Zoë Bakes Bundts (and Layers and Loaves)
It all started with a Twinkie. The daughter of hippies who spent much of her childhood in Vermont living on communes and in and out of cults, pastry chef Zoë François was raised with a live-off-the-land ethos by parents who tried to convince her that carobs and raisins were candy.
“It was a myth dispelled by my first bite of that Twinkie in kindergarten,” François said by phone from her home in Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband, Graham François, and their sons Henri, 22, and Charlie, 20.
That bite led to a lifelong love of desserts that the 53-year-old channeled first into a hobby, then a career. Beginning with a billowy Dutch baby pancake she made with a friend at age 8, François baked her way through dozens of cookbooks as a teenager, becoming so proficient that, during college at the University of Vermont, she sold homemade cookies from a rolling, glass-topped cart designed by then-boyfriend Graham.
Though she loved a post-college job decorating cakes for local ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s—perhaps Vermont’s best-known Jewish hippies—she ended up working in advertising until Graham encouraged her to enroll at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
In 1996, renowned chef and television personality Andrew Zimmern hired her straight out of school to work at his restaurant group in Minneapolis, where she quickly rose through the ranks to become executive pastry chef.
“I knew Zoë was a star from the minute she walked through my door,” said Zimmern. “I’ve just been waiting for the rest of the world to find out.”
François went on to bake in the most renowned kitchens in the Minneapolis restaurant scene until 2001, when she had her second son. She finally quit, she said, “because I could easily find myself toiling in the kitchen for 70 hours a week. That’s not conducive to family life. I don’t regret leaving to be with my boys, and I’ve since learned much better balance.”
Even with balance a priority, François shares that 20 years later, “I am pretty obsessed with my work again, and loving it.” Indeed, she has recently published—to instant acclaim—her first solo cookbook, Zoë Bakes Cakes, a love letter to a staggering range of cake varieties (layers, Bundts, loaves and more!).
Tips for Better Bundts
- “Bundt pans are one of my favorites because it’s instant fancy,” said François, who was interested to learn about Hadassah’s connection to one of her preferred baking vessels. “You don’t have to do anything remarkable to achieve a party-worthy cake, and it’s especially good for people who don’t want to do any piping or decorating.”
- Use softened butter, not melted, to grease Bundt pans. Using a finger, rub butter along the surfaces of the pan in a layer thick enough that it’s visible.
- Once baked, let the cake cool in the pan for 10 to 15 minutes to allow proteins to set.
- Remove cake from pan while still slightly warm, or you risk the cake sticking to the pan.
Powered by her bubbly personality, François’s Instagram account (@zoebakes) boasts more than 300,000 followers who eagerly follow her live bakes. During the pandemic, as she has found herself more and more in the kitchen with her older son, Henri, the two elected to turn their time together into the “Baking with my Mother” series on YouTube, where the pair has made cheesecake, key lime pie and a granola that hearkens back to mom’s Vermont-commune upbringing. “It only took 22 years to get him interested in baking with me,” she said, laughing.
And while the step-by-step videos she shared pre-pandemic only featured her hands, Covid-19 brought about yet another change to her social media presence. “I began hearing from people that they were craving community,” said François, “so I began to show my face as a way to bring everyone together.”
Viewers will soon have the opportunity to see a lot more of François and her creative, sophisticated bakes on streaming television. Zoë Bakes, a cooking show pitched and produced by Zimmern’s production company, Intuitive Content, is set to premiere in July on the Magnolia Network, the streaming home and lifestyle network launched by Fixer Upper’s Chip and Joanna Gaines.
What became really clear over the years was that what I was good at was teaching,” said François. As coauthor of the highly successful Bread in Five cookbook series with her friend, Dr. Jeff Hertzberg, she simplified complex techniques for home bakers long before Covid-19 ushered in a sourdough revival. (Fun aside: François named her 6-year-old sourdough starter “Stella,” and she feeds her almost daily.)
Pumping out multiple books with Dr. Hertzberg, also a baker, over the better part of a decade gave her the building blocks needed to write her own book.
“Turning 50 and having my oldest turn 18 made me realize I needed to do my own thing,” said François. When she finally sat down to write her book, she set herself a specific goal: “I wanted to make baking fun for people, not scary.” The book begins with a section titled “Cake Academy” that introduces rudimentary food science and breaks down essential techniques: ingredient weight versus volume; creaming butter and other fats; temperature of ingredients; and meringue techniques, among other lessons.
Recipes, from Boston Cream Pie and Chocolate Pavlova to Tiramisu and Sticky Toffee Date Cake, are ambitiously doable, accompanied by photos that François took herself. There are also several recipes for cakes baked in Bundt pans, whose original design was created in Minneapolis by the Nordic Ware company and which owes much of its existence to Hadassah.
