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Sarah Bell

Respect the Ingredients: Sarah Bell and Allyson Bobbitt

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Sarah Bell and Allyson Bobbitt are co-owners of Bobbette & Belle, an artisanal pastry shop in Toronto that specializes in French macarons and North American classic treats. Their first cookbook, Bobbette & Belle: Classic Recipes From the Celebrated Pastry Shop, will be released in October 2016.

How is baking different than savoury cooking?

SB Savoury cooking involves a lot of improvising in the moment—a little of this, a little of that. Baking is more scientific, more precise. But it’s also very creative.

AB You have to be regimented and exact, so I feel it takes that much more creativity to come up with something new or exceptional. We’re not reinventing the wheel—there are lots of good recipes for carrot cake, but we try to find what makes the absolute best carrot cake, hands down.

What’s the secret to better baking?

AB Tender fingers. Treat the ingredients properly and don’t overmix.

SB Yes, use the best ingredients and have respect for them.

In baking, though, while you respect the ingredients, you also push them to their limits.

SB Absolutely. Case in point, for The Marilyn Denis Show, we stretched brownies super-thin into what’s called “brownie bark”—past that soft, moist, plump brownie stage, making them entirely like the crisp edges in the pan.

We also moulded our classic tea-dunker ginger cookie over the outside of a muffin tin to make a cup for ice cream. To adapt the recipe, we had to think about how to treat the sugar, adjust the flour, and so on, so it all reacts the way we want but still tastes good.

Does your relationship with the ingredient ever become adversarial? Do you get angry at the sugar for not doing what you want?

AB Oh, that question applies almost solely to French macarons. That’s when I get angry, because sometimes even humidity is an ingredient. We have dehumidifiers and humidifiers that we use at different times of the year. Baking, more than savoury cooking, is affected by the environment around you.

SB I do find, though, the end result of baking is actually affected by my mood—not in a voodoo-witch-vibes way, but maybe when I’m angry, I mix more vigorously and develop the gluten strands more. If I’m anxious, maybe I’ll mismeasure an ingredient or forget to rotate pans in the oven.

AB Mood affects attentiveness.

For your cookbook, what was the biggest challenge in adapting your recipes for home bakers?

SB A commercial oven that’s convection is very different than a home, non-convection oven. That’s where we saw a lot of varying results—our oven versus the testers’ ovens.

AB We encourage people to get to know their own ovens, check the temperature, and learn where the hotspots are. As a test, put a sheet of cookies in, but don’t rotate it. Then look at which cookie comes out really dark and which is lighter.

I was impressed with the Bosch oven—it’s a home convection oven that really does behave like a commercial oven. We got a nice rise and really even heat. Our cakes went in and baked perfectly.

SB We were able to bake top and bottom using the multi-convection setting, and it baked really evenly without needing to rotate pans.

Which ingredients should home bakers pay more attention to?

AB Buy really good vanilla and good chocolate. I grew up with baking chocolate, which is akin to wax. If you like to eat high-quality chocolate, you should bake with it.

SB Get real vanilla, not artificial. Vanilla is as important to the baking world as salt is to savoury cooking. It’s there to develop and enhance an existing flavour—to brighten it.

Should Canadian home bakers measure by weight, as they do in Europe, instead of volume?

SB In the cookbook, we went with volume because it is what North Americans are very used to, although professional bakers work by weight. Measuring by volume can be accurate, but you have to be consistent. If you measure a cup of flour and level it off, always level it off. Don’t mound it one day and level it the next.

AB And don’t bang the cup on the counter.

What else can home bakers do to improve their baking?

AB Mise en place, just like in savoury cooking. Whatever you can measure and prep beforehand, do it. Don’t leave the mixer on while you measure and add ingredients to the bowl; most ingredients should only be mixed until just combined. If you measure as you go, other mistakes happen that really do affect the result—using baking soda instead of baking powder, mismeasuring or forgetting something.

Do you bake together?

SB Not much anymore. But we do eat together and run together. When we started, it was just the two of us baking in Allyson’s basement, but the business has grown.

Do you have tips for working well with another person in a small kitchen?

SB You need complementary skills, with just enough difference that it’s easy to say, “I’ve got this part of the project; you take that part.” Here we have bakers, macaron makers, cake decorators—they all know how to do everything, but they all specialize in one area. You can set that up at home too.

AB I find with couples, one person likes to do the dishes, one person likes to do all the chopping. In a lot of different partnerships, it just works out that way.

In restaurant kitchens, everyone is very respectful of physical space. You use language like “Behind you” and “In front of you” to warn people that you’re carrying something hot. It can be a bit of a dance. As it was when we worked in my basement.