Obsessed: Baking With an Artist's Palate

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[Photographs: Katie Cheng Franke and Keith Franke]

Editor's Note: Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we'll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!

When we first started this interview series, I never really expected that we'd feature a baker. Cooks who love to make pastries tend to be an obsessive bunch as a rule—I suppose it has something to do with the importance of weights and measures and temperatures and whatnot. It seemed redundant to feature someone obsessed with baking; doubly so, in that our resident pastry expert seems to fit that bill, too, and we feature the products of her single-minded focus on a near-daily basis.

And yet, when Stella mentioned something about a fan who had adapted her pie dough recipe to a number of different animal fats, my curiosity was piqued, and I started following the work of Katherine Cheng-Franke. What is immediately striking about her pastry creations is their formal beauty: the clean lines and the machine-like regularity evident in even the tiniest details. A little online sleuthing revealed that she is an artist, which makes sense. While there are striking differences between what she produces on the canvas and what she makes in her kitchen, her playfulness, careful hand, and color palette are evident in both mediums.

Katherine attributes the distinctions between her painting and baking to differing levels of experience. Of her art, she says, "I've been drawing and painting for as long as I could hold an oil pastel crayon," and she notes how lucky she is to have found her calling at the young age of three. And despite what sounds like the back-breaking work of using watercolors to make pointilist paintings, she says she spends less time thinking about technique than the execution of her ideas. But with baking, a hobby she started 10 years ago, she thinks she has "a pitiful amount" of experience, and for the moment she still is limited by the necessity of focusing first and foremost on technique.

Katherine has taken a hiatus from painting for the time being, in order to focus on raising her son. But in the interim, baking serves as her creative outlet. A necessity, perhaps, given her remarkable amount of creativity.

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Name: Katherine Cheng Franke

Age: 32

Day job: Commander of a household; German Shepherd cuddler; serious baker, longing to return to the studio

Instagram: @katiesserie

Facebook: The Art of Katherine Cheng

Twitter: @snowmask (buried beneath a heavy pile of intercobwebs)

Is baking just a hobby, or is it something you do professionally, as well?

It started off as a serious hobby. The real joy comes from sharing what I bake, which I'm sure is a common sentiment among those of us who love to make food. Friends started offering me compensation for my time and the cost of ingredients, which I accepted with reluctance at first. This year, I started taking orders; mostly layer cakes, sometimes pastries. This venture does have the potential to grow into an actual business; for now I am still testing the waters.

When did you start baking? What was the spark?

My mother passed away when I was very young, but I remember watching in awe as she worked in the kitchen. The clearest memory I have of trying to bake for the first time was when I was nine or 10, after my father said, "No one makes an apple pie like your mother." I don't remember where I found a recipe or, oddly, much of the process, except for a few things—I used a glass baking dish, probably because it was all I had (and yet I know now it's an ideal pie-baking vessel); the homey aroma of toasted cinnamon; me stationed anxiously in front of the microwave oven (we didn't have an actual oven), hypnotized by the revolving turntable.

I approached it less as a challenge and more as a way to honor a cherished memory. The pie was likely too sweet, with a not-so-pretty crust that was probably a little soggy. The details are hazy next to the brightness of my father's verdict: "Almost as good."

When did you decide to start devoting a significant time to honing your baking techniques?

I didn't really start baking as an occasional hobby until I moved here to the United States from Hong Kong. About 10 years ago, I picked up a copy of Baking With Julia, and just selected the easier recipes to ease myself in. As I grew bolder, I found the courage to replicate examples in The Cake Bible, though not to the standards I had envisioned.

My husband and I returned briefly to Hong Kong in summer of 2010, and that's when we had our first taste of macarons. We were hooked. I was convinced that I couldn't possibly make something so delicate and, from the recipes I saw at the time, so complex and temperamental.

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A giant macaron, filled with Swiss meringue buttercream, for a layer cake.

