At Tandem Coffee and Bakery in Portland, Maine, Briana Holt bakes up inventive pastries like deeply caramelized Pineapple Upside-Down Cornmeal Cakes and Savory Kale and Two-Cheese Scones, studded with currants and bits of crispy pecorino that ooze out the sides. With her whimsical spin on classic baked goods, Holt has introduced us to tips and techniques that have changed the way we bake, like putting Angostura bitters in custard pies or mixing wheat and spelt flours to add nuttiness to a one layer cake.
In a recent conversation with Christopher Kimball on Milk Street Radio, we learned a little bit more about Holt’s baking process. Get a look at the interview from the excerpts below—including some clips that didn’t make it into the final episode. Then listen to the full interview on our website or Apple Podcasts (where you’ll also hear about Holt’s muffin nightmare and mayonnaise tattoo).
On dreaming up new flavor combinations
The more that I eat and the more that I see food around in the world, the more things there are that are ping-ponging around in my brain. Sometimes something will just jump out to me because it feels right for the season, like this chocolate juniper cake I made. The inception of that cake was deep winter, thinking about richness and cold weather and–this is going to sound silly–beautiful medieval feasts. I really love juniper because I always gravitate to piney floral things, and juniper berries are gorgeous. It just seems to pair really nicely with chocolate. We soak the cake with honey that we have steeped with fresh juniper berries, and it takes it up another notch.
On experimenting with ingredients
When a recipe calls for milk, I think to myself, could it be better with buttermilk? Could it be made more flavorful or have a better texture with the acidity that buttermilk would bring? Or would it have a richness and a density that ricotta could help with? Or, if I replace brown butter in a recipe, could that nutty, darker flavor complement the other ingredients? Sometimes there's no need to go deeper and further, but I always try to think about it. I rely on the things I know about baking, but sometimes I experiment wildly.
On toothpicks as a measure of a cake’s doneness
I know the toothpick trick is tried and true and our grandmothers did it, but ultimately, I think if the toothpick comes out clean, your cake is overdone. I think it should come out a little moist. Like, I think brownies should basically be almost raw in the middle when you take them out. I had a boss when I was younger that would always say cooling is part of cooking. I've never forgotten that.
On the sign of a perfect cheesecake
When I bake a cheesecake at home, I try to look for the perfect jiggle, which to me is like a soft, slightly chubby tummy or a fake boob. Not like a waterbed where it's super wavy, but a little jiggle in the middle.
On the recipes a new baker should learn first
I would definitely recommend playing around with shortbread for someone who's new to baking. Loaf cakes are another nice way to get into baking because you can go so many different routes. You can make it with oil, butter, coconut oil, different flours, different grains. You can make it chocolatey and rich, or you could go citrusy with orange or Meyer lemon. Banana bread sounds plain and like something that everybody makes and brings to the church yard sale, but you can make your banana bread as complex or as simple as you want. You can toss on a crumbly streusel topping or add chocolate chips–whatever you want to do.
Quotes have been edited for clarity.