Not many Yale students have faced the challenge of remaking a buffet of desserts after tipping over a pot of chili on top of a day’s work.
Stephen Wirth ’09, former executive pastry chef at a country club in Whitefish, Mont., knows this situation well. While pastry shop-hopping in New Haven, Wirth described his experiences in this high-stress high-school job. He contends that the chili fiasco was the most stressful event of his tenure as chef and, in some ways, the most rewarding.
“The chef whose chili I knocked over offered me a job in Scottsdale,” Wirth said.
Yet Wirth manages to suppress haunting pastry demons to share his expertise reviewing the New Haven pastry circuit.
The first stop was Claire’s Corner Copia — a home of organic, all-natural “health” food that is paradoxically sinful (namely the Lithuanian coffee cake). Each frosting-slathered bite is a spoonful of delight — the ultimate comfort food, as long as heart disease doesn’t run in the family.
“Generally, when I eat organic food, I think, ‘At least it’s healthy,’ ” Wirth quipped. “But this also tastes delicious.”
Claire’s is one of his favorite spots around campus, and he saunters in occasionally to grab a slice of their consistently moist, dense cakes or a raspberry ricotta muffin.
In spite of his high praise for Claire’s desserts, Wirth claims he doesn’t like to eat sweets as much as he likes making them.
“I love to cook desserts,” he said. “It appeals to my perfectionist tendencies.”
Over a Peanut Butter Stack from Starbucks, Wirth explained that his love of cooking was inherited from his mother. As a child, he remembers mixing flour, water and yeast and watching the dough miraculously rise.
Even before tasting the Starbucks confection, Wirth knew it would be steeped in sugar. Yet Starbucks pastries, he said, are usually consistent because they test their recipes on a wide audience before displaying them in their alluring glass cases. The Peanut Butter Stack, much like a layered, Butterfinger candy bar, was no exception — decadent and delectable.
“I can see why it’s their most popular dessert,” Wirth said.
Wirth’s early interest in cooking led him to apprentice under a pastry chef at the exclusive Iron Horse Golf and Country Club in his hometown. When the head chef left, Wirth assumed his duties and greatly expanded the dessert menu.
At Atticus, we decided to stick with a traditional favorite: the croissant. Wirth said the pastries at Atticus have ranged from the best croissant of his life to devastatingly mediocre scones.
“It’s hit or miss,” he said. “It seems like they leave their pastries out for too long.”
Because of the croissant’s less-than-ideal flaky texture, there was some question as to whether it arrived at Atticus pre-frozen. But a waitress confirmed that, like the amazing varieties of bread, the pastries come from an off-site bakery.
“I really appreciate their good bread because it’s hard to make,” Wirth said.
Wirth’s appreciation for baking techniques is clear: On the way to Booktrader, a little further down Chapel Street — coffee shop row — he describes his love affair with temperamental cheesecakes, which have a tendency to collapse inward while baking. He relishes the challenge.
“Once you get a good one, it’s worth it,” Wirth said.
Booktrader’s Morning Glory loaf, with zucchini, walnuts, carrots and a wonderful mix of spices, was also worth the extra effort of trekking up Chapel Street. Though their selection was fairly limited, this homey, satisfying sweet concoction conjures up memories of tragically bygone baked goods.
“It reminds me of my grandma’s spice bread,” Wirth said.
The last stop was a bit of a letdown after sampling the creative options at the small businesses that cluster around campus. Like Starbucks, Wirth says Au Bon Pain works off of formulaic, focus-group-tested recipes.
“It’s a wee bit trendy,” Wirth said.
The cherry Danish we tried was indeed lacking. Though the filling was adequate, Wirth said the dough was too tough for pastry.
“It’s better than the grocery store, but not like the real thing,” Wirth said.
Overall, Wirth described Au Bon Pain as moderately expensive for good, though not great, pastries. Starbucks is also very consistent but sans originality. Wirth said he admires Atticus and Booktrader for their ability to offer homemade-type pastries.
“They’re small businesses, and you respect that,” Wirth said.
But Claire’s literally takes the cake, with variety and reliability.
Though Wirth said being a pastry chef was an extraordinarily stressful job, and that the summer hours were exorbitant, some of his best memories are in the kitchen. The experience also gave him an intricate knowledge of the food he eats — a knowledge that should help Yale students decide where to curl up with a leavened treat as the cold weather sets in.
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