Our final interview of the year saves for last (but in no way least) the talented Kolika Kirk, creator of WannaBGourmande.com. A skilled pastry chef and self-avowed “Potterhead” (leading me to think that she and Mrs. Flavorful World would become fast friends over their shared passion for keeping magic alive), Kolika populates her site with mouth-watering recipes and food photos that have kept this writer coming back for more with increasing frequency over the past several months. The imaginative baker and culinary maven took a recent moment to talk to us about menu creation, 2017 food trends we need to put out to pasture, considerations when baking lactose-free, and a great deal more.
Editor’s side note: With this interview, we bid a fond adieu to the year, and we’re so excited for the chance to have her answer a few questions. And I’m not just saying that because she and I are of like minds about mermaid toast. Anyway, read on…
Flavorful World: 1.Your site focuses on pastry and baking as opposed to entrées, savoy side dishes, and so on. Tell us about what attracted you to the sweeter side of baking, and who/what you count among your biggest personal baking influences.
Kolika Kirk: Truth be told, I fell into pastry on accident. I purposely avoided the sweeter side of the kitchen for the longest time, especially in Culinary school. I couldn’t stand the girls in my classes that freaked out and squealed at “how gross” touching raw meat was, nor could I take the fact that they so loudly liked to announce that everything they were learning in fundamentals classes were useless, considering they’d soon be famous for making cupcakes. I know, of course, that there’s no wrong way to be a woman and that everyone has their personal boundaries; that being said, the fact that I had such a disdain for a few abrasive individuals had kept me away from pastry.
I love pastry because it’s all about chemistry and math and precision. It takes a special sort of discipline to be a pastry chef, but a strange sort of creativity that must work within the constraints. I think that Thomas Keller and David Chang count among my biggest influences when it comes to baking, but the pastry influences come from my friends and teachers throughout the years.
FW: In a recent post, you declared yourself a “huge Potterhead”. As such, construct a four-course meal using dishes from the Harry Potter universe that you would serve to guests to celebrate a holiday that does not take place during this month. What is the holiday, and why did you choose those dishes?
KK: I’m obsessed with Ilvermorny, the American school for Witchcraft and Wizardry, and there’s no holiday more American than Thanksgiving. I have about a million headcanons about Ilvermorny, and the more and more we learn about the Americas via the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” series, the more excited I get. Everyone says they want to go to Hogwarts, but as an American, I can’t think of anything more exciting than attending the hallowed halls of Ilvermorny (and yes, I do know the Ilvermorny school song by heart). What could be a Thanksgiving feast at Ilvermorny? Let’s see:
- Oysters on the half shell with finger lime – inspired by the original Thanksgiving of the pilgrims, according to culinary anthropology. Limes and other citrus fruits grew well in Barbados and the West Indies, and sailors kept plenty of citrus fruit on ships to prevent scurvy. If you’ve never seen finger lime, google it – it’s really wild-looking!
- Tamales de Pavo – the Calderon-Boot family is one of America’s oldest and most-respected magical lines. Chadwick Boot wedded a Mexican Healer and the two travelled the world together, so of course we had to have tamales at Ilvermorny. Oh, and ‘pavo’ is Spanish for turkey.
- Roasted Bison with a cherry-rosemary sauce, with succotash—Bison is a classic American meat, and corn originated in America. Succotash is a classic New England dish, but also a Native American dish, which is very important to Ilvermorny. The magical community in America was already there before the European settlers, so Native American Witches and Wizards weren’t using wands at all, nor did they have the magical culture that had developed by their white counterparts. I imagine that Ilvermorny teaches wandless magic for 5th years and up, and must have many electives that involve the Native American magical culture. The American magical culture is incredibly diverse, which is shown via the pages on Pottermore that delve into the history of Magic in North America, and succotash is a dish made with corn, squash, and beans – or the Three Sisters. I’m an avid gardener, and huge into folklore, so I cannot ignore the value of planting these three things together, because they really do benefit one another. Cherries are delicious with game meats, and I can’t help but feel that it pays homage to George Washington, the one dollar founding father.
- Ilvermorny’s Cranberry pie, of course!
FW: 2017 has been a year packed with food and cooking trends of sometimes dubious merit. What 2017 food trend(s) have you found yourself most inspired by, and why? What 2017 food trend(s) would you be happy to never see again, and why?
KK: I love that old-school pastries have come into play, such as entremets and mirror glazes. These aren’t new recipes or techniques, but old ones that are dressed up in new packages. I adore that skills are really being valued! I love the naked cakes trend, especially because I feel that decorating isn’t my strongest suit. I also love the “ugly fruit” movement, in which the crops that would normally be thrown away are being utilized, mostly because the current and younger generations are realizing that the way we see things is often a construct of how older generations would like us to see things. Global food waste is a huge problem, as well, so I can really get behind the trends that promote sustainability! As far as trends I’m so done with? Mermaid or Unicorn ANYTHING. It was pretty cute and kitschy, but it just involves so much food coloring and I can’t really get behind that in a long-term fashion. Avocado toast = yes. Mermaid toast = NO.
