Natasha Pickowicz splits her time between Cafe Altro Paradiso in Soho and Flora Bar on the Upper East Side, and between the two restaurants, she and a small team of pastry cooks put out the equivalent of three different dessert menus. There are the Italian desserts at Cafe Altro Paradiso (think gelati, panna cotta), the more eclectic desserts at Flora Bar (Jerusalem artichoke and chocolate parfait), and a selection of cookies, cakes, and other grab-and-go pastries at Flora Bar’s adjoining cafe, Flora Coffee.
The job is a constant juggling act — Pickowicz often seems to have a side project going on and is currently planning a bake sale for Planned Parenthood, which will be held at Cafe Altro Paradiso this Sunday — but she has a pared down style that makes it all work. Rather than try to dazzle with multiple components and complex flavor configurations, she puts her energy into making simple things the best they can be. It’s a subdued style that makes some of her pastries unassuming and easy to overlook. Case in point: the savory zucchini and gruyere studded scone at Flora Coffee. It’s a craggy, rather homely looking pastry (as most scones are), with spurts of cheese spilling out around the base. But those untidy cheese bits, which turn frizzled and golden in the oven, are the best part. For all its homespun appearance, Flora Coffee’s savory scone shows off all of Pickowicz’s unflagging attention to detail.
At first, it was a way to use up some odds and ends. Faced with a surplus of zucchini and a bunch of cheese scraps to use up for a staff meal at Cafe Altro Paradiso the summer before Flora Bar opened, she decided to make scones. “So often scones are stodgy and dry,” Pickowicz says. “I wanted to make something more healthful, with a lighter crumb.” Throwing in a heap of grated zucchini did just that. But it was only the start of the tinkering Pickowicz has done to make this a scone that’s actually exciting to eat.
The recipe starts with a blend of dry ingredients — all-purpose flour, a little sugar, salt, pepper, “lots of baking powder” — and a heap of cold, cubed butter. “The key is keeping all your ingredients super cold,” Pickowicz says as she tosses everything into an enormous mixer. The butter should stay in small chunks, rather than melting into the dry ingredients. That way, when the scone bakes, the chunks melt, creating little pockets of steam. The scone puffs up, and comes out light and flakey rather than greasy and leaden.
Pickowicz starts the mixer, and the paddle slowly squashes the cubed butter into smaller pieces, working it into the dry ingredients. After a short while she stops the machine and reaches down into the bowl to check the texture of the mixture. She wants it to be cold and crumbly, and still have some good-sized bits of butter. Deciding that it’s about right, she turns the machine back on, and pours in a steady stream of buttermilk. It’s best to keep the mixture moving while pouring the buttermilk, she says, otherwise gummy, wet spots emerge where the buttermilk was.
While most pastry recipes involve measuring every ingredient precisely, Pickowicz adds the buttermilk by feel. “It’s always good to have a recipe,” she says, “but I try to empower my cooks to use their senses, o pay attention to how something feels, how it tastes, not simply go through the motions.” Here, that means watching closely as she adds the buttermilk, waiting for the dough to just start clumping around the paddle. It also means listening for a subtle change in pitch and rhythm as mixing paddle catches on dough rather than clanking against the sides of the bowl.
When the dough has just started to clump but is still crumbly, Pickowicz stops the machine and heaves the bowl up to the counter. She’ll finish mixing and shaping the dough by hand, using a more delicate and precise touch than she can get with the beast of a mixer. “I want it to turn out super dry from the bowl,” she explains, spilling the sandy mixture out across most of her workspace. That’s because zucchini is mostly water. And even though Pickowicz has diligently drained the shredded vegetable, first by pressing it overnight in a perforated pan lined with cheesecloth, then by spreading it out on a layer of towels, it’s still damp enough to bind the dough together.
Before adding the zucchini, Pickowicz sorts through the dry mix on the counter, “assessing the problem areas.” With her fingertips, she breaks up wet patches and evens out dry spots. Then she spreads the grated squash over the mixture like she’s laying down a soft bed of grass for the pile of cubed gruyere to nestle in. The zucchini, she says, immediately starts hydrating the dough, helping pull it together “without me doing anything”.
With all the ingredients laid out across the counter, Pickowicz begins tossing the mixture together with her hands. “You want to fluff it like you would with salad tongs,” she says, “Lightly. You don’t want to mush the liquid out, so you don’t press or apply pressure.” Doing so would develop the gluten in the flour, making the scones tough and gummy.
As Pickowicz mixes, she begins to gently press clumps together, distributing dry bits until the mixture just starts to stick to itself. “My old pastry chef when I worked at Marlow & Daughters told me that you’re looking for the feel of a damp wool sweater,” she says. When the dough reaches that point, it still looks — to the untrained eye — like it couldn’t possibly hold together into a solid scone. But Pickowicz grabs a bench scraper and deftly pulls it into a rough rectangle. “It’s important to be decisive with your movements,” she says, “because every time you touch it you’re adding heat, and developing the gluten.”
Next, grabbing a rolling pin, she gently flattens the dough. On the first pass she simply presses on the dough with the pin: The mixture is still so fragile and crumbly that to roll it would cause it to collapse. But pressing compacts the dough just enough to stick it all together, and on the second pass, Pickowicz rolls the surface even with a few long, steady strokes. The surface, speckled with flecks of zucchini and chunks of cheese, looks like a terrazzo floor.
Pickowicz measures the height of the flattened dough against the height of her biscuit cutter, to make sure it’s not too thick. Then she plunges the cutter down into a corner of the slab. Pulling it back out, she uses her fingertips to push out the brick of an unbaked scone now lodged inside. She places the scone on a baking sheet and repeats the process, steadily working her way across the expanse of dough on the counter. When she’s done, she gently pushes the scraps together and forms a second rectangle, to coax a few more scones out of this batch of dough. “You can usually reroll once,” Pickowicz says, as long as it’s gentle. Try to reroll more than once and the scones can come out tough; same if one manhandles the dough. “Sometimes I’ll even go through the mix and pick out the gummy bits before rerolling,” she says.
At this stage the scones usually go to the freezer. It saves time to have a big batch ready to bake off each morning, plus Pickowicz thinks they bake up better when they’re frozen. It keeps all the butter from melting out too fast, she explains.
When the scones are ready to bake, Pickowicz brushes their tops with egg wash. The wash “deepens their color,” she says, and “glosses them out.” She also adds a pinch of gray salt and a sprinkle of coarse cracked pepper as a garnish. The scones go in the oven for 20 minutes and come out burnished and nubby. The tops are crisp and buttery, the bottoms hemmed with lacey browned cheese, and the insides tender as a piece of cake, if cake had hidden pockets of melted gruyere. The size of a large fist and $6 apiece, these savory scones can make an ideal breakfast or a hefty afternoon snack.