Image: Rick Wenner
Many parents take on the task of teaching children how to count before turning school age. Some use shiny coins, others might turn to more tactile objects like blocks. In the Shupp household, tucked away in Downingtown, PA, about 45 minutes west of Philadelphia, young Cassandra learned numbers by counting cookies. “My mom would give me cookies and say ‘One cookie, two cookies…’ and then it turned out that my first word was cookie.”
But drawing a parallel between that scene and Shupp now, a pastry chef at one of Long Island’s best restaurants, simplifies her story a bit too much.
At Topping Rose House, Shupp stands at the wood baker’s bench in the kitchen describing the summer bounty of fruits she uses in her desserts, a welcome change after a fall and winter dominated by pears and apples. The East End setting is a warm reminder of her roots. As a child, she relished pretending to forage for strawberries in her parents’ garden and Saturday visits to the farmer’s market with the stand that made her favorite: Whoopie pies with oatmeal cookies.
Shupp took a casual interest in baking with her to college in North Carolina to study art. She made extra money by working the front of the house at restaurants. “I was really heavy into the arts: painting, drawing and sculpting and imagined myself being this starving artist—I don’t know why that sounded appealing at the time,” she said with a laugh.
In her off-campus apartment she perfected her chocolate chip cookie; developed a rich, glazed chocolate torte; and learned how to make pâte à choux and éclairs. Needless to say she was popular with her roommates. After graduating, that starving concept became a bit too real when the economy made it difficult to begin a career at an art museum. She took her art degree and baking interest to culinary school, focusing on pastry. “In my mind the kind of desserts I loved and art kind of went hand-in-hand. It wasn’t until I came to New York City that I was like, ‘You can apply art to everything.’”
She emerged with a better understanding of layering a dessert’s flavors and textures while using her art background, especially during the program’s final project decorating a wedding cake—essentially painting and sculpting with gum paste and marzipan. Her artistic side is always going to love the pageantry of a beautiful dessert but ask her if she prefers that over a comforting, tasty dish and her chef side responds, “I love flare, but deep down I want somebody to eat something and remember their childhood or feel like a kid eating it because you feel so guilty enjoying this delicious thing.”
Her menu is usually four items, plus ice cream and an assortment of cheeses—a lot of the dishes have to deliver more than just sweet. A fall classic is the pear tarte tatin with softened fruit and a buttery crust contrasted with velvety ice cream and nutty almond brittle. Her sour cream cheesecake takes to summer because it incorporates lemon zest. It sits above a shortbread crust topped with a berry compote. The dish is rich, with a touch of acidity, a cookie texture and natural sweetness. Served with candied almonds it offers a lot of flavor profiles.
“You’re hitting all the points but at the same time it all works together because there is enough salt to balance out the sweet.” Then there are items that transcend seasons and even time of day, like the cinnamon sugar brioche doughnuts she cooks to order for breakfast and dinner.