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This pastry chef loves citrus season in Arizona

It’s citrus season! That sounds like good news, but even if you have just one fruit tree, you’re likely facing a pretty hefty bounty right about now. You can donate oranges to a local food bank, ship grapefruit to friends in cold climates or freeze a whole lemon to use later.

But if you want to get creative, meet Mark Chacón.

The pastry chef came to Arizona initially to study violin at Arizona State University. Then he studied journalism and wrote about food for a while, until a trip to the Bay Area landed him inside one the country’s best bakeries, Tartine.

After that, he was all in. Today, he is back in the Valley and running his own — James Beard Award nominated — bakery operation: Chaconne Patisserie.

Citrus season is one of his favorites here. He makes citrus curds, creams and marmalades and The Show got the chance to make one of his best-sellers with him recently in his kitchen.

Full interview

MARK CHACÓN: I really hadn't seen anything like it ever. I didn't really know that it existed. So I just, sort of something just clicked in me. I went there every day while we were there. I was obsessed with it. I left town with a huge box of pastries and yeah, I just thought maybe I can do this

After that, he was all in. He packed up his stuff, moved to San Francisco and became a cake decorator at Whole Foods, all while trying to get hired at Tartine. He told me he used to bring homemade cakes to the people there and ask for critiques.

CHACÓN: It's really fun to use citrus in a number of ways. And I would say maybe the most beautiful one, but I saw a cake years ago where the bottom of the cake pan, you know, a 9 inch standard cake pan lined with parchment paper and then you pour a caramel into there like you would for an upside down cake. And in fact, you make an upside down cake. You just sort of slice the citrus into rounds after you've cut off all the pith and the outer skin, slice into the little half moons and moons and lay them out, scatter them over the caramel.

And then you pour in, you know, really, any simple cake batter, could be an almond cake batter, a buttermilk cake batter, something that'll really let the citrus pop, and then you bake it and let it cool a little bit, invert it, maybe heat it on the stovetop or a kitchen torch, and then when you unmold it, you know, you have this beautiful citrus all laid out, sort of fanned out on the top, top of the cake. And I think any sort of citrus with caramel is a great combo.

So that's what I always think is being able to kind of look down at something from a bird's eye view and just see all these beautiful popping different colors. We have so many beautiful citrus here right now. So it's a good way to use them up.

I mean, that's a beautiful recipe to begin with. So I guess the challenge in using citrus and baking, right would be a couple of things, I'm guessing. And I'm not a baker but it's sour, right? And so is there a challenge in sort of balancing flavors?

CHACÓN: That's a great question. So yes, I think so, like we try to have, you don't want anything to be really one note in terms of texture or in terms of flavor. So the citrus does tend to bring pops of different kinds of flavors. And I think the key there is, well, let's take one thing, like a cream cheese Danish that we do, it's our best seller. It's pretty standard. We use different produce on it. We have like today, I think that we did some raspberry orange, which is blood orange. We have sumo citrus and we have cara cara and they all bring something else to the mix.

Three different kinds of citrus on top?

CHACÓN: Absolutely, and, you know, you could do a lot more. I mean, like, I just, I feel like kumquat is a lovely option, too, but we just didn't get that one in the mix right now. We'll probably do it for something else. But you just want to make sure you have a good mix of different kinds of citrus because some of them are going to be a little bit more on the bitter side. Some are going to be on the sweeter side, some more juicy than others. So I would say with baking, you know, having a couple rounds of doing a certain recipe will really give you, you know, it is baked in, you know, you've made a choice.

I'm going to use this mix and then just be critical, you know, like of your work, you know, see what worked for you. What didn't next round maybe switch up the citrus mix, use a ratio of like more sweet to sour, whatever, you know, you notice from the first round but just kind of build consecutively on each bake.

You talked about several different types of citrus there. Do they really taste different? Like I know the one thing that everyone says right is that Meyer lemons are sweeter. I have no idea even what the other kinds of citrus you mentioned there were. Cara cara, is that what you said?

