Chat with Pastry Chefs Heather Chittum, Michelle Poteaux, and Josh Short

February’s round-table with three mixologists and last week’s Chinese food chat with Jennifer 8. Lee were such hits that we’re bringing in more food-world folks for Q&A. On Thursday, April 3 at 11 am, three of the area’s top pastry chefs—all 2008 RAMMY aw

February’s round-table with three bartenders and last week’s Chinese food chat with author Jennifer 8. Lee were such hits that we’re bringing in more food-world folks for Q&As. On Thursday, April 3, at 11 AM, three of the area’s top pastry chefs—all 2008 Rammy Award nominees—will chat live on Want to know their take on the current cupcake craze? Or how to avoid home baking disasters? Submit a question in advance for our pastry panel:

Heather Chittum
has been a fixture on the local pastry scene for the past several years—first at Notti Bianche and Dish, then at Citronelle, and now at Hook. Her desserts—such as a tic-tac-toe board of chocolate "whoopie pies" and vanilla-shortbread “x” cookies—often have a witty streak, but her simple, buttery madeleines could make any Francophile swoon.

Michelle Poteaux owns Alexandria’s cozy-chic Bastille with her chef husband, Christophe Poteaux. Her desserts often draw from French bistro classics: warm apple tarte Tatin with crème-fraîche sabayon, Valrhona-chocolate mousse with brandied cherries. She also has a hand in the savory side of the menu—think sea-scallop crème brûlée and black-truffle ice cream.

Josh Short is the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s executive pastry chef, based out of Alexandria’s Buzz Bakery. He dreams up elegant desserts for NRG’s restaurants (Evening Star Cafe, Rustico, Tallula/EatBar, and Vermilion), but we can’t get enough of his fabulous chocolate-filled cupcakes and espresso-laced brownies.Thanks for all of your questions. We'll let you go grab dessert before lunch—that's where we're headed. Happy baking! For the full archives of food & drink chats, click here.

Easy one: your favorite desserts! Go!

Josh: That's like picking your favorite kid. Honey panna cotta right now.

Heather: I love apple pie.

Michelle: Ice cream. At any time. I like Ben and Jerry's peanut butter chunk. I love salty, peanut butter, pretzel – anything! My husband knows, just don't bring it home. I'll eat the whole little pint. 

Washington, D.C.
This one is for Heather. I love your Tic-Tac-Toe plate, and hoping you can expand on your TTT-playing career. Lotsa games as a child? Can we expect more game-inspired desserts? (Hope so)
Heather: I wanted to do whoopie pies, and didn't want to just do a plate of whoopie pies. So the idea just kind of came to mind. I did play a lot of games…I did love tic-tac-toe. I had this little wooden tic-tac-toe box, and you flipped the side, and out came marbles. It was like tic-tac-toe, on the go!
I absolutely need to know where you all stand on the best cupcakes in DC. Don't hold back! This is an important topic!

Josh: I'm impartial to that! Buzz, that's what we're known for. We just got rid of all the trans fats, which was exciting. Now we're all butter.

Michelle: To be honest, cupcakes are not really what I like to eat. But I've heard a lot of interesting stuff about the Georgetown Cupcake ladies. I do things that are cupcake-size, like carrot cake in a muffin size.

Heather: Their coconut cupcakes are really good (at Georgetown Cupcake). I had a dessert called Bake Sale, in september for back to school. It was a mini-cupcake, brownies, rice krispie treats, chocolate chip cookies. People are like, put it back on the menu! Especially since Georgetown Cupcake opened.

recommendations for good dessert wines? i always find them to be too expensive or sweet…

Michelle:  Banyuls. One of my favorites is Gaillac Mouseux, it is a lightly sweet sparkling from the south of France. Not expensive at all. Southwest of Toulouse, it's an unknown region.

Josh: Phileo from Barboursville. That's really good.

Heather: I like Moscato d'Asti. But that's sweet. Even just a glass of Champagne is great.

How did you all get into your line of work? Was it something you'd always dreamed of doing, or did you more just fall into it?

Josh: I grew up in a small town in Nebraska, and at 15 my mom wanted to get me out of the house, so I worked in a bakery. Frying doughnuts every Friday night.

 Michelle: I was always in the kitchen. My mom always baked, and I loved to do that. So it was kind of a natural progression.

 Heather: Well, I spent four years on Capitol Hill, but I had worked in restaurants growing up. But never in the kitchen. Then I worked with Share Our Strength and was working a lot with chefs and restauranteurs. I wanted to get into it and wasn't sure if I could, but I just went for it and later took a course at L'Academie.

Washington, DC
What tends to be more popular: chocolate based desserts or the fruity variety?

Heather: Chocolate's always a crowd-pleaser. But I actually like the fruity variety more.

Michelle: It's interesting. Through the week, regular diners choose fruit. On the weekend, people splurge and go for chocolate. 

Washington, D.C.
For an upcoming party I want to serve a chocolate baked-good, but find many chocolate pastries like flourless chocolate cake too rich for most guests. Can you suggest something original to tempt chocolate-lovers, without making my party guests run for a glass of milk?

Josh: You could go milk chocolate. Like a milk chocolate mousse. It's sweet, but it's not as rich.

Michelle: You could make a chocolate fool, it's light and has layers. Add fresh fruit, like raspberries, something acidic. 

I'm looking to get more into baking. What's the first must-have tool that I really need to get for home baking?

Heather: Kitchen Aid mixer!

Michelle: You really want to bake, get the six-quart commercial Kitchen Aid. Splurge for the six-quart. It's about $600.

Josh: It's worth it to invest in good equipment. 

Silver Spring
Besides your own excellent spots, of course, where would you go in Washington for a great dessert?

Michelle: The other day, I went to Poste. Every time I've gone, the desserts have been light, not overly sweet, very classic, really nice. And I don't even know who works there.

Josh: The Source was very good. I had the cookie plate, everything was perfect. Nice and soft, just like they should be.

Heather: At Saint-Ex, they're really doing some nice desserts.  

Washington, DC
I have a question for Josh: I went to college in Charlottesville and loved getting to try different treats from "From Scratch Baking Company." The peanut butter bars were my personal favorite! I was wondering if you are still involved with that store?
Josh: No, I'm not. I sold it over to my business partner, and she still runs it. It's a great shop. We're still good friends. I'm going down there on Sunday actually, for a wine tasting.
Washington, DC
Hi Heather! Is there such a thing as "sustainable" dessert? 🙂
Heather: Ha. Not sustainable like fish, but I do try to use local produce. With 99% of what we do, it's seasonal and local. We do have a pineapple dessert on the menu right now, and yes, that's from Hawaii. Once I've gotten through the whole winter, I'm just dying for the spring produce to come in.
Washington, DC
What are your thoughts on baked goods that are made from a box? Are they a good substitute for those who don't have a lot of time to bake?

Michelle: Yes! There's nothing wrong with from a box. Just because you don't do this for a living doesn't mean you can't bake for your family.

Heather: There are people in this industry who do use boxed mixes. Believe it or not. 

Washington, DC
What is your favorite late night sweet snack?

Heather: I actually don't go for sweet late at night. Fries with bernaise sauce.  If I'm done with work, I'll go to Montsouris or Montmartre, sit at the bar. That's my favorite.

Michelle: Late at night, I'm hungry and haven't eaten since 3 in the afternoon. I go for pasta, really basic, with a glass of wine. I will also make 10-minute no bake cookies. Cocoa, sugar, buttermilk, oatmeal, coconut, salt and vanilla.

Josh: Mine's fries, too. Fries with mayonnaise.

Washington DC
What is the secret behind these "melting in your mouth" cup cakes? -How can I make my cup cakes more moisty? And how can I make tasty cup cakes or other kinds of cakes without using any sugar? What other kind of sweeter could I use that is good?

Heather: Call up Rock Creek!

Josh: I use sour cream, it adds a little bit more moistness. Don't over-bake. It's just freshness. Go by the toothpick, just cook it until it's done. We don't use any artificial sweeteners.

