With Purim on the horizon and in-person gatherings still iffy, many families are coming up with creative ways to get together virtually — like a Zoom hamantaschen baking class taught by local pastry chef Erica Pais. But first, some background.
Pais discovered that she wanted to be a chef at the age of 11 on a visit to her grandmother’s house in Florida.
“I wasn’t from a very foodie family, but on this visit to my grandmother’s I saw an episode of ‘Top Chef’ for the first time, and I thought, ‘Wow! That is for me!’”
Growing up in Sharon, Massachusetts, Pais discovered the joys of baking in middle school — around the time she decided to be a chef — through volunteer work. She joined the Youth Crew for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in honor of her great-grandmother Mollie and a schoolmate’s mother, both of whom had the disease.
The Youth Crew was required to raise $1,800, so Pais turned to baking. Using boxed mixes, she baked cupcakes and muffins and bought them to school to sell for $1 each.
“I remember the anticipation and joy of people when they received my baked goods, and that it was such a good feeling to make people so happy,” she said.
Eventually, she graduated from boxed mixes and began to experiment with baking from scratch. She credits her great-grandmother with her culinary bent.
“Bubbie Mollie was from Hungary, so she made all sorts of traditional dishes from Eastern Europe: knishes, stuffed cabbage, as well as loads of baked goods. Her pumpkin chocolate chip muffins were a specialty — I always feel close to her when I bake them,” Pais said.
“She lived to be 100 years old, so she was a big part of my life.”
Pais turned to baking again while a student at Colgate University as a way to create community. It started when a senior citizen couple audited one of Pais’ classes and she befriended them.
“They became like surrogate grandparents for me, and we ended up creating this whole community around baking,” she said. “We invited students and people from the town, we met in a campus kitchen and I taught everyone how to bake different treats. We established this wonderful connection.”
Majoring in sociology and educational studies may seem like an odd route to the culinary world, but Pais disagrees.
“My course of study in sociology was all about relationships and connections within communities, and the educational studies portion was about how we learn — so teaching baking as a way to establish a community is right on point.”
Following graduation, Pais landed a job in New York as an account manager for a corporate catering company, but she missed the hands-on aspect of baking. To fill that need, she worked part time in various kitchens and bakeries in New York, including Do, where she taught baking as well.
Early last year, she decided to pursue food as a career and came to visit a close friend living in Philadelphia. She ended up staying when she discovered Zahav had job openings, applied and was hired as a busser in February 2020. Then the pandemic hit and restaurants closed.
Again, Pais sought solace in baking. She took over her friend’s kitchen and baked, sold, delivered and shipped baked goods informally to friends and neighbors far and wide.
As the pandemic wore on, she devised a way to create a virtual baking community like to the one she established at Colgate. Her classes have been a hit — she does private lessons, corporate events and classes for the general public. She held a particularly memorable lesson in December when a set of grandparents gave their entire family a class as a Chanukah gift, and they all virtually gathered and baked together.
For more information about Pais’ classes, visit paistries.com.
Bubbie Mollie’s Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins
Makes about 20
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
½ cup vegetable or canola oil
1 15-ounce can pumpkin
1 cup chocolate chips
Preheat your oven to 350 F and spray a muffin pan with nonstick spray or line it with cupcake liners. Set it aside.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl until fully incorporated. Set aside.
Whisk together the eggs and sugar in a large mixing bowl until fully incorporated. Add the oil and canned pumpkin, then whisk until fully incorporated.
Pour the dry mixture into the pumpkin mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until just combined; be careful not to overmix. Add the chocolate chips and mix again until evenly distributed. Pour the batter into the prepared muffin pan.
Bake 15-18 minutes. To check if they are done, lightly press on the top of a muffin with your index finger; if the muffin resists the pressure and does not indent, the muffins are done.