Monday, March 25

Give Me Some Sugar: Lisa White

Photo of Lisa White by Pableaux Johnson
In "Give Me Some Sugar," Emily Hilliard introduces us to some of the South's most talented female pastry chefs. They do right by the classics while developing a new canon of their own. Check back every Monday to meet a reason to save room for dessert. 

Who: Lisa White
Where: Domenica, 123 Baronne Street, New Orleans, LA

When Lisa White has a bad day, she makes bread. “It’s so simple—flour, water, salt, and yeast—but it’s magical,” she says. “You don’t know if it’s going to turn out, but when it does, it’s so awesome. It hits people on all levels—you can smell it walking down the street.”

She speaks from experience: Bread is what prompted her to change careers and become a pastry chef. “In March of 2008, I took a personal pilgrimage to France. While walking the isolated trails of the Camino of Santiago de Compostela, I was drawn into the village bakeries by the smell of bread baking. It’s then that I remembered what I had always wanted to do.” Three months later, White had enrolled in culinary school to become a pastry chef.

Originally from California, White now lives in New Orleans and works at Domenica, a rustic Northern Italian restaurant. She makes bread, pizza dough, pasta, and Southern-influenced Italian desserts like caramello crostata (a caramel custard pie with a pistachio torrone) and banana zuppa inglese (banana cake with crema cotta mousse and peanut brittle). Though she’s fairly new to the South, the place-based approach to food feels familiar. “Farm-to-table has been popular in California for so long. Southern food has also always been farm-to-table—it may have been detoured a little, but it’s not new here. It’s part of the tradition.”

Lisa White's 2013 St. Joseph's Day cornucopia at the Crescent City Farmers' Market. Photo by Marigny deMauriac.
After four years in New Orleans, White is compelled by the city’s emphasis on tradition and has embraced some of the local customs. As she explains, “There’s a lot of tradition in New Orleans—like red beans and rice on Mondays. You’re sitting around the table with a pot of beans, but you’re also talking and visiting. It’s more than food—it’s a full moment.”

The blessing of the 2013 St. Joseph's Day altar at St. Luke's church in Slidell, LA. All [non-floral] decorations made by Lisa White and her team out of bread and pasta dough. Photo by Barrett DeLong. 

Close-up of an altar decoration. Photo by Barrett DeLong.
Another New Orleans tradition she upholds is St. Joseph’s Day, the celebration of the patron saint of workers, which is popular in the Italian community of New Orleans. It’s celebrated with giant altars filled with elaborate breads and pastries symbolizing an offering to the saint.

Photo by Barrett DeLong.

For the past two years, White’s intricate bread sculptures—cornucopias with vegetables, crawfish, and flower bouquets all made entirely from dough—have adorned the altars of St. Luke’s in nearby Slidell, LA. She also donates to the church a tempting assortment of cookies, like fig involtini and almond fingers; and breads, including grissini, fougasse, and Italian Easter egg bread with gold leaf (recipe below).

White’s contribution to her community aligns with her general food philosophy: “I just want to make people happy. What it comes down to for me is just making someone smile and their heart happy, and it could be with something as simple as a warm cookie or extravagant as a perfectly set semifreddo.”

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Lisa White's Easter Egg Bread. Photo by Marigny deMauriac.

Italian Easter Egg Bread
Recipe courtesy of Lisa White

2 ⅔ cups bread flour

1 ½ tsp instant yeast

1 cup whole milk

½ cup egg yolks (depending on egg size, around 7 yolks)

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup honey

2 ½ tsp kosher sea salt

¼ of a whole vanilla bean, split & beans scraped out with the back edge of a knife
Zest of ½ orange
4 whole eggs (you can dye them if you want)
pan spray
Swedish pearl sugar for sprinkling (optional)
egg wash (see recipe below)

Dissolve instant yeast in warmed milk (not hot to the touch, warm). Using a whisk or a spoon, stir until it gets frothy looking - it should take 8 – 10 min.

In a large mixing bowl, first place milk & yeast mixture, honey, extra virgin olive oil, vanilla bean, orange zest, and egg yolks. Then add bread flour & salt last. 

Mix on slow speed with a dough hook attachment for 4 minutes. Then scrape the bowl and mix again on medium speed for 4 more minutes.

 Remove attachments from bowl. Gather dough from the bowl and on a lightly-floured counter, knead dough a few times just to gather it all together. Spray a container or bowl with non-stick food spray. Set dough inside the container & cover. Let bulk ferment (rest) for 30 minutes.

After thirty minutes, remove dough ball from container and divide into 4 pieces, leaving the remaining 3 pieces covered with either a clean dish towel or loose plastic.  Divide the remaining piece into 2 pieces. Next, roll these out like long ropes. Once equal in length, twist them together and bring the ends together to form a circle. Place circle on your baking sheet, tuck the ends underneath each other, and place your uncooked whole egg in the center (it cooks as the bread bakes). Brush with egg wash and do the same to the remaining pieces.

Brush the bread again with the egg wash. Put the whole tray into a loose fitting plastic bag and place in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, remove the bread from refrigerator & the plastic bag. It should be almost doubled in size. Brush with egg wash and let sit out until room temperature, approx 20 minutes.

Preheat oven for 340 degrees F.

Brush with egg wash one more time and sprinkle with Swedish sugar or sprinkles and place in the oven. Bake for approx 25 minutes or until the internal temperature is 185 degrees F. Remove from oven and let cool.

Egg Wash
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
Pinch salt
½ cup heavy cream
Whisk together; strain. It is now ready to use.

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Emily Hilliard is a writer, folklorist, and baker based in Washington, D.C. She blogs at Nothing in the House and tweets at @housepie.