Q + A with Pastry Chef MaryAnn Riggs
This is the first of many interviews I plan to post here on a little saffron. We’re kicking it off with an interview of a lively and lovely baker from Tampa Bay. Let me know what you think of this new feature in the comments below. Have a suggestion for who to interview next? I want to know that, too.
Meet MaryAnn Riggs, the new pastry chef at Dade City’s favorite slow food restaurant, Pearl in the Grove. Riggs, 56, is from the sponge dock city of Tarpon Springs and now lives out in Zephyrhills with husband and copy editor Rick Scheuerman. When she and her husband first started dating, he gained 40 to 50 pounds. He says, “It was like having Julia Child cook for you every night. And you ate it all.”
He has since lost the weight, though not his appetite for his wife’s dinners and desserts. Now they just keep in mind Child’s other lesson: moderation.
A bumpy dirt road past neighbors’ yards with cows and horses takes you to the street where the couple lives in a blue-grey house. They share their home with five rescue dogs, Daisy, Maggie, Katie (she’s such a ham), Casey, and Molly (the one with a notoriously scary bark) and three horses, Garth (a 24-year-old retired show horse), Jim Beam, and Rocky the Rockstar. In this picture she’s posing with the other member of the family, her 10-year-old KitchenAid mixer. This is her second one so far.
Her aunt gave her a copy of “Joy of Cooking” when Riggs was just a teenager, and she’s been baking ever since. Riggs is a skilled baker who works effortlessly in the kitchen and most people who meet her don’t realize at first that she’s missing a forearm. The focus is where it should be — on her desserts.
It was like having Julia Child cook for you every night. And you ate it all.”
On a recent morning, Riggs cut butter into biscuit dough as we talked about how she ended up at the Pearl, her favorite dessert and more. She showed me her second fridge, which holds preserves, mascarpone, and clotted cream made for the restaurant. High in her kitchen above the walk-in pantry is a sign that reads “Cake Fixes Everything” and Riggs seems to truly believe that.
Q: How long have you been at the Pearl and how did you end up there?
A: We had Mother’s Day brunch there and that’s when Rick found out the previous pastry chef was leaving. So he said you should go up there and see if they’ll hire you and I was like yeah, I guess I should! So I decided I’d bake a cake and take it up there. So I made a lemon cake. I call it the Luscious Lemon Cake because it’s lemon cake with a lemon mousse filling and a white chocolate buttercream. I took it in and I said [to Curtis Beebe, the chef], I understand you’re gonna be in need for a pastry chef so I thought I’d bring this in for you to try and if you like it, you know, give me a call. (Ha.)
And he’s like great, you know, we’ll try it and give you a call. And a couple weeks later he called me and said, ‘Can you start?’ That was basically it. Now I’ve been there four months.
Q: Where and how did you learn how to bake?
A: Well, it all started when I was really young. My mother used to be a wonderful baker. She has Alzheimer’s now and it’s not quite the same, but my mother she would make these pies that were just unbelievably good pies. And her pie crust, I still can’t figure out how she made her pie crust because it was just so good every single time. It was just amazing. Aunt Margie was cakes and pastries. So I would go to my Aunt Margie’s house and she would show me how to bake cakes and we would bake cookies together. We’d do cream puffs. That was our big thing when I was a kid, probably a teenager at that point. It was something that none of my other friends knew how to do so it was fun. I’ve always enjoyed cooking and baking, especially baking.
I moved to New York at one point after I graduated from high school. I was up in New York and I had the opportunity to go to Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park for a while. And I didn’t really go to be a pastry chef, you know, I just wanted to go and really learn how to do it. Learn how to do it better and do it correctly, that kind of thing.
So years passed, and I would always have dinner parties and stuff, and I was looking for a second job and one of my neighbors [in St. Petersburg] told me about this restaurant called Swanson’s Bistro. She knew the lady who owned it and so I ended up doing desserts for them for quite a while. And that was really the only time I baked, other than now, you know, professionally. It was a year or two. The restaurant didn’t last long. It was an actual French bistro back in the 1980s here and people, I think, weren’t that sophisticated to enjoy some of the food. You know we had the wine cellar and Bern’s in Tampa, but other than that there weren’t a whole lot of high-end restaurants.
Q: Who are some of your favorite bakers or pastry chefs?
A: Um, let me think. Not Paula Deen.
