This is an audio transcript of the FT Weekend podcast episode: Food & Drink mini-series — Natasha Pickowicz on creative desserts

Lilah Raptopoulos
Hi FT Weekend listeners. Welcome to the last episode of our four-part mini series on Food and Drink. For each one, I’m approaching a different expert in the food world that’s really good at something, and I’m asking them to teach us about that thing. Today we have Natasha Pickowicz on the show. Natasha is a three-time James Beard Award finalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef, and for years she led pastry at the beloved Flora Bar and Altro Paradiso. When the pandemic hit, Natasha lost her job, and so she pivoted into a more free, creative style of baking outside of the system. It has more of a DIY, punk, do-it-yourself vibe. And now she hosts these very successful pop-up bake sales all over New York City, which have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for causes like Planned Parenthood. I invited her on to help make baking and pastry feel less intimidating and more free. She talked to me from her apartment in Brooklyn. So if you hear a cat, that’s her cat. OK, let’s get into it. This is FT Weekend, the podcast special edition. I’m Lilah Raptopoulos. Here’s Natasha.

[MUSIC FADES]

Natasha, hi. Welcome to the show.

Natasha Pickowicz
Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Lilah Raptopoulos
So you’re a pastry chef and you are known in New York for doing the sort of exciting DIY feeling, pop-ups and bake sales and they’ve built this huge, loyal audience. But you come from a fine dining background, and I’m curious if you can tell me first what you initially loved about pastry and baking . . . 

Natasha Pickowicz
Sure.

Lilah Raptopoulos
And how you got into that world?

Natasha Pickowicz
Well, it’s so funny that you say that I have a fine dining background because I really see myself as coming from a DIY background. And then I sort of tumbled into fine dining, and now I’m kind of back where I started. I didn’t go to culinary school, and I think that’s why I sort of approached it from that DIY angle to begin with, because as you know, you know, with so many of these kind of rarefied industries of chefdom, there’s so many levels of gatekeeping that happen at every phase of the way, and it begins with your education. Who can afford to go? For me, it was simply not possible to go to culinary school, and so it was important for me to work in places where I was able to learn from my colleagues, from my boss, from my peers, from the environment that I was in and being paid to work in.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah, I’m curious about having, like, a DIY background and then going into fine dining and then coming out again, like, how has that affected your style of pastry? Like, what makes a dessert . . . 

Natasha Pickowicz
Yeah.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Feel like yours?

Natasha Pickowicz
That’s such a great question. For me, it’s like things that feel not too sweet and sort of honour the ingredients, things that sort of feel like they were made with love and care and aren’t too fussy or like belaboured over, but maybe have like an unexpected twist or is elevated in some way that you might not imagine.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah, your work feels fun and creative. I was, on your Instagram you post sort of using fig leaves on your cakes and these sort of like gilets that are full of fruits and vegetables and sort of playful . . . 

Natasha Pickowicz
Yeah.

Lilah Raptopoulos
It’s nice for an amateur baker to see too, because, you know, I think we normally think of pastry and baking as much more scientific and less creative than cooking. Like, we have to adhere to the recipe rules very diligently or we’re gonna mess it all up. And do you think that’s true? Like, can you free us of that feeling? I’m sure to a degree a little bit of it is true, but . . . 

Natasha Pickowicz
Oh, my gosh. I mean, I could talk about this forever. I’m actually in the process of putting the final touches on my first cookbook that’s going to be out next spring. And I think it’s really tackling this very idea where, you know, I think that people see baking and cooking as two very distinct . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Natasha Pickowicz
Approaches to working and processing food. You know, you can add tomatoes into a sauce and it’ll break down and make it, like, kind of jammy and delicious. I think with baking, there’s a little bit of fear that goes into it because you make a batter and then you have to put it in an oven and close the door and you can’t even see what happens. You just have to trust that 45 minutes from now you’re gonna get this beautiful cake when it comes out. But I think once you sort of understand the basic fundamentals, that’s where you can kind of go off the path and improvise. Once you realise, oh, butter will give you this crumb instead of olive oil or yeast will make things rise like baking powder, then you can sort of make these swaps and sort of cook through feeling. Like, I have this olive oil cake recipe that I love.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Good. I was gonna say, could you take us through an example? (laughter)

Natasha Pickowicz
(laughter) Well, I have this olive oil cake recipe that I love. It’s my workhorse over the years. I’ve tweaked it endlessly. And I know that if I sort of abide by similar proportions of flour to sugar to liquid, I will still have a cake no matter what. Just the other day, you know, I didn’t have olive oil. I used coconut oil. I didn’t have milk. I threw in some buttermilk. I didn’t have the orange juice it called for. So I, like, I had this, like, ginger juice that, like, you kind of take a shot of in the morning. I threw that in there. I didn’t have enough wheat flour, so I threw in some cornmeal. Like, I know that as long as I’m sort of adhering to a basic structure and ratio of things, it’s gonna be a cake in the end. And it . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.

