She turns flour into gold

Baker Joanne Chang spins pantry staples into rich desserts complete with cupcakes and ‘crispy magic frosting’

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By Sheryl Julian
Globe Staff / October 20, 2010

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In a corner loft in the Leather District, even on a dismal rainy day, light is pouring in. Joanne Chang is in the kitchen and her husband of two years, Christopher Myers, is at his desk. Actually, it’s hardly a kitchen. There’s a sink and a few cabinets against a wall, a granite island with a curved stainless steel overhang and a few stools opposite it. A tiny supermarket trolley on the overhang holds vitamins and prescriptions; lots of Myers’s rings are on a shallow tray intended for keys; a vertical charging dock sits beside a bouquet of white flowers. There’s little room to cook and none to eat.

Before she opened the second Flour Bakery + Cafe in Fort Point Channel, after her first Flour in the South End, Chang cooked in this loft all the time. Now, she says, “I don’t have a dishwasher,’’ then, glancing at a machine behind her, she adds, “I mean, I have a dishwasher, but I don’t have a person.’’

In a professional kitchen, which she’s used to, there’s a machine and a person. She never makes dough for a single pear crostata, or batter for 12 chocolate cupcakes as she’s doing today with visitors. She works with huge proportions, and when she wants dessert for a party she’s giving or going to, she gets it from one of her three bakeries. She opened a third Flour (called F3 in-house, to distinguish it from F1 and F2), in Central Square, Cambridge, in June, which, like the others, is mobbed around lunch. A book she wrote with writer and Massachusetts native Christie Matheson, “Flour: Spectacular Recipes From Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe,’’ came out this month. You could say that Chang, 41, is at the height of her career, but you never know how many more Flour bakeries she’s good for. Today, she is the reigning queen of confections in this city.

Flour is known for homespun desserts, muffins and other breakfast treats, rich cakes, fruit tarts, good cookies. The trademark is a little extra crunch, more richness, caramelized edges that only come about from well-made components and enough time in the oven. Chang checks the crostata that’s baking. “This is one of my favorite desserts,’’ she says. “There are many parts, each one small.’’ She has to roast pears, make pastry and a creamy almond filling called frangipane, and encase the fruit in dough.

The crostata pastry is deep golden. Chang likes it that way and has purposely left the tart in the oven until the pastry pleats are as brown as the rest of the crust to avoid a gummy texture. When someone asks her to taste something that’s not cooked through, she thinks, “Why didn’t they cook it longer?’’

Today, she’s also making chocolate cupcakes with white frosting. Every drop of vanilla, every shard of chocolate, cups of sugar, flour, butter, ingredients for “crispy magic frosting,’’ what she needs for a classic pate brisee so flaky you’d swear it was puff pastry, and pears to roast with ginger, have been measured for her and labeled in plastic cups. She gave her cookbook to someone on her staff, and said, “Can you please mise these recipes?’’ (Mise en place is the French expression for measuring everything beforehand.)

Needing someone to do your washing up and measuring has a prima-donna quality. Chang is not a diva. In fact, what most people call her is “nice.’’ One of her early chefs describes her as “a very unusual person’’ who knows what she wants. Rick Katz, owner of Picco in the South End, who gave her her first job at Bentonwood Bakery in Newton, says, “The combination of genuinely pleasant and friendly and a caring personality, and that level of drive and ambition, is unusual.’’

Jody Adams, chef-owner of Rialto, where Chang was pastry chef, knew at the first interview that “Joanne is genuine.’’ Adams decided, “Here is somebody who is fearless, incredibly passionate, smart, and there’s a humbleness about her I really like.’’ But she’s not superficial, adds Adams. “She has opinions and she holds people to high standards.’’

