(This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)
After many health challenges, including a diagnosis of hypoglycemia at the age of 23, Vanessa Musi found her life mission: teaching and helping others to make and enjoy healthier pastries. For years she has done just that, along with developing recipes for companies and clients around the world. Now she is on the brink of opening a brand new school devoted to healthy pastry in Austin, Texas. Here she discusses her health issues, teaching, her favorite sugar substitutes, and what her new school will offer.
What inspired you to pursue a culinary career?
I was about seven years old when I fell in love with baking. I loved baking with my mom – she had an old copy of The Joy of Cooking up high on a shelf, and I would bring it down and bake brownies together. I’m from Mexico City, and I remember we went to this really fancy restaurant in another town, and I fell in love with the whole culinary world, which was fascinating to me. And I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be a chef one day.’ And I’ve always been very sensory. I perceive the world through food and tasting. There’s a picture of me in a high chair eating osso bucco at two years old. So, I’ve always been very aware of food. After high school I took a year off and went abroad, and I did grape picking in the south of France, I waited tables in a restaurant in Paris. I was always really obsessed with food – with the flavors and the chemistry of it.
Did you attend culinary school?
Yes, I went to culinary school in Mexico in 1992. Back then there were not a lot of options. I mean, the term ‘chef’ was just starting to be heard. There were maybe two schools that had a chef program, and so I took one of them. It was a two-year career program that trains you to become a chef. Their idea was that you had to work in a restaurant for half of the program, to get a lot of hands-on experience. So that was the savory part of my training.
And what made you decide to specialize in pastry?
Well, then I got a job as a chef of the Mexican embassy in Vienna. And I loved the Viennese pastries, but I realized I was really bad at making them, because I had focused on the savory side. And so I couldn’t make a dessert for the life of me, and I discovered I really needed to learn that. So, I went back to Mexico and I got a scholarship to Maricú [Centro de Artes Culinarias Maricú]. Maricú is a really good school for pastry in Mexico city. And then that’s how I started learning. And I also learned by working; I got a job in Mexico and I was told I could do anything. I could just experiment and do any pastry, any bread I could figure out. So, I just learned a lot empirically by just diving into cookbooks and magazines, way before the internet was around. I also went to the French Pastry School in Chicago, and graduated with honors – that was an amazing experience.
How did you discover your niche in healthy baking?
I was doing an internship at a restaurant years ago, and I fainted and split my head. I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia. And then when I was working in the Mexican embassy, I also fainted and had a blackout and I split my lip. So yeah, I had really big blackouts from low blood sugar, which I discovered at the age of 23. My doctors told me that I had to change careers – they said I couldn’t be a chef, because I was really sensitive to sugar and flour and shouldn’t be eating it. This is because you basically crash and burn, which is a big problem, and the work environment of a chef is also not ideal. So, I knew that I had to do work to figure it out in my own way. And I realized that when I traveled or when I just went to a bakery, I wanted a cookie that I could eat. I was asking myself: ‘Why isn’t there something that’s healthier or just not so sugary – something that won’t give you that crash and burn effect, where the sugar is not first and foremost before everything else?’
And I had learned early on that you can make something with whole wheat flours, whole grains, different alternative options, way back before there was the concept of gluten free, way back before Paleo, keto and vegan were popular trends. And when I was 15 years old, my neighbor at the time had a whole wheat bakery, so I would try her recipes and her breads. And, I began experimenting with amaranth and other flours, so I had a lot of influence from friends who were alternative bakers. I also experimented with all the sweeteners I could find. And my mom would bring me cookbooks and magazines focusing on ‘new age’ food – whatever we could get our hands on. And a lot of them were whole grain or natural fruits or that kind of thing – better options. So, I would experiment with oats or whatever I had and I would make baked goods with lower sugar, which for me tasted better than regular things. And I just thought, well, let me just figure it out. So, I did a lot of recipe development. I still do. And then I started to experiment with things like keto or Paleo or gluten free. And I’ve had the good fortune to work with companies and do a lot of testing for them…I see my health as a huge challenge because of course, as far as pastries go, we have high expectations, and we’re competing with regular pastries. So, people say, “Well, I want a healthier donut, but I want it to be as good as a regular one.” So that’s the challenge.
What specific categories of healthy baking do you focus on?
Well, my main target is people with diabetes or pre-diabetes or insulin resistance. This also includes people who are sugar intolerant or sensitive to carbs, or who just don’t do well with them. This can also include cancer patients. So, the goal is to remove the sugar and layer the flavors using natural ingredients. I get a lot of students who are in the wellness and fitness community. Most of my students have a business and they’re opening a bakery or they’re opening some sort of online production and they’re making pastries that are better alternatives than the traditional kinds. My philosophy of healthy baking is that first, it’s got to taste amazing. So, I will lean more towards the taste than the health, because I’ve tasted healthy pastries that are inedible, and if it’s not good enough, you’re not going to want another piece. And that’s my test of a good recipe: do you want another piece? Second, use the best ingredients you can buy. So, if you can buy Valrhona chocolate, great. I strive for the best ingredients and the best appliances, because I want people to come out of a class or bakery saying, ‘My God, the quality is amazing.’
Why types of sugar replacements do you use?
Well, I think it really depends on whether you want a higher impact sugar or a medium or lower impact one. Higher impact sugars include maple sugar, maple syrup and coconut sugar – those are great for baking and they taste amazing and they’re better for you than sugar. They still have a sugar impact, but not that bad, you know? And then for a lower impact sugar I like allulose, which is great for making caramels, lemon cream, pastry creams, jams, all that. I mean, there’s no flavor difference, it tastes like sugar, but it’s less sweet. So, it’s like 70% of the sweetness of regular sugar. It caramelizes well, and it doesn’t have that off taste and it doesn’t crystallize like erythritol will. Or I use a blend of erythritol and monk fruit, which works great in baking, if you know how to use it. I would never use Splenda or Stevia or things that are super-processed – I don’t want to have that focus. I want to have a product that is as good as a French pastry but better, in a way.
Tell us about your new healthy baking school.
Well, the school is almost ready; we’re in the final stages of inspection and we’ve been working on this for three years. We built everything from scratch. The school is going to be for home cooks as well as professionals, so there’s a professional kitchen on one side, and a residential style kitchen on the other. We’re in Austin, which is a really healthy city – we have the Whole Foods headquarters here and it’s a very food-oriented place and an incubator of products. It’s the fastest growing city in the States, and the wellness community is pretty big. It’s also really affordable – so if you are coming in from out-of-town to take a class, you can stay in an Airbnb and you can eat out for a reasonable price. We’re located in central East Austin, a great part of the city, and we’re 10 minutes from the airport, so we’re really easy to get to.
As for classes, it’s my experience that people don’t want to take a three- or six-month program –it’s too much of a commitment. So, I set it up so that you can take a one- or two-day class, if you want to learn how to make something specific like brownies, for example – just a practical, functional, simple recipe that you can make and sell. And as a client, I always look for that. I want to learn something quick, fast, practical every day. My classes are short; they’re one or two days long, and I might make a weeklong class or get a special group together, or they’re going to be more individual. We will also have guest chefs with their own expertise. I’m not an expert in sourdough bread baking, for example, and we have some great sourdough bakers in Austin that can teach that. There are so many talented people who do amazing things, right, so why not include them?