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Elizabeth is a baker, photographer, writer, taste tester and chief sugar officer of SugarHero.com which she started in 2011. Elizabeth went to culinary school after college to learn about baking and patisserie, and worked for years in a number of Los Angeles restaurants and bakeries. She now makes her living developing candy and dessert recipes, writing for websites and writing cookbooks. Her first cookbook, The Sweet Book of Candy Making was published in 2012, and she writes for the About.com candy site and is a contributor to Better Homes and Gardens.
I am so pumped to have Elizabeth LaBau of SugarHero here on the show today.
(*All photos below are Elizabeth’s.)
On Discovering Her Passion for Baking:
My parents actually think it’s funny that I do this for a living because I would make a bee-line out of the kitchen whenever my mom wanted help. You would see the cartoon puff of smoke from Wile E. Coyote whenever she wanted me to do anything. So they still think it’s a little funny that this is my chosen career. But after college, I got married. I was working in a really boring office job. And I would just always be reading food blogs instead of working because that was how great of an employee I was, and I would print out recipes from these blogs and make them at home.
And so it was really the necessity of being out on my own, and having to cook, and then having all this extra time to really delve into the world of food writing and food blogs. They can have more adventurous or fun recipes than maybe your standard cookbook that I grew up cooking from. It really opened my eyes to all these people who were playing with food and making some fun things. Most of the blogs I liked reading were desserts because I have a huge sweet tooth.
That’s really where it started. It was just being out on my own in my own kitchen and finally playing with food instead of just making something my mom told me to make for dinner.
On Her Culinary School Experience:
I went in the evenings after work. I kept working while I was going to school. So it took longer, and it was a little hard to balance both things, but it was absolutely the right thing because I wasn’t committed to a culinary career. It was more like, “Well, we’ll see how I like it, and if I don’t end up wanting to do anything with it, at least, I’ll have some more skills.”
My primary teacher was someone who worked with Sherry Yard with various Wolfgang Puck restaurants. So she was really knowledgeable, and she really did a great job of breaking down the science of baking. Not just teaching us skills but really the theory behind it. So I found everything fascinating. I loved everything. I took everything we did in class, and I’d do it again at home on weekends trying to make it better, and I actually started a prototype food blog. It’s no longer existent, but it would just all be pictures of stuff that I learned in school.
It was so fun. I absolutely loved it. I actually get a lot of questions about going to culinary school, and in general, I don’t really recommend it unless you go to one that’s affordable for you. I think they are so expensive now. But the one I went to was pretty reasonably priced, and it wasn’t a huge financial burden. In that case, I absolutely recommend it because it was a blast.
On Working in Restaurants:
The first place I worked was a bakery in Los Angeles called Sweet Lady Jane which is still around. It’s an LA institution. It’s a very, very high quality bakery. And that’s really where I feel like I got my culinary education because there is the theory you learn, and then there is what actually happens in a kitchen, and I feel really lucky that I worked there. I worked there for about a year. I feel so lucky that that’s where I started because I just learned everything that I missed in culinary school. I learned how people actually do things in the real world.
I learnt to work fast and to work clean and to work in a tiny little space because you don’t have a whole bench of your own in the kitchen usually like you do in culinary school. It was a great bakery. They make everything from scratch which is very, very rare in bakeries, which is another thing I learned. I learned production work, high volume, fast-paced production work, and I also learned some cake decorating. So it was a little bit of everything. And it was really the best place I ever could have started. And then from there, I was able to find different places that would teach me different things.
On Deciding to Start Her Freelance Career and SugarHero.com:
It was really gradual. A few years after I started working in kitchens, I was at a job where I didn’t have full hours, and I was looking for something to supplement my income. And I on a whim applied for a job at About.com and ended up getting it.
I would just do that in the evenings and on the weekends, and as that took off, I was able to devote more time to it. And it was really over the course of about five years, I would work on About more, and then I would take on maybe a few other little projects. Eventually, I started my own blog, and then as I switched on, I would try to find a job that would be part-time where I would work maybe three days a week, so I could devote more time to my freelance stuff.
I didn’t end up going fully freelance until about four and a half years ago. By that time, I had been doing writing on the side for about five years. So it was nothing I ever planned. I didn’t know food writing was a thing in college. I didn’t know that was a career people had. People didn’t make money on the Internet when I was in college. It just really gradually developed, and I found that I really loved it.
On Her Book, The Sweet Book of Candy Making:
I was super pregnant when I wrote it. It was so stressful. I actually got contacted by the publisher, their acquisitions editor had been looking for someone to write a candy book. So it was really just being on the Internet in the right place, at the right time. I think she found me through the About site, and then she also got a recommendation from another person who had written a candy cookbook.
So it fell into my lap which I feel very lucky about because I know it’s not always easy to get a book. And it happened really fast. It was, I think, written in five months while, again, very pregnant. And actually, our apartment had a flood during that time, and we had to move out part of the time and live in a hotel with no kitchen.
So it is truly a labor of love. And I am hoping to write another one. I have an idea. I have an agent. It just has been a matter of carving out the time. But the book was really intended to be a one-stop shop for people who want to learn about candy making. So it has some basic recipes and then some more creative ones. But really, if you don’t know much about candy making, it’s intended to be your guide to getting started. That was the whole point, and I hope that’s what people take from it.
On Candy Making:
I think everyone thinks that about candy because you need a thermometer. It’s like as soon as you put a piece of equipment into the mix, they are like, “Oh no. This is too much. I’m going to buy a Snickers bar. I’m out,” and there are candies that are harder, but I think so many candies really are very approachable.
If you want to start making candies, start with truffles. You need cream, and you need chocolate, and that is literally all you need. And you don’t need a thermometer, and you need a whisk maybe, but everyone has one.
I think there are ways to ease into it before you’re having to pull taffy. You don’t have to start at the top. Start with something really approachable with a microwave fudge recipe. There are definitely things you can do to ease into it.
On Resources for Learning More About Candy Making:
Yes, so actually, I have a favorite candy book that I recommend to everyone. It’s by Peter Greweling. It’s called Chocolates and Confections, and there’s actually two versions. There’s a pro-version and a Chocolates and Confections At Home. He is an instructor at the CIA, the Culinary Institute of America, and it’s like the encyclopedia of candy.
It’s so thorough. There’s a million in process pictures. He goes over everything from basics to really complex layered candies. It’s so smart, and it’s a little bit scientific if you’re interested in that, but it doesn’t have to be. You can skip all the science and just get to the recipes. It’s such a great resource. The home version is maybe a little more what home cooks might want, but it’s such a great book.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I watch hardly any. The ones when I do catch them, I actually really am old school. I like Alton Brown. I think he’s great.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
I almost always read dessert blogs that these are all going to be sweet focused. I love Sprinkle Bakes. I think Heather is a genius. I really like The Sugar Hit. It’s so fun. Cleobuttera, she’s in Egypt hence the name. She just has the most gorgeous photos. I like The Cake Blog. They have a lot of contributors, so it’s like a compilation website, but they do really fun stuff. And then 10th kitchen, who I know, you’ve interviewed her. She is just the funniest, and I want to be her best friend.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook or Snapchat that make you happy?
I’m actually just learning how to use Snapchat. I had a 20-year-old teach me how because I’m an old person. I’m still figuring that out.
I follow The Actor’s Diet, Lynn Chen. She does some food and then some LA stuff that I like. I follow Hey Natalie Jean who has chickens. She’s great. On Instagram, again The Sugar Hit just has the most fun, explosive pictures ever. She really makes me happy.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
Oh, gosh. I have a marble rolling pin from my grandmother that I got when she passed away. And that’s really special for me. I don’t actually use it but it’s just laying in the kitchen, so I can always think of her when I see it.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Lavender and flower flavors. I used to be, “Ehh,” and now I throw rosewater on everything and lavender and violet. It’s a sickness.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
There is a chain in Los Angeles called Lemonade. It does fresh salads and sandwiches. They have a cookbook that I actually love. They got me to eat Brussel sprouts all the time. It’s life- changing. The Lemonade Cookbook, I really like. For desserts, I have a really charming one called, The Bungalow Heavens Cookies cookbook. And it’s all cookie recipes from Pasadena which is where I used to live. Oh, and I just love the Barefoot Contessa. I think she’s awesome. I want to visit her house and have her cook for me. So I have a lot of her books.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
Actually, I listen to my iPod all the time when I’m in the kitchen because otherwise, it’s really boring. I listen to Vampire Weekend a lot. I really like Kishi Bashi. I don’t know if you know him, but he’s a violinist who also sings, and he does some really amazing stuff. So I’d say Vampire Weekend and Kishi Bashi always get me in the kitchen.
On Keeping Posted with Elizabeth:
SugarHero.com, and I am on Facebook. Instagram. If you have questions about candy making or baking, send me an email. I try to respond generally promptly.