Craft's Pastry Chef Abby Swain on Concentrating Flavors and What She Learned Down South
"The fact that I can come in and work around food I love and have my own impact with my creativity for a diner is really interesting, and really cool."
Tom Colicchio's pastry chefs may be some of the sweetest in New York City, if Chef Abby Swain is any marker. She created a focused dessert menu for Craftbar in 2011, and recently added the Craft kitchen to her workload. She provides fun, seasonal takes on classic desserts, like the Tart Tartin currently oozing with sweet pineapple or the colorful pomegranate and hibiscus adorning the Buttermilk Panna Cotta.
Swain's focus seems to be on continually educating herself and developing her craft (pun not intended but quite convenient), and her experience has served her well. After culinary school, she worked under Chef Karen Demasco at Craft, where she learned how to add depth of flavor to truly showcase one ingredient; a concentration she keeps to this day. She then spent a few years in Atlanta, shifting focus a bit before coming back North. Here she fills us in on how both the North and South have served her, and what that means for those eating at her tables.
Between here and Craftbar, what excites you the most about what you get to make? I love making bread; we make all of the sandwich breads and rolls. You don't have to be delicate; you can kind of just throw it around. Everything else is pretty intricate and precise, but with bread, after you've done the basic measuring, it's all about feel and it's really hands-on, which I really enjoy.
That's sort of funny considering how many people find bread intimidating! I definitely stick with dough I feel comfortable with. And we kind of have a game downstairs going because we have to have different weights for the sliders, burger buns, and hoagies, so you try to get how that feels in your hand and, when you can do it, you're like, "Aha! On point!"
Aside from bread I really like to make ice cream, because of how many flavors there are to play with. You can basically make ice cream taste like anything; right now we have a burnt orange ice cream on, and for me it tastes like Fruit Loops cereal milk. It's such an easy vessel to make a flavor profile with. We tried a smoked cinnamon ice cream last year and we tried smoking the cinnamon, which didn't work, so we smoked the cream instead. It goes really well with s'mores.
You've worked both in bakeries and restaurant kitchens. How did the kitchen win out? I worked in a bakeshop down in Atlanta, and I realized I most like the energy of a restaurant—being in that dinner service rush is more of my style and speed. At the bakery you make the same thing every day; you have your ten or twelve different loaves and the people who come are expecting the same rolls every Sunday, when they come to get their whole wheat. In a restaurant you don't have to do that as much. Of course, here we've been open for 13 years so if I got rid of the doughnuts I don't know what would happen! But we can play around more with different things and change seasonally and not bring something back if we find something better to do. I guess I like the progression and moving forward. It's interesting that on my Instagram I can see how far I've grown. I think that at a bakery, yes, my breads would be more precise or I would have less waste, but I wouldn't see so much growth in myself.
How have you grown? The technique doesn't really change, but how you interpret it does. There was one class in culinary school where we'd have to do a control and three variations; low fat, gluten-free, and low sugar. What I took from that was that you have to have a control, and then you vary it to do what you'd like. I'm sure people do that with bread, but I do that more with the desserts and ice creams.
You were exposed to a good deal working with Karen before you headed to Atlanta. Did you feel confident when you got there? I didn't go down there thinking that I was more capable, but what was kind of impressive was that everybody else did. When I went into different kitchens and they would ask what I thought, I already had an answer, so I knew more than I thought I did.
What did you learn about the differences in Northern versus Southern palates? I learned a lot about traditional Southern desserts—banana pudding, pralines, molasses, biscuits—and using a lot more sugar! I discovered I love banana pudding, so right now I have a banana ice cream sundae at Craftbar which is a take on that. I guess what I really like to do is take comfortable, classic desserts and break them down into something else, so going to Atlanta just expanded my homey flavor profiles. It was more about expanding than anything else.
You work well within the mission of Craft, but how do you think your personality or skills shine through now that the menu is yours? We focus on getting in high quality ingredients, showcasing them by treating them the best we can. I have a poppy sour cream cake with Meyer lemon curd; the Meyer lemon curd is complimented by the sour cream cake and the caramel ice cream, but I feel like it really shines through. It's not the title on the menu but it's my focus and what I'm trying to have transform the whole dessert for your palate.
Is there anything that sort of pushes the crazy limit for Craft? Right now we have a whipped cambozola on the pain perdu, with poached pears and candied walnuts. I think that's maybe as crazy as I get but I like it—it's like a Waldorf salad on French toast. Even at Craftbar the craziest thing I did was a cheddar apple pie with bacon ice cream, and I don't think anybody's really going to get mad at me for doing that. And as long as the person who doesn't like bacon has something else to choose from, we're okay. My mom was not a fan; "I just don't get it, Abby. I just don't get it!"
Dessert is obviously a really fun thing to be involved with, but what makes your tail wag the most about what you do? I have a cook who comes in upset and I'm like, "We're making cake!" This is a really amazing opportunity—the fact that I can come in and work around food I love and have my own impact with my creativity for a diner is really interesting, and really cool. I know that I'm fortunate, and I feel very blessed to be here.