Batter Chatter: Interview With Laurie Pfalzer, Food Stylist for The Secret Lives of Baked Goods

Baked Alaska

Talk about a job that sounds delicious and glamorous: food styling for cookbooks! But is it really as non-stop fun as it sounds? This is a question that occurred to me while working with Laurie Pfalzer, the food stylist for my second book, The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts. Her job involved a lot of things: a bit of recipe testing and tweaking, lots of kitchen know-how, and the ability to beautify a dessert and keep it safe under bright photo lights. That's a lot to juggle! Here's a behind the scenes look at what goes into her work, both as a food stylist and a baking teacher--and owner of Pastry Craft. The post is punctuated by pictures of desserts from the book--styling by Laurie, photos by the ever-talented Clare Barboza.

If you look back in your own personal history, can you pinpoint the moment you decided to become a baker? Or, can you pinpoint a pivotal moment in which you realized how important baking would be in your life?  Baking has always been a large part of my life because I grew up in a home with fabulous homemade pies, cakes and other baked goods and desserts.My mother is a great baker and she really takes it in stride. She makes it look easy, so I grew up without any fears about baking - unlike some of my students who didn't grow up with that influence and are now trying to learn. As kids, my sisters and I had baking lessons with our mother every summer. (With five kids, you can imagine my mother had a very elaborate summer schedule to keep us all in line and baking and cooking was part of it. I also knew how to break down a chicken before I was 10.) We learned to cream sugar and butter by hand (even though we always had a stand mixer).  All of that said, I guess there wasn't a pivotal moment. Baking was there from the very beginning.

How were you approached to work on the new CakeSpy book? It was quite on the fly. I was teaching a pastry class at Book Larder in Seattle and the editor from Sasquatch Books (who was looking for a pastry chef for your book) happened to see the ad for my class. She contacted me and the rest is history.  I had never really considered doing food styling, although I do some for my own site, Pastry Craft. It was a new experience for me, but a very pleasant one. I would certainly do it again.


Is working as a baker and food stylist for a cookbook really as glamorous as it sounds?  It's certainly fun and intense, but glamorous? No. Like the culinary field, it's a lot of hard work. With foodstyling baked goods, most of the work is done ahead of time and then the desserts are finished just before shooting. As a baker, you learn to plan ahead - prep, then bake, then finish. Baking and pastry is all about time and temperature, so when you're baking and food styling, if you plan well, then things will generally go smoothly.

Pink Frosted cookies

What was the most interesting thing you baked from the new CakeSpy book, and why?  A lot of the recipes were things I had not made before, so that made the entire project interesting. But I have to say that the Smith Island Cake was really "interesting" and a logistical challenge.  The history of the cake is fascinating and it contributes to understanding how the cake is put together. The VERY thin cakes are baked in separate pans and then stacked with the chocolate glaze while still warm. It is one of the more challenging cakes in the book, but I was very pleased with how it turned out. It pays to read the recipe carefully and follow it. Your instructions were right on the mark!

How did it feel to see your beautiful work reflected in the book? It's always a treat for a cook to see their work in a beautiful picture. We often get caught up in the creating of it and don't always take time to step back and appreciate it's beauty. And in a restaurant it's created and then "whoosh!" - it's been picked up by the server and on it's way to the table.  Clare Barboza, the photographer, had a great feel for the style of the book and the desserts we were working with. Her use of light is wonderful. The book exceeded my expectations. I would buy it if I saw it in a store and I'm pretty picky when it comes to purchasing cookbooks.

Better than sex cake

Tell me about one of your baking heroes.  Of current fame, I think David Lebovitz, Dorie Greenspan and Alice Medrich are people I point out often to my students. They both write their recipes clearly with lots of instruction that's helpful to new bakers and they appreciate the fundamentals of baking. For bread, Jeffrey Hamelman, who wrote Bread and who was my mentor when I worked at King Arthur Flour, is a gorgeous baker. The knowledge and care with which he approaches bread (and pastry) is so inspiring. I'm still a big fan of Julia Child (even though she wasn't exclusively a baker) because I appreciate her attitude toward cooking. Like my mother, she took cooking in stride and makes it seem approachable. That is something I am always trying to communicate in my classes.

You bake a lot...but when it's time to enjoy EATING baked goods or desserts, what are some of your favorites?  I love a good croissant and there are several in Seattle. My favorite is made at Cafe Besalu in Ballard which just happens to be right next to my favorite bread bakery in Seattle, Tall Grass Bakery. But we are lucky to have a diverse group of bakeries in Seattle that each have their own influence. I also love pie, but I still haven't found a good fruit pie like it's made at home. Occasionally, I go with friends on a "pastry crawl" to check out new bakeries. It's pretty tough to eat your way through a lot of bakeries in one day!

Lemon meringue pie

Seriously. If pie and cake were to have a knife fight, who do you think would win? I've always been a pie fan, so I gotta say pie would have the edge (sorry for the pun).

Any tips for those looking to get into professional baking you can impart? The first thing I'd say is that there's no free lunch. That's just a quick way to say that it's hard work and it's important going in knowing that. Working in food service means long hours and low pay, so you really need to be committed to hanging in there. If you're a home cook or baker and you want to make it your career, then go for it. But consider that turning a hobby into a career will change the way you look at it - not necessarily a negative change, but a change nonetheless. I always knew I'd take a more unorthodox route after culinary school and I was lucky to establish myself as a baking and pastry instructor. I love my students and I love helping them discover the pastry world.

Laurie at work

What's the next class, baking project, or dessert related event in general that you're excited about?  I'm doing a rhubarb class with Diane LaVonne at Diane's Market Kitchen in Seattle in May that should be a blast. We'll be doing a tasting meal with rhubarb in every course. I'm a huge rhubarb fan (I have 7 rhubarb plants in my garden) and I think there isn't enough attention paid to this vegetable which is actually treated like a fruit. (Did you know Washington State grows more rhubarb than anywhere in the world?) I've been wanting to teach an all-rhubarb class for awhile and I always love being in the kitchen teaching with Diane.

For more about Laurie, visit her website, Pastry Craft! To see her work in my new book, buy it here:The Secret Lives of Baked Goods: Sweet Stories & Recipes for America's Favorite Desserts, or come see me on tour!