Dominique Ansel is arguably the world’s most widely recognized pastry chef. At his namesake Soho storefront, Dominique Ansel Bakery (189 Spring Street, 212-219-2773), he’s garnered a reputation for his innovative sweet treats, most notably the infamous croissant-doughnut hybrid, the Cronut™ — a year and a half after its debut, people are still lining up for hours just to get a bite of the lauded pastry. Now they can make it themselves: The toque recently released a debut cookbook, Dominique Ansel: The Secret Recipes, featuring his greatest hits and the stories behind them.
By the time Ansel opened his eponymous shop at the age of 34, he had been working in kitchens half his life. He grew up in a family of modest means just north of Paris, and he started working his way through apprenticeships at 16. He quickly fell in love with the trade, but he always had a yearning to do things his own way. “I was taught to cook the old-fashioned way,” he says in his somewhat autobiographical book. “Within the ranks of the French kitchen brigade system your job was simple: 1. Look closely at what your chef is doing; 2. Copy it as exactly as you can; 3. Repeat hundreds of times. It felt like tracing the letters of someone else’s handwriting, until you no longer remembered your own.”
After three years of working as a cook in the military — he was stationed in French Guyana — Ansel put together all his savings to move to Paris, where he landed a gig at the esteemed bakery Fauchon. After eight years there, he was poached by Daniel Boulud, who asked him to take a position at the legendary Daniel. Ansel describes the discomfort experienced on the first day of each prestigious new job: “It’s amazing how similar the two days were. In both cases, I was immediately handed my uniform…And despite the years that separated my first days in Paris with those in New York, where I entered as the executive pastry chef, I still felt like a fish out of water.”
To Ansel, however, this lack of ease is what spawns innovation. As mentioned previously, he’s critical of the French brigade system, which focuses on creating exact replicas of classic dishes. When it comes to the team at his bakery, Ansel tries to foster an experimental environment that works toward exploring new ideas together. “When we do a new menu, we look at what we could be doing,” says Ansel. “If sometimes, one of them has a good idea, we might use it; it can be a matter of changing a texture or a combination of flavors.”
That’s how he invented the Cronut™. After taking on a challenge from his team to create a doughnut, he worked on the concept for two months straight. After 10 recipes, Ansel got it; he had no idea what would come next.
Overnight, the hybrid pastry was an international success, spawning a slew of imitators all over the place. It’s become such a big hit, Dunkin’ Donuts recently released its own version, which is difficult to track down. While Ansel is glad his creation has been a muse for others, he has mixed feelings about the mimicry. “It’s good to inspire people, but when people take it for themselves, and turn it into mass market to try to make money out of it, it is sad to me.”
An at-home version of Ansel’s Cronut™ recipe is featured in the book, along with a wide range of recipes from his repertoire, including the pastry he says he eats every day, the DKA, or Dominique’s kouign amann. The flaky caramelized croissant is one of the oldest recipes included; he’s been working on one version or another throughout most of his career.
Cookies are a newer category for his roster, but he’s been fascinated with the all-American baked good since he saw the phrase “America’s Favorite Dessert Is the Cookie” in a newspaper headline while working at Fauchon. The article stated that “seven out of 10 Americans chose the cookie as their favorite baked good, with 10 percent claiming they ate a cookie every single day.” With no cookie culture in France, Ansel didn’t understand it. But after arriving in New York, he decided to play around. In the book, he tells the tale of the first time he enjoyed the sweet treat (it was his own version). It’s another recipe that’s included.
It took Ansel a year to finish the book, and in it, he explores his ascent to pastry supremacy. Although the book places a large emphasis on instruction, with beginner, intermediate, and advanced directions, it also spotlights stories through Ansel’s journey. He hopes that his tales will work to embolden readers’ own artistry. “I think this book is really to inspire people to bake at home and enjoy the stories,” says Ansel. “Read through the stories; they’re short stories. They all have a message to tell you about the pastries, where they’re from, why they’re done in certain ways. There are lots of recipes for a baker of any level.”
Scroll down for Ansel’s flourless chocolate pecan cookie recipe
Flourless Chocolate Pecan Cookies
“I love making this recipe . . . because of its forgiving nature and utterly addictive results.”
Skill Level: Beginner
Time: 15 minutes one day before, rest overnight, 20 minutes the day of
Yield: 20 cookies (about 50 grams each)
2 cups (12 ounces) dark chocolate chips (over 60 percent cocoa content)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter (preferably 84 percent butterfat)
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
3 (1 ounce) tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1/4 cup (1 ounce) pecans, coarsely chopped
One day before
1. Melt 1 1/2 cups of the chocolate chips in a double boiler: Fill a pot with about 2 inches of water and bring it to a simmer. Place chips in the stainless-steel bowl and place the bowl over the water. Stir slowly with a spatula to ensure the chocolate chips are completely melted and smooth before turning off the heat.
2. Melt the butter in the microwave (about 30 seconds on high). Mix it into the melted chocolate. Keep the mixture warm over the hot water.
3. In a mixing bowl, combine the granulated sugar, cornstarch, baking powder, and kosher salt. Add the eggs and whisk until fully incorporated and the mixture resembles pancake batter. Use the spatula or a bowl scraper, if necessary, to make sure you incorporate any dry ingredients that have settled on the bottom or the sides of the bowl.
4. Slowly whisk in the melted chocolate-butter mixture. (If it has cooled and begun to solidify, gently reheat it before incorporating.)
5. Gently fold in the remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips and the pecans with the spatula.
6. Transfer the dough to the baking dish. Cover it tightly with plastic wrap that touches the surface of the dough. Set in the refrigerator to rest overnight.
The day of
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C) and set a rack in the middle of the oven. Line a baking sheet with wax paper.
2. Using your hands, break the dough into pieces the size of your palm (approximately 3 1/2 tablespoons). Roll the dough into balls and place them on the baking sheet at least 2 inches apart from one another. Press gently on the top of each ball with the palm of your hand to make a thick disk. This dough doesn’t spread much, so the disk should be relatively close to the size of cookie you’d like.
3. Bake for about 8 minutes on the middle rack, rotating the baking sheet 180 degrees halfway through. When the cookies are just beginning to crack on top but the dough is set on the edge and has a soft spot in the center (about the size of a quarter), remove from the oven.
4. Let the cookies cool in the baking sheet for 5 to 7 minutes, to further set.
5. Remove the cookies from the baking sheet, still on the wax paper, and set aside. Reline the sheet with clean wax paper and continue with the remaining dough.