CHACÓN: I did, cara cara orange. So you know, it looks a little bit more pink, I would think. Not like an electric sort of, or like pink, but more of like a '70s pink. Those guys are a little bit more on the bitter side, and they're not quite as juicy as say, yeah, the sumo citrus that we have, which is sort of a bright orange against each other. They look beautiful. They're well balanced in flavor, too. So we try to lay them out so that you get a little bit of each and a bite.

It's really smart. OK. So the other thing I would imagine is maybe a challenge, but maybe a benefit of working with citrus, right is that it's texturally very different. Like you've got a hard kind of outside. You can use the rind in lots of ways, I'm sure. But also it's super juicy inside. How do you deal with that?

CHACÓN: So different textures like the, you're absolutely right the outside that the peel, you know, you can use that. You can candy it to varying extents, you know, like what you're basically doing when you're candying is, you know, you're replacing the water that's in the cells of the peel with the sugar syrup that you're cooking it in. So you can candy citrus to different levels of candy, and some are going to be sweeter. You could always go back on the sugar a little bit, cook it a little less for something. That's a little bit more juicy and not something that's going to be preserved, you know, for the next year packed in sugar.

Once you get the, the outer skin off, you have basically a sort of a beautiful looking ball of citrus there and it's all separated by the different membranes. You can cut that, you know, put it on its side and cut it into circles and semispheres, you could also cut in between the membrane with a nice sharp knife and get little Supremes of different citrus. In that process, a lot of juice is going to come out. So I always recommend doing that over top of a, like a bowl of some sort so that you're catching all the, all the juice that's coming out. The juices, you know, can be used for curds. You could make a lemon posset, you could, you know, make a curd and fold some lightly beaten whipped cream into it to make sort of like a cake filling or a tart filling that's lightened a little creamy, but you can really make use of all of it.

You can also reduce the juices with sugar and make sort of a burnt orange caramel. The only thing I haven't really used is the actual membranes in between. I, I haven't found a good use for that, although some chefs have.

OK. So let's go see what you've got cooking in here.

CHACÓN: So actually, do you want to come with me real quick down here and we'll grab some, some cream cheese filling.

Oh my gosh, it's freezing in here. This is a room-sized refrigerator I should say we just walked into. Oh, wow. OK. So you've got huge containers of citrus in here. Raspberry oranges, sumo mandarins. Oh, they're beautiful.

CHACÓN: We've got it all.

OK. All right. So what are you carrying here for us as we walk back?

CHACÓN: So earlier today, Steph took out citrus, they cut off the outside peel and pith and they cut them into little circles and semicircles. And the gentleman that we just saw in the walk in there, Chef Charlie, he laminated this brioche dough yesterday.

It's beautiful. Yeah.

CHACÓN: Thank you.

You're pulling it out of the big proofer here?

CHACÓN: Yes, indeed. And we've got an oven set or we will shortly. So, you know, we're just going to kind of get these guys a little bit moistened and then put down that center there.

And then this is the cream cheese filling?

CHACÓN: It is. So it's cream cheese and then vanilla bean paste, a little bit of starch for thickening and some sugar. And this time of year is really great because you kind of get this sort of principle sort of vibe going on when you do the cream cheese Danish with citrus.

These are some of the sumo oranges?

CHACÓN: It sure is. Just kind of arrange them decoratively a little bit. Here we go. So we got that kind of building a little base of the the sumo citrus because it's the sweetest. For cara cara, it's gonna put him a little bit less liberally because he's contributing more in the way of bitterness right now. And for these, you know, you just have a little pop of color here and there.

These are the blood oranges, essentially?

CHACÓN: They sure are. And we'll hit it with a little bit of sugar and then that's something else that's nice about, the structure of the citrus. You can get a little bit of a, like a scorch on it. Just a little bit of color. The tips will blacken a little bit while the fruit stays juicy. It's just because of all the sugars in there that are caramelizing and then we'll bake them until they're done and they're done when the cream cheese filling is set.


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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.