Clémence Gossett would rather eat chocolate cake than a steak. In fact, the co-owner of The Gourmandise School of Sweets and Savories was nursing a cup of salted caramel gelato for breakfast when she declared her loyalty to dessert.
The name of her school is eponymous. "In French, gourmandise means to indulge and generally it's related to something sweet. That was my nickname growing up. I have not stopped ingesting sugar - mostly chocolate - from a very young age. I love it."
A childhood steeped in baking and local food evolved into a career of teaching others how to incorporate both in their lives. Gossett runs a cooking school at Santa Monica Place's The Market, a collection of artisanal food shops, with business partner Hadley Hughes.
When Gossett was eight years old, her parents moved their family to Washington, D.C. from France. They often returned during summer and winter breaks to help her grandparents run their restaurant in Luberon, a region of Provence with a long farm-to-table tradition. Gossett would usually assist with small tasks in the kitchen. "I was around 10 or 11 and I had made a chocolate cake, which they let me put on the dessert cart. From the dish room, you can see the dining room. I remember seeing people eating my cake. They were nodding and liking it. And that changed me forever."
She honed much of her craft by practicing on her own, learning basic principles of fine baking through Jacques Pépin's seminal La Technique - an out of print black-and-white illustrated cookbook.
"My whole mission in life is to change how Angelenos perceive dessert. To introduce them to quality dessert."
Why did you choose to set up your school at The Market as opposed to at a stand-alone?
It felt like a different kind of concept. The space felt very community-oriented. We knew that everybody was going to be very much farm-to-table and sustainable. The Market has been an amazing showpiece for small LA-based companies. Everybody in here is a mom and pop.
Do you work with other small local companies?
We work with Nate from Fat Uncle Farms. We get our almond paste and almond flour from him. We buy a lot of it, because our most popular class is French macaron. Almond flour is the number one key ingredient for French macarons, so we order about 25 pounds a week. It makes us really happy to be able to sustain a local grower.
What part of France are you from? It seems to have left an indelible impression.
A region called the Luberon. It's in Provence. It's in the mountains. My family moved to that region. We're not really from there, per se. We lived in a village where the buildings were at least a thousand years old. Oh, and the food. A lot of wild boar. A lot of artisans. The sauce that comes from there. Lavender... The strongest memories I have are cherry trees, almond trees, and lavender. There's lavender growing everywhere. And little distilleries. Little, tiny factories in the middle of the field. I really miss it. It is such a part of who I was and who I am. The rest of my family is from Paris, which is like the great Mecca of pastry.
I saw a video in which it seemed like you're not a fan of fondant, that sugary-glycerine-y cake covering.
[Laughs] I'm not, but I will teach it...You want texture. You want things to marry together. You want it to be good. As fun as fondant is, I call it edible arts and crafts. It's not real. It's plastic. But at the same time, it's fun to work with. We don't pass judgment and I enjoy teaching fondant, but it's not something I would choose to eat.
What is the baking hotline and how did it get started?
The baking hotline started about four years ago, because students would come to the same class several times and would repeat the same questions. I would say I love that you're taking more classes, but why don't you just call or e-mail. People started doing that. Until we opened here, our cell phones were the baking hotline. While it was great, we got a lot of calls in the middle of the night from moms who were baking cupcakes for the next day at two in the morning... It got a little out of control. We still get text messages from people, because we encourage them to send in pictures. Nine times out of ten, we get problems that are fixable.
What was the most extreme case?
I think it was the two-in-the-morning-chocolate-cupcakes-in-the-middle-of-the-night. [Laughs] I helped her through it. She had omitted the baking soda, so it was a big, soupy mess.
What is your favorite class to teach?
My favorite class to teach bar-none is the croissant class. It's a six-hour class and the smell that comes out of the class the minute you put them in the oven will make you weep. There is nothing in the planet like it. It's really five ingredients: yeast, milk, flour, butter, and a little bit of salt. If you can do a croissant from scratch, you can do anything. It is awesome.
What is your favorite recipe?
It's the salted caramel tart. It is a very thin, buttery tart crust with a layer of salted caramel and chocolate custard on top. It's my favorite recipe, because it's really easy. But that changes all the time. When peaches are in season, it's Hadley's peach cobbler. I could eat that all day.
A common notion about baking is that it has to be very precise.
Technique is always more important than preciseness. Always. Good baking is about great ingredients and great technique. And those are things that just develop like anything else. Same thing with cooking. If you have good technique and intuition with cooking and great ingredients, that's all you need. You don't need a culinary degree. You don't need fancy cookware. I just recommend everybody to have a couple of stainless steel pots and a cast iron skillet. You can do great cooking with just those things.
What are basic equipment one should have for baking?
A light colored aluminum pan. They're called half sheet pans in the restaurant world. A large stainless steel bowl. A whisk and a heatproof spatula.
What are some baking ingredients you recommend one to keep at hand?
Unbleached flour. Organic, if possible. Sugar, baking soda, and baking powder. We go with whole fat. It's really important to use for instance whole milk. Good butter. There's no middle ground. There's either normal butter or really great butter. No shortening. No margarine. And really great chocolate. It's amazing the difference in quality of the desserts you'll have if you start using great chocolate.
What is your recommendation for great chocolate?
Valhrona is great. We use a chocolate from Columbia called Cordillera. Scharffen Berger is great.
Health consciousness is a big part of the LA lifestyle. Does it factor into what's taught at Gourmandise?
We try not to hit those kinds of fads. We don't have low fat or low carb classes. What we have are raw classes or vegan classes. In our raw class, you won't find a dehydrator in here, dehydrating great farmers market produce. For us, what's healthy is to know where our food comes from. We do not do low fat. We do not do low carb. You might find those things in our classes, but we don't specifically target a weight loss perspective. We just target freshness.
What are some basic recipes one should know? For both cooking and baking?
I don't cook at all. [Laughs] I will say though that making fresh pasta is the easiest thing that anybody who is afraid cooking can learn. Making fresh pasta takes one cup of flour, one egg, and a tablespoon of water. You mix those together. You knead together them for a minute. You roll it out with either a machine or rolling pin. And you've got yourself some fresh pasta.
Pie crust is important for baking. Biscuits. These are easy basics that everybody can do and they employ the same sort of techniques. Pancakes from scratch. Even faster than doing it from the box. A custard, like pastry cream. Chocolate cake. Muffins. If you know how to do these things, you've covered the gamut.
What are common beginner's mistakes in baking?
Over-mixing. Every time. Flour is made up of gluten protein. And the minute you start to activate those with moisture and glutenin, those gluten protein stick to each other and bind. I say it in every class, "If you over-mix your batter, because you want to make things look smooth and perfect, you're going to make everything really tough." That's when you get a honey puck muffin and everything becomes really dense. Mix until just combined means mix until the wet ingredients have just barely absorbed the dry ingredients.
What are some of your recommendations for baked goods in LA?
One of my favorite places to eat is Huckleberry. I love Europane in Pasadena. Little Flower Company - Christine makes her own candy. Platine Cookies in Culver City. She makes a lot of small, tiny desserts, not just cookies. Bouchon in Beverly Hills. Jin Patisserie on Abbot Kinney. She is unbelievable.