February 09, 2017
Baker Brittany Bennett, owner of Taartwork Pies, on how to have your pie and eat cake, too.
How did you become a professional pastry chef? I was a pretty loyal pie baker until a friend called me when her wedding cake baker ghosted her. I had a full time job, said yes without hesitation, then quickly marched over to my nearest book store to stock up on "So You Decided To Commit To A Wedding Cake" guides. I studied like I was cramming for my SAT all over again. The first test cake I built turned out to be a tribute to the leaning tower of Pisa. I think I added about 20 new grey hairs to my head. But when it was time to make the actual cakes, it was such a meditative practice. Smearing and smoothing frosting is just as effective as restorative yoga. And then delivering them to the site, seeing love in action, got me hooked.
What are your baking influences? I look to the seasons and what's in the woods. When I worked on a farm in Italy, a friend and I were strolling through the forests behind the gardens and started collecting wild flowers and branches until we decided everything we'd pick would look great on a brown butter cake with a roasted apple filling. Then we went to gather the apples from the tree in the chicken coop.
Advice for brides: do you prefer one big wedding cake, several pies or a big dessert bar filled with multiple sweets? Depends. Having a dessert table means everybody gets to indulge in the best part of the meal (in my opinion) whether they're a cake or pie person. A variety of treats makes everything look way more lush too which will look great in your photo album fifty years from now. I say have your pie and cake too. And adding platters of fresh fruit for the folks who aren't into sweets at all doesn't hurt. If you're already a bottle of champagne in, it's going to be real nice to have a plate full of different treats.
Who taught you how to bake? My Oma. She moved to Toronto from Amsterdam during the war and raised my mom and aunts as a single, working mother. When I was a kid she lived with us and would make me grilled cheese sandwiches after grilled cheese sandwiches. When she baked with apples, she'd peel the skin off in one swoop like it was a ribbon and give me slices here and there to eat. And that always made me feel special. Now when I'm slicing apples, I pass off slices to whoever is around. It's something so small but it taught me so much about compassion.
Tell me about some of your greatest baking accomplishments. For my birthday one year I woke up early and made myself a double lemon-poppyseed cake for breakfast and I think that's a nice tradition to have. Treat yourself! Then there was the brown butter cake with a roasted apple filling I mentioned earlier. It became a wedding cake for two cats on the farm who were always together. That was one of my favorites to make because everyone pitched in. Someone found red leaves and cut out heart shapes, another person spiced and roasted the apples, and another person made apple butter for the frosting. We built it together and ate it together as stars started to rise over the castle we called home. It was all very dream-like and connected to community and nature. It was perfect. And so I want what I bake to reflect those values of care, nature and community. The vanilla-almond cake with strawberry frosting I made for my friend's wedding was baked with that in mind. From sourcing the butter to the flowers on top, I wanted to make sure everything that went into it supported local farmers. It not only builds a better food system, but you also get some real good strawberry frosting.