Kelly Tamm Balances Precision with Live Fire at Leña Brava

Liz Grossman

Without dials, temperature controls or gas hookups at Chicago’s Leña Brava, Pastry Chef Kelly Tamm must rely on her ability to read the fire—specifically the hot and cold spots of a wood-fired oven—to make cookies, cakes, tarts and more. We chatted with Tamm about her breakthrough dessert, the cake she’s still looking to perfect and if she’s really ready to give up gas cooking for good. 

What do you love most about baking with fire? 

I love that it’s a huge challenge! We’ve had to basically relearn how to bake and change the way we think about [baking]. Traditionally, pastry is very exact, with set temperatures and times. While we still scale our recipes to the gram, we have to be more intuitive and flexible with the baking process.  

What are the most challenging desserts to bake in the fire?

Light, airy cakes have been a challenge. Baking a sponge cake or something that has to rise and stay airy and not get too crisp on the outside is something I’m still working on. Our biggest breakthrough is when we were able to bake layers of a really moist, fluffy chocolate cake. On the first few attempts, we scorched the outside before we were able to get it to rise, and we’re now at the point where we’re doing several different types of cakes. It was really satisfying to be able to do that.

How do you make cookies in the wood-fired oven?

They’ve actually been a big challenge. Cookies that need to spread—like a traditional chocolate chip cookie—are a challenge, much like the light spongy cakes that need to rise. Usually we’d control the temperature of the oven and allow the cookie to spread before it starts forming the crispy edges. In the wood oven, it’s harder to create that consistent lower-temperature atmosphere. So small cookies tend to start getting golden crispy edges before they’ve had enough time to spread out all the way. This is where the skill of the baker comes in. They have to really have a feel for the oven and the hot and cold spots, rotating and moving the cookies around the oven to allow them to bake and not burn.

How do the pastry and savory sides of the menu share the ovens? 

We have to stagger our production based on the oven temperature. In the morning, pastry comes in and we get the oven to a mild temperature, ranging between 350 and 500 degrees F, that being really hot for us. Then in the evening for service, when they’re doing roast chickens and some of our seafood and entrées, they get the fire up to almost 1,000 degrees F. By starting in the morning, we’re able to control a more mild temperature, and they pump it up at night.

Choose your fire dessert: bananas Foster, baked Alaska or s’mores?

S’mores! They’re so simple but so satisfying.   

Do you prefer baking with live fire now?

I don’t even know! I haven’t even baked with a gas oven in over a year. It’s kind of second nature now, and a challenge in itself. I guess sometimes it would be nice to put something in the oven and set a timer, but we look at it as a tool we’re lucky to have and that keeps things interesting. 

That Kelly Tamm, she's so smart! She is also one of the toughest cookies I know (pun intended). Always up for challenges and making any party more fun. She's my favorite baker now.

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