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Jen and the Giant Pavlova
Jen Monroe discusses her love of extra-large cakes and the challenges of baking for a 50-person gallery dinner.
Dear villainous cake consumers,
Welcome to spooky season. We are only six days into October, but preparing for the upcoming fall release of our second issue, Wicked Cake, has us feeling especially nefarious.
As a lifelong Halloween reveler, I enjoy both tricks and treats, but as I’ve been immersing myself in the world of Cake Zine, I’ve found “treats” to be much more fulfilling. For a long time, I’ve admired the sweet creations of chef and artist Jen Monroe, who cooks sculpturally and politically informed food under the name “Bad Taste.” From giant pavlova and mushroom-shaped bao to monochromatic dinner parties, Jen is a food artist of the highest caliber, creating whimsical, strange, and dynamic food experiences that challenge the senses.
Read on for her Just a Bite interview, where she chats giant cakes, the dessert scene in Jurassic Park, and the most technically challenging dessert she’s ever made.
—Dominique Evans, Social Media Editor
You’re making dessert. What is it?
Probably something that I can turn into a big mess of textures. Some favorite things are meringue, cotton candy, semifreddo, pop rocks, fruit curd, custard, pulled sugar, things lit on fire, magic shell, and agar agar. After texture I think about flavor and color and how the whole thing would work compositionally. The last photo in this slideshow is a giant pavlova I did last spring. Very true to form, I just jammed in as many textures as I could, so you got crumbly, pillowy, creamy, rich, tart bright fruit, chewy candied rhubarb, and crunch from the pulled sugar. Plus things being oversized never hurts.
Someone is making you a dessert. What do you ask for?
Wow, why does this never happen to me? Probably something really rich and simple. David Lebovitz has a flourless chocolate cake that is in my pantheon of greats. (If you're reading this and decide to make it, don't stress on using a springform pan--too much of a hassle to deal with waterproofing! Just make it in a regular cake pan and cut wedges out. And don't forget to add salt.) Or a really great chocolate mousse. Or, if it's summer and there's good fruit to be had, there are few things better than a great fruit crumble
You’ve transformed into a pastry. What are you and how are you consumed?
Oooh, what a fun question. I like the idea of being something elaborate and a little fussy which feels ceremonious to eat. Like these trompe l'oeil steamed mantou buns that look like mandarin oranges, and which you peel open. And I like that their flavor is pretty spare, so you could have them with tea and fruit for dessert, or have a platter of them on the table with dinner.
What’s a fictional dessert scene you’ll never forget?
The scene in Jurassic Park where the kids are alone and feasting in the restaurant after having been terrorized by dinosaurs, which presumably works up an appetite. They're eating green Jell-o and some kind of wonderful looking chocolate torte thing, and we realize there's another dinosaur because we get that great shot of Lex, fork poised mid-air with a huge chunk of Jell-o on it, as her eyes grow wide and the Jell-o in her hand starts to tremble. That scene stuck with me so hard as a kid, and still does--something about the roller coaster of mortal terror, the high of completely adult-free dessert anarchy, back to terror. Also the food looked wonderful.
Share with us a baking hack you can’t live without?
I've recently started getting commissioned for giant cakes, and since I'm terrible at leveling (and don't like losing so much cake!) I've started using cake strips (the DIY wet paper towel and aluminum foil kind, though I'm sure the purchased fabric kind are great too) and cake nails to minimize doming, and holy cow, I wish I had done this years ago. So much less of a headache. Also, a little known thing that I think more people should know about is Clearjel! It stabilizes whipped cream so it can hold up for hours without collapsing or weeping--great for a busy dinner service when you don't have time to whip cream on the fly, or even for bake sales where you want a whip in your dessert but it needs to hold up at room temp for awhile. It's miraculous.
What’s the most technically challenging dessert you’ve made for an event and what was the process like?
Oh, god, without a doubt it was when I attempted to recreate this dessert I saw on Instagram with very little guidance as to what it was or how it was made. For some insane reason I decided to do it for a pretty high-stakes 50 person gallery dinner, and I also did something I never do, which was pitch it to a client for approval before I had actually figured out how to make it, so I really dug myself into a hole I couldn't get out of. All I had was one very cursory Chinese YouTube video which, as clickbaity videos are wont to do, completely disregarded any of the issues one might run into while making something like this.
I landed on making a peach panna cotta inside of a peach mold and then dipping it in melted white chocolate to give it a kind of magic shell that you could hit to crack open, except as readers of this newsletter are probably well aware, slippery wet things + melted chocolate = seizing. I don't even want to think about how much Callebaut I ruined with moisture. I still don't really understand how people dip ice cream bars in chocolate. There were a lot of other issues, too--getting something as fragile as panna cotta out of a mold with such a narrow opening without mashing it, getting the chocolate to be a pleasing white color rather than yellowy, keeping melted chocolate well-tempered (which I am already terrible at even without dipping cold things in and out of it)--it was a nightmare. The final result came out ok! Not perfect like in my vision, but ok enough. I will never try it again.
Follow Jen on Instagram: @badtaste.biz
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Visit: A new cake decorating joint will be opening soon in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for those who like the design but detest the actual baking. Sort of like Color Me Mine, but for cakes.