Pastry chef Claudia Martinez goes free-form when it comes to holiday baking
Home cooks and restaurant chefs alike will acknowledge that baking (or pastry) and cooking (or savory) often differ in terms of style and approach. Baking requires careful measuring, more of a precise, scientific approach, while cooking can be more freestyle. Claudia Martinez, however, is in the process of completely upending such stereotypes.
“I kind of bake like a cook,” she says. “I went to culinary school; I don’t have the traditional background that most pastry chefs have. I do break a lot of pastry rules that they teach you in school. You know, everything’s not so precise. I take a more relaxed approach to it, just kind of winging it. And so if it works it works. If it doesn’t, you just start over.”
She has found an ideal home for this at Atlanta’s Miller Union, where she is executive pastry chef. Not only does she not keep typical pastry chef hours, instead preferring to work into the evenings. Martinez also works closely with executive chef Steven Satterfield, whose menu, with its focus on local food and dedication to reducing food waste, she says “inspires me a lot to think differently.”
Satterfield tends to look at mistakes as creative opportunities to make something completely new. For instance, Martinez says that if the ends of a cake are overcooked, he’ll suggest they cut them off and mix them with ice cream or dehydrate them and use them to hold a ganache. Satterfield is a major advocate for reducing waste and that encourages creativity in the process.
A Pastry Chef Without a Sweet Tooth
As a child, Martinez didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, and she still finds many traditional desserts, like cheesecake and chocolate cake, overwhelmingly sweet. She is inspired to come up with lighter, fruit-focused desserts she would order and that embody flavors that pair well with Miller Union’s main menu starters and entrees. The dessert course, she says, shouldn’t “make you forget about the meal you just had. Dessert shouldn’t be so overpowering.”
One dessert Martinez makes every year is brazo gitano, either with her Café Claudia pop-ups or at the restaurant. She often riffs on the traditional recipe, which is composed of simple ingredients like sugar, vanilla extract, eggs, and flour. Most recently at Miller Union, where she changes one item on the dessert menu every two weeks, she created a version with a dulce de leche, coffee cream, and cocoa streusel that she likened to a tiramisu.
Holiday Baking with Martinez
Her holiday iteration of brazo gitano with ponche crema sauce takes its inspiration from the Venezuelan eggnog her sister makes every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, a tribute to her family’s Venezuelan roots. Thanks to Miller Union’s schedule, Martinez now spends the holidays cooking and baking with her family.
“This the first restaurant I’ve worked at that closes on holidays, so my family’s happy to have that. My family’s big on cooking. We grew up cooking together,” she says. “The best part is just eating and doing traditional things like that. Brazo gitano is something that we’ll have for dessert.”
Her arequipe coffee cake is another recipe inspired by her childhood, as it was a big part of church functions and a recipe her babysitter made. Since coffee cake has a reputation for being dry, she added arequipe, an icing traditional in Colombia or Venezuela, which Martinez calls “a homemade version of dulce de leche.” The arequipe is “less sweet and lighter, not as syrupy” in addition to being easier to make at home.
Clearly, Martinez’s gifts are in her ability to merge seemingly contradictory things: accessibility with adventurousness, sweet with savory—and her wisdom in the restaurant kitchen can also be taken to heart at the holiday table. When coming up with her recipes, she’s always trying to make something unfamiliar exciting but also approachable: “How can I get somebody who’s never had it be willing to try it?”