By the end of reading this story I hope you get to learn how  I  break down the ways I think about creating recipes and dishes in my work as a pastry chef. These are approaches I take that are applicable to thinking about food and cooking more broadly. I hope that this insight will encourage you to go on culinary explorations of your own. 

In Part 2 of this lesson (check out Part 1), I’ll be sharing three things that are crucial to what I do as pastry chef:

  • Recipe creation
  • Organisation and planning
  • Plating and decorating

I developed a dish – Apam Terbalik – as a way to help me analyse my process and illustrate my points. The recipes and the very idea behind Apam Terbalik are meant to be accessible and flexible, demonstrating that you can use recipes you may already have (and enjoy making!) from a slightly different angle to create an unexpectedly elegant dessert. I’d like to encourage you to use this as a starting point for a cook-your-own adventure. 

Left: Classic Apam Balik | Right: Apam Terbalik

1. How to make your own recipes or how to make recipes your own

Before the era of microwave mug cakes and social media-proliferated video hacks, I was playing masak-masak with boxed cake mixes – adding chocolate sauce to the centre of my cupcakes, figuring out what add-ins I could get away with that wouldn’t make a cake sink. Thankfully, my kitchen experiments have become a little less haphazard since. Having said that, experimenting and sampling at a young age gave me confidence in the kitchen and helped me understand the chemistry and mechanics of baking. 

Once you’ve reached a certain level of ease and comfort in the kitchen, recipes become an invitation to riff. Although baking requires precision, understanding your recipes, ingredients and how they work together (as discussed in part 1) allows you flexibility to explore.

I like taking basic recipes I have and swapping out flavours, or layering on new combinations. It’s always a good idea to do some research into the ingredient you’re replacing to understand its composition. This will help you find a suitable substitute and/or ascertain the adjustments that are needed to maintain the ratios of the recipe. To start off, I’d recommend doing this one ingredient at a time, so you know exactly how to attribute changes in the product.

The mochi cake in this recipe is a great base to play around with – try switching out the liquid component, using a different sweetener or fat. These will all affect the end result differently, but will help you understand the role or roles each ingredient plays. It’s an incredibly forgiving (and tasty) base recipe. If you’d like to keep the training wheels on (which is absolutely fine too), use a different ice cream flavour, or another nut when you’re plating, instead of changing the actual recipe. Plated desserts allow for so many possibilities, and are a slightly lower-stakes commitment than baking a whole cake or pastry!

Chef Zoee Wong with her Apam Terbalik

2. How to organise and plan

Professional kitchens can get hectic very quickly. They often run on tight schedules dictated by what time the restaurant’s doors open and when service begins. This generally leads to chefs being very deliberate and organised in how they use their time.

  1. We learn our recipes by heart to cut down on minutes spent reading and checking.
  2. We break down and group tasks based on equipment required, active/passive time, baking or setting time and slot them into our day based on the whole kitchen’s schedule.
  3. We gather necessary ingredients, tools and equipment to ensure we are able to focus, not wasting crucial seconds searching and running around the kitchen while our mise en place is working.
  4. We write lists. Lots of lists.
  5. We set timers.
  6. We scale amounts and weigh portions to reduce waste.

These are all things we learn to work efficiently. A good service depends largely on a solid prep morning, so we do all we can to control our variables. 

This is an easily scalable and translatable skill that anyone can apply to their own culinary adventures (and, arguably, to life). Though of course, if you’re anything like me, there are also days where you just want to revel in the pleasure of the process – those moments are lovely reminders of why I started cooking and baking, so I soak them up gladly.

3. How to plate and decorate with finesse

Plating and decorating styles vary wildly. While there are many that I find to be objectively beautiful, I think it is helpful when developing your taste and eye for plating to think critically about what you appreciate about specific plates. Different styles lend themselves to different dishes and recipes and the choices you make about what direction to go in may often be constrained by what your diners preferences are or, if you work in a professional kitchen, what your head chef’s inclinations. These constraints aren’t necessarily negative or limiting. In fact, I quite often enjoy figuring out how I can express myself within those boundaries. 

There are certain considerations that apply across the board, no matter what aesthetic you’re going for. I like to keep these things in mind as I’m plating:

  • Proportions of components – think about how the flavours and textures balance each other out when the dish is eaten
  • Portion size
  • Desired experience – what is the best way to evoke the sensations or feelings you’d like the eater to have from a visual and sensorial perspective?
  • Edible garnish – I prefer garnish that adds to the eating experience, as opposed to just going for pretty, non-functional garnish, or even garnish that detracts from the focus of the dish
  • Less is more – it is important to not get carried away with adding components to make a dish more visually appealing – this can often muddle the eating experience
Sketch reference of Apam Terbalik plating

I tend towards a cleaner, more contemporary style of presentation. I like keeping the focus on the details I strive to create in the components themselves – the texture of the cake, the colour of the ice cream, the toast on the nuts. I love looking for the more subtly beautiful visual cues of a well thought-out and executed dessert and this translates to the way I present my dishes. 

Final plating of Apam Terbalik

With this simple at-home dessert, I wanted to keep the plating unfussy, but polished. The ‘corn kernel ice cream’ keeps it feeling lighthearted and fun – I like injecting a bit of humour into my dishes. Though I often like to challenge myself by making more technically challenging components or dishes, there are moments when one needs to go back to the intention of the dish to separate the unnecessary from the necessary.

Final piece of advice…

Much of the work of being a pastry chef is about being thoughtful, meticulous and disciplined. We learn so much more when we’re intentionally engaged with what we’re doing. So, if I might suggest one thing to take away – give all your kitchen tasks an extra moment of consideration and attention, from planning to execution. You’ll soon be working with greater confidence and finesse – just like a pastry chef.

You can ask Chef Zoee Wong more questions for our Dear Chef feature!
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