When we got back to Las Vegas, it wasn't long before we grew tired of the growing expense from ordering macarons online. To satisfy my husband's craving (and a little of my own), I took a leap of faith, but not before doing a ton of research. I was one of the many people who stumbled across Stella Parks's BraveTart blog on their quest for faultless macarons. There, I discovered the two essential elements for successful macarons: using a kitchen scale and knowing thy oven. They changed my baking life forever.

I made macarons twice a week. Now I hardly touch them, both as a baker and for personal consumption. But it was the consistent practice, that dogged persistence to get the macarons perfect, that helped push me beyond macarons on a quest to make other confections.

What do you find so compelling about pastry as a subject for experimentation?

It's a given that I'm a lover of food. More than anything, though, it's my sweet tooth that serves as my motivation. I cook savory dishes, too, and I appreciate that what makes all good food special is the build up of layers of flavor. It's the same with painting, where thin glazes are applied layer upon layer to build rich depth and contrast. It just so happens that I see and feel the layers for all things sweet much more intuitively because, well, I like sweet things. Life is all about sweet endings.

What inspires me, what I find compelling, as you put it, is the desire to connect the people who eat my food. And the most potent way to do so is by drawing from memory, or trying to tap into memories that we have in common. When it comes to trying something new, I'm driven to replicate a moment, an all-encompassing sensation.

A dessert can be shaped from so many components, and while a lot of possibilities have been tested, there is still an ocean out there from which you can draw inspiration. For instance, let's say I want to make a PB&J cake. If you Google that, you'll get pages and pages of ideas. But none of those speak to me on a deeper level. I don't want just a white or yellow cake with peanut butter and jam thrown between the layers. I want a cake that tastes strangely of sandwich bread, without being off-putting. I want that first bite to trigger a deep-seated memory, not just for me but for everyone I get to offer a slice to. That's what I mean when I say I want to connect.

Can you talk a little about how you view baking and art in relation to one another? Does baking allow you a release that art doesn't provide? Does your art inform the aesthetics of your pastry?

There are a lot of comparisons that can be drawn between the two. I feel the same applies to all forms of creative expression.

I'm slowly pulling away from what used to be my immediate response to that question, which was that painting comes first. Nothing comes close to its therapeutic value. But then, when it comes to the creative process, I've been seeing more and more similarities. The way I build up structure in a painted subject, to give it a three-dimensional tangibility, has the same soothing quality as having flour, yeast, and water come together in my hands to form a smooth ball.

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The fundamental difference between the two is this: Painting is highly introspective, almost selfish, even when it's a commissioned piece. I cling to the process while the piece is still mine, because as soon as it is finished, I have to release it to the world. The piece itself is no longer mine, but those hours of tender watchfulness, making it grow, those are mine to keep forever.

Baking, on the other hand, carries with it an aura of "giving," right from the start. Yes, I do think of what I myself would find appealing, but so much more of my motivation is driven by my desire to enhance the enjoyment of others.

At the moment, since I don't have the time to live in my own painted world, I've taken up roots in the kitchen, where I have eyes on everything, and still take pleasure in a creative release.

When I'm decorating and plating, I'm definitely drawing influence from years of building color palettes, which inevitably find its way to the kitchen. I love "greying" out colors, toning down their vibrancy ever so slightly, so they'd be receptive to being part of one harmonious whole.

Stella has said that you did a number of experiments with her pie dough recipe and other fats. How did you end up using those different pie doughs? What was it that prompted you to try and experiment with the different fats?

I have a copy of the The Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum, which I've flipped through dozens of times. I've never made a single recipe from it, but that's where I learned about using leaf lard, duck fat, goose fat, and beef suet in pastry. Before trying Stella's all-butter crust, I'd always sworn by a recipe that incorporated a small amount of leaf lard, to supplement the butter. When I gave Stella's recipe a go, I made two batches of mini fruit pies: One half had all-butter crusts, and the other half was butter-lard.

What was immediately noticeable was how the all-butter dough performed much more graciously on the board. Gluten formation is inhibited by just the right amount, making the dough super easy to roll without springing back; and yet there's just enough elasticity to allow a considerable amount of lifting and folding, even for thinly-cut strands. Lattice-work had never been so pleasurable.

By comparison, the lard-butter dough was more temperamental. I've long since adjusted my way of working with it to make the process easier, so really the surprise came from how much less I had to fuss with the all-butter dough. For instance, with the lard-butter dough, I had to transfer rolled dough to baking vessel much more delicately—and we're talking mini pies, so these were only 7-inch rounds. Same thing with the lattice, and even crimping; it just required a higher level of attentiveness and still carried a lot of risk of breakage.

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The taste was a different story, though. My husband declared the lard-butter crust the winner, by merit of extra flake, and what he detected as a singularly potent, fulfilling aroma. I, on the other hand, couldn't decide. I was surprised, since I had attempted all-butter crusts before, and none were as flaky as Stella's recipe, so much so that when combined with the fruit filling, the outcome was very similar to a buttery, flaky Danish.

I use her all-butter recipe now almost exclusively, simply because it's so much easier to handle. The fact that it's pretty darn tasty doesn't hurt either. Without the addition of lard, the butter produces a wonderfully clean finish, allowing the sweet fillings to shine.

This doesn't mean I've completely abandoned the use of animal fats in pie doughs. For savory fillings, such as quiches and pot pies, I always reach for some form of animal fat. For example, one time I was making a spinach quiche, with golden yolks dotted here and there like buried treasure. For the crust, I decided to give duck fat a try.

I took Stella's recipe, cut down the butter by 25% and replaced it with almost-frozen balls of duck fat, scooped with a melon-baller. I squished the cubed butter with flour using my fingertips, then switched to a fork to barely blend in the balls of duck fat, until the mixture resembled huge lumpy curds. But when I added ice water, issues cropped up. At the time I didn't foresee the necessity of adjusting the amount of water, or indeed to go slow, one tablespoonful at a time, as I always did with lard-butter doughs. I thought, hey, I just dumped it all in with the all-butter dough...so, why not?

Turns out, even when almost frozen, duck fat liquefies at room temperature at an alarming rate, so it inadvertently upped the liquid content of the dough, which translated to sticky. Extremely sticky. Unworkably sticky. I popped the bowl in the fridge, and more than generously dusted my work surface with flour. Rolling that dough was still nigh impossible. After a couple of more quick tries at rolling it out, I succeeded in sliding the round over the quiche pan. I deemed myself a ninja, even though it looked like a flour bomb had exploded all over my front, and wrapped up the whole prepared pan in plastic and banished it to the fridge for an hour.

But what came out of the oven erased all that frustration. The smell that perfumed the entire house was so deep and so enriching. The first bite gave way to an immediate understanding of how the term "worth it" was coined. It was pie crust with all the downloadable upgrades. Everything that makes for a good crust was enhanced—glorious, feathery flakes giving way to melty chewiness, cradled lovingly by an aroma tinged vaguely with salt. It was a spectacular vehicle for the egg-rich filling.

There is no way decorations made from this duck-fat-butter dough can stand up to the heat of the oven. They'd just melt down to blobs. Indeed, this goes for all doughs laced with animal fats. With finely-tuned adjustments, I definitely see why this type of dough is such a popular option for pastries that aren't usually ornately detailed, such as Cornish pasties. I'm also convinced that a duck-fat-butter crust would be excellent for a chocolate cream pie, going with the logic of how fat carries flavor, and the deliciousness of blending salty elements with chocolate. Think chocolate-covered bacon, but better.

Can you talk about other experiments you've done with recipes? Is it just curiosity, for the most part, or do you do these experiments in order to accomplish specific goals or achieve certain results?

I am not so far along in my culinary practice to where I am able to, with deft confidence, whip up an entirely unique recipe.

