Gina Mahalek: What Karen Barker, “Greatest Pastry Chef,” Taught Me About Dessert

Karen Barker (Photo by Ann Hawthorne)
Karen Barker (Photo by Ann Hawthorne)

Every time I eat a truly great dessert, I think of Karen Barker.

In addition to being a James Beard Award Winner for Outstanding Pastry Chef, Karen was also a great teacher—as I learned when working with her on publicizing and taking a deep, sweet dive into her masterful 2004 cookbook from UNC Press, Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts.

She taught me to consider whether a dessert “ate interestingly” all the way through, and forever changed the way I appreciate the concluding course to a meal. I learned from Karen that “It’s more interesting to eat a layering of flavors in a dessert so that it’s not one-dimensional.” She also believed that “When you sit down to a plate of something, it’s nice not to have every bite taste exactly the same. There should be flavor contrasts, temperature contrasts, and textural contrasts.”

Karen also brought a wabi-sabi sensibility to baking, finding homey imperfections charming because “they let the diner know that the items are handmade.” I still take comfort in these words whenever a pie bubbles up around the rim or a cut-out cookie crumbles around the edges.

When I asked her how she managed to stay so slim, despite having a job that literally kept her up to her elbows in chocolate ganache, she acknowledged that if she ate everything that she prepared, she’d be “as big as a house!” However, she confirmed that she tasted everything she made throughout her workday, and that treating one’s self every day to “a single, great, crisp cookie” can be a very good thing.

And she believed that “a great dessert can leave an impression that lasts a lifetime.”

Just before the publication of Sweet Stuff, Karen shared her some of her best baking tips for professional results (and ways to show loved ones some sugar) with me in this Q & A:

Q: What distinguishes restaurant desserts from homemade desserts?

Karen: I think that restaurant desserts tend to be a bit more elaborate than those that people tackle at home. And it’s not that the base recipes are difficult—it’s just that there are more components on a plate and more attention is paid to textural and temperature contrasts. In other words, a restaurant dessert might include a slice of cake with an accompanying sauce and an ice cream or a fruit garnish.

Chefs also consider what a dessert will look like when it’s individually plated and put down in front of somebody. At home, a cake might be brought to the table on a platter and sliced and served in front of the guests. It’s just a different way of thinking about presentation.

Q: How can the busy person find time to prepare dessert?

Karen: Preplanning is everything when it comes to efficiency in the kitchen. I don’t think people realize how much can be done in advance. It’s a matter of having certain staples around, and then thinking, maybe the day before you want to serve something, “tomorrow I’m going to do this.” Thinking ahead expedites the process. Instead of having to do three distinct steps for a recipe, you might do only one or two.

Pastry dough freezes incredibly well. If you already have your pastry dough made, you can remove it from the freezer, and put it into the refrigerator to defrost overnight rather than having to make it that day and let it chill. You can even freeze it already rolled.

Many cookie doughs freeze really well, too. You can keep some types of cookies in your freezer already rolled out so that you can have freshly baked cookies within a half hour of deciding that you want them. A lot of sauces can be broken down into smaller batches and put in the freezer. Crisp toppings and fruit compotes can be made and refrigerated. Many desserts are designed to be prepared in advance. A refrigerator and freezer can be a baker’s best friends.

Q: Do you have any shortcuts for those of us who are really pressed for time?

Karen: There’s nothing wrong with taking a shortcut by using store-bought ingredients. If you need a really quick dessert, you can buy a great pound cake from the bakery or even from the supermarket and make an easy sauce to pair it with. You can get perfectly good premium ice cream in the supermarket, and then make fresh baked cookies and a sauce to go with it. If you do that, then you’ve got a mostly homemade dessert that tastes great and is really memorable

I think sundaes are fabulous for any occasion—they’re not just a kid’s dessert. They can be served at the fanciest of dinner parties, people love them, and it really doesn’t take that much work or effort to put them together.

Q: Is there any special equipment that you consider essential to producing great baked desserts?

Karen: If you have a food processor and a standing mixer, that certainly makes baking much easier. And if you bake a lot, I would definitely recommend having them. But a handheld mixer also works great. And everything in this book can be done with a little elbow grease. People baked for hundreds of years before electrical appliances.

Q: Any final words of advice?

Karen: Baking should be a little break from your busy schedule. It shouldn’t be a chore––it should be fun. If you approach it in a relaxed mode, and read the recipe ahead of time, and make sure that everything is out and in front of you, with all the right ingredients measured out correctly, you should come out with a really great product without too much muss and fuss.

Desserts can bring people together, and make any occasion more special. When you bring in a cake to the office, it’s a people magnet. Everybody gravitates towards sweet stuff.


Karen Barker died on February 2 from metastatic cancer.

Gina Mahalek is Publicity Director at UNC Press.