Mitchell Hughes’s path to a successful culinary career had an unconventional start and a romantic turning point. A native of San Francisco, he worked for 14 years as an immunology technician for a medical laboratory in Southern California—not the usual preparation for a creator of spectacular desserts. Then came a vacation in Paris with his partner, which opened Mitchell’s eyes to a different kind of science: the science of baking. When the vacation was over, he traded his lab coat for a baker’s smock and chef’s hat at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
Not only has he never regretted the decision, the transition from scientific lab to pastry kitchen felt surprisingly natural, Mitchell now says: “Both science and baking are very exacting. That fits my personality to a T.”
After graduating from CCA in 1997, Mitchell found work at local bakeries and at Whole Foods before being hired in 2000 by Spun Sugar, a baking-supply store and school in Berkeley, California. He’s now the executive pastry chef there, whipping up the fancy cakes, confections, and cookies that are sold in the retail store. But Spun Sugar is much more than a pastry shop: It’s “a 911 hotline for all bakers,” Mitchell half-jokes—a resource for everything the adventurous home baker needs, from specialty chocolate to the ingredients for gum paste, from sprinkles to spatulas, from flavored oils to edible glitter.
It’s also a busy school, offering two to three hands-on classes each week, all year round. Mitchell’s classes in baking and chocolate-making are among the most popular. “I grew up in a family of teachers,” Mitchell says, “and I always expected to become a teacher myself—but only after many years of other work. It turned out I was bitten by the teaching bug much earlier than I’d planned!”
“Students love Chef Mitchell’s easygoing style, sense of humor and above all his baking and confectionery talent,” says Spun Sugar instructor and retail-store manager Tracy Wirta. “He’s always willing to help our customers and students with their questions.”
Chef Mitchell’s skills were showcased in a recent “Caramel Heaven” class at Spun Sugar. He explained that while caramel seems simple—the only ingredients are sugar and water, sometimes with the addition of butter and cream—consistent results can be elusive unless you understand the process.
Successful caramel depends on the right cooking temperature, Mitchell says, and the right temperature depends on an accurate candy thermometer, digital or analog. “It’s important to trust your thermometer,” he adds. To check your thermometer’s accuracy, clip it to the edge of the pan you’ll be using for caramel. Then boil water in it. Water boils at 212°F at sea level, Mitchell reminds us, “so if your thermometer says something different when your water boils, you’ll need to adjust the temperature you bring your caramel to.” If you live above sea level, refer to this chart to learn the boiling temperature where you live. As you make your caramel, keep a close eye on the temperature: sugar heats fast and burns even faster.
Chef Mitchell brings caramel for candy to 250°F, and caramel for apples between 246°F and 248°F. When the mixture reaches the appropriate temperature, stop the cooking process by pouring the caramel into a bowl, submerging the bottom in an ice bath, and stirring until the caramel cools.
Excellent caramel begins with excellent ingredients—and of course that includes sugar. Some recipes specify superfine sugar for silky-smooth results, but Mitchell says C&H Granulated Sugar also works well—in fact, he prefers it. Follow recipe directions carefully: different types of caramel require slight ingredient or technique adjustments with a big impact on the final results. For example, C&H’s recipe, Caramel Apples, has relatively little butter, which creates a gooey consistency that adheres well to apples. The larger proportion of butter in our Caramel Sauce recipe makes the sauce perfect for pouring and dipping.
Check out the Spun Sugar website for photos of Chef Mitchell’s creations and for information about events. And be sure to check out the class schedule—it’s worth planning a Bay Area vacation around. Who knows—maybe you, like Mitchell, will be inspired to find a new career calling!