The ability to play with food rests squarely on one's knowledge of ingredients. My experience as one who messes about in the kitchen is still pitifully limited. I have the ability to look at a recipe and more or less guess at the outcome, and from that crude guestimation, make adjustments for various reasons.

It may be something laughably simple, like adding sugar to a pizza dough. Or it might something I try for the sake of practicality, something similar to how I made pastry cream freeze-able by replacing the cornstarch with flour and adding a little bloomed gelatin to the mixture when it's hot. The emulsion becomes so stable that you can freeze it and thaw it and even refreeze it and thaw it again, and it'll be just as good.

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And then there are times where force of habit and gut feeling come into play, like when my son asked me to make Oeufs á la Neige, or snow eggs, which are basically egg-shaped meringues cooked in a mixture of cream and milk, served on top of a custard. For breakfast, no less. It was too early in the morning for me to be taking risks, and while it probably wouldn't have mattered if I stuck to the recipe, I made a much stiffer, more stable meringue by dissolving the sugar and heating the egg whites up to a much higher temperature.

Other times, adjustments are called for to reach goals that are a little more ambitious. I wanted to make a light and fluffy piña colada cake that's as refreshing as the drink, not one drenched in syrup. I have a spectacular coconut cake recipe to follow, one I knew I could rely on. I needed to add the pineapple element, while being careful not to overpower the gentle subtlety of coconut. I'd made lemon curd any number of times, but never experimented with other acidic juices, so this was the perfect opportunity to see what would happen if I replaced all that lemon with pineapple, in both juice form and a handful of finely crushed freeze-dried fruit. I ended up with a creamy concoction that sang with the essence of pineapple. Whenever I made it, the lemon curd tended to have a very dominant flavor, so I was surprised by how mellow the pineapple version was, and how it married exquisitely with the delicate coconut.

It's tremendously satisfying when everything comes together. I suppose that feeling is what I'm chasing, though not consciously.

Taking a look at your Instagram, there's such a wide variety of colors and styles. Where do you draw inspiration from for you pastry decorations?

Nature! As much as I use food coloring for the majority of my pastry orders, I'd more readily opt for au-natural. I know it's traditional, but I just can't get enough of the combination of flowers and pastries. I mean edible flowers—there's no point in decorating with anything that has to be taken off and thrown away. And if I can't find those, which is usually the case since I live in a desert, I make them. When piped buttercream flowers are the centerpiece, I try to capture a feeling, a memory: cool breezes in a shaded rose garden, the snap of the stem when a daisy is plucked. These abstract sensations might not resonate with those who received the cake in the end, but I like to believe that they somehow translate to the final effect.

I think my long-standing relationship with color also puts me at ease, with conveying moods and themes using color alone. I'm also learning how to decorate in a style that I admire with great envy: I love when pastries or entire dessert spreads appear as nature's bounty, as if everything just fell into place casually, effortlessly, leaving the eye to wander over a wealth of hues and textures.

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Another aspect I'm actually rather proud of is my tendency to steer away from too-literal interpretations. For example, when someone asked for a unicorn cake, I stated clearly that it won't be an actual unicorn head, which I believe is still all the rage. I wanted to convey something more than that, something truly magical, perhaps even transporting. So I went with a unicorn carousel. I felt that if I were nine years old again and saw that, I'd want to shrink down so I could climb up on one of those tiny macaron unicorns, and spin round and round in a sugary wonderland. It's quite enjoyable to think up cakes for children, as I get to relive childhood fantasies.

A lot of the stuff you have on your Instagram looks, to my eye, "perfect," for lack of a better word. It seems like your pastries follow a kind of rigid, mathematical order, whereas your paintings seem to be more relaxed. Do you find that this is true? Do you find some freedom in moving between the two disciplines?

