Moving to upstate New York at the age of 19 to attend The Culinary Institute of America after spending her childhood in the Philippines, chef Sherrie Tan has never been shy about pursuing her passion in pastry. She began her post-graduation journey under esteemed pastry chef Gale Gand at her restaurant Tru in Chicago, moving on next to the renowned Charlie Trotters as assistant pastry chef. She followed this with a stint at the Peninsula Hotel before deciding on a change of pace, taking on new challenges as a cake decorator at Chicago-based Sweet Mandy B’s in 2009. Sherrie has since flourished in the world of cakes and cookies, becoming Sweet Mandy B’s head pastry chef in 2011. Lucky for us, she sat down to talk about her love of baking while making us a Key Lime Crepe Cake with Pineapple Coconut Jam to toast to the arrival of summer.
YOUR DESSERT IS INSPIRED BY YOUR PHILIPPINE HERITAGE. WHAT ARE SOME OTHER KEY FLAVORS FROM THE PHILIPPINES YOU LOVE TO BAKE WITH?
I actually wanted to do something with ube, because I want the real thing like I can find back home. It’s hard to get it in the U.S. unless you’re friends with someone who actually grows it. I’m actually going to Hawaii to meet with my family next week, and I’ve asked them to bring me some ube goodies!
WHAT DOES UBE TASTE LIKE?
It’s a root vegetable, and it’s very subtle. It’s very similar to taro, but less starchy. Because of it’s subtlety, you put a lot of ingredients on top of it to compliment it’s delicate flavor.
WHILE WE’RE TALKING ABOUT FOODS FROM OTHER CULTURES, WHAT CULINARY CULTURE DO YOU THINK HAS THE BEST DESSERTS?
You know what, I love Japanese desserts. They aren’t too sweet – some people may consider Japanese desserts to be bland because they’re less sweet – but I feel like their techniques are so spot on! The Japanese have borrowed a lot from other cultures, like French techniques mixed with Japanese technology. I just love how subtle, simple and clean the desserts are there. And every single component is perfect.
WE UNDERSTAND THE ALLURE OF A CREPE CAKE. FOR THOSE OF US NOT FAMILIAR, WHY A CREPE CAKE?
I like the texture of it, and it ends up being really visually appealing while still tasting good. It’s worth the extra labor time you have compared to a standard cake.
SPEAKING OF EXTRA LABOR, ARE THERE INGREDIENTS THAT YOU FIND PARTICULARLY HARD TO WORK WITH?
There aren’t really difficult ingredients so much as there are difficult preparations. Let’s say you’re making Thai curry ice cream. I like to make the base on my own by getting the raw ingredients and pounding it with a mortar and pestle – that takes a while. With challenging ingredients, it’s more the process that can be tricky – and that’s where using the right tools comes in! Although maybe when you use fresh coconut that you have to crack into – sometimes that can be pretty difficult!
OTHER THAN THE STANDARD CHEF’S KNIFE, WHICH NO GOOD CHEF CAN LIVE WITHOUT, WHAT KITCHEN TOOL DO YOU FIND INDISPENSABLE?
Definitely rubber scrapers. Both professional chefs and home cooks need that in the kitchen, so you’re using all of your ingredients and wasting nothing.
A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO YOU SAW A RISE IN GLOBAL STREET FOOD AND CORRECTLY CALLED IT AS ONE OF THE CULINARY WORLD’S NEXT BIG TRENDS. SO WHAT’S NEXT?
I think Filipino desserts and cuisine are on the rise. Filipino dishes and flavors have already started popping up, but I think it’s happening more rapidly now. Pretty soon your grandma is going to be asking you, “What’s ube? Where can I find it?”
HOW HAS BAKING IN AN “OLD-FASHIONED DESSERT” SPOT SHAPED YOUR BAKING STYLE?
My training is mostly in fine-dining, so it was a bit of a culture shock for me to end up baking old-fashioned, home-style desserts. But it opened my eyes. Before I started at Sweet Mandy B’s, I felt like I just had to have to best ingredients for everything all the time. When you’re in fine dining, you use all of these fancy ingredients and have access to that. While I really appreciate that, I think there is beauty in something simple and approachable. There are more great desserts out there other than fine-dining style plated desserts.
SINCE WE’VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT DESSERTS THIS WHOLE TIME, WE CAN’T LET YOU GO WITHOUT ASKING: DO YOU HAVE ANY GUILTY PLEASURE JUNK FOODS?
A lot! It’s really bad. Everything doughnuts. Even Hostess! There are also these things called Tastykakes from Philadelphia that I absolutely love. I could eat a whole box of their Butterscotch Krimpets.
AS A BAKING EXPERT, DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR SOMEONE WHO IS INTIMIDATED BY BAKING AND PASTRY?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! I still make mistakes every day. I’ll still burn a tray or two of cookies or cupcakes sometimes. That’s just the way it is. You just have to do it, and if you make a mistake, you try to do it differently the next time – maybe use a different technique or tool. Change up the ingredients and read up on cooking as much as you can. There is no way to get the intimidation out of the way unless you actually do it.
TOOLS FOR THE TASTE
As a master chef, the tools you use matter. Add the following items to your kitchen to achieve outstanding results: Revolving Cake Stand “Stabilodecor”, Offset Spatula, Bourgeat Excellence Sauce Pan Without Lid, Non-Stick Crepe Pan, & “Tradition” Flared Sauté Pan Without Lid.