Pastry Chef Laura Cronin showcases the elegance of plant-based pastry, interview

Pastry Chef Laura Cronin, Eleven Madison Park
Pastry Chef Laura Cronin, Eleven Madison Park / Eleven Madison Park

When Eleven Madison Park transformed its menu to a plant-based offering, Pastry Chef Laura Cronin had a tall task to accomplish. Given that pastry is often laden in butter and cream, those traditional ingredients would not align with the restaurant’s direction. From the elegant bread course to the offerings in the seasonal bakery pop-up, Bake It Nice, Chef Cronin showcases that exceptional execution and culinary creativity can be achieved with any ingredient.

Creating a perfectly flaky croissant with a honeycomb pattern is a work of art for some food lovers. The same can be said about the delicate crumb of a cake or the sandy texture of a shortbread cookie. Even though many recipes start with the same, simple ingredients, the pastry chef transforms individual components into confectionary masterpieces that deserve to be celebrated.

Although the pastry world will never completely eliminate dairy products, the rise in popularity of plant-based food makes it necessary to be open to using these ingredients. But, the classic French recipes were not designed to incorporate these newer ingredients. Through experimentation and a desire to innovate the industry, some pastry chefs stood up to the challenge and exceeded many people’s expectations.

As Eleven Madison Park’s Pastry Chef, Laura Cronin set the bar for plant-based pastry. The celebrated chef has a long list of accomplishments in her storied career. While the three-Michelin Star restaurant is the pinnacle of dining in New York City, Cronin is never afraid to innovate and experiment, yet never lose site of the traditions and techniques that are the foundation of great pastry.

Pastry Chef Laura Cronin Eleven Madison Park
Pastry Chef Laura Cronin, Eleven Madison Park / Eleven Madison Park

Recently, FoodSided spoke with Pastry Chef Laura Cronin. While a reservation at Eleven Madison Park is highly coveted, the Spring season offers an opportunity for a wider audience to enjoy her pastries. During the annual Bake It Nice event, the pop-up offers a variety of special items for sale. For anyone who delights in scrumptious food, enjoying one of Pastry Chef’s Laura Cronin’s offerings is a must.

Cristine Struble/FoodSided: Pastry is often associated with creamy, delicious butters that create flakey layers and delicate flavors. With Eleven Madison Park focusing on a plant-based menu, how much trial and error did it take to perfect the execution for your pastries, breads and desserts? Did you have to alter your techniques along the way?

Pastry Chef Laura Cronin: I had spent my whole career working with ingredients like eggs and dairy, so in the beginning, the idea of creating an entirely plant-based pastry program was pretty daunting. It took a lot of trial and error and experimenting with different ingredients to achieve the flavors and textures that we were looking for. All plant-based butters perform differently, so we had to play around with the ratios of different ingredients, as well as the hydration levels. The variety that we use the most is called Tourlami, which was founded by Susanna Schoolman, a pastry chef who has worked at some of the best bakeries in the world.

I think the most challenging dish, but also the most satisfying in the end, was our bread. The bread that everyone had known us for was called a “butter roll,” which is a really soft and flakey, laminated bread roll. I didn’t want to change the flavors or the textures too much, so my team and I spent months trying to get the recipe just right. To get the color, we played around with amazake, which comes from fermenting rice, and has natural sugars that develop as it bakes. We also wanted it to have this buttery, really savory taste, so we incorporated nutritional yeast and found that we got the best flavor by toasting it.

CS: Have your dishes changed guests’ expectations when it comes to plant-based pastry offerings?

LC: I hope so! The course that I get the most feedback on is always the bread and butter. People like it just as much — and maybe more than our previous bread — and they can’t believe that it’s completely plant-based.

We’ve also had a great response to our croissants and pastries at Bake It Nice, our seasonal bakery pop-up. It’s opened people’s eyes to a whole world of plant-based lamination.

CS: With more people incorporating plant-based food into their lifestyle, are there some tricks or tips to incorporate those ingredients into some baking recipes? Are there some simple swaps or does it take some time to grasp the substitutions?

LC: There are hundreds of plant-based substitutions available now, and all of them perform slightly differently in practice. If you’re not following a recipe that’s already plant-based, my main tip is to really get to know the butter that you are using, and experiment with a few different varieties. Pay attention to the temperature it melts at and try to play with different ratios and quantities. You may need to use more or less than the recipe calls for.

CS: Bake It Nice returns to give people an opportunity to experience your delicious delights. What are you most excited to share with guests during the run? Will there be some offerings that surprise guests?

LC: This year, we’ve created a new take on the croissant, which we are calling the “Madison.” We have taken out the best aspects of a croissant — the flakiness, the soft interiors, and the layers — and turned it into something new. These croissant-inspired pastries are delicate and fluffy on the inside, while crispy and caramelized on the outside, which I achieve by cross-laminating the dough and baking every pastry in a baking ring. Due to popular demand from our launch last Saturday, we are now serving two delicious flavors: Chocolate-Hazelnut and Orange Blossom-Strawberry.

LC: You are known for your delicious croissants, and they were a feature in the previous pop-up event. Dominique Ansel once mentioned that he feels that “the perfect croissant” is a quest that he may never complete. What makes a great croissant such a perfect bite to enjoy? Do you have a croissant secret to share?

LC: I kind of agree with this sentiment. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make the “perfect” croissant, but I have certainly learned a lot over the last few years, particularly when it comes to plant-based laminated pastries. The main piece of advice I’d give is that this process takes time, so you need to be patient and allow the dough proper resting time.

CS: While chefs often delight in showcasing spring gardens in savory dishes, how do spring flavors appear in pastry? Are there some unexpected flavors and/or ingredients that capture the exuberance of spring but are approachable for the average baker?

LC: Spring is a great season for our team, as it brings a selection of fresh and delicious fruits after a long winter of citrus, pumpkin, and apples from the fall. Strawberries are one of my absolute favorite ingredients, and we’re using them both in our spring tasting menu and Bake It Nice. I’m looking forward to when we get our first delivery of strawberries from Magic Farms later in the season. Another ingredient I really love to use is forced rhubarb, which is grown in the dark and harvested by candlelight. It's much sweeter and more tender than traditional rhubarb, and the season is very short, so I always try to take advantage of it when it’s around.

Bake It Nice holds its final pop-up on May 11, 2024 at 11 a.m., outside of the restaurant. Items are available while supplies last. Eleven Madison Park is located at 11 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10010