Poetic renderings from Siew-Chinn Chin’s Kitchen
Story and photos by Helen Krayenhoff
On a cold winter’s day, we are sitting in the warm kitchen of Siew-Chinn Chin, a pastry chef and Oakland resident who works at Chez Panisse. Slender and energetic, with a sparkle in her eye, Siew-Chinn moves nimbly from counter to fridge to stove, her hiking boots making a popping sound on the sticky linoleum.
The conversation never lags, although cooking magic is taking place before our eyes: Fruit parings, cores, and other items commonly considered compost are being transformed into jewels for the palate, for the nose, and—as demonstrated in the ristras of hot peppers strung together with dried fruit peels decorating the house—for the eye.
Siew-Chinn has worked at “Chez” for six years and now shares the pastry chef position for the downstairs restaurant with Mary Jo Thorensen. “I’m having the time of my life,” she says while deftly arranging apple slices onto a tart shell. “I have the opportunity to taste and use really good ingredients and I have the freedom to create.”
Siew-Chinn’s passion for food started when she was a child in Malaysia. Her father kept an orchard, where she picked ripe fruits, and her mother ran a candy and fruit stall in the market, where Chin loved to sample all the fruits candied in syrup.
“Have a taste,” she says, offering morsels of her recently candied chestnuts and kumquats, followed by a spoonful of the boiled apple-skin glaze she is now painting onto the tart. It all seems like the best kind of medicine.
At one point after Siew-Chinn immigrated to the United States, she worked as a chemist for a food quality company. After her parents died she wanted to be in closer contact with her remaining family members in Malaysia, so in 1989 she started a seafood import company. The business took her to Asia and also to Europe, where the exciting food scene in France became a good reason to take time off to explore and taste, and also to learn more cooking techniques.
To combat the stresses of the import business, she started madly baking at home, learning all she could by trial and error. Her neighbors can remember those sweet days, when a knock on the door meant a bag of goodies and a big smile from Siew-Chinn.
In 2003, confident of what she had to offer, Chin responded to an Oakland Tribune help wanted ad: Kitchen Assistant, Café Fanny, Berkeley. She got the position and hit the ground running, spending the next two years perfecting her craft. At Fanny, she was always looking for ways to honor her deeply felt convictions about food: to share, to nurture, to respect the hard work of food producers, and never to waste anything . . .
. . . which is why she began making meringue. Every day in the kitchen at Café Fanny they need 30 egg yolks to make mayonnaise. But what use can anyone have for 30 egg whites? Siew-Chinn decided to rescue them, and every night her oven at home would be on low as she beat the whites with sugar and made meringues. Each batch was an improvement on the last, and these heavenly meringues showed up with the knock on the door and the big smile.
When a pastry cook position opened at Chez Panisse in 2005, Siew-Chinn decided to apply. Part of the interview required the presentation of a dessert the applicant had baked at home. For Siew-Chinn, it was a toss-up between her flourless chocolate cake or something with meringue. She made trial runs on both and had the neighbors in for a tasting. It was partly her vacherin, or meringue basket, filled with mascarpone passionfruit cream, fresh farmers market strawberries, and fresh passionfruit coulis that convinced the hiring committee Siew-Chinn belonged at Chez Panisse.
Siew-Chinn loves to hike, sometimes to forage for mushrooms in the East Bay hills. She has never lost her love of world travel, and goes off to explore the sights whenever she has a break. Chez Panisse, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain—What do all these places have in common? Siew-Chinn Chin’s determination and commitment have made their mark on all three.
Siew-Chinn’s Candied Citrus Peels
Siew-Chinn would never let a fruit peel go to waste. Fortunately, most citrus peels can be candied and kept in the fridge for a long time for future use.
To prepare, first cut the citrus in half crosswise and juice the fruit with a reamer or juicer, reserving the juice for another use. The peels (or cups) are then blanched by placing in a saucepan with cold water to cover, bringing to a boil, and then simmering 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the water and repeat the blanching as needed until the peels are tender but not mushy. Meyer lemons need to be blanched 2 times. Most oranges (any type, including Mandarins or tangerines) need to be blanched 3 or 4 times until tender. Grapefruit peels are the most bitter of all the citrus peels, hence they must be blanched 5 or 6 times.
When the peels are tender, drain completely and let cool. Then scoop out most of the white inner pith with a spoon, leaving a thin layer of pith to absorb the sugar in the syrup. This is what makes the resulting candied peels soft and delicious!
At this point the peels can be refrigerated or candied whole or cut into long strips (⅛-inch to ¼-inch in width). Start by mixing 2 parts sugar to 1 part water in a large saucepan, bringing to a boil, and cooking until the sugar is completely dissolved. (You’ll need enough of this syrup to cover the peels when you add them to the saucepan.) Add peels to syrup, return to a boil, and then reduce heat to a low simmer. Place a sheet of parchment on the top of the mixture and put a plate on top of the parchment to weigh down the peels. Cook until peels are translucent. The cooking time varies depending on the peels but the goal is to check the peel occasionally to make sure it is tender. Properly candied peels should be translucent and syrup should be straw golden in color and not caramelized.