FW: A number of your recipes are aimed at creating delicious lactose-free treats. Tell us about the most recent lactose-free dish you prepared, and what advice you can offer to those who may feel daunted by the prospect of baking without dairy products.
KK: Well, I began cooking without dairy because of my partner, who developed an extreme intolerance for dairy products. It wasn’t just lactose, it was whey protein, as well, and considering I do all of the cooking in our home, I had no choice but to adjust. The most-recent dish I prepared was a stir fry, and because it is East Asian it wouldn’t have had any dairy products in it to begin with, I don’t think that counts.
White Europeans were pretty much the only ones that developed the hardcore tolerance for dairy milk, and because we live in a really Euro-Centric society, everybody wants to drink milk. About 90% of East Asians are lactose-intolerant, so in our home it was pretty easy to make the switch to cooking savory stuff without dairy, as I just went to curries and stir fries and traditional Pinoy dishes that I knew how to do. Everything else was made with ease by using vegan butter substitutes – Earth Balance is my favorite. Upon the discovery of my Jewish ancestry, as well, it’s been useful to know how to make non-dairy treats to bring to Hannukah and Rosh Hashana celebrations that I’m invited to by my wonderful friends! (Pareve foods are foods that contain neither dairy nor meat. There’s even pareve gelt!)
It’s actually extremely easy to eat dairy-free at home. Thanks to the arise of so many vegan products in grocery stores, we can buy non-dairy milks, butter substitutes, and even delicious cheeses that – honestly – are pretty damn passable and comparable to the real thing! The most-recent pastry I’ve made at home without dairy was my Pareve Chocolate Cream Pie, but before that was a pinata cake for my niece’s 2nd birthday. It was a four-layer chocolate cake with a bittersweet chocolate ganache frosting, all covered with coconut flakes, and then absolutely filled with candies. (She got a kick out of it, and of course I captured it all on video.)
Baking without dairy is quite easy to do, but the only thing you have to worry about is this: fat.
See, dairy milk has a wonderful amount of fat in it, and so does heavy cream, and it is from that fat that we can do things like trap air bubbles to make whipped cream or delicious ice cream. When making things like ice cream that is dairy-free, one has to be mindful of the fat content. A rice milk wouldn’t make a good ice cream because it has virtually zero fat in it, but coconut milk makes great ice cream because you can get it in a cream form. Hazelnut milk makes a tasty ice cream, and honestly most nut milks have excellent pastry applications. There are also many books on cooking dairy-free, which is great for me because I get to research before I explore.
FW: You’ve posted in the past about being very much “pro-selfie”. If pressed to represent yourself through a medium not photographic, but culinary, tell us what dish best embodies the way you view yourself. What aspect(s) of that selection makes it the “you” of foods?
KK: I view myself as vivacious and smart and full of flavor. To me, that says “lobster.” I’d say lobster yellow curry with coconut milk, tarragon, lemongrass, lots of ginger, and kaffir lime leaves. The rice must be basmati, of course, as it is a rice of high quality and luxury—and I treat my body like a temple, so I’ve always said that I’d be the Kobe beef of people if I were hauled away to some cannibalism camp. The lobster is firm-fleshed and turns bright red when heated (like yours truly) and swims backwards by backing dat booty up, which fits me because I do love to dance. It’d have to be finished with a tomato chutney, something with a lot of acid – because lobster is almost sweet, you really do need something acidic to cut the fatty goodness of the coconut milk. Yum!
FW: Walk us through your process when it comes to finding new ideas for creating recipes. What was your most recent unexpected source of inspiration, and to what dish did it contribute?
KK: It’s hard to create recipes for pastry applications because the rules are so finite and strict. I don’t necessarily create new recipes, I just screw around until something works, then write it down. When it comes to adding things and putting things together, I tend to go on a lateral thinking instead of analytical. The way I cook when creating tends to be very ingredient-driven. I almost like to have a sort of conversation with a new ingredient—Buddha’s hand, for example—and hold it, smell it, and then see what comes to mind when I’m with it.
I saw Buddha’s hand for the first time on an episode of Chopped, and I knew I had to try it. It is a lovely citrus fruit that yields a wonderfully aromatic zest that’s fruity, gentle, and exotic. I have a hyper-sensitive sense of smell, so I tend to get to know new ingredients by smelling versus tasting for the first time. When it came to Buddha’s hand, the first thing I thought of was some kind of curd. I took about four Buddha’s hands and added them to sugar, egg yolks, and a mixture of lime, grapefruit, and orange juice (it seemed like it would be closest to the smell on flavor for me), all to make a curd for a fruit tart. I then topped the tart with a coconut milk whipped cream, scented with ginger – because that’s where the ingredients came from, in my head. I pictured mountains, fragrant jungles, a peaceful and tranquil harmony of ingredients. It had to be something aromatic and restrained, in my mind, but with a peaceful execution.