I think a lot of it has to do with confidence. I've been illustrating for decades. By contrast, my life spent in the kitchen is maybe a quarter of that. It's actually a tremendous compliment to hear that my paintings feel relaxed, when really, at least with watercolors, sometimes weeks were spent on them, bent so close to my paper I'd probably give an optometrist a heart attack. I end up staring at my work for so long that, to my blurred eyes, everything feels frozen.

It could be that a ridiculous amount of time is dedicated to planning a painting, all in my mind. I have synesthesia, and I was disciplined in ballet, so my inspiration comes in the form of colors and images swirling to the surge of emotive melody. It's all about freeze-framing a single shot from what I envision, and replicating that with real mediums. The constant challenge is to convey all that motion on a two-dimensional plane. I've been doing this for what seems like my entire life.

In general it's a correlation between sound and imaginary images, like color. If I hear my son laugh, I see the color yellow, a very specific yellow. As for flavor, it works a bit differently.

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Baking is definitely different. I feel pretty confident, but my skill needs a lot more work; I still need to get to the point where I can focus my concentration on things other than really honing my technique. There's never any end to conquering fear, but there is a wall I need to break through, which can only be achieved with time and practice. When that happens, perhaps my pastries will take on a more free-flowing aesthetic.

What's your favorite pastry to eat?

Any form of pastry covered in stiffly-whipped cream, at a 1:1 ratio. This comes from a childhood obsession with an episode from the stop-motion animated television series The Wind In The Willows. Mr. Toad had a bowl of cream to dunk a platterful of little cubed cakes, and he was tucking in with reckless abandon, sans utensils, fingers two-segments deep. It's model cake-consuming behavior.

What's your favorite pastry to make?

Brioche. By hand. Which is why I don't make it that often. It's shocking for most people to learn that I don't own a stand mixer. There's definitely a lot of bragging points to be had for churning up all that elbow grease, and mixing a super stiff dough ye-olde-time style. On a much less superficial note, it's a lovely departure from complex component desserts, and gets right back to the heart of baking: getting your hands dirty to help something grow.

Is there a recipe you've come up with that you're particularly proud of? What about it is important to you?

Lemonade Jell-O "shot" cups! They have fresh fruit suspended within, and they're topped with whipped cream. They're a breeze to make and a great hit at parties. All the flavors can be changed out, too, to suit personal tastes. For instance, the base doesn't have to be lemonade; any type of fruit juice can used, so long as they don't have enzymes that interfere with the gelatin, like kiwi juice. The suspended filling doesn't even have to be fruit. You can play around with the topping, like maybe making a banana cream by steeping the dairy overnight with sliced bananas and a vanilla bean pod, then whipping it up with just a touch of sugar the next day.

The real joy for me, though, is just the simple process of making jelly, which is probably the first thing I ever did in the kitchen. It tugs at my heart strings, pulling jellies from the fridge and discovering that they've finally set. It's been almost thirty years and the waiting game hasn't gotten any easier.

Do you pastry-making-related kitchen tools that you can't live without?

How about tools that I never seem to have enough of? Like bowls and rubber spatulas. Maybe a lifetime supply of parchment sheets and plastic wrap. Seriously though, I'd say the top three would be my trusty little Cuisinart hand mixer, my marble slab, and all my pans. No one is borrowing my pans. Sorry. Have a cake instead.

Do you have a recipe/idea/experiment/project in the works? Anything that's particularly challenging or thorny about it?

The last thing I experimented with was bewildering. I wanted to make a tea-infused butter cake. I did my research, and used Earl Grey, both steeped in the milk and tossed dry with the flour. I can't figure out why the cake tasted of bananas Not in a bam, explosion kind of way. It just totally caught me by surprise. It obviously calls for more tinkering.

Just the other day, as I was rolling up a sushi for my son's lunch box while chattering with my husband, I said, "What if I made a cake that tastes like sushi?" He stopped, stared, and said very slowly, "... That could work."

