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Chef’s Dish: Pastry Chef Leah Henderson

It’s not every day that someone gets featured in our Chef’s Dish twice, but the affable Leah Henderson deserves to set the precedent. The talented pastry chef was with D’Amico’s fine-dining division for 25 years before being promoted to take on the catering side of the business.

“The volume will be a challenge,” she admits, “but I think I like that.” Her output will range from mini desserts to her specialty chocolate to wedding cakes. And while the importance of baking someone’s wedding cake isn’t lost on her, she can handle the stress— after all, once upon a time she baked a birthday cake for Prince. 

In new role overseeing the pastry department, she’ll take on “a lot of research and development, working with the sales team on events and training the staff.”

And even though the turnover at D’Amico is not as high as normal in the foodservice industry, there’s always training and retraining. 

“The quality of Leah’s work is what (we) need to compete in the competitive baking and confectionery world,” says Barb Schultz, D’Amico Catering director of operations. “Leah’s creativity with flavors and innovative design can compete with any bakery in town.”

Henderson describes herself as a traditionalist. “But I do like to seek out reinventing the old, (putting) a new spin on an old favorite,” she said. She gets her ideas and inspiration from social media without getting so caught up in other people’s work that “you lose your style or flair.” Being privy to new techniques and new flavor profiles, opens up a lot of new areas to explore, she adds. 

Henderson grew up in a big family on a small farm. What was it like to be one of 12 kids? “Crowded,” she quips. As a girl growing up on a dairy farm, she was never called into duty as a milker—that was her brothers calling, she was on kitchen duty.

“It was natural cooking all the time—it’s part of growing up on the farm,” she says.  A farm kid’s existence was the original farm-to–table movement. She picked vegetables out of the garden, and “my mother would let us explore in the kitchen,” she says. Perhaps because it was fun, as well as productive, is why it didn’t feel like the equivalent of milking.

So what was her favorite childhood chore? “I was a good cleaner, very organized,” Henderson says, adding her least favorite was doing the dishes.  

And while plated dishes has been her thing for the last 25 years, she’s looking forward to less repetition. “Pastry has an exactness and creative draw,” she says. She’s currently enthralled with the  flavors of a calamondin, a cross between a lime and an orange with a tart flavor. “The tangerine taste is familiar, but not the name or the fruit,” she explains, adding she uses it in panna cottas and mousses. 

And while she has a wide playground of desserts to experiment with, her favorite thing to make are pies, although she seldom bakes at home. 

“I like sweets, but I don’t have a big sweet tooth,” she says. “I’d rather have a baguette.” 

Milk Chocolate Budino

2C heavy cream
1 T vanilla extract
2 oz granulated sugar
5 egg yolks
1 # 4 oz good quality milk chocolate, chopped

In medium saucepan bring cream, vanilla and sugar to a boil. Remove from heat and temper yolks. Return to medium low heat and cook until slightly thickened. Do not let mixture return to a boil. Pour over chocolate, rest for 5 minutes, whisk until smooth, strain. Pour into glasses or ramekins. Chill until firm. Serve with Chantilly cream, candied hazelnuts, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. 

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