For Melissa Weller, Baking Is Art and ScienceThe Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Melissa Weller is a baker of great renown, having worked at some of New York’s top restaurants (including Roberta’s and Sadelle’s). After 20 years of wanting to write a cookbook (“I just kept telling myself I didn’t have enough recipes!”), she’s published A Good Bake, a book that embodies her rustic style and meticulous approach to detail, so you can recreate these gems at home. We spent an afternoon with Melissa while she tested our new bakeware on four desserts perfect for winter feasts.
In college, I double-majored in chemical engineering and international relations. As part of my studies, I spent a year in France, and I fell in love with the pastries there, specifically the breakfast pastries. Like everyone does, I gained a ton of weight. Then I came home and tried to recreate those pastries, which was a big failure. But I loved the baking process, and I loved to cook at home, too.
I love the baking part of it, the bread part of it, the yeast part of it.
I wasn't sure what I was going to do for a career; I kept switching between baking and engineering. I saw an opening for a pastry chef, and I got the job, so I’m like, Okay, I'll do pastry! I enjoyed that so much that I went to culinary school. I wasn't sure what I would focus on once I got there, but, at the end of the day, I love the baking part of it, the bread part of it, the yeast part of it. I thought, That's what I really want to do. It took me a few back-and-forth tries between engineering and the restaurant industry, but I went to the French Culinary Institute in 2004. I’ve worked in the industry ever since.
I'm a really precise person. I like chemistry; I obviously did really well in chemistry in school, so it's really easy for me to take what I know with chemistry and apply it to baking. It’s different than savory cooking, where you're eyeballing and tasting and adjusting — you can't taste the dough ahead of time. You don't know what you’ll get until you bake it and it’s done.
I'm a really precise person.As a child in the 1980s, I grew up baking with my mom. I know we baked everything, and she liked dabbling, but I really remember baking sugar cookies. She wasn't a bake-from-scratch type of mom. There were a lot of cake mixes in our home, and I think, because of that, I kept going back to this question of Well, how does it really get made?! I tried to bake from scratch back then and didn't know what I was doing, so I had a lot of failures. But I think that's part of it.
When I worked at Sullivan Street Bakery, I really started to learn about bread-baking. And then, at Per Se, I learned how to season everything. I would taste everything to see if it was balanced, and I thought I was pretty decent at that. But there, people would gather around to taste, and they’d tell you it didn’t have enough salt or it wasn't acidic enough, and that was a really powerful thing for me. It taught me how to season my pastries.
It's really easy for me to take what I know with chemistry and apply it to baking.The other really important experience for me was baking at Roberta's; I started that job 10 years ago. It was an outdoor, wood-fired oven, and I really wanted to learn how to bake in a challenging oven. I had never baked in an oven that's just heated by wood fire, and that changes everything. It’s not the same at all. You build a fire on it, and then you let the heat from the fire saturate the stones, but that's it! You have to use that heat.
If you’re baking a loaf of bread at home, you start at 150 to 500 degrees. But that doesn't apply to a wood-fired oven. I had to bake starting at 650 to 700 degrees. It was a big learning experience in terms of understanding — this is the engineer part of me — what I call the “heat transfer,” because that's what it is. You think: Where does this heat come from, and how will it cause this dough to bake? That's why pizzas in a pizza oven bake so quickly — the heat is so hot. But if you're doing it at home it bakes slower, so you have a different type of crust on your pizza at home than you do at a place like Roberta’s.
I really wanted to learn how to bake in a challenging oven.
My style is on the rustic side; it’s like a dark, crusted loaf of country bread with big open crumbs. The word baker means a lot of things: You could be a cake baker, but I am not a cake baker — I don't make wedding cakes. If you ask me to make one, it wouldn't look very pretty, and I’d probably decorate it with flowers. But that mirrors my palate because I tend to not like things that are too sweet, even pastries. Overall, I veer on the more savory side of things — I like bread too much.
My style is a dark, crusted loaf of country bread with big open crumbs.
I've wanted to write a cookbook for the last 20 years. But I kept waiting; I kept saying to myself, “I’m not ready, I'm not ready.” It might go back to my first professional job in New York, when I worked at Babbo under Gina DePalma as she was working on her first cookbook. I loved helping her with her cookbook, but I'm like, I don't have any of my own recipes. I have to wait and get my own recipes. I want this book to teach people.
This is my first cookbook, and I wanted to share all of the recipes that I had. I ended up with a lot of sweet recipes, but I'm also known for my bagels. Because I had so many sweet pastry recipes to share, I decided to focus on those, and I held back the bagel — we’ll save that for cookbook number two.
Something that was really important to have in this book is laminated pastries. Most people don't know what lamination is, but it's essentially like viennoiserie dough or croissant dough — anything that involves folding butter into your dough. I love to teach, and I’ve taught a lot of classes in the city. I get a lot of satisfaction in explaining how things work, so I wanted to share that technique with really thorough, foolproof instructions.
With baking, I like the challenge of figuring out.
Overall, it’s a very detail-oriented book, and that echoes how detail-oriented I am as a person. I wanted to include a lot of my recipes that I've done professionally, but they were originally in metric units, all in grams and kilograms. I started to convert them over for each recipe; I know most bakers don't do that, but I wanted to have that option for those who are professionals or those who wanted to be precise and weigh ingredients.
I think cookbook writers probably start with a chart that says, “One cup is this many grams.” But I didn't figure that out in the beginning, so I was trying to make the cups and teaspoons exactly the same metric for all the recipes. I’m thinking, Oh my god, this is so much work. I needed to have a standard conversion chart so all of my recipes are consistent, and I didn't get the standard finished until I was almost done with all of the recipes. That's what you learn when you're writing your first cookbook! Especially when you’re a professional baker who makes large batches that you can’t bake at home.
It’s really important to me that the recipes work for the home baker.
I’m so precise and detail-oriented that I had a hard time giving up a few grams here and a few grams there to make the recipe work. I finally came around and did it, but I had a hard time compromising because it’s really important to me that the recipes work for the home baker. More than anything else, I would hate to give somebody a recipe that doesn't work — that would be the worst.
With baking, I like the challenge of figuring out. This goes back to when I was a student in France. I’d challenge myself to make what I was seeing — a brioche, a really good baguette. The science part of me really wanted to learn and understand how something gets made, and I like the challenge of making it. I like enjoying it, too. And I like it when somebody gets so excited that they want to dive in and learn how to make it, too. This cookbook lets me share that information.
Photos by Adam Friedlander