I grew up baking a lot and I was always interested in pastry—but I did dabble in the savory side of the kitchen for a while and I really liked it. I think that has informed the way I do pastry, because I have a very savory palate when it comes to desserts. I don't like really sweet things and I like balance. You need ingredients like vinegar and salt, which aren't traditionally in the pastry pantry, to achieve balance in a dessert. Also, working with Jose [Ramirez-Ruiz, chef at Semilla] has been really influential and I think I've taken his approach to looking at and seasoning ingredients.
Most of my career has been pastry-centric. I'd staged at bakeries, but never took a job baking because of the hours and the low pay. It's pretty difficult to live on a baker's salary. But then I worked with Ignacio Mattos at Isa. There was a wood-burning oven there and there was a lot of work with sourdough bread. That was my first real experience working with that kind of long-fermenting, natural, levain-style baking.
People will see the words "ancient grains" on something and just assume that it means it's healthy. It's not just about using an "ancient grain," it's also about the way you use them. Long-fermentation is important because you are breaking down the cellular structure of the wheat and therefore making it more digestible. You can use good grains and good yeast and have it ferment in three hours, but it won't be as good for your body as something that has been long-fermented. It's not just about the grains, it's about how things are made.
Before we opened up Semilla, I got this grant to study grains through the Beard foundation, so I went all over Denmark and Sweden to millers, seed breeders, and wheat growers to just learn as much as I possibly could. After that, I went to Rome to do a pastry demo and decided to stay behind for a little bit to stage at Gabriele Bonci's Pizzarium.
The whole experience really blew my mind, because I had never had pizza with dough like that. For someone who really appreciates bread, it made me see pizza in a totally new light. This was pizza with a real focus on the dough, not just pizza that had really flavorful toppings. Bonci's pizza is about the flavor of the dough and the other ingredients working in harmony.
When we opened Semilla, I kept on thinking about how interesting it would be to start working with pizza. That led me to start making pizza for staff meals every Saturday. I started off using yeast, but since I make my bread with natural levain, I really wanted to try it out. Turns out, making pizza with natural levain is pretty tricky, so it took some work and a lot of asking questions. I used the same liquid levain starter—which I've had pretty much since I left Isa—that I use every day for my bread.
A little while ago, I thought we should try and do something different, and we landed on doing a pizza party. That gave me about a month to really figure things out way more than I had for staff meals. We just started making pizza two to three times a week. We had to figure out what flour blend to use for the dough, the temperature and length of the fermentation, how to get a proper bake on the dough, and what proportions we wanted for the toppings to work with the dough. We didn't want to do a pizza pop-up and have the pizza be just OK. I had never done this volume of dough, so it was pretty nerve-racking to go from cooking three pizzas at a time to almost 50. The dough ferments completely differently when you make that much. I basically spent five hours continuously mixing dough in a small KitchenAid mixer, which isn't smart, but that's all I had.
After we did the pop-up, we were all so fucking tired, we all swore that we would never do it again. It was fun, but it was so exhausting. A few days later, we changed our minds and said, "Maybe we will do this again as long as we don't do it the same way." There's a possibility that we might do it again in a month or so, but we would have to correct all the mistakes we made this time to make it more manageable."
The misunderstanding of the ancient grain movement is a lot like what we've seen with the organic movement. People don't really understand what these terms actually mean. I'm not saying that using ancient grains isn't an improvement from using all bleached, processed flour, but its not just about the grains, its about how things are made.
Pam Yung is the pastry chef and co-owner of Semilla in Williamsburg, where she and Chef Jose Ramírez-Ruiz serve a vegetable-forward tasting menu that has received a Michelin star and James Beard nominations for Best New Restaurant and Rising Star Chef of the Year.