Remove candied peels from syrup and place them on a wire rack with a sheet pan underneath. Let them air dry for a day or two. (Drying time will depend on the weather and temperature.) Properly dried peels should feel a bit sticky but not wet or syrupy.
Dredge the dried candied peels in a bowl of sugar to coat generously. (Be sure every nook and cranny is fully coated with sugar.) Store in an airtight container or zip-lock bag in the fridge for later use.
Suggestions for use:
- Serve alone as after-dinner candy!
- Affogato: Put a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a coffee cup and pour some espresso over it. Sprinkle with a spoonful of chopped candied peels. Serve with plain or chocolate-coated candied orange peel biscotti (see recipe below).
- Add pieces of candied peel to your favorite tart or pie recipe.
Shaker Lemon Tart
It’s no surprise that Siew-Chinn appreciates this tart, which originates from the 19th-century Ohio Shaker community, where cooks were well known and respected for their baking skills. Shaker beliefs dictated that nothing be wasted, and indeed, every part of the lemon is used in the pie. This West Coast version uses Meyer lemons.
- 4 Meyer lemons
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 large eggs
- Pinch salt
- 2 tablespoons butter, melted4 tablespoons sugar for sprinkling
- One recipe for Chez Panisse
- Crunch Tart Dough (below)
Wash and slice lemons paper thin. Place them in a bowl and mix with the 2 cups sugar. Cover and let macerate for at least four hours, preferably overnight.
Beat eggs thoroughly with a pinch of salt and set aside.
Prepare dough and line tart pan as described in the dough recipe below. Spread macerated lemon slices evenly with the syrupy juice on top of the dough. Pour beaten eggs onto the lemon filling and stir gently so that the eggs are mixed in with the syrup, but without disturbing the lemon slices on the bottom.
Wet the edges of the dough in the pan and top with the second circle of dough, trimming to leave some overhang, which you can fold under the edge of the lower shell, sealing and fluting the edges together. Generously brush with melted butter, and sprinkle with sugar.
Bake at 450° for 15 minutes. Then turn oven temperature down to 375° and bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until shell is lightly browned. Let cool completely before slicing.
Makes one 9-inch tart
Chez Panisse Crunch Tart Dough
This dough is worked differently than most traditional piecrust recipes you’ll find. The result is very crunchy and has layered sheets as opposed to flakes. The recipe yields the proper amount of dough for the Shaker Lemon Tart
- 6 ounces unsalted butter
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Pinch of salt
- ½ cup ice water
Cut butter into ½-inch cubes and let soften at room temperature for about 10 minutes or until it feels slightly soft.
Add flour, sugar, and salt to butter and mix quickly by hand to separate the butter cubes. Press each cube with your fingers to make coin-sized pieces. Drizzle about 6 tablespoons of the cold water into the mixture and mix quickly by hand. Now you will have large chunks of wet dough and bits of dry dough. Pull apart the wet chunks and mix into the dry bits. Do this several times until the chunks and bits are evenly mixed. Sprinkle in more water if the mixture feels dry. The finished dough should look marbled with butter.
Gather and divide the dough into 2 equal portions. Place each portion in plastic wrap and squeeze it several times to work the dough and make it hold together. (The plastic wrap keeps your hands from touching the dough.) Unwrap, reshape the dough into a ball, flatten it into a 4- to 5-inch diameter disc and rewrap in plastic. Let the dough rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour before using. Roll dough until it forms a round approximately ⅛-inch thick and about 2 inches larger than the tart pan. (Dough can be frozen and kept for a long time.)
When you’re ready to use the dough, line a 9-inch pie pan or fluted tart pan with the rolled out tart dough, and press the dough firmly into the pan without stretching or tearing the dough. Roll out the second disc to a similar size, make some decorative slits in the middle and let sit while you make the filling.
Visit edibleeastbay.com for slideshows showing Siew-Chinn making the dough and making and plating the Shaker lemon tart.
Siew-Chinn’s Chocolate Candied Orange Biscotti
- 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup sugar
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
- ¼ cup candied orange peel, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup pecans, lightly toasted, coarsely chopped
- 6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, chopped
Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°. Then line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in a large bowl until blended. Beat in eggs 1 at a time, then Grand Marnier and candied orange. Add flour mixture and beat until blended. Stir in pecans and chocolate.
Gather dough together and divide in half. Making sure hands and work surface are well floured, form each dough piece into a log 2 ½ inches wide by 14 inches long. Transfer logs to the prepared baking sheet, spacing 2 inches apart. Bake until lightly golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer parchment with logs to a rack and cool for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300°.
Place 1 log on a cutting board, and using a serrated knife, cut on the diagonal into ½-inch-thick slices. Stand slices upright on the baking sheet and repeat with remaining log.
Bake biscotti until dry to touch and pale golden, about 30 minutes. Cool completely on rack. (Can be made 1 week ahead. Store in airtight container.)
Makes about 3 dozen.