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The French Laundry's Claire Clark is on a Mission

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By Malcolm Jolley

Claire Clark is a petite blond Englishwoman who is the Head Pastry Chef at The French Laundry,  California home of super-chef Thomas Keller and arguably the continent's best restaurant. Before that, she worked at the iconic Wolsely on Piccadilly in London where the pastry standards we're set by the posh patrons at tea. She is at the top of her craft and has just published her debut cookbook Indulge: 100 Perfect Desserts.

When I met her recently in the coffee shop of a downtown Toronto hotel I worried that my relative lack of baking knowledge might hinder our conversation. I couldn't have been more wrong, as it seems I am exactly the sort of home cook Clark had in mind when she wrote the book. "No excuse!" She told me when I said I wasn't much of a baker, and then she explained, "I want people to start baking at home again. I want people to try these recipes. People are so passionate about food these days and invest all this time in books and everything else to become great cooks, but then they say 'Oh, I can't bake'!"

Uh oh, I thought. But, in truth, Clark is so cheerful and gentle that her admonishment gave me more more shame than sting. She has a point: the bourgeois of the English-speaking world have thrown themselves into roasting, braising, sautéing and whatever else in the last 10 years, but there hasn't been a lot of baking. Dessert, more often than not, is something bought for or brought to a dinner party. Clark told me she wrote the book to try and change that.

She's particularly proud of her recipe for 'Lemon Posset', which has exactly three ingredients: lemons, sugar and cream. It's a total throw down to wussy non-baking apologists like me. "But it's so precise!" I counter, "You know, um, there's all that science." Clark will hear none of this and explains cheerfully that if the non-baker foodies of the world invested $15 or $20 in a decent scale more than half of the mysterious "science" would be dealt with. Just follow the recipe, Einstein, I think.

Clark may be forgiven if she finds urban gastronome baking neuroses silly. She grew up the daughter of an English vicar and her mother always had baked treats for the parishioners who came to see him daily. "There were always delicious smells and yummy things in the kitchen." Clark went on to culinary school in England and began her professional career as a grill cook, but her heart was always in the mixing bowl and she went over to pastry as soon as she could.

"Baking is relaxing, it's a great way to wind down." She seems genuinely concerned that I have been stressed out over my steaks and stews and not benefited by la therapie-patisserie, and I am beginning to wonder myself. Time to change tack: what about the French Laundry? I ask her if that's relaxing? "Not exactly," she replies, "but it is exhilarating and wonderful. There's no one there that doesn't really want to be and everyone is on top of their game. and the produce on California is fantastic."

Clark's secrets for great, relaxing baking include using the best ingredients possible. And she does concede that novice bakers can get into trouble. "I see a lot of published recipes where they've missed a crucial step, or where they don't tell you everything. I've tried to give all the information and added notes." Her book is extensive and her friendly demeanour comes out on the page. That Friday night my wife and I made Lemon Posset. Baby steps.


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