Karen Krasne’s Extraordinary Desserts
Karen Krasne came to my attention when I first visited San Diego in 2002. My local pastry chef pal Carole Bloom emphatically insisted that I visit Karen’s Extraordinary Desserts bakery. Am I glad I listened! I walked into the bakery and had an amazing and somewhat odd experience. Amazing because everything I ate was delicious and the ambiance was warm and inviting. Odd because Karen, who I didn’t know at the time, was presenting an aesthetic that was so similar to mine that it was shocking. I was early in my career but my approach of using fresh flowers as decoration and of really focusing on flavor and the quality of ingredients was my natural approach. It was obviously hers as well. Then, when I saw that she served Mariage Frères teas, that just blew my mind. I have a wooden tea cabinet that was custom built to mimic the ones in the Parisian store in the Marais and it is filled with their iconic tea tins. She, too, was obviously a fan. I remember ordering a berry scone that was covered with rose petals and ordered a cup of tea. I was handed a binder to peruse her wedding cake offerings and again, I felt a kinship with this woman given her design approach that spoke to me so clearly. It is crazy it has taken us this long to connect, but Karen graciously spent some time with us talking about her creative process and her book, Extraordinary Cakes: Recipes for Bold and Sophisticated Desserts.
Dédé Wilson: Karen, from the first time I walked into one of your bakeries, your whole approach just spoke to me. You have a definitive point of view. Your baked goods have soul; that’s the way I like to put it. Talk to us about your creative process.
Well, first of all, thank you. I appreciate it. It is actually something that I take for granted at this point because it is just what I do. I take an architectural approach…I think about texture and color…each cake is its own being or structure. I really think about constructing it. What will be holding it up? What will it look like on the exterior and how will it feel on the inside? How does it feel on the mouth – every bite! So we go through a pretty elaborate creation process. It often comes from me having taken a trip somewhere to be inspired. It’s not like on an average Thursday I go into the bakery and say ‘today we are going to make a new cake’! It comes from being out on the road, having been somewhere and then when I get back I am filled with ideas that we work out in the kitchen. We taste components first and then when we have the elements we begin to make the cakes and troubleshoot.
It begins on the flight back from wherever I have traveled. My brain is brimming with ideas and I start thinking ideas through and sketching…
So you work things out on plane rides? I do to! There is no phone ringing, no people clamoring for my attention…I get tons of work done on planes.
Exactly! I’m like in a cocoon! Isolated…there is no one I have to talk to and I have an empty nest of time. I love it.
Do you literally sketch?
Yes, I do. There is a style in France where the pastry chefs sketch…many of the male European chefs who came out of Lenotre’s time do this. I have studied with (Pierre) Hermé for many years and he does this too. It is an architectural drawing. I have taken this approach since, oh, probably the late 80s!
(Ed. Note: I have been drawn to this concept for years and have utilized it as well. Below is a photo of a Hermé drawing
and another from Yves Thuries, to give you an example.)
Karen: I will come back from a trip and my staff will be like Oh My God! What now? (laughs)…we just got back from Tasmania and Australia and it was so inspirational; I think we will have 5 new cakes out of that trip.
It sounds like you have a team with you back to the kitchen that helps with the experimentation. Have they been with you for a while? Collaboration is so important.
Yes, I have an amazing team; some have been with me for 20 years and some for 12 to 15 years. There is a core group of about 35 girls all in the kitchen that helped with the book…not the writing but with the design work and putting together the photo shoots. They know what is “extraordinary”. These are all Latina women, many of whom starting with washing dishes and now they are absolutely key to our style and production.
Do you think it helped that they did not have culinary degrees? That is was easier for them to absorb your approach?
Yes, I think so. Sometimes a degree can be more of a hindrance. Sometimes culinary school graduates are intent on making their own mark…I need a team that can be diligent about quality and my vision…these women have passion and art in their DNA. It is so exciting to see how they learn – and then they get to a point where they are passing on ideas. We do have amazing collaboration.
Going back to what I said before about your work having soul…I like to be able to taste a dessert from the moment I look at it. I want it to invite me in. So many pastries are so “cookie-cutter” and that doesn’t speak to me at all.
So much of the French work is popped out of a mold and it is that rare French person, like Hermé, who will shock you with something different…I go every year to work with Hermé.
Every year? To study and train?
Yes, since 1984. I used to go twice a year. Sometimes I go to work with Christophe Felder. Now I go once a year and then also go to Asia. I am very attracted to Japan and Cambodia and that whole visual aesthetic. I love their use of flowers and color and shape. I still look to France for influence for the food aspect. And I always say that Paris is good for the soul. Training with others keeps me fresh.
What do get from Hermé and Felder?
Pierre Hermé has inspired our wildly popular Coffee Croissant d’Amandes, Tahitian Vanilla Bean Tart, Caramelized Apples in Chocolate Mousse- I would say so many things that have unexpected flavor combinations and are not too sweet.
Christophe Felder and I have known each other for 18 years or so and I have studied with him at seminars in Paris and we have designed desserts together in San Diego for a class we did together…we are so similar in our passion for desserts and all things food. I think he is the most creative and outstanding pastry chef I know. He holds on to traditional French roots in his desserts, as well as flies high with modern ideas and his quality is impeccable. Some of our desserts that he has inspired are our Salted Chocolate Caramel Cake, The Caribe Cake, which is mango, banana and passionfruit infused chocolate mousse based…Early Grey Ice cream…I could go on and on.
Let’s talk about your book, Extraordinary Cakes. David Lebovitz and I were recently talking about cookbooks. So many people turn to the Internet for recipes but as he put it, he writes a book when he really has something cohesive and collective to say. In fact, we recently launched Cookbook Reviews because I feel that books are so important – and often overlooked in this internet age!
I totally agree. When I was working on my book I wanted to take my time and get it right. I want to be able to look back at the book 10, 20 years from now and still be proud of it and know that I presented a collection that stands the test of time and is original. Books are relevant thoughts. I love David! He is one of those crazy and weird lab people where he goes into the kitchen and works something out and doesn’t stop until he gets it done right. His recipes work.
Do you have seasonal desserts that you present in the stores?
Just Thanksgiving and the winter holiday otherwise it’s just new items on the menu every week.
Well yes but it is a rotation of maybe every four months. This week we have a new cake called Hanalei. There is a lot of Hawaiian influence…It’s not always a cake. Sometimes it is something in a glass or ice cream that we are turning into a new sundae. We do have new scones every 2 weeks.
What is in the Hanalei cake?
The Hanalei Cake is composed of coconut cheese mousse, a banana meringue , fresh chopped mangoes in a mango gelée, whipped cream, and joconde cake moistened with passionfruit.
Banana meringue? How do you take a moist fruit and incorporate it into a meringue? Or are you using dried banana chips ground up or something? I am so intrigued!
I fold in puréed bananas into the stiffened whites- and then almond flour, flour, powdered sugar. They are crisp and somewhat like a dacquoise.
Is there one item that your customers just won’t let you take off the menu?
Yes! The chocolate croissant bread pudding (called Love is Chocolate in the book)! That thing is crazy…has a life of its own. Imagine the most buttery croissants chopped up, combined with crème brulée…then we add Valrhona chocolate and sometimes we add some chunks of brownies to help soak up the crème brulée. It’s like chocolate fudge and croissants and crème brulée all together….Ohhh, it is so decadent! I make it in individual oval porcelain dishes so everyone gets their own…it’s warm and gooey and crunchy…
Oh, we will have to feature that one. I love a dessert with contrasting texture and temperatures! Karen, thank you so much for your time and for your unique approach. I am a true fan.
Thank you, Dédé.