Pastry With Soul. It's That Simple : The Salt New York pastry chef Brooks Headley calls his cookbook Fancy Desserts. But his Italian grandmother is his real inspiration, he says, and she was all about homestyle: simple and fresh.

Pastry With Soul. It's That Simple

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


INSKEEP: This next story, from my colleague David Greene, is about pastries, which may make you wonder why we're playing this music.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: It's because we're with a chef and punk rocker named Brooks Headley.

So as we're coming into the kitchen, Brooks, I got to ask you about your other job. You are a musician and were in punk bands for years.

BROOKS HEADLEY: Yeah, it's still something I do. I'm actually, like, in three different bands right now. None of them are - there's no attempt to, like, actually, like, even make a dime.

GREENE: His day job is as the head pastry chef at one of New York City's premier Italian restaurants, Del Posto. We met with him to cook a few recipes from his new cookbook. And I actually thought we'd be blaring some music while we were baking, but...

HEADLEY: No, actually, like, if I listen to music while I'm working, while I'm cooking, I get horribly distracted. I guess even though I say that I don't like to listen to music, like, music is always kind of, like, going through my head. It's, like, I have a few different songs that kind of get stuck in my head while I'm working that I sort of hum to myself.


HEADLEY: Like "Warrior In Woolworths" by the X-Ray Spex.


HEADLEY: And also - and this is - I don't know why this gets stuck in my head, but the theme song to the first "Police Academy" movie - dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun. Right, like, if it's super stressful and things are kind of, like, going off the rails, I'm not really sure why that gets stuck in my head.


GREENE: You might wonder how exactly Brooks Headley has found success in the pastry kitchen. Well, the truth is he keeps it simple. He says he doesn't want to be a pastry chef so obsessed with presentation that the conversation at the dinner table stops when the dessert arrives.

And you use this wonderful phrase in the book that simple food is an act of defiance.

HEADLEY: (Laughter).

GREENE: What do you mean by that?

HEADLEY: Well, I mean, that's, like - that's kind of, like, a reaction to a lot of the really, really super-fancy, fine-dining desserts. A lot of times pastry chefs have this need to make things overly complicated. For me, like, I like to be perceived as kind of like an Italian grandma - to me that's the ultimate compliment. Like, a lot of times, like, cooks or chefs want to be considered kind of like scientists, especially for dessert because it can be kind of, like, an exacting thing, but for me I like to kind of, like, cook from the gut.

GREENE: But cooking from the gut, that's an Italian grandmother thing.

HEADLEY: Yeah, I mean, like, your Italian grandma, she doesn't, like, there's no scales - there might not even be a knife. She's just, like, kind of tearing stuff up with her hands and she kind of knows what she's going to do, maybe just from, you know, years of - years of experience.

GREENE: And that's the thing about his baking - if you use the right, fresh ingredients, follow his instructions carefully and harness the Italian grandmother inside you, you can pull off his recipes in your own kitchen and make stuff that tastes like it could be in a fancy restaurant. His cookbook is called "Fancy Desserts," but it doesn't feel like you're making anything that fancy. Like, his grilled lemon pound cake with lemon glaze, which we wanted to try. First ingredient - that other song he plays in his head, "Warrior In Woolworths."


GREENE: Great, OK, let's get started. Step one - mix traditional cake batter ingredients with some zest.

HEADLEY: Lemon and orange 'cause there's so much flavor in the skin. And you want to kind of get all of the yellow stuff.

GREENE: All right, add to that almond paste, sugar, some butter, egg and vanilla.

HEADLEY: It's sugar, but it's going to kind of, like, grind everything together. It's almost like the sugar is exfoliating the oils out of both the zest of the citrus.

GREENE: And finally, add some dry ingredients, pour it all into a cake pan and send it into the oven for 20 or 25 minutes.


HEADLEY: Yeah, so the cake's all finished.

GREENE: It looks fantastic.

HEADLEY: It's beautiful. It's, like, nice and caramelized on top.


HEADLEY: And we're going to soak it then. We're going to mix our lemon juice and our orange juice and kind of poke holes in it with a toothpick and, like, let that syrup soak into it, so...

GREENE: That's just what I was thinking.

HEADLEY: That's just going to add another level of, like, delicious, citrusy-ness to it, you know what I'm saying?

GREENE: That sounds great.

Now, to polish this off, toss slices of the cake onto a grill for a few seconds, add some persimmons that were slow roasted in honey and serve. Now, Brooks never went to culinary school. In 1999, one of his bands broke up and he wrote a letter to a Washington, D.C., chef, talking about what he had learned from, you guessed it, his Italian grandma.

HEADLEY: I think I just wrote about, like, cooking with my family and, like, I mean, I made potato gnocchi with my grandmother all the time and, you know, she would, like, talk to me about the elasticity and the texture of the dough or something. And I guess I mentioned that, which is funny because that's something that, of course, is really important, like, that - the feel of the dough when you're cooking.

GREENE: Those years cooking with grandma shaped Brooks Headley's philosophy in the kitchen, and maybe his boss summed him up best. The executive chef at Del Posto in New York says Brooks isn't about showing off how creative he is. His food just expresses soul. And that food can be so simple. There's this dessert he makes that could be perfect as a final taste of the holidays before you begin that New Year's diet. It's a chocolate tree.

All you need is some high-quality chocolate and ice. You temper the chocolate - that means heating it, cooling it. Don't worry, it's at our website,, and I promise it's not that hard. You end up with this liquidy chocolate that you pour over ice, let it cool and...

HEADLEY: Very gently pull out of the ice

GREENE: Oh, it seems like you're about to do surgery.

HEADLEY: Yeah, sort of, like, it's like Operation.

GREENE: Don't break the chocolate.

HEADLEY: Woops, that's OK. And you can see, like, you can make all sorts of different shapes.

GREENE: So what he pulls from the ice is something that looks like a branch made of chocolate. We decorated ours with chunks of leftover candy cane, but you can get creative.

How do you normally decorate this tree?

HEADLEY: Normally, like, I would have other chocolate confections, I guess, kind of, like, sticking in the, like, crevices and nooks. In this case, like, we'll use it and we'll just kind of put these candy cane - makes it super, like, weird and craggy and organic, you know, so...

GREENE: All right, we got this. That looks beautiful. Can we taste this together?

HEADLEY: Sure, sure, yeah, you can just, like, kind of, like - the idea is you just, like, rip off some chocolate and then in this case, like, kind of smash it in with the peppermint chunks.

GREENE: Wow, this is cool.

HEADLEY: So yeah, I mean, basically, this is sort of perfect because we're using, like, you know, Tuscan chocolate mixed with super American candy cane chunks, which is...

GREENE: Mashing it all together.

HEADLEY: Which is totally my jam, man.


INSKEEP: That's David talking with pastry chef Brooks Headley, whose new cookbook is "Fancy Desserts."

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