q-a-sqirl-pastry-chef

Q&A: PASTRY CHEF ELISE FIELDS

At LA’s Sqirl, desserts are flavored with labne, fermented honey, and chicory.

Since opening in 2011, Sqirl has cemented itself as Los Angeles’ favorite all-day cafe. What began as a jam company has become a widely-lauded restaurant famed for its globally-inspired seasonal fare (including the iconic and oft-Instagrammed ricotta-jam toast). In addition to inventive takes on dishes like Cobb salad, grilled cheese, and breakfast sandwiches, they also boast an impressive pastry program. 

With unusual dessert ingredients like chicory, makrut lime, guava, and labne, Sqirl creates daily-changing recipes that inspire even the most wellness-minded Angelenos to stop by for a sweet treat. Elise Fields joined Sqirl’s baking team last year, following stints at Huckleberry and Thyme Café in Santa Monica, and Craft in Los Angeles. Here, she reflects on food waste, creativity, and the combination of savory and sweet.

How do you find inspiration for Sqirl’s dessert menu?

“So much of what we do is influenced by what’s in season and what we find at the market every week. Also, we’re always educating ourselves on what everyone else at the restaurant is cooking and how we can potentially be inspired by the savory side of the kitchen. Of course, Sqirl is also known for our house-made jams [in flavors like Blenheim apricot and blood orange–vanilla bean]. Since we’re nearing the height of citrus season, we’re focusing on many different varieties—Mandarin-quats (a hybrid of mandarin and kumquat) are really fun to work with. We’ve been candying lots of citrus, but also we use the dehydrator. We love doing experiments with our ingredients and trying new preservation methods.”

What kind of preservation methods?

“There’s always a lot of fermentation involved. We use fermented honey, which has a vinegary funk to it and a thinner texture, because water is added. We’re really inspired by The Noma Guide to Fermentation that just came out. I’m eager to try their recipe for making miso out of old banana bread. We’ve incorporated miso into some of our desserts in the past—for Thanksgiving, we did a sweet potato–miso pie.”

So many of your desserts have savory ingredients, can you talk more about this nontraditional approach?

“One way we incorporate savory is that we strain our yogurt, turn it into labne, and use it as a frosting on layer cakes. We have several basic cake recipes we work from, and then add in other ingredients we have a surplus of. For example, we had all these key lime pies leftover from Thanksgiving and, because my mind goes to crazy places when I’m in the kitchen at five in the morning, I thought, why not turn them into curd? And instead of frosting, why not chicory marshmallows? I think having a savory, salty component makes [desserts] more fun and interesting—it really amps them up a level and makes them sparkle.”

How often does the dessert menu change at Sqirl?

“We’ll brainstorm new ideas every few months for things like loaf cakes, but the garnishes, jams, and different fruits we work with change daily.”

Do you have any creative food waste hacks—ingredients that might be used in the savory side that get incorporated into desserts?

“We had chia and persimmons on hand [recently]. I thought about smoking them in the smoker and then turning them into an ice cream. But even after tweaking it for a while, it tasted way too much like butternut squash. In the end, the savory chef used it to make barbecue sauce. We’re also often using fennel fronds that would otherwise be thrown away, and turning them into a beautiful garnish alongside some flowers. If berries are starting to be too ripe, we can turn them into powder with our dehydrator and recycle them into garnish.”

Do you think the notion that in the past, dessert was treated as an afterthought is changing?

“There are people who come into Sqirl and eat dessert for breakfast. Los Angeles is so full of so many interesting restaurants and good pastry chefs, it’s hard to make dessert an afterthought anymore. [Residents of] Los Angeles are very health-conscious but they also like to treat themselves.”