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Chicago Food Blogs To Read: Dana Cree's The Pastry Department

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Mar 21, 2014 4:25PM

(An illustration of ricotta cheesecake from Dana Cree's personal journey posted on her blog, The Pastry Department)

Dana Cree is the pastry chef at Blackbird (her desserts appear at other One Off Hospitality restaurants like Avec and Publican Quality Meats as well). This week she was named a finalist for the “Outstanding Pastry Chef” James Beard Award. Her blog The Pastry Department is a must-read for anyone interested the behind-the-scenes world of a pastry chef and the craftsmanship of sweets.

Cree has been blogging since 2005, when she started Phat Duck while working at the world-renowned The Fat Duck in England. Originally she conceived her blog as a way to keep in touch with friends and family. “I was ‘internet dumb,’” Cree says, “I didn’t know other people could see it.” Then The Guardian published parts of it. She was shocked.

In her About page, Cree tells us how she ended up back in Seattle when she found out her mother had been diagnosed with a debilitating form of Parkinson's Disease. She went home to take care of her, a decision she says she’s never regretted.

While taking care of her mother, she took a job as pastry chef for a small neighborhood wine bar. Seattle restaurant kitchens at the time usually had one-person pastry departments. It was her first time running a dessert menu completely on her own– “There were no ranks to come up in, most pastry books were for students and chefs.” But she was inspired by “one truth” – The Fat Duck’s “Heston Blumenthal had never worked for another chef.”

She collected every scrap of information she could learn from and meticulously delved into the science of pastry. Blogs also became an important learning resource and she kept on blogging at Phat Duck as a way to document her learning process and share knowledge.

“The internet is a portal to other people you might not have physical access to” says Cree about learning from what’s found on the internet. “I write to that girl from the past, so desperate for information.” Because of that, her recipes are targeted for pastry chefs in restaurant kitchens. They are recipes she actually uses, unlike those in many restaurant-inspired cookbooks which are adapted for home cooks and in the process lose much of the details needed to successfully use them in a restaurant.

But even a humble home cook can find inspiration and interesting information on Cree’s blog. In posts like “Black Raspberry,” Cree takes the reader berry picking through the woods and wilds of her childhood in the Pacific Northwest and then into the restaurant kitchen where she attempts to bring out the best of this fruit in a beautiful dessert. A confident home cook with a scale can follow along with the recipes for the dessert’s elements, from black raspberry sherbet to banana wheels.

Another fascinating post is “Thinking About Gluten and Wheat,” where Cree tells us about how her friendship with gluten-free author Shauna James Ahern encouraged her to explore gluten-free cooking, not just to provide desserts for gluten-free customers, but to question wheat’s role in desserts and explore the unique qualities of wheat alternatives like oats and mochi flour.

Cree advises young chefs to “be a craftsman first. The artistry will come.” She says that good craftsmanship is what will allow a cook to bring their creative visions to reality and to share them with other cooks. Which is exactly what she does on her own blog.