Kat Bowers was messing with macarons. Her boss, Mary Elizabeth Plovanich, the pastry chef for the Lord Baltimore Hotel, had suggested she practice. The egg whites have to be whipped just so to achieve the airy meringue shell that crackles to the touch and melts on the tongue. Bowers made a batch of the sandwich cookies in a rainbow of colors, each layered with sweet filling. The results, she felt, were good, though not perfect. Plovanich, however, was pleased and put the pastel macarons in the case at LB Bakery, in the lobby of the hotel.
“Wouldn’t you know it, a food blogger posted a photo on Instagram,” says Plovanich. Within hours, the macaron got 1,500 “likes” and more than 50 enthusiastic comments.
“I feel almost like a proud mom,” says Plovanich, whose whimsical confections include dome-shaped cheesecakes in bright lavender ringed with black-berries, homemade dingdongs modeled after the Hostess treat and oversized “sundae”-flavored macarons— baseball-sized cookies in flavors like banana split, brownie sundae and butter pecan toffee crunch.
Today, Plovanich, a native of Chicago, is frosting a tart. She pours swirls of neon yellow, orange and pink glaze onto a chiffon sheet cake layered with passion- fruit mousse, smearing the colors with a spatula like an artist mixing oils with a palette knife. Only she stops before the fluorescent hues fully blend, leaving a tie-dye effect. It’s no surprise when Plovanich tells me that the hotel’s general manager, Gene-Michael Addis, has likened the pastry area to “Barbie’s Dream Kitchen.”
The pastry team is all female, says Plovanich, who never met a confetti sprinkle she didn’t like. “We try to maintain a ‘no boys allowed’ mentality.”
Pastry is not traditionally a women’s vocation.
Despite what you remember about your grandmother’s holiday cookies or the birthday cake your mom made each year, the upper echelons of dessert and breakfast treat production have historically been occupied by men. Over the years, women have cracked the wafer ceiling—in 1991, Nancy Silverton was the first woman to win an Outstanding Pastry Chef award from James Beard, an honor that Gale Gand scooped up a decade later before going on to host “Sweet Dreams” on the Food Network. And of course, there’s En-Ming Hsu, who led the U.S. team to a gold medal at the World Pastry Cup competition in 2001—the only time the American team has won top honors since the biennial event began in 1989.
Hsu, a native of Virginia who graduated from Skidmore College with a studio arts degree, was the first to receive the Culinary Institute of America’s (CIA) Baking and Pastry Arts degree. Hsu was also one of Plovanich’s instructors at Chicago’s French Pastry School.
Since 2001, the CIA Baking and Pastry Arts program has seen its female enrollment more than double, from 267 to 729 in 2015— constituting 85 percent of participants.
In Baltimore, desserts made by women are easy to find. Most of the city’s top restaurants, in fact, have women rolling the dough.
“I’m not sure why that is,” says Aja Cage, the pastry chef at Gunther & Co., whose resume includes Salt in Baltimore as well as Chicago’s Tru restaurant and the Peninsula Hotel. She attended the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh. “Pastry requires more patience. It’s more tedious,” she muses. “There’s less room for error in pastry. If you mess up, you’re stuck with what you’ve done.” Cage knows that her personality is better suited to the methodical nature of pastry. “You have to think two or three days ahead,” she says. Not that savory chefs don’t plan, “but they’re much more bold,” Cage says. “The two women who work on the savory side here do things that would gross me out—like processing meats and cleaning fish. When I see them butchering, it really terrifies me.”
Cage, who speaks in soft tones and has a deadpan mien that sometimes masks her wry humor, works at a small counter at one end of the long open kitchen at Gunther. There’s a small freezer stage left, where she stores the day’s ice creams, frozen lime curd, peach granita and the like. She keeps her spatulas, scissors and scoops segregated from the greater kitchen’s implements by marking them with bands of brightly colored tape.
A ticket churns through the machine at Cage’s station, and she gets to work plating a flourless chocolate cake. She starts by squirting dashes of housemade mint syrup on a dessert plate. After cutting a banana at a sharp angle, she pulls out a blowtorch from Home Depot to caramelize the flat surfaces (no feeble Williams Sonoma brûlée flames in this kitchen) before placing them upright on the plate like funnel chimneys on a cruise ship. The glistening wedge of dark, dense cake is topped with Cage’s roasted banana ice cream and sprinkled with bits of candied pistachios.
She plates a few more desserts: The blowtorch reappears to brown the swirl of meringue that tops a lemon tart, its graham cracker bottom resting in a pool of blueberry-lavender coulis (throughout the summer Cage was able to pluck the lavender—as well as fresh mint—from the living wall that overlooks Gunther’s patio). She sprinkles the dessert with dehydrated raspberry powder and tops it with a curl of candied lemon peel. On another plate, she blankets a ball of tart, cold lime curd with coconut milk tapioca and icy peach granita, shaving lime zest and sprinkling toasted seeds on the dessert before sending it on its way.
If Plovanich’s desserts are characterized by fantastic colors and tongue-in-cheek whimsy, Cage’s sweets are artful compositions of compatible, mostly familiar and often seasonal flavors.