Natasha Pickowicz
Came out delicious. And it was super interesting.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah, right. That’s interesting. So say you’re sort of a home cook, a beginner baker, and you want to be creative or a little experimental with baking, and you know there are some rules you need to get down first, would you recommend, like, starting with, like a cookie recipe or a cake recipe, and just doing it a few times? Or would you, like, how would you, what would you recommend?

Natasha Pickowicz
Definitely. I mean, there’s so many ways to go about this. Like, everyone has that one thing that maybe they’ve made and feel slightly more confident about. Like, maybe it’s a biscuit or maybe it’s a chocolate chip cookie. While I’m mixing something, I’m taking notes and paying attention with my, with all of my senses. I’m like using that sense of smell when there’s bake in the oven, what a batter looks like as it’s in the mixer. You know, what it smells like once I’ve added the vanilla extract. Like, I think it’s a combination of, like, repetition and being present. I had a very structured way of teaching my cooks how to do anything, and we had this order of operations, you know, let’s say somebody was making a scone, the first time that scone would get made, I would make it and they would watch. The second time, they would make it and I would watch, and I would sort of, you know, give them feedback, like help them through it, whatever it takes. Then the third time, the idea is they can just go off and do it on their own based with having done it with me and their own notes.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah. It reminds me, I, I was in Greece a couple of months ago and was with this family friend and she taught me how to make, it’s not baking, it’s cooking, but she taught me how to make this type of kofta. That’s from a region where my grandparents, great grandparents are from in Turkey, modern-day Turkey. Anyway, they, it was like a very, it was very delicious. And I was watching her and I took notes and I took videos of her. And then I recently, a couple of weeks ago, thought like, I just need to try this. And I made it. And then I sent it, a photo to her in Greece. And I was like, it looks good, but the meatballs are too hard and whatever. And she sent me a bunch of feedback and then I did it again and it was better. And she’s there like, just keep doing it and keep sending it to us. And it became this like really nice dialogue.

Natasha Pickowicz
Exactly. And I think, like, you’re getting at something that I feel is really profound, which is the act of preparing food, in my book’s case with baking and pastry, is this radical act of connecting you to other people, whether it’s in the process of making that thing or whether it’s what you do with it when you’ve made it, who you’re eating it with, if you’re giving it to somebody, where it’s going.

Lilah Raptopoulos
I’m curious to hear about your other influences. I know that your dad is Ukrainian, right? And your mom is Chinese?

Natasha Pickowicz
Um-hmm. Yeah.

Lilah Raptopoulos
So do you have influences from that in your baking?

Natasha Pickowicz
Yeah, actually, I would say my mom is an incredible cook. But, you know, as you know, like sweets, dessert is not a huge thing in Chinese culture. It’s not, that was never really part of her repertoire or skill set. And that was something that we used to, like, I used to tease her out a lot, a lot about when I was younger, because every so often she would be, like, this shortbread cookie is too much butter and too much sugar. (laughter) And then she would make this cookie that would be like rock hard (laughter) and inedible. Sorry, Mom, but, like, just, like, awful. And I’m like, yeah, like sugar and butter, they add fat and flavour, but they also add tenderness, you know? And so it’s kind of like you can’t really mess around with something too much because . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.

Natasha Pickowicz
Then you sort of see, like, it just goes too far. And she would really try to improv and we would just be like, no (laughter) it’s not. So I think that my interest in cooking and baking pastry specifically was surprising to my family.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right. So what brought you to pastry?

Natasha Pickowicz
I think it’s this kind of ineffable magic of pastry is the thing that brings people together . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Natasha Pickowicz
Dessert is the thing that you celebrate over. And I think I was more drawn to that aspect of things than, like, actually even eating the cake itself. Like, of course I love cake, but I’m more interested in having a birthday party for someone, like . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.

Natasha Pickowicz
Celebrating someone on their last day of work, like getting to know a new neighbour. Pastry is sort of the reason why you can have all these things.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah, you’re right. It’s sort of the act of celebration.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

The last thing I’d love to do with you is a quick speed round.

Natasha Pickowicz
OK.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Couple of fun questions. Favourite fruit that’s in season right now to bake with.

Natasha Pickowicz
I’m obsessed with nectarines. I am gonna give you a hot take that I think that nectarines are better than peaches because . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Wow.

Natasha Pickowicz
Nectarines are peaches without the fuzzy stuff (laughter) on the outside . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s true.

Natasha Pickowicz
And they have, like, a stronger acidity . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Natasha Pickowicz
So they’re amazing to bake with because you get that brightness when you put them in a tart or make a jam with them or put them in a pie that you might not get with a fruit that’s, like, naturally, much sweeter.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Um-hmm.

Natasha Pickowicz
They’re just a perfect fruit.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Cool. Last revelation that you had in the kitchen.

Natasha Pickowicz
I would say to go back to what you were saying about the fig leaves, that was a huge one for me. And I think a lot of the best discoveries kind of come about because of lack of something or you’re trying to be resourceful or you think you’re backed into a corner and you’re forced to figure out, like, how to get yourself out of that corner. So, like, I was baking at home the other day, I was needed to make a cake to bring to a dinner party. I had run out of parchment paper and I have a big fig tree in my yard and I have used fig leaves to flavour custards, to flavour jams for barbecuing, for grilling. I would wrap, you know, like little lamb sausages in these fig leaves and it would sort of impart this coconuty flavour to the meat. So I was, like, maybe I’ll try lining this cake pan with fig leaves instead of parchment. And I was so happy with how it came out. The fig leaves sort of crisp up and got kind of tender into like a tender shard, real buttery, very tropical. The smell of it in the oven as it was baking was out of control and it . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Wow.

Natasha Pickowicz
Made the whole cake sort of perfumed with this essence.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right. Last question. It’s very hot, at least in New York. If you don’t want to turn on your oven, but you want to experiment with a dessert or make a dessert, what would you recommend?

Natasha Pickowicz
OK, so my boyfriend and I have been messing around a lot with making popsicles and . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Oh, cool.

Natasha Pickowicz
I think . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Good idea.

Natasha Pickowicz
Everyone needs to, like, get back into making the popsicle. (laughter) Like, he, this is really his thing. He is incredible at it. He comes from a bartending-cocktailing background, so he thinks about it as making, like, actual cocktails with alcohol in them . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Right.

Natasha Pickowicz
So he . . .

Lilah Raptopoulos
Good idea.

Natasha Pickowicz
Makes things like mango popsicles with mescal in them. He made like a white peach popsicle with anisette and sherry in it that was . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
Cool.

Natasha Pickowicz
Insane. He did one with, like, this isolation gin, summer gin with roasted strawberries. I love this because it’s a way to play around with all of the fruit that’s in the markets right now.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Um-hmm.

Natasha Pickowicz
There’s so much available. If you don’t want to, like, cook it into a jam or make a pie, you can just buzz it all up like you’re making a smoothie and like pour it into a dish or like ice cube tray or popsicle tray or whatever. And then you have this thing, like, who doesn’t love a popsicle?

Lilah Raptopoulos
Yeah.

Natasha Pickowicz
It’s like . . . 

Lilah Raptopoulos
That’s genius. That’s such a good idea.

Natasha Pickowicz
That’s like the new obsession for sure.

Lilah Raptopoulos
Natasha, this was awesome. Thank you so much for joining.

Natasha Pickowicz
Thank you so much for having me.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Lilah Raptopoulos
Thank you for listening to FT Weekend, the podcast from the Financial Times. That is the last of our four-part mini-series on food and drink and we would love to hear what you think. You can email us at ftweekendpodcast@ft.com. You can say hi on social media or on Twitter @ftweekendpod, and I’m on Instagram and Twitter at @lilarap. If you missed the others, go to our feed. You can check them all out. You can learn about wine trends from Jancis Robinson. You can learn how to flavour from Shuka and Shukette’s Ayesha Nurdjaja, and you can learn how to find your home cooking style with Andy Bararghani. This show was produced by the wonderful Molly Nugent, executive produced by Topher Forhecz and Cheryl Brumley, and sound engineered by Breen Turner with original Music by Metaphor Music. Special thanks to Alistair Mackie.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

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