Back in March of 2011, Bon Appétit magazine published this quote by Nora Ephron: “The Coffee Crunch Cake at Valerie Confections is three layers of chiffon cake, coffee whipped cream and coffee crunch. It’s the greatest cake in history.”
I remember reading this and thinking, I have to somehow get that cake into my mouth, but seeing that Valerie Gordon bakes on the west coast I am in New England, I wasn’t sure at the time how that would happen. Well, luckily for all of us, the recipe is in her new book, Sweet, which also includes many of her famous toffees, petits fours, cakes, cookies and more. Valerie Confections began in 2004 with six flavors of toffee and has grown to include three retail locations in Los Angeles that offer a variety of candies and sweets as well as fine teas, preserves and even salads and sandwiches at their Grand Central Market location. Valerie caught us up on the launch of her book and why being self-taught helps her creativity.
Dédé Wilson: The book is gorgeous; congratulations! You have been in retail for a while, but being an author is new. When people ask, “What do you do?”, what is your answer?
Valerie Gordon: I think the best way to describe what I do is that I am the creative director of Valerie Confections. Everything that we create, I have direct involvement from beginning to end. Every recipe, I develop; every box we debut, I am involved with how it looks. Anything and everything experiential with Valerie Confections, I handle.
How do you define the three retail locations?
Separate arms of the same tree. Valerie Confections is the tree trunk. Valerie Echo Park is the most direct branch of that tree where we do savory food, serve teas and offer petits fours and pastries, this was the obvious next step. You can sit down and have a lovely breakfast and a cup of tea, have a full experience. Then there are boxed or bagged confections as you walk out the door to take home.
Valerie at Grand Central Market is specific to the location. Here, we have all our pastries, coffee and tea and you can sit down; it’s not just to-go. The concept is about the market. We are in a wonderful, almost 100-year-old building. It’s about preservation, which we believe in – timeless products, timeless food. I wanted to create a wonderful gathering place to explore classic coffee-shop food, like our classic cake collection. Think farmer’s market ingredients presented in a clean, modern way. So, if I have a tea that I use in confections for one store or for wholesale, I can brew and serve it at Echo Park. It expands the applications within the different forums. Hypothetically, I could use it as a dressing on a salad, too. It is so full-spectrum.
You are self-taught. Our community members are avid home bakers, with some thinking about starting small businesses. Tell us about that.
I have found that the fact that I didn’t go to culinary school has given me freedom. I am not constricted by rules, I don’t find myself limited. A lot of pastry chefs I have come across that have had extensive training are very rigid. Even as young as 8 I was always baking. When I pursued other careers, I would always come back to baking. I have a degree in drama, which I thought I was going to pursue, even though I had much more interest in food, particularly sweets. I feel like I figured out a way to bring them together and have applied them professionally.
Do you have a moment, event or recipe from your career of which you are most proud?
My book! The release of my book!
What is it about the book?
From self-taught baker to self-taught baker, the thing that I am asked more than anything else from customers and friends who are interested in baking or confection-making, jam-making, they are sort of looking for permission to do certain things. So it is the idea that the book will demystify all of this for the home cook, take away some of the intimidation.
For instance, they hear the word “temper” and it scares them! But I explain it’s just taking the chocolate’s temperature. You know how to take a temperature!
Things are held up to be far more complicated than they are. I am most excited about getting people to bake something! Muffins, scones – there are simple recipes in the book. That is my goal and the most rewarding. Sure, it is science, but there is science in everything. When it rains outside we don’t have to think about the science of it.
I noticed that you recommend high-fat butter in your recipes and I wanted to make sure to point that out so that our community will get the best results. You also don’t pack your brown sugar when measuring! How come?
Because one person packs differently from another, just filling it slightly more [and sweeping excess away] is a consistent way of measuring. And weights are provided.
What do you hope to do next?
I hope to do another cookbook. I loved the process. Giving away recipes is a funny balance. You have to trust that your recipes will be received well. We did alter some for the home cook, but did it in a way to replicate what we do. I want to enable home bakers, make it accessible but no dummying down. I want to appeal to a wide audience, and we have a smart audience.
Well we certainly find our community to be smart and creative and I know they will love your book. We are featuring your gorgeous Champagne Cake that graces the cover of Sweet. It would be perfect for New Year’s Eve. Thank you so much for giving us an interview.
It was a pleasure, Dédé. Thank you!
Images: Peden and Munk. Copyright © 2013.