Dyan Ng of Wit & Wisdom draws from a slightly different vocabulary. She spent her early childhood in the Philippines where she watched her family’s kitchen staff prepare meals that combined sweet, sour and salty in one dish. “Inspiration comes from memory,” says Ng, whose recollections of sweet and tart mangosteens and aromatic custard apples often influence the amalgam of flavors she plates. “As a child, I was given avocado with shaved ice and fresh milk for dessert,” Ng says. At Wit, she expresses that memory with a block of dehydrated lemon meringue that melts on the tongue, topped with Meyer lemon cream and fresh avocado. The sweet and tangy lemon is diffused by the mild avocado; a sprinkle of sorrel on top gives the dish a grassy finish.
Ng considered her rice pudding—surrounded by vanilla foam and topped with layers of milk skin—too sweet, so the dessert is served with a cup of unsweetened coconut water. “You take a bite and take a drink,” she instructs.
The time involved in making layered milk skin—skimming heated milk over and over—is matched by the production time of Ng’s strawberries and cream. The honey- poached berries and local vanilla ice cream are topped with a sheet of firm gelée made from liquefied strawberries, dotted with triangles of similarly gelled cream. Our waiter washes the dessert in strawberry consommé poured from a glass teapot.
It’s a pretty presentation that looks like modern art or a cut-paper collage, with flavor that belies its fastidious composition. No doubt, its appearance on social media wowed Sarah Malphrus, a devoted Ng (@dyan.ng) follower.
“I watch Dyan’s Instagram feed,” says Malphrus of the Wit & Wisdom chef. “Her aesthetic is gorgeous. I hope to one day have her eye.” Malphrus, who was hired by Magdalena, the restaurant at the Ivy Hotel, soon after it opened, has solid farm-to-table cred. She started her pastry career at Husk, just after the Charleston, S.C., restaurant was crowned best new restaurant in the U.S. by Bon Appétit Magazine. She went on to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s ABC Kitchen in Manhattan before coming to Baltimore.
Malphrus became enamored with desserts when she visited Husk for the first time. “There was a pecan tart on the menu with bourbon and vanilla ice cream—and I think some sorghum,” Malphrus recalls. “It tasted to me like home and family. I wanted to learn how to do these things in a professional setting.”
Treats made in a restaurant kitchen are generally more elevated than the home-baked originals that inspire them, Malphrus admits. Her grandmother, she says, “swore by the pecan pie recipe on the back of the Karo corn syrup bottle, and her idea of ice cream came from the Piggly Wiggly.” Nevertheless, that “hard-faced, caring woman,” as Malphrus remembers her, was a strong influence: “Being able to watch her cook and bake was an inspiration.”
When Malphrus went home to South Carolina for her grandmother’s funeral last year, she found an old box filled with handwritten recipes tucked into the back of a cupboard. She brought this treasure back to Baltimore, and has since put a variation of her grandmother’s carrot cake on the Magdalena menu. As she remembers her grandmother, Malphrus looks off to the corner of the room, her eyes glistening.
“I don’t think she realized how much she influenced me.”
Malphrus didn’t intend to be a chef.
She got a degree in sociology with a concentration in gender and women’s studies at Warren Wilson, a small college in Asheville, N.C. Her academic background, she says, means she is quick to perceive sexism around her. “When I was younger, it really bothered me,” she says. “Now I have a filter and can turn it off.” She recalls watching the documentary “Kings of Pastry,” about the male contenders in the competition known as M.O.F. for Meilleurs Ouvrier de France (Best French craftsman) and thinking, “What the fuck—where are all the women?” If there’s anything she’s learned in kitchens, she says, “It’s that anything men can do, we can do better—most of the time with more grace.”
Though she’s had some top-notch teachers—including Melody Farrar and Sean Considine, both colleagues at ABC Kitchen—Malphrus says she feels “as if I’ve been on a constant search for a mentor.” The 27-year-old chef has recently realized that unless they aim to open their own bakery, ambitious pastry chefs might improve their chances of success by attaching themselves to an ambitious savory chef. She believes Magdalena’s Mark Levy is a good fit. “He challenges me,” she says. “I feel that I’ve found the mentor I’ve been looking for.”
With a handful of notable exceptions, Baltimore’s top restaurants are helmed by men. But most have women making desserts. Though Foodshed restaurant group and Foreman and Wolf have men heading the baking department, desserts at their flagship restaurants, Woodberry Kitchen and Charleston, respectively, are women. Baltimore’s dessert domination by flour girls struck me last year at the Passion for Food and Wine event, the annual fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation that brings together the city’s most brotastic chefs. In the “green room” set up for the chefs at the Four Seasons Hotel, I noticed amid the hubbub a group of women, all in chef’s jackets, sitting on a sofa off to the side. They were, I realized, the pastry chefs.
Caitlin Kiehl of Charleston now works under chef Cindy Wolf, but she recalls a similar scene at Providence Restaurant in L.A. “At the time, all five pastry chefs were women,” she says. At family meal—the pre-service staff supper—“we’d all get our plates and sit on the couch and daintily eat our food.” Meanwhile, “the cooks would sit out on the loading dock by the dumpster and talk about how drunk they got the night before,” Kiehl says. “That scene was so pastry-versus-savory to me.”