It would probably be more of an entremet than a legit layer cake. I'm focusing on the indisputable star that makes for great sushi: the rice—that sweet, satisfying texture of each pearly grain between the teeth. I'll probably do something with a rice vinegar reduction. And something spongey, to resemble tamagoyaki, the fluffy and sweet Japanese omelette. Again, the last thing I want is a literal interpretation. If I can only achieve a flavor and texture profile that serves as a gentle reminder, where the first bite would make someone think, "What is that? I know what this reminds me of..." then it would be a success. It's ambitious, but hey: Food is fun.

Any tips for the aspiring baker? Ideas about where to start?

For the absolute beginner, I think it's fun to start with components that are so often—and unfortunately—store-bought. Whip your own cream, and start flavouring it—maybe by reducing your favorite berries with sugar and a dash of booze, to make a lovely compote. Brave the exaggerated perils of cooking caramel sauce. In fact, take cooled caramel, whip it up with heavy cream, and my god, you get a bowlful of sheer heaven. Play with chocolate and make your own ganache, to drizzle over pancakes. Never made a cake before? Start with something that doesn't require a whole lot of intuition, like pound cake. Again with whipped cream (there's obviously a pattern here). New to dough? Make pizza. It's so forgiving and you don't need a rolling pin. Most importantly, and if your diet allows, learn slowly and carefully to do everything with eggs. I'd say crème-anglaise is a good place to start.

When you're ready to take things just a little more seriously, as in, baking more than once every six months, it's time to do some shopping. Grab a digital kitchen scale, a reliable thermometer, and have fun collecting good quality, heavy, anodized aluminum pans. Now you know what to put on your wishlists. Then celebrate the giant hole in your wallet by making all the cookies. Snicker all you want; a good cookie packs a ton of "more than what meets the eye."

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As your confidence grows, you might be tempted to try more complicated recipes; you know, the ones that have a LOT more steps than what you've grown comfortable with. Read the recipe. Then read it again. And again. Read it until you can see yourself doing it. Take your time to set up a well-prepared work space. Then again, before actually starting, go through the motions so you're comfortable with your work flow. For example, how far away from the sink are you? Have you set up your equipment properly? Can see and reach everything without knocking anything over? There's no rush at this stage. Be ready, so you can enjoy it.

Any resources in particular you'd like to highlight (online purveyors/cookbooks/blogs)?

It's impossible for me to pass up this opportunity to plug Stella's new cookbook, Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts. Her carefully explained yet casual teachings have changed me forever, and frankly, play a huge part in the way I bake, every single day.

The cookbooks I know for certain can be counted on are Larousse Gastronomique and Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. Really, they're infallible. What I like most about Larousse, and what I don't often see in cookbooks, is how there's much less focus on cooking times and other exacting measures; the instructions tell you what to look for, beyond mere smell and tasting—color, sound. There's a wealth of information for a foodie to soak up.

If I had to pick my two absolute favorite food-centric periodicals, the first would be Saveur. The experts they interview from around the world offer incredible insight and share fresh takes on recipes that are delightfully reliable. The other one is harder to track down: It's called Kateigaho, a cultural publication from Japan, written in English. I regularly use a lot of their recipes, both sweet and savory.

Almost all my equipment and harder-to-find pantry ingredients are found on Amazon and can be bought from King Arthur Flour. I bought my marble slab at Williams-Sonoma, and not online either, so I could inspect it thoroughly in person; apparently it's a tricky item to track down in general.

I don't know where I'd be without Beanilla. Their wide selection of vanilla beans and, even better, their prices, are hard to pass up. Even with a current shortage on beans, which has led to skyrocketing prices, they still beat the ridiculous price tags in conventional supermarkets.

I used to enjoy Sweeetapolita's blogs. I learned a lot from Rosie's style of decorating. She rarely updates the site now, but in place of that, she has a fantastic online sprinkle shop that's become quite legendary. Her meticulously crafted medleys are a joy to collect. You never know when you might hit a sprinkle emergency.

And if someone can tell me where I can have Portuguese egg tarts delivered straight to my door, piping hot, that would be just grand!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.