Well, of course Julia Child. I guess because she made that style of cooking accessible to us heathen Americans at that time (ha), which we were. I did a lot of French cooking at Swanson’s and basically every recipe that I made there was from her cookbook. Right now for birthdays and special anniversaries at the Pearl I do the Julia Child chocolate cake with almond meal. That’s very popular. Ha, I can’t think about it without thinking about Dan Akyroyd on Saturday Night Live. One of my favorite quotes of hers was, “What’s the big deal about fat?” And you know, her motto, there are no mistakes. If you mess up on something, then make something out of it.
I try and keep them as something you’d have at your Aunt Edna’s or grandma’s house but with a little bit of a twist to it.
Q: The Pearl uses mostly local ingredients so I was wondering how that plays out when it comes to desserts? And how would you describe your desserts?
A: Um, let’s see. We try and do in season and with desserts, you know, it’s a little bit more difficult than just the regular menu because of the different fruits and supplies you have to have. If blueberries are in season we’re doing blueberry pie or blueberry whatever, and strawberries the same way. Over the summer I did watermelon sorbets and other things to try and incorporate local flavor into desserts.
I try and keep them as something you’d have at your Aunt Edna’s or grandma’s house but with a little bit of a twist to it. So it’s still that homey kind of dessert but maybe just a little stepped up from that. Because I think people really want… desserts are comfort food for a lot of people, you know. You don’t wanna play around with them too much.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration and how often does the menu change?
A: The dessert menu changes weekly. I keep a log of all the desserts that I make every week and I kind of filter the ones that sell well and the ones that don’t sell well. You know and sometimes I’m really surprised at some of the things that sell really well and some of the things that don’t.
Q: Like what?
A: Well, one of the biggest sellers has been a goat cheese cheesecake that I make out of half goat cheese and half regular cream cheese. And I made it with some fresh figs and we had some of that yummy swamp honey. So I kind of marinated the figs in the honey and served that on top of the goat cheese cheesecake. I was like, this is a little out of most people’s comfort zones, and I tell ya it was like people couldn’t get enough of it. It was just amazing. And I made goat cheese ice cream and it was the same thing. I mean they loved the goat cheese ice cream.
I made a pound cake one time, a fig marsala pound cake, and there was a little wine sauce to go over it. And I thought that would be good because people like pound cake. Did not sell at all. No. And that was kind of surprising because it was really good. Whenever I make something new we always have a tasting. And you know all the servers just loved it. Absolutely loved it. But nobody else liked it apparently. All the ice creams sell real well.
Q: So where do your recipes and your inspiration come from?
A: I don’t do a lot of TV, you know, cooking shows. I stick with the basics. I tend to use my Cake Bible and The Pie Pastry Bible, and King Arthur Flour, you know, for basic stuff. You can not beat that cookbook for your basic stuff. Just a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Those are the ones that I mainly use. I try and just mix and match, take one flavor and go from there.
Q: Although the menu changes weekly, what are some Pearl favorites that you come back to?
A: Banana pudding. Definitely banana pudding. Anything with lemon. It’s weird. I made that lemon cheesecake yesterday. There were only 19 people in the restaurant yesterday and it sold out.
Q: What’s your favorite dessert? If you can narrow it down to one favorite. It’s always an unfair question because I can never pick just one.
A: My favorite dessert? It’s a toss-up between my mother’s coconut cream pie she used to make and oh, my grandmother and my Aunt Margie tries to make it but my grandmother would make this cake that was just to die for.
It was a seven-layer cake and it was like these little thin layers of yellow cake and then she would make homemade fudge. She would put the cake layer down and then a little bit of fudge and then another cake layer, you know. And it was real fudge. It wasn’t like fudge frosting or something; it was actual fudge. And then she just poured the rest of the fudge over the top and it would just drip down over the side. Oh, it was so good. The cake was almost like a pound cake, but heavier to support all that fudge. Oh my god. I used to love that. And she died when I was real young, but I can remember that cake!
Oh, it was so good. The cake was almost like a pound cake, but heavier to support all that fudge. Oh my god. I used to love that. And she died when I was real young, but I can remember that cake!
Q: Any tips or wisdom you can offer the novice baker?
A: I think some of the mistakes that people make when baking is that they don’t realize they overmix. Cookies and cake especially, you know, they overmix the batter. You want to mix just until things are incorporated or it’ll get tough or gummy. Don’t overmix.
Parchment paper is your friend. You can use parchment paper for everything. One thing that was really stressed to me when I was in cooking school was the mise en place method, you know, when you measure everything out and get everything ready. And when I bake I put everything in order that I’m going to be using. That way you don’t forget anything as some people tend to do. If you do it that way, it just seems to make it go easier. And they were always stressing to cook clean. Be a clean cook. We had to dress in normal clothes and not wear aprons so you learn how to not be a pig in the kitchen, basically.
I think one thing to do is to learn five or six recipes that are your go-to recipes. Whether it’s baking or if you’re making a meal or whatever. That way if you’ve got great aunt Edna coming over for dinner you know, well, I can make the roast chicken and scalloped potatoes and she’ll like that. Without stressing it. Really develop those five or six things before you try and tackle anything else. But if you can develop those, really cook those things really, really, really well, you’re set.
Q: So what are your five things? If someone’s coming over at the last minute, what do you turn to?
A: Risotto. I make really good risotto, and that’s a good last-minute thing. That’s something you can always have in your pantry, the stuff to make risotto with. I make a really good roast chicken. And I make awesome duck. And seared salmon, I think that’s Rick’s favorite. With wasabi. What else? Probably the lamb chops with rosemary.
Q: What’s your method for roast chicken?
A: You’ve gotta lift the skin up and rub it with butter and herbs. Rub that all over the top of the breast meat underneath the skin, and then rub it over the skin as well. Over the whole bird. And cook it at high heat. People tend to cook in low heat, but it’s better to roast at a higher heat. I use a cast iron skillet. Nothing fancy.
I hope you enjoyed this interview, which was edited down from a two-and-a-half-hour late morning conversation over biscuits. More interviews should be done over warm biscuits and homemade jam. I’ve got just one more thing to share from Riggs. Below is a recipe for one of her cakes. Expect a recipe with each future Q + A post as well.
luscious lemon cake (the cake that got her a job)
This is the lemon cake that got MaryAnn her job as a pastry chef. It’s that good. Her inspiration? A love for all things lemon. This recipes makes a tall four-layer cake scented with lemon in the cake, lemon curd filling, and the buttercream. Make it ahead and the cake will keep in the fridge for about 3 days.
for the cake
3 cups cake flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
2/3 cup whole milk
Heat oven to 350°F. Prepare two 9-inch pans with baking spray and parchment paper.
Sift together dry ingredients and whisk to combine. Beat butter until creamy, and then gradually add sugar. Beat on high in a stand mixer until light and fluffy, 5 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add eggs one at a time. Scrape bowl occasionally. Beat in lemon zest and juice. Reduce speed to low and gradually add flour mixture, alternating with the milk. End on adding the flour and mix until just combined.
Divide batter between the pans. Smooth out the tops and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Let cakes cool in the pans for 15 minutes. Invert cakes onto a wire rack and let cool.
for the filling
Lemon curd can be made up to a week in advance. It’s great on scones, biscuits or poundcake or whatever.
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons lemon zest
1/2 cup lemon juice
6 egg yolks
1 cup heavy cream
Melt butter in a heavy bottomed pan over medium-low heat. Remove from heat and add sugar, zest, and juice. Add egg yolks.
Cook the mixture, whisking constantly, until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Do not let mixture come to a boil or it will curdle! Pour mixture through a strainer and into a bowl. Let cool. Refrigerate until ready to use. Remove from fridge when cold. Whip 1 cup heavy cream until firm, then fold lemon curd in carefully. Refrigerate until ready to assemble cake.
for the buttercream
1 cup sugar
5 egg whites
3 tablespoons water
4 sticks (32 tablespoons) unsalted butter, lightly softened
6 ounces (Ghirardelli) white chocolate, melted and cooled
Bring 1/2-inch of water to boil in a skillet. Reduce heat to low to maintain simmer.
In the bowl of a mixer, combine the sugar, water, and egg whites. Place the bowl in the water bath and whisk until mixture reaches 160°F. Put the bowl in the mixer stand and beat at medium-high speed with the whisk attachment until the meringue forms stiff, shiny peaks, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and started adding the butter 1 tablespoon at a time, making sure it is incorporated before adding more. If at any time the mixture looks curdled, stop adding butter and increase speed until mixture smooths out.
When buttercream is done, add the melted and cooled white chocolate and beat for about 1 minute to fully incorporate.
To assemble the cake, start by making a soaking syrup. Bring 1/3 cup water, 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 1/2 cup sugar to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves.
Cut cake layers in half across the middle. Place one bottom half on a cake plate, and brush with the syrup before topping it with a third of the lemon curd filling. Top with another cake layer. Repeat with the rest of the cake layers. Frost cake with buttercream. Refrigerate cake until ready to serve. It will keep in the fridge about 3 days.