Chang’s third location is practically across from Toscanini’s Ice Cream. “She has this fan base,’’ says Toscanini’s owner Gus Rancatore, who has known Chang for years. “The only thing I can compare it to is Ming Tsai.’’ Rancatore says that not only is Chang “always very nice, even her food is nice. She plays with comfort food like jelly doughnuts and Oreos.’’ But what distinguishes her, he says, is that she’s not like other chefs, in a culture of abuse in restaurants. “She’s willing to take the time to invest in people. And it does take time.’’

Chang, raised in Dallas, Denver, and Tulsa, Okla., by Taiwanese-American parents, is reed thin. She’s wearing slim gray jeans and her long hair is pulled back into a tight bun. When she leans over to get the crostata from the oven, you can see a Chinese tattoo on her back. “It means peace,’’ she says, “the Ann part of my name.’’ Jo means gentle.

Twice a week, Chang cooks on the line at Myers+Chang, the South End restaurant she and Myers own. He is a former co-owner of Radius, Via Matta, and Great Bay, and has been out of those establishments for a year. Chang began baking in 1992, making cookies for colleagues at Monitor, the international consulting company. She had just graduated from Harvard with a major in applied mathematics and economics. One day she decided she’d rather be baking.

Every day, Chang bicycles between the bakeries, then goes for a run. It all adds up to 10 miles. That’s to make up for the vast amounts of sweets she consumes, “making sure pastries are being executed the way I want them, that the front of the house is being as hospitable as they can be.’’ She looks at the case of pastries, breaks something in half, takes a bite, then talks to the baker. “This is really great today,’’ she might say. Or, “You know what? This could have been baked longer.’’ She keeps tasting. “One bite,’’ she says.

She sets to work on the pate brisee, moving in a way that’s more balletic than energetic. She has a 20-year-old KitchenAid mixer; the back flaps as she beats and wires stick out in odd places. Using a high ratio of butter to flour, she mixes to get cherry-size pieces of butter, then adds egg and milk for richness. She tips a crumbly mixture in a mound on the counter and begins at the top, working the dough with the heel of her hand, pressing it down and away from her. “We call this ‘going down the mountain,’ ’’ she says. The technique elongates the butter into thin sheets so the water in the butter evaporates in the oven and lifts the dough to make it flaky.

It looks like a sticky mess. She wraps and refrigerates it, then starts rolling another round. “Start in the middle, press down, push out, repeat. People are tentative. I’m on my tiptoes leaning with my weight,’’ she says.

She makes frangipane, with a texture like a loose cookie batter, which she spreads on the dough, then arranges pears in a petal pattern with fresh cranberries. She turns up the sides of the dough, leaving a hole in the center, brushes the pastry with egg, and sprinkles it with large grains of sanding sugar. At the end, Bosc pears that have roasted for more than an hour will be cooked again inside the pastry for another hour. They hold their shape and look smart in the golden, buttery, incredibly flaky crust.

Chocolate cupcakes take minutes. They’re modeled after a “dump cake’’ Chang read about in former New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser’s “Cooking for Mr. Latte.’’ Chang pours hot butter and sugar over chocolate, which melts it, then whisks in eggs, milk, and dry ingredients. Until recently, the bakery used premium Scharffen Berger chocolate, which was sold to Hershey’s. “We started to notice a change a few years ago,’’ she says. Now they use Valrhona, which she likes in everything except chocolate chip cookies. “The cocoa butter is so high, the chips melt. Some people do like it. If you like to pick out chunks of chocolate, you can’t do that.’’

Next comes a frosting based on a Swiss meringue the bakery calls “magic buttercream,’’ which turns into the butter-rich crispy magic frosting. She pipes luscious rosettes onto the cupcakes, which are surprisingly light and chocolaty at the same time.

She looks around the kitchen for a plastic bag so she can send her visitors home with samples of the confections. She lifts the lid off a pudgy ceramic cookie jar and rummages around inside. “Guess I don’t have one,’’ she announces. No cookies either.

We’d have settled for crumbs.

Sheryl Julian can be reached at