Q&A with Michelle Polzine of Range

Michelle Polzine is the pastry chef at the popular San Francisco restaurant Range. Much beloved (she won SF Weekly's best pastry chef award and has been nominated for a James Beard Award), she specializes in homey desserts your grandmother might make, if your grandmother spiked her pudding with good rum and her tarts with lemon verbena. We sat down with her at Four Barrel Coffee in the Mission District and talked about pine nut mouth, why vanilla actually isn't neutral and bland, and her recipe for incredibly perfect butterscotch pudding.

How are you, Michelle?

The weirdest thing happened to me. Last Sunday I made a quinoa dish, and after I ate it, everything started to taste bitter. I thought I had a brain tumor. I went to work and everything still tasted bitter. I had to have people help me taste stuff. It was like this for days! I googled “bitter taste in mouth," and Chinese pine nuts came up. Apparently this is a thing that is an actual reaction to the variety that only affects some people. Saturday night I went to a party at my friend’s house, and it was the first time food tasted good. I ate so many pigs in a blanket that I threw up!

That's really a sad thing to happen to a pastry chef. So now that you can eat again, what ingredients are you playing with?

With all my fruit desserts, I don’t believe in pairing them with vanilla ice cream, because I don’t believe vanilla is plain and goes with anything. One of my favorite flavors right now is peach leaf. It’s almondy but green tasting. I get it from the farmers' market and infuse ice cream with it. Right now it’s served with cornmeal crepes with Bing cherries.

Your desserts are simple—a lot of fruit tarts and pudding cakes—but there’s often a special hard-to-place flavor.

I use coriander in desserts a lot. I had the idea of using it after I was making peach jam one day in the kitchen; somebody else was doing a rub with coriander, and it smelled really good. I make a coconut milk cake—one leche cake, I call it—with kumquats poached in coriander seed. Or, sometimes, I mix Meyer lemon curd into whipped cream, or make rose geranium or lemon verbena cream by cold steeping.

How do you do that?

I muddle the rose geranium or lemon verbena with sugar. Then I pour cream on top of it. Let it sit, then strain. It makes the cream a little green.

You recently had a butterscotch pudding on your menu that was the best I'd ever had. Can we have the recipe for it?

Yes.

Butterscotch Pudding
Michelle Polzine, Range, San Francisco
Serves 4

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup dark brown cane sugar, packed
1/4 cup light muscovado sugar, packed
1 tablespoon water
1 cup cream

1 1/4 cups milk, scalded
3 egg yolks in a bowl
1 3/4 sheets gelatin, bloomed in ice water

1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon rum (something fancy)

1. Combine butter and sugars in a small pot. Melt and whisk together, cooking to 305°F, no higher. Remove from heat and stop cooking immediately by whisking in water. For heaven's sake be careful!

2. Whisk in cream. Reheat a bit if needed to melt candied bits.

3. Whisk milk into yolks. Cook over a bain-marie or double boiler to 175°F. The mixture will thicken a bit, but be careful not to overcook. Remove from heat.

4. Squeeze water out of the gelatin, and stir in immediately to stop cooking. Strain.

5. Stir milk mixture into butterscotch mixture. Immersion blend for a few minutes. Stir in salt and rum. Cool over an ice bath, stirring occasionally. Pour into cups when thickened. Serve with whipped cream.

Image courtesy of Michelle Polzine

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