By Tina Antolini
We chatted with this Boston baking phenom about everything from her first batch of cookies to how her Harvard math degree influences her creations.
It’s hard to imagine the Boston area without Flour Bakery. For more than a decade now, Flour has been where people turn for bite-sized coconut cream tartlets, sweet lemon bars with a citrus zing, and overstuffed turkey and cranberry chutney sandwiches on thick-cut homemade bread. Joanne Chang is the force behind every detail of Flour. She opened the original Flour Bakery & Café in the city’s South End neighborhood fifteen years ago, using all of her savings and loans from family and friends to get the place off the ground. She got up at 2 a.m. every day to do all the baking herself. Since then, she’s opened three more locations of Flour, written three cookbooks, and been nominated for two different James Beard Awards, for Outstanding Baker and Best Chef Northeast. Given that baking empire, it’s hard to imagine that she once led a completely different life. Chang came to baking after working as a financial consultant, a career she pursued after majoring in Applied Mathematics at Harvard University. But Chang doesn’t see the two interests—math and baking—as quite as divided as you might think.
How did you come to major in math in college?
I always loved math and science in high school. Something about how you can methodically get from a to b to c and end up with the final answer d is very satisfying to me. Applied math allows you to take the math you learn and actually apply it to real life. I studied Applied Math/Economics so my math was applied to studying how the economy works.
How did you start baking in the first place?
Really the only baking I did growing up was making Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. Making those cookies with my mom is one of my favorite childhood memories. We didn’t have many sweets in our household when I was growing up, but for some reason my Mom relented when it came to chocolate chip cookies. We always ate them warm from the oven and often burned the roofs of our mouths because we couldn’t wait for them to cool.
I carried this recipe with me to college, and I baked and sold chocolate chip cookies to the student-run grill my junior and senior year to make spending money. After college, while working as a consultant, I also baked on the side, selling my cookies to colleagues who would hire me to help them with birthday parties and graduation celebrations.
How did you make the transition from math to baking?
When studying math you are taking a mess of numbers and equations and working them through until you have a final solution. Baking is very similar—you start with a group of ingredients, and then with careful mixing, blending, and baking you end up with something that is much more than the sum of its parts. I was using my math and economics training as a management consultant after college, and after a few years I decided to apply my analytical mind to something I was much more passionate about: cooking. My first cooking job was on the line at [Lydia Shire’s Biba]. After cooking for a year, I focused my interest on baking and I haven’t looked back since.
How did you come to start Flour?
I had worked in bakeries and restaurants in Boston and NYC, and as I was moving along in my career, I eventually started dreaming about opening my own place. I wanted a place like Cheers, a place where everyone knows your name and makes you feel welcome. A home away from home.
Where in your baking does your math training shine?
I love analyzing a recipe to see how we can improve it. That takes being able to parse a list of ingredients and recipe instructions and determine what factors influence what outcome. This is exactly what applied math/economics is. Math helps you move around a recipe easily as well—if you need to double or triple the recipe, knowing math well makes it easy.
How do you think the home baker should think about math?
Use it to help you understand a recipe better. If you want to scale a recipe up or down, being good in math is key. We tend to simply scale up proportionately. For yeast, we will use less as we get larger, and with some recipes we will reduce baking powder and baking soda. But typically it’s straight proportions.
Have you ever had a scaling up attempt with a recipe that went hilariously wrong?
I’m sure I have, but honestly I can’t remember… . I do remember once we made a whole batch of lemon scones with salt not sugar.
Speaking of lemon, tell us about your lemon bar recipe.
The entire bar is from the first pastry chef I worked for, Rick Katz. We start with his buttery shortbread and we top it with his lemon curd, which is made with fresh lemon juice, cream, and butter. It’s very tart and lemony so you have to be a lemon junkie to appreciate it.
Find her Lemon Bar recipe in Bake From Scratch Summer 2016.