just the Anzac biscuit — which is made with coconut, oatmeal, and golden syrup — is a classic New Zealand thing. We had a dinner for a New Zealand holiday last week, and I took it apart and did a coconut cake with coconut mousse, golden syrup glaze, and oatmeal clusters on the side. I took the flavors of this hearty cookie and made it into a more delicate mousse cake.
What has been one of the most valuable kitchen techniques you’ve learned over the years?
In pastry there are so many things you have to learn and know, but maybe one would be creating cylinders. We do a pavlova, and we make meringue cylinders, which is a technique I learned in Boston — where we did them with white chocolate. You dry it out and then it’s a very sleek, clean looking pavlova.
With warmer months ahead, what are you most excited about?
As a pastry chef, it’s always exciting when winter is over and you start to get all of the fruits and berries again — you have so many more options available. We have some neat flowers and herbs that are growing here in the garden, too — we have five different varieties of mint and lemon verbena, and tons of great flowers for garnish. It’s fun to watch everything grow and to have the anticipation build for when we can use certain ingredients.
Where do you find your creativity?
I page through many cookbooks, and a lot of the time, it’s the ingredients that give you the ideas. I’ll see strawberries, and I’ll think, what do I love that goes with strawberry? I love camembert cheese, so I just did a strawberry cylinder that’s filled with camembert mousse. It’s really just the ingredients — I think of what I love, or what my husband or friends love. It starts with a flavor, and then I think of how to turn that into something.