Sweet Science

Dedicated to the mission of eating dessert first

At the Leverett House Grill in the late 1980s, Joanne Chang ’91 first turned pro as a baker, selling four freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for a dollar. Now she owns and operates Boston’s two Flour Bakery + Café pastry shops, which have won awards for best bakery, coffee shop, cakes, cookie, doughnut, and takeout. Boston Magazine even referred to Chang’s “masterpieces” in the field of gourmet sandwiches.

And her sweets have now gone national. Last summer, the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay program focused on Chang’s acclaimed sticky buns. For each “throwdown,” television chef Flay surprises a professional cook with a challenge: he tries to outdo them at their own specialties. The show decoyed Chang into making her recipe before an audience for a fictional series on desserts. Flay appeared and challenged her to a bake-off. Chang, unfazed, said, “Bring it.” (The partisan audience, which included many Harvard students, backed their heroine. When Flay deployed a procedure that Chang tactfully called “different,” according to the Crimson, one student in the audience yelled, “That’s how they do it at Yale.”) Flay made a variant sticky bun with an orange glaze and cinnamon, but the tasters voted for Chang’s traditional caramel glaze with roasted pecans.

Though her sticky buns may be the stuff of legend, Chang’s shops offer a wide array of foods, including scones, brioches, banana bread, and tarts, along with pizzas, quiches, and sandwiches that incorporate ingredients like curried tuna, brie, caramelized onions, and cranberry chutney. In her newer shop, in the Fort Point Channel district near South Station, a hip, urban/industrial aesthetic reigns: high ceilings, tall windows, exposed pipes, beams and bricks, butcher-block tables and desert-yellow walls. In both locations, sweet flavors rule. On the ground and on line (www.flourbakery.com), Flour proclaims its mission statement: “Make life sweeter—eat dessert first!”

While growing up in Houston, Denver, and Tulsa, Chang, like many girls, made cupcakes for friends. But her first career path was in management consulting; after concentrating in applied mathematics and economics at Harvard, she spent two years with Monitor Company in Cambridge, where she worked on the college recruiting program. “One icebreaker question we used was, ‘If you won the lottery tomorrow and money was no problem, what would you be doing?’” she recalls. “After asking hundreds of kids that question, I asked it of myself.”

The answer led Chang to enroll in a three-hour adult-education course on starting your own food business, taught by cookbook author Judy Rosenberg, founder of the Rosie’s Bakery shops in Boston. That inspired Chang to get a restaurant job; she started at the upscale Biba restaurant as a garde-manger cook, making the bar menu, including cold appetizers. But “I wasn’t that interested in the savory end of things,” Chang says. “I was always attracted to sweet flavors. They’re more interesting. And more enjoyable!”

She moved to Bentonwood Bakery in Newton, then became pastry chef at the Rialto restaurant in Cambridge. She worked in New York for renowned French pastry chef François Payard, formerly of Restaurant Daniel, then returned to Boston at Mistral. Still, “I didn’t want to work in restaurants long-term,” Chang explains. “A restaurant menu has a very limited scope for desserts. I wanted to do something that would reach more people, and I had always loved pastry shops.” In 2000 she opened her first Flour Bakery + Café, in the South End. “It was busy pretty much from the start,” she says. “We were there at the right time, in the right place.”

In cooking, recipes are more or less guidelines, but in baking, precision rules. “There’s a formula: 500 grams of flour, 300 grams of butter,” Chang says. “Pastries are very meticulous and detail-oriented. Baking powder is chemistry. And once you finish baking a cake, you can’t add a tablespoon more of this or that.” If Chang wants to add a menu item—say, a chocolate-zucchini muffin—she first reviews Flour’s current muffin recipes and those from other cookbooks. “Then I’ll tweak it to my liking—may-be more zucchini, less choco-late, moister, with a tighter crumb. We try the recipe a few times till we get what we like, then scale it up.”

Outside the kitchen, Chang reviews cookbooks, writes on pastry for Fine Cooking magazine, and works on her own cookbook, featuring items from Flour. Her fiancé is Boston restaurateur Christopher Myers, G ’90, a co-owner of Radius, Via Matta, and Great Bay. Despite her high-calorie surroundings, Chang stays trim, partly due to a counterbalancing passion for distance running—she has competed in every Boston Marathon but one since 1991.

Get Chang’s sticky bun recipe and see how they’re made.

Read more articles by Craig Lambert

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