Monday, March 18

Give Me Some Sugar: Stella Parks

Illustration by Elizabeth Graeber

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.

Emily is a writer, folklorist, and baker based in Washington, D.C. She blogs at Nothing in the House and tweets at @housepie. Most recently, she wrote about chess pie for our Gravy quarterly. 


Photos by Sarah Jane Sanders

 Who: Stella Parks

Where: Table Three Ten, 310 W. Short Street, Lexington, KY 

In a kitchen drawer at Table Three Ten in Lexington, Kentucky, pastry chef Stella Parks keeps a set of plastic measuring spoons that her parents gave her when she was 8. “I dug them up recently at my folks’ house and decided to take them to work. It’s a nice sense of coming full circle.”

But Parks, a Kentucky native, didn’t always know that professional baking would be her path. Though she’d baked since she was little and started working in restaurants as a teenager, she always thought she’d write books. When it came time to pursue a college degree, though, she reconsidered. “I knew I didn’t have a personality suited to teaching, or to journalism, or to whatever other English-major-y jobs I could think of. I knew I liked working in restaurants, working with my hands and on my feet. Then I started researching culinary schools, thinking I could work in food service and write on the side.”

Cornmeal Madeleines (recipe below)

And that’s exactly what she’s done. In addition to her professional baking, Parks writes the smart, often funny, and compulsively readable baking blog BraveTart. It features creative takes on classic recipes—from champagne marshmallows to buttermilk beignets—and helpful tips for home bakers, like how to properly use a pastry bag. Her first book, tentatively titled Sweet Truth: The Secret History of Iconic American Desserts, is forthcoming from Norton in 2014. Parks says that being a food blogger has helped her to realize her own identity as a Southern baker. “I’ve always used ingredients like buttermilk, sorghum, cornmeal, sassafras and bourbon. I’d never really thought about them being Southern (or “Kentucky”) until I started blogging. Then I’d get these emails from people in New York or Oregon, asking “where can I find sorghum?” or “where can I find stone-ground cornmeal?” Then I started to realize how much the experience of growing up in Kentucky informed how I stocked my pantry, influenced my cravings.”

Parks moved back home to Kentucky to run the pastry program at Table Three Ten when it opened in 2010. There, she makes French-style desserts interpreted through an American palate. “Think peanut butter pots de crème with red wine reduction, or Paris-Brest with a s'mores flavor profile.” This cultural intersection is nothing new to Parks. “I grew up in a little country town called Versailles [pronounced ver-SALES], so I have a “Versailles” macaron, which plays on the French/Kentucky dichotomy the name suggests. It’s an almond-free cornmeal shell with a sorghum buttercream.” While Parks may not have foreseen that baking would be in the mix, she is fulfilling her childhood goal of writing a book while living and working in her native Kentucky. It is, as she says, a nice sense of coming full circle.

Below, Stella Parks shares her recipe for one such American-interpreted French dessert: cornmeal madeleines. 
Cornmeal Madeleines
Recipe courtesy of Stella Parks
(Editor's Note: Parks strongly recommends measuring baking ingredients by weight, using a kitchen scale for accuracy.)

18 cookies

Leaf lard adds an amazing richness to the madeleines and makes my favorite version by far. If that’s a problem ingredient for you, or just inconvenient, melted (or clarified) butter will work nicely too.

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounces butter or leaf lard, melted
4 ounces whole milk
1 egg
1 3/4 ounce sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or the scrapings from half a vanilla bean pod
2 1/2 ounces yellow cornmeal, preferably fine or medium grind
2 3/4 ounces all purpose flour, sifted
optional: coarsely ground cornmeal for sprinkling

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350° F and lightly spray the madeleine mold (it helps the shells brown better with silicon) or mini-muffin tin. If using a cornbread pan, brush the molds with butter or oil and put it in the oven and wait until it’s piping hot before filling. This will give you a great crust and prevent sticking.

Making the batter couldn’t be easier. Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl and whisk until no lumps remain. Let the batter stand for 10 minutes, or until it thickens, before filling each shell 3/4 full (about two teaspoons).

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the humps no longer seem to have molten centers.

I love these cookies best served warm, but they’ll keep for about two days in an airtight container (becoming increasingly perfect to dip into hot coffee or tea). They’re also great toasted, with a dot of jam.