FW: Tell us your favorite wine pairings for the following desserts, and what wine characteristics make them such good matches for the desserts named: tiramisu, berry cobbler, snickerdoodle, mango sorbet.
KK: A tiramisu is Italian for “pick me up/take me to Heaven,” so of course, we have to go for an Italian wine. Coffee and marscarpone have acidic notes, so let’s go for something mild. This dessert isn’t also the sweetest thing in the world (which I love), so let’s go sweet with the wine. We’d like some lighter notes of candied raspberry or cherry, so let’s go with a Brachetto from Piedmont on this one.
Berry cobblers—or at least the ones that I make—are always made with good vanilla and a splash of bourbon. It’s served warm and with ice cream, so for this reason, we must have something red and tannic. A bold New World burgundy is the only choice!
A snickerdoodle is a cookie that’s buttery and spicy with cinnamon. Cinnamon reminds me of Mexican cuisine (I’m from the Southwest) so let’s take a trip to Mexican wine country. It’s a wonderful cookie that’s familiar with a little bit of “ooh, what’s that?” so I think that a white wine would be good. Let’s try Casa Madero’s chardonnay, which has hints of spice and dried fruits.
A mango sorbet must be served with something fizzy, because—let’s face it—mango pops! Mango is tropical and exotic, and it makes me think of heat. I’m thinking a New Zealand sparkling wine, which has a lot of pizzaz and fresh acidity to it. It’s light, and a perfect way to end a meal.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?
A good portion of my culinary exploits have coincided with my personal growth and journey to adulthood. Being a Millenial means living through a lot of tumultuous times with the ever-present—and often very loud—voice of generations before us, voicing especially on platforms that we invented. Millenials are the most-educated generation in American history. Our formative events were 9/11, the Obama administration(baby come back), the great recession, and the rise of the global internet. We’re going to be the last generation to remember life before smartphones or the internet.
Because of these factors, I think that my next project/1st book/whatever would be called “Growing” because it coincides with the world around me as well as the world within me. I write from a very personal place, and I cook from a very personal place as well. My food and cooking tends to reflect seasonality and respect for how things grow. Since I grow a fair portion of my own food, I feel like I have a lot of reverence for the wonderful process of how things grow and evolve and change, especially with and around their environment. Plants can teach you a lot about life, and gardening has truly shown me that.
Any project or memoir I commit to will absolutely have to portray at least some of the events that have gone on while I’m alive. Living in the booming years of the Obama administration in which America went forward in strides like no other, and then to see the absolute catastrophic trauma of what the Trump administration is doing to not only the country, but this planet, will be written down. I feel as if it’s the responsibility of the writer to be candid and honest with the reader in works of non-fiction. I think that Americans are better than the small percentage of people that are representing us right now, and my writing and cooking will reflect that.
I know I’m going on and on about politics and growing, but I find that my own brand of food is reflective of my environment. When I wasn’t making a living wage, I learned to preserve fruits and tomatoes and other things to store for when I wouldn’t have food. I also learned to garden and to make planters out of old furniture so I could have a balanced diet of fresh vegetables while scraping together pennies for the electricity bill. Now that I have those skills, I think they’ll come in handy in the case of an ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. Basically, my cooking comes from a place of self, a projection of my own emotions and perceptions of the world around me, because I feel that to live and to think beyond the self is the responsible thing to do.
FW: When you aren’t cooking/eating delicious things, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
KK: I enjoy binge-watching things on Netflix or Hulu, exploring Instagram, practicing calligraphy, or shopping. Of course, I have to mention spending time with my precious pets, Howl, Hobbes and Buttons. I like snuggling with my dog, and I enjoy sticking my finger in my cat’s mouth to interrupt his yawns. I also enjoy an active social life with friends that I adore. To be honest, most of my time that’s not spent around food is me just doing nothing. I set aside time to do nothing. When someone calls me on a day off or when I’m done with work, one of two conversations are likely to happen:
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Oh, not much, what’s going on?”
“Up for shopping?”
“Hells to the yeah.”
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Wanna come – ?”
“No, I mean I’m doing nothing. My plan is to do nothing.”
And then I’ll hang up, because my alone time is my recharge time. I identify as an ambivert, because I love being with friends and hanging out and being social, but my ‘me time’ is a precious commodity, and I don’t squander that if I don’t want to. (#JustSlytherinThings)
*Note to readers: It’s like the lady said: “Vivacious, smart, and full of flavor.” These are words that can be as aptly applied to the chef as to her fantastical food-filled website, so make sure you visit WannaBGourmande.com soon and often. You can also keep up with her gustatory goings-on by following her on Instagram, Facebook, and of course, the Twitter. You’ll wanna go ahead and bookmark those now, for easy reference anytime your sweet tooth comes a-callin’ for something delicious to try in your own kitchen.
This article first appeared on FlavorfulWorld.com.