There’s something about pastry

Edd Kimber, a.k.a. @theboywhobakes linked to this article on twitter not once, but twice – and I’m very glad he did. It’s a fascinating article from the New Yorker about the evolution of the modern dessert, a “quest to find out what desserts really [are] and where they [are] going”.

It’s a great read, although leaves you wanting more detail in a number of places. However, I found the distinction between dessert and not dessert somewhat false. As the article describes, the line between the two is quite blurred, because the techniques straddle dessert and main course cooking, and sweet and savoury flavours can appear in both. Ultimately, the only good definition of dessert is that it comes at the end of the meal.

But for me, the more interesting separation is not about dessert, but about pastry. I found the most interesting part of the article Ferran Adria’s description of the two major revolutions in French cooking coming from chefs originally trained in pastry – Carême codifying French cuisine and Michel Guérard and nouvelle cuisine. I’ve always found it interesting that Gordon Ramsay trained in pastry as well, and his Just Desserts book is, I think, one of his better ones. Pastry, in this context means a set of techniques in manipulating flour, sugar, butter and eggs to create a set of new materials – a set of skills which perhaps can equip you to imagine a new type of cuisine.