In 1950, Minneapolis Hadassah Chapter members approached Nordic Ware owner David Dalquist, requesting that he construct a sturdy pan similar to the kugelhopf ones they’d used in Germany before immigrating to America. Dalquist agreed, and the modern Bundt was born, forever burnished by its Hadassah pedigree.
François has delicious memories of celebrating Jewish holidays with her mother, Lorraine Berkowitz Neal, and her aunts in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.
“My understanding of all the Jewish holidays is based on what foods were served at my aunts’ houses,” said François, who today identifies as culturally Jewish. She happily recalls apple and honey cakes for Rosh Hashanah and flourless baked goods for Passover.
Fast-forward 40 years, and she now finds herself sending younger son Charlie challahs to his dorm at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and being assigned Jewish desserts to bring to friends’ Shabbat and holiday celebrations.
François’s Vanilla-Raspberry Bundt, made with lots of butter, and her Best-Ever-Chocolate-Zucchini-Bundt Cake, enriched with sour cream, would be perfect for the upcoming Shavuot holiday, which begins the evening of May 16, when dairy foods are commonly served. And looking ahead to the fall, François’s boozy autumnal Bundt—Apple Cake With Honey-Bourbon Glaze—will make a delectable finish to a Rosh Hashanah dinner or Yom Kippur break-fast table.
Best-Ever-Chocolate-Zucchini Bundt Cake
Makes one cake
Dutch-processed cocoa powder for dusting, plus 2⁄3 cup
2 1⁄4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup lightly packed brown sugar
3⁄4 cup granulated sugar
1⁄2 cup mild-flavored oil
(such as vegetable oil)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs, at room temperature
1⁄2 cup full-fat yogurt or sour cream
2 cups packed grated
4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and cooled to room temperature
1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Generously grease a 12-cup Bundt pan and dust with cocoa powder.
2. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt and 2⁄3 cup cocoa powder. Sift to remove any lumps.
3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter on medium-high speed until creamy and smooth, about 1 minute.
4. Turn the mixer speed to low, add both sugars to the butter, and mix until incorporated. Drizzle in the oil and vanilla, turn the speed to medium-high, and beat until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape the bowl often for even incorporation.
5. Turn the speed to medium-low and add the eggs, one at a time, beating just until combined. Scrape the bowl after each addition.
6. Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, mixing on low speed, just until combined. Add half of the yogurt, mixing until incorporated. Repeat with another one-third flour, then the remaining yogurt and finish with the final one-third flour, scraping the bowl and paddle after each addition.
7. Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the zucchini until it is evenly distributed. Then add the chocolate and stir until combined.
8. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Gently tap the pan on the counter several times to make sure the batter has fully settled into the nooks of the Bundt.
9. Bake until a tester comes out with moist crumbs, about 1 hour. DO NOT OVERBAKE. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then flip it out onto a serving plate and dust the top with cocoa before serving.
Makes one cake
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 pound (about 3 1/2 cups) confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
Scraped seeds from 1 vanilla bean
2 teaspoons citrus zest (optional)
1 pound eggs (about 9 large), at room temperature
1 pound (about 3 1/3 cups)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
1⁄2 cup Raspberry Confectioners’ Sugar Icing
1. Preheat the oven to 325°. Generously grease and flour a 12-cup Bundt pan.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter on medium-high speed until creamy and smooth, about 1 minute.
3. Turn the mixer speed to low, add the confectioners’ sugar to the butter, and mix until incorporated. Turn the speed to medium-high and beat until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape the bowl often for even incorporation.
4. Add the vanilla extract, vanilla seeds and citrus zest (if using) and mix until incorporated.
5. Turn the speed to medium-low and add the eggs, one at a time, beating just until combined. Scrape the bowl after every couple of eggs.
6. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, mixing on low speed just until combined. Repeat with another one-third flour and then the final one-third, scraping the bowl and paddle after each addition.
7. Gently fold 2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries into the batter and then pour into the prepared pan. Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 50 minutes. (If you use frozen fruit, the baking time can be longer, up to 1 hour 15 minutes.)
8. Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto serving plate and let cool completely. Pour the icing over the Bundt and let set before serving.
Raspberry Confectioners’ Sugar Icing
Makes about 1/2 cup
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream, plus more if needed
3 crushed raspberries, or more for brighter pink color and additional flavor
1. In a small bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar and cream, then stir with a spoon to mix into a thick paste.
2. Add additional cream, 1 tablespoon at a time, to achieve a consistency that can be drizzled over your cake.
3. Mix in the raspberries until evenly incorporated. You should be able to draw a line through the icing with the back of a spoon. Use immediately.
Adeena Sussman is the author of Sababa: Fresh, Sunny Flavors from My Israeli Kitchen. She lives in Tel Aviv.