Michelle: My mom is a big Splenda person. I think it has an off flavor. I've done applesauce, prune paste is good if you're doing chocolate.  

Chevy Chase, MD
What's the best way for a recent college grad/baking aficianado to enter the pastry field?

Heather: Work for free. Do a stage. We take people who want to do that. A girl came in Friday who doesn't have any experience.  But sometimes that's good – they want to learn. It's really just the desire to want to do it. I was 28 and I decided I wanted to do this. I was still paying student loans and I wasn't sure if I should go to a full-time program or just on the job training. School is very different than working in a kitchen.

Michelle: I think anyone who wants to do this should go work in a kitchen before going to school for training. You need to see what it's like to work in a kitchen. 

Josh: I just had someone come to work for free and I hired her this week. She's at L'Academie, she worked on the Hill and is a career changer. She's going to be an intern, which could turn into a job. At school they'll hold your hand, and that's not what it's like in a restaurant.


Washington, DC
What are pastry chef hours like? Do you do most work in the am, or do you have to be there during all of dinner service?

Josh: I'm different, because I'm at the bakery. I go in about 4 am some days. It's fun to find a cab at 4. I'm there until sometimes 4 pm, sometimes 6, it depends on the day. I make all the main components for the five restaurants and they do the finishing things there, like garnishing.

Michelle: I run a restaurant so I'm there from 9:30 or 10 to midnight. My husband gets there a little earlier than I do, and I close.

Heather: It really depends. I always remember when I went to the James Beard Awards years ago, and Gale Gand was accepting her award for pastry. She said "we're the first to come and the last to go." Sometimes we stay until 3 am working on a cake. It runs the whole gamut. 

What restaurant dessert trends will we see this summer and later this year? Are there any new ingredients you're excited to work with? Are there any trends that you're rolling your eyes at?

Heather: I think DC is now going to be cupcakes, everywhere. I went to Dean and Deluca the other day, and they have their cupcakes out. That's going to stay for a while. I'm just excited for fruit!

Josh: I like the trend towards doing things that we grew up with. Don't mess with it too much. Like a good chocolate cake, carrot cake, strawberry shortcake. I love strawberry shortcake on a biscuit with whipped cream. That's one of my favorite things. I think pies are going to be big, too. I want to put a Hummingbird cake on the menu.

Michelle: I used to do the Hummingbird cake all the time – I was thinking about that for spring and summer. It has mashed bananas, crushed pineapple, I have nuts in mine. It's very moist.

Washington, DC
Hi! What's the largest batch of cupcakes you've ever made for a single event? I only ask because I'm hosting an event for just over 175 people and I'd love to have cupcakes at our dessert table.

Josh: We've done over 1,000. We're doing cupcakes for weddings. On Valentine's Day we did over 800 cupcakes.

Michelle: I think the nice thing about cupcakes is, you can get such a variety in a small quantity. And eating a cupcake is fun! There's nothing serious about it.

What are your secrets for fantastic chocolate chip cookies, technique or ingredient-wise?

Josh: For me, the secret is to cream the butter and sugar very very well, and when you add your eggs and vanilla, add it very slowly. It's going to be a nice high chewy cookie.

Michelle: I like thick and chewy.  With nuts. I want good dark chocolate and nuts.

Heather: No nuts, but I like the thick and chewy. If it's a little humid, maybe add a little extra flour.  

David, Washington DC
With all the great fresh berries and peaches coming up at the farmers markets, i need a good way to use them. What is the best way to use those berries and peaches as both a sweetener in something baked as well as utilizing them freshly.

Heather: Pound cake, just throw on some whipped creme fraiche, fresh fruit. Cobblers, jams…there are so many possibilities. You can do ice cream made with the fruit, or just do sauteed fresh fruit with ice cream.

 Michelle: How could you go wrong with peach cobbler? I always go back to what my mom made when I was a kid. She'd take the best peaches, wrap them in dumpling dough, and just boil them. Cut it open, take the pit out, and put butter, cinnamon, and sugar on it. That would be dinner!

Josh: I really want to start doing jams. I want to do a fig-vanilla.