Sixteen years ago, I left a job in academia to go to cooking school. The course itself was a joy. But completing the required six-week apprenticeship at a four-star Manhattan restaurant was the scariest thing I’ve done in my life. Every day I’d come home from work and tell my husband that I was going to be fired — for making the tuiles too thick or for wasting too much phyllo dough when making tart shells. He would protest that I couldn’t be fired, since I wasn’t being paid. But I knew another intern who had been dismissed for choosing too-large mint leaves to garnish plated desserts (“This is not a diner!” the chef shouted at her as he gestured toward the door). I was sure I would be next.
It was with immense relief and hard-earned self-knowledge (I now knew I was not cut out for restaurant work) that I made it through and collected my certificate. I also walked away from that four-star kitchen with the most useful piece of baking advice ever. In an unusually friendly and expansive mood one day, the chef told me he considered the freezer as important as the oven in helping him do his job. From that day on, I looked at my freezer in a new light and tried to use it to produce my own humble home desserts with seeming effortlessness.
Many components of fancy restaurant desserts are made days or weeks in advance of service and frozen. At the restaurant where I worked, the pastry chef was rightly famous for a chocolate soufflé that diners could order at the end of a meal, rather than ordering at the beginning as is traditional. The secret to his kitchen magic: The batter was frozen in little aluminum cups and baked straight from the freezer in less than 10 minutes.
But the restaurant’s freezer held much more than novelty desserts like this one. There were unbaked puff pastry shells, mousses, buttercream fillings and frostings, ice creams, sorbets, and cookies. With these pre-made elements at the ready, it was easy for the pastry cooks on duty during dinner service to gather and assemble them into spectacular showpieces in minutes.
It’s been 15 years since that terrifying, enlightening internship. And yet, I find myself thinking of the famous pastry chef’s frozen Bavarian creams, sliced brioches and streusel toppings every time I open my freezer door to retrieve a disc of pie dough or to stow individually wrapped leftover brownies. My freezer holds a variety items so that I am always prepared to bake. It helps me shave hours off of preparation time and eliminate last-minute work when I entertain.
My freezer is my pantry
Is there anything worse than realizing that you can’t make blondies during a snowstorm because you are out of butter? My freezer functions as an extension of my pantry, storing pounds of butter, lard (we make a lot of pie dough around here), nuts, extra flour and other grains in case of emergency.
Frozen dough changed my life
My baking life changed when I realized that I could freeze unbaked cookie dough. Gone are the days when I baked four dozen cookies and ate all of them in 24 hours. Now, I drop balls of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, freeze the sheet until the dough is hard (about 15 minutes) and throw them into a zipper-lock freezer bag. This bag sits on a shelf in my freezer, and when I want a cookie or two, I preheat the oven, take a couple of balls of cookie dough from the bag and bake them. I also feel secure in the knowledge that I have several pounds of pie dough in the freezer, so I’m always a few hours closer to homemade pie than I would be if I had to start from scratch.
Ice cream is essential
I usually have several pints of ice cream and sorbet in the freezer. I use it to accompany pies, tarts and cakes and to make simple ice cream treats like sandwiches (see recipe below) or chocolate-dipped ice cream cones. If I have a package of graham crackers and some time on my hands, I will make an ice cream cake in a spring-form pan, layering two flavors of ice cream and some fudge sauce, chopped nuts and/or caramel sauce on top of a quick crumb crust. A layer of sweetened whipped cream spread over the top of the cake is a pretty finish. Wrapped well in plastic, this cake can sit in my freezer for weeks until there’s an occasion for it.
Mocha Caramel Ice Cream Sandwiches
Makes 12 ice cream sandwiches
Every Memorial Day, I delight my friends with homemade ice cream sandwiches that I fetch from the freezer after our meal of barbecued brisket, ribs and baked beans. I put together these treats at my leisure. My stockpile of ice cream guarantees that I won’t have to settle for what’s left in my supermarket’s frozen food aisle after the frenzy of shopping that takes place here in the Hamptons in anticipation of the holiday. I make the cookie dough, shape it into balls, freeze the unfrozen balls well in advance of my party and bake the cookies when I’m ready to put together the sandwiches, a day or two before I’ll be serving them. Once I put together the sandwiches, I wrap each one individually in plastic wrap and then freeze them all in an airtight container or zipper-lock bag for freshness.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in a medium mixing bowl.
- Cream the butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until smooth. Stir in the flour mixture until just combined.
- Scoop up tablespoons of dough and roll them between your palms to form a ball. Place dough balls on baking sheets, leaving about 3 inches between each cookie. You should wind up with 24 cookies, two baking sheets’ worth. (Cookies may be placed next to each other on parchment-lined baking sheets, frozen, transferred to zipper-lock plastic freezer bags and stored in the freezer for up to 1 month. Frozen cookies may be placed in the oven directly from the freezer and baked as directed.)
- Bake the cookies until they are dry on top, 8 to 10 minutes (a minute or two longer for frozen dough). Let them stand on the baking sheet for 5 minutes and then carefully slide the entire parchment sheet with the cookies from the pan to a wire rack and let the cookies cool completely.
- Line a baking sheet with a clean piece of parchment paper. Use a ¼-cup dry measure to scoop out 12 disks of ice cream (if the ice cream begins to melt on the baking sheet, place it in the freezer, along with the unmolded ice cream, to firm up before proceeding). Lightly cover with plastic and use the flat bottom of the measuring cup to slightly flatten each ice cream disk. Freeze until very firm, at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
- Spread 1½ teaspoons of caramel sauce over the flat side of half of the cookies. Sandwich the flattened balls of ice cream between two cookies. Wrap each ice cream sandwich tightly in plastic wrap and place in a zipper-lock freezer bag. Freeze for at least 1 hour and up to 3 days before serving.
Lauren Chattman is a cookbook author, freelance writer and former professional pastry chef. Her recipes have appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated, and The New York Times. She is the author of 14 books, most recently “Cake Keeper Cakes” (Taunton 2009) and “Cookie Swap!” (Workman, 2010).
Photo: Mocha caramel ice cream sandwiches. Credit: Lauren Chattman