How Pastry Chef Fred Chang Found a Love of Baking and Giving Back in Adorably Whimsical Desserts
His hedgehogs are almost too cute to eat.
In pastry chef Fred Chang’s childhood home, meals were centered around being nutritious — not necessarily enjoyable. Because of that, baking wasn’t exactly a regular activity. In fact, they never even had flour in the house.
“I grew up in suburban southern California to Taiwanese immigrant parents,” he says. “My mom raised us on boiled vegetables drizzled in olive oil, and basically everything we ate was steamed or boiled, minimal salt, definitely focused more on eating to be healthy.”
That didn’t stop Chang from working for several James Beard award-winning and Michelin-starred chefs, (including Christina Tosi), competing in two seasons of Masterchef, building an Instagram following of over 70,000, and, ultimately, falling in love with baking.
“My older sister, Kim, did an exchange program in France during high school, and she introduced me to classic French pastries. Things like macarons or brioche, which I had never even heard of until that point, was how I got exposed to more classic French desserts, as opposed to just American cupcakes,” Chang recalls. One dish in particular, “The Supernova” by French pastry chef Iris Lau — which won first at the 2012 Valrhona C3 competition — particularly stuck out to him: “Seeing a plated dessert that looked so ethereal and unreal, it was what inspired me to really dive into the world of pastry,” he says.
You can see some elements of that ethereal inspiration in Chang’s own whimsical baking aesthetic today: mirror cakes with dreamy purple glazes that glow in the dark, adorably squishy hot milk cake hedgehogs that look like characters in a bedtime story, and delicately placed flowers and mint sprigs atop perfect pastel icing swirls. (As a callback to his mom’s insistence on healthy eating, Chang uses all-natural, plant-based ingredients like butterfly pea powder to achieve these colors, too.)
One of his favorite recipes is his hot milk cakes, thanks to the super tender crumb, which is a result of heating up milk with butter, then adding it to the batter. Because it can pair so well with so many different fruits and chocolates, he employs this method frequently in his bakes. In the case of hedgehogs, the milk cake is combined with Bavarian cream and chocolate ganache with hazelnuts. (You can find a collection of his recipes on his blog, Freddy’s Harajuku.)
“I use milk in almost every recipe that I post, be it in cake soaks, cake batters, a variety of doughs, custards, ganaches/namelakas, mousses, ice creams, milk teas…” he says. “Milk adds flavor, fat, caramelization — all great things that you need to make a dessert taste that much better.”
Of course, Chang’s Taiwanese heritage plays a role in his desserts, too — as does his love for Japanese animation and video games. Take his milk tea hot chocolate, for example. In a play on a Taiwanese favorite, he combines a roasted miso and hojicha mixture with milk powder and sugar for a super creamy, salty, and sweet drink. Taiwanese culture and cooking, as Chang explains, takes influences from Japan, China, Korea, and Malaysia, so by crafting his desserts in the style of these cuisines, Chang feels as if he’s paying homage to the country where he was born.
“I struggled immensely with embracing my own heritage and culture,” he says. “I would be actively shamed for bringing dumplings to school for lunch, and it got to a point where I had to basically try to hide my identity as an Asian American to try and fit in. The trouble is, you can’t really hide something like that. And I eventually learned that, no matter how hard I tried to change the fact I was Taiwanese-born, I couldn’t, and I should just love who I am, and embrace that in its entirety.”
Chang also uses his baking to give back to his community and beyond. In 2020, he released an e-book of donut recipes, and donated all the profits to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and It Gets Better. He’s also collaborated on pop-up dinners for causes like Loveworks, an organization dedicated to helping children pursue their passions, and even hosted virtual cooking classes throughout the pandemic to raise money for COVID-19 research.
“I know what its like to be an outcast for the color of my skin, for being gay, and I don’t wish that sort of hatred or discrimination upon anyone,” he says. “Since I love to cook and bake, I figured, why not use that, and make the world a more accepting and loving place?”