Stella Parks — aka “the BraveTart” — knows more about cake than most people know about anything. She has the CIA training and the restaurant experience, but it’s her attention to detail and infectious enthusiasm for American desserts that makes her recipes not only technically great, but downright joyous.
And while cooking and eating sweets is a veritable dream job, one cannot live on cake alone, which is why we were thrilled to talk to Stella about her favourite savoury dishes, the horror of chocolate-covered strawberries, and the reason she has to taste test the entire cookie.
Location: Lexington, Kentucky
One word that describes how you eat: Deliberately
I have a hard time imagining you eating anything other than cake and pastry. Do you eat cake for breakfast?
That’s amazing. You know, weirdly, I’m not a breakfast person. When I wake up I’m still kind of carried over from dinner, and not super-ready for a meal. So, I’m kind of a tea and coffee in the morning kind of person until I eventually get hungry.
How do you fix your coffee?
I usually drink black coffee. If I’m having an espresso drink—which is typically only when I’m in New York for work, and I’m not home and able to make my own stuff — I’ll have a latte or something with milk in it, just because espresso seems to sour my stomach a little bit and having a little dairy or non-dairy milk-like product helps to soften the blow. It can also round off the edges of bad espresso if I’m not staying near a good coffee shop. We’re mostly tea-drinkers at home, so coffee is kind of my “when I’m travelling and have no one else to take care of but myself” drink.
Are you a one-meal-a-day kind of person?
Yeah, I’m kind of a dinner person. Dinner is my romance of the day. I have lunch regularly when I’m at Serious Eats—it’s kind of necessary for office culture if I’m gonna ever fit in and be accepted, because they are frickin’ serious about lunch.
But at home, which is most of my life, when I’m in Kentucky, lunch is not something I generally participate in at that point in the day. I’m just baking so much and testing so many different things. Having several small bites of various items that are loaded with sugar really does destroy your appetite. So I tend to not be hungry, although my husband also works from home, so if he is making lunch for himself — because he’s a normal human being who eats regular meals — he might make an omelet, or make something that just tends to smell really great, and that sometimes entices me.
And then I’m the kind of terrible human who kind of slowly creeps closer and closer to him until I’m right at his elbow, and he’s like “Oh! Would you like a bite of this?,” so I can be wooed over if something smells substantially savoury.
If I’m trying to taste test between six different batches of thin and crispy chocolate chip cookies in the style of Tate, it can get really difficult if you have a bite of pepperoni pizza in the middle of it, because the bites of the cookies you take after that are going to seem sweeter in contrast to the saltiness that you just had. It really screws you up. I’ve been trying to balance things out this year by incorporating more non-sweet baking into my repertoire. I just did a 100-per cent whole-wheat loaf and that was really nice.
I feel like people think that, as a food writer, you have total control over what you eat and your eating schedule, and if anything it’s the opposite.
Yeah, it is. And that in and of itself can be a little stressful. Two weeks ago, right before my last New York trip, I was testing Levain-style chocolate chip cookies, those big, thick, monster cookies; Tate-style chocolate chip cookies, which are the thin and crisp kind; and homemade pancake mix. And I just kind of wanted to die, because all of those things are just so sweet, and so carby, and there’s just nothing you can do about it.
You’re like “I need to make another batch of these to see what it’s like, and I need to also eat that to see what that’s like.” And even when you’re done with something you’re like “OK, I think I’ve got it, we’re done,” you still have make it one more time and eat a whole one. Because if you make a cookie that’s perfectly seasoned for one bite, but you’ve never actually eaten the entire cookie, then that cookie may actually be way too sweet, unless you know how the bites stack up together.
Same thing with a pumpkin pie. You can’t say “I’m only tasting one spoonful of the filling” because it may seem perfectly seasoned, but by the time you get to the end of a whole slice, you’re like “Oh my God, there’s too much ginger.” So you have to eat a whole one, but if you try to eat the whole one on the same day that you’re still doing recipe testing, then you’re just going to be extra sick. So you kind of have to space it out. It’s very screwy. Everything about my diet is very screwy and I’m not a model of good health.
When you finally do make it to dinner what do you usually have?
Lately we have been on a real donabe kick with Japanese food, partly because of the time of year—it’s kind of the Le Crueset of Japan. It’s just a heavy clay pot that you cook in, so it’s a slower heating method compared to stainless steel or whatever. It’s a little bit analogous to cooking in a heavy dutch oven, even though it’s a very different material. It’s all these stews and simmered dishes and little bit hardier cuisine. It’s pretty vegetable heavy in the evenings because by the time I get there I’ve had a lot of carby things like scones and pancakes and cookies and cake and whatever.
I’m like “I don’t even want pasta or bread.” I usually just want tons of greens, tons of vegetables, and just an infinite amount of salt. I’m usually kind of low on my dairy requirements. I mean I really deeply love cheese, but if you’re testing a lot of dairy-based desserts, at the end of the day you’re like “do I want any more milk products in my body?” So I do love me some tofu, especially really really good tofu.
What kind of tofu do you get? Do you have a favourite brand?
I make it! I’m the worst. I don’t have a soy milk maker but I make my own soy milk, and then I’ve got the nigari to make it into tofu, and I’ve got a little tofu box, and then I’ll just strain it off and make tofu in a ramekin or something.
Do you find savoury cooking to be relaxing or just something you have to do to feed yourself?
It’s more something I have to do to feed myself. I don’t find it stressful; I find all kitchen projects relaxing. I very much enjoy the act of doing a thing with my hands. I don’t intuit cooking the way I intuit baking, which is really ironic because it makes me want to really follow the rules of a recipe, because I don’t fully understand what to expect. But cooking is so free-spirited, you know?
Even with Daniel Gritzer, culinary director at Serious Eats, if I inquire “so exactly how many grams do you think a large clove of garlic is?” He’s like “Oh my God, Stella, stop. Grab a clove of garlic.” I’m like “I know, but these are those tiny little heads of garlic in the winter, and they’re really small and I’m not really sure what a normal clove of garlic is supposed to be like…” I want to know! I don’t have that level of intuition to draw from in cooking.
You mentioned that you like to incorporate a ton of salt into dinner. How many types of salt do you have?
I’m not super salt trash. I’ve got my Diamond Crystal for all of my baking. I’ve got Maldon for my table salt. I’ve got a little thing of sea salt that we bought when we were on vacation, so we could season food on the road. So I still have that that I’m polishing off. This isn’t salt per se, but I do have a fancy-arse bottle of Japanese soy sauce. It’s an important form of sodium.
Besides this fancy soy sauce do you have a condiment or seasoning that you put on everything?
The answer is homemade chilli crisp. I am freaking obsessed with that. I had it on a stolen bite of my husband’s omelet today.
In your book, BraveTart, you have a lot of recipes for things that people usually buy prepackaged, like Girl Scout cookies, and Oreos. Are there any prepackaged baked goods that you buy?
There are some things that I do buy out of love, like Pocky sticks. Those are those are difficult to make appropriately. But baked goods? No. It’s not like I’m going to turn one down at someone else’s house. But typically, if I am going to have one of them, I probably want to make it.
What about savoury? Are there any frozen convenience foods at Trader Joe’s or snack products that you really enjoy?
I have never been inside a Trader Joe’s. I’ve walked up to it, and stared down the windows, and as far as I can tell, it’s a bunch of things that other people have made, so I’m good! I can make everything! I know they’ve got frozen dumplings or whatever, but we’ve got so many cool restaurants here in Lexington that if I am really craving some dumplings, I’d rather support a local business. They’re not terribly expensive at a mum-and-pop shop. But that’s more of a philosophical approach to food; if you have to spend every moment of your day thinking about food, you tend to develop kind of weird rules surrounding it.
Can we see inside your refrigerator?
Yes. Usually it’s crammed with baking projects, but since I just got back it’s kind of barren.
Do you have a go-to diner order?
My formative diner experience is the Eveready Diner in Hyde Park, New York, which means my go-to diner order is disco fries, which is kind of like a chilli cheese and gravy mess of amazingness.
If not a disco fry, what’s your favourite style of French fry?
I like classic french fries, although I have a really special place in my heart for waffle fries. I do love a good waffle fry—so much good texture. At Emmy Squared in Brooklyn they have okonomi fries, so it’s waffle fries with bonito shavings and Kewpie mayonnaise, and that’s really ridiculous and excellent.
Here in Lexington, a good friend of mine has a restaurant that’s really close to our house, and there’s not a ton that’s really close to our house, so it’s our go-to dining spot, and his fries are fantastic. That’s kind of like my platonic ideal of French fries, just a classic hand-cut, russet potato situation, normal length—nothing super-long, normal size. They’re perfect.
Do you have a movie theatre snack?
I’m kind of just a buttered popcorn girl. I want all the fake butter. I want all of it.
Do you make popcorn at home?
I don’t make it as often as I’d like to because it tends to be exactly the thing that I don’t need in my life, which is additional carbs. But I have a deep and abiding love of popcorn. It’s such a pure and delicious food. I like several varieties of popcorn and I don’t get to enjoy them as much as I want to.
I’ll usually pop it in refined coconut oil and then salt the crap out of it and that’s usually about it. I want to put clarified butter on it, but I don’t generally because I have too much fat intake in my day. I’m set on butter.
Do you have go-to “sad meal” or “can’t-even meal”?
So, someone actually tweeted this at me pretty recently: what’s my sad dessert or what do I bake when I’m sad? For me it’s two different questions. If I’m sad and I’m going to bake something, it tends to be a more elaborate or involved project because I want to be distracted. I’m not the kind of person who’s like “I’m just going to sit with my sadness and really feel it and ride it out,” I’m like “Get me away from it. I can’t even think about it.”
If I were sad and dining out, I would probably order poutine at my friend’s restaurant, and just have a bunch of gravy and fries maybe a hamburger or something. But if I’m sad at home, and wanting to distract myself from that with a meal, I would probably make something more elaborate like a lasagna, or something that’s gonna be all-consuming for my day.
How do you eat with all the travelling?
I will generally have something like a banana and a coffee in the airport. I don’t like to eat food when I’m agitated, and when I’m in the airport I’m usually agitated, so I’m kind of internally shut down. Food doesn’t soothe me in that way. I’m thinking about it too much. I’ll be like “this is crappy” or “this is poorly seasoned.” It’s not satisfying to have that part of your brain offering a critique.
So I’ll tend to go for something that’s more like God made it, so I can’t argue with it. It’s just a banana. It is what it is.
Also I don’t want anything I have to touch with my hands—you know the banana has a peel to hold it—because I’m so paranoid about getting sick from just casually touching the armrest of my plane seat, and picking up someone else’s germs, and giving myself a flu or whatever. But also! This reminds me of my one, perfect, pre-made food item, which is of course Biscoff cookies. They’re perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.
If you could only pick one source of salt, one source of fat, and one source of acid, what would you choose for each category?
I guess I’d choose Diamond Crystal kosher salt. I’m sure I would choose cheap unsalted American butter for my fat. One source of acid, huh? That’s a tough one. I love all forms of acidic things. Oh my God. Am I choosing professionally or personally?
I’ll let you do both, because I’m very benevolent.
A benevolent goddess! OK. OK, this is a whole new breakdown. So those things stand—the Diamond Crystal kosher salt and cheap unsalted American butter are my salt and fat, professionally. My professional acid would probably be lemon juice. I would definitely have my Maldon salt, and my fat would probably be some fancy-pants olive oil. It would be in my salad, it would for dipping things, and drizzling things and cooking with. And my acid would probably be a really good apple cider vinegar. I didn’t actually know there was such a thing as good apple cider vinegar.
I thought it was all kind of “there it is,” but Michael Harlan Terkell, who wrote the book Acid Trip — he’s done some guest posts for us at Serious Eats, and he hooked me up with — I think the brand is called O-Med — apple cider vinegar, and it blew my mind. It’s so perfect and delicious. It’s really nice in a salad dressing, and it’s really nice with roast chicken, and it’s just great everywhere.
I want to talk about how much you hate sous vide cooking.
[Laughs] The most!
I understand why you hate it in your line of work. It seems like it could be completely useless.
It isn’t necessarily. It’s kind of hard because I have this fragmented pastry psyche. So there’s a part of me that has spent years working in a restaurant environment, and I can totally see the allure of sous vide in a lot of restaurant circumstances. At the restaurant Table Three Ten, where I used to work, and that’s where I got named by Food & Wine as America’s best new pastry chef—where my entire career was basically built—I literally had one pot and one burner for 100 per cent of all tasks that I had to accomplish in the kitchen.
I get sous vide; it’s useful. If you’re like “I need to poach a bunch of pears sous vide,” great! Do it! Go! Or, if I need to infuse some cream and some herbs, it’s a really great way to warm things up and hold them there without using a stovetop. It definitely has its applications. You can temper chocolate with it if you need to. There are totally valid and good ways to use it. I very much appreciate that from a restaurant perspective, but from a home cook perspective—I mean maybe if you have a tiny kitchen and you don’t have a lot of burners.
Allison Roman has frequently posted pictures of her incredibly tiny kitchen and her tiny little four-burner stove, but she still has a four-burner stove, and I have a four-burner stove. If you have an extremely small home kitchen you’ll have two burners probably, but for the most part home cooks have a stovetop, and boy, there’s so much you can do on the stovetop. So to me the benefit of sous vide is the extent to which it allows you to do things you otherwise couldn’t.
So if you don’t have the resources to poach some pears, sous vide is great for that. Or if you don’t have a reliable oven, and you really want just to sous vide your creme brûlée, be my guest. I also appreciate the evaporation that happens in a lot of recipes. I would rather do my creme brûlée in the oven but I know not everyone agrees with that.
With tempering chocolate, do you think it’s an easier or maybe less scary way to do it because you have that exact temperature control?
I think it really depends on what you want to do with the chocolate, because the viscosity is so different. You’re getting a chocolate that’s going to be very thick, so it can be a little bit trickier for dipping. But sous vide is a really great way to melt chocolate while ensuring it never goes above its threshold. You know, that’s why you can’t just toss chocolate in the microwave. You’re going to overheat it and it’s going to come out of temper.
With sous vide you can throw it in really low heat and melt the chocolate without ever causing it to lose its temper in the first place. Then you can use it for things like sheeting to shatter up and make a garnish for dessert, or spreading over a cookie, or other things where you’re physically manipulating it versus trying to dip something. That’s all I would need it for at work.
So you don’t think it’s a good method for dipping strawberries?
If you’re into chocolate-covered strawberries, I think that would be fine. I think people kind of don’t mind a thicker coat of chocolate. I can’t do chocolate-covered strawberries, so I can’t speak to that personally. It’s like a phobia. It’s the texture of a juicy wet strawberry and the texture of like crisp creamy chocolate. It deeply bothers me to have both of those in my mouth at the same time. It’s absolutely horrific for me.
The strawberry is so cold and then the chocolate doesn’t melt right in your mouth. It’s all waxy, and then you have this waxy lump of fat slowly melting on your tongue with the cold juiciness of the strawberry just kind of churning around. Not into it.
I mean when you put it that way, I don’t know that I’m into it anymore.
[Laughs] I’m sorry my horror completely derailed our conversation. If you’re going to be dipping truffles or something where you want a really thin delicate shell, I feel like my results with sous vide have not been adequately fluid. And there may very well be ways around that, I have just have never had circumstances that motivated me enough to explore the avenues.
What’s the one thing you wish all home bakers knew?
The one thing I wish everybody could understand is that not all all-purpose flours are the same. This is not a regulated term. There are some all-purpose flours that are made with 100 per cent soft white wheat flour that is chlorinated, which has a completely different behaviour than other brands, which might be made from 100 per cent hard red wheat flour that’s completely untreated. And then there are flours that are a blend of white and red wheat, and they’re all over the map. Some are high in protein, and some are high in starch, and vice versa.
So I always try and specify in my recipes what kind of flour I’m using. And I think some people get a little salty. They’re like “well if you’re making a recipe that only works with one type of flour, you’re not a very good baker.” Well actually, all bakers are making a recipe that only works with one type of flour, unless that baker is also cross-testing their recipe across multiple brands of flour—honestly I don’t think most recipe developers are investing that kind of time.
So the best any baker can do is find a brand that they like and stick with it, and let you know what brand that is, as a courtesy. People don’t understand that, and they’re just like “Well I made it with this flour and it doesn’t work. This recipe’s bad.” Well, that flour has comparatively a lot less starch, or has a lot more protein, or is much starchier, and that’s going to affect everything. So if you have consistent problems with their cookies not spreading enough, or their cake having too coarse — or kind of a corn bread-like structure — try a different flour.
That’s just one of the reasons I do not envy your job at all. There’s so much chemistry going on that so many people are just not aware of. You’re dealing with so many factors with flour alone, and then you go to butter, and that’s a whole other set of factors…
For sure. Every ingredient! Every ingredient is that kind of—is it a heavy cream or light cream? Is it homogenized or not homogenized? There’s an unbelievable matrix of interacting variables and then, even if you can control every variable, including the type of pot and pan and baking dish and all the equipment as well, because that’s another huge variable. We’re partially to blame for this at Serious Eats—we love to focus on the science, and the things that can be controlled, and the variables we can identify and name and explore.
But, at the end of the day, with baking there is a lot of skill involved. People say, “I followed the recipe to the T, I measured it down to the gram, I used every single brand you recommended, and it still was a flop.” It still takes some practice and some experience. Baking is so intertwined with special occasions. People want to do something nice for somebody else — make them a birthday cake or make some cookies for the office — and they go through all this effort to do everything the recipe says, and I can appreciate how frustrating it would be to really feel like you were going the extra mile and then have the results turn out poorly. It sucks.
It’s like knitting your first scarf. It’s going to take a couple tries to get the hang of it, and get a good rhythm, and get those smooth, even loops. I’m sure I’d know the word for that, if I were a knitter.
Baking is like a lab experiment or a lab procedure, right? Scientists will do an experiment, and then it has to be reproducible. And someone else in the lab elsewhere has to be able to confirm that the thing can be done. And it’s kind of wild to think that there’s someone who’s like “Yes, it’s confirmed. It absolutely can be done.” That doesn’t mean you’re good at it or you’re going to do it on your first try.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.