For years, Caroline Schiff avoided bread. She had cooked and baked her entire life, and worked as a line chef, a cheesemonger, and a pastry chef at a gourmet market and several restaurants—and yet she rarely made bread. “A lot of times in restaurants and in the food world you’re either a pastry chef or baker,” Schiff says. “You stay in your lane.”

But in 2018, she signed on as the pastry chef for the revival of Gage & Tollner, the old-school downtown-Brooklyn mainstay that prepared veal chops and oysters for New Yorkers from 1879 until 2004. In 2019, as the small team behind the return mapped out the menu, they agreed the restaurant should serve homemade bread. So Schiff began experimenting with sourdough.

Scheduled to open in late March 2020, the new Gage & Tollner was forced to close during its soft opening early that month. Schiff assumed she’d be back in the kitchen in three weeks, tops, so she took home the sourdough starter she’d made for the restaurant in order to keep it alive. As the lockdown stretched on, she needed to use it, so she baked loaves—and loaves and loaves—of sourdough.

After a few weeks, she couldn’t stomach another slice of bread. But she still had all that starter. So she tried adding it to cookies, and then to cakes and brownies. Once she figured out how sourdough worked in a sweet dough, she tried it in tarts, scones, crêpes, muffins, doughnuts, cobblers, and pancakes.

Fifty of those recipes—from Earl Grey brown-butter buns to a sour-cherry Dutch baby to a spiced pear-almond galette—are collected in her first cookbook, The Sweet Side of Sourdough, on sale later this month.

Dumplings to Desserts

Schiff started off folding dumplings. When she was 18, she left New York City, where she grew up, for Scotland, to study French. Although she didn’t go to culinary school, she often cooked and baked for friends. When she moved back to New York, in 2007, she realized she needed to “get into a kitchen” because she just “loved, loved feeding people.”

Caroline Schiff’s lemon babka with poppy filling.

That year, her soon-to-be mentor, Sohui Kim—the same chef who helmed the Gage & Tollner reopening—hired Schiff at her Korean-American restaurant in Brooklyn, the Good Fork. Schiff was in charge of folding the pork-and-chive dumplings. “To this day, it’s like one of my favorite kitchen jobs,” Schiff tells me from her apartment in Fort Greene. “It’s so relaxing.” She also took a day job as a cheesemonger at Greene Grape, a gourmet grocery store in Brooklyn. Between the two jobs, she learned how to identify a bloomy rind, make fresh pasta, and work a deep fryer.

To think of pastries and flavor ideas for her cookbook, Schiff used a technique she’s relied on her entire career: asking herself, What do I want to eat?

“I’m a very nostalgic person,” she says. “I like flipping through all of my old cookbooks and thinking of recipes or flavor combinations that made me happy as a kid.” For Schiff, this meant chocolate with peanut butter, lemon bars, cinnamon coffee cakes, and pastries stuffed with cream cheese.

During lockdown, she tested every recipe in her apartment kitchen, which meant she was stuck home, alone, with five sourdough desserts at a time. “It got so insane. I set up an auxiliary pantry in the hallway with bins of flour,” she explains. “I gave [desserts] to friends in boxes and bags. I gave them to my neighbors. But at one point, my neighbor was like, Please, no more cake.”

The timing of Gage & Tollner’s reopening was luckier the second try. In April of this year, just a few weeks after Schiff sent the cookbook manuscript to her publisher, the restaurant finally began serving veal chops again—and Schiff’s bread and desserts. While she always wanted to write a cookbook, Schiff would rather work in a professional kitchen—alongside sous chefs and line cooks, with only a brief moment of peace between dinner prep and dinner service—than in her apartment.

These days, Schiff makes her 11-layer coconut cake with lime curd and cashew–pink peppercorn brittle, and her quince-and-walnut tart with crème fraîche sherbet, most nights at Gage & Tollner. But getting a reservation at Gage & Tollner is probably harder than mastering sourdough starter. Start with one of Schiff’s favorite recipes in the book, the salted honey focaccia. She likes to pair it with cheese.

Caroline Schiff’s The Sweet Side of Sourdough: 50 Irresistible Recipes for Pastries, Buns, Cakes, Cookies and More will be published on November 30 by Page Street Publishing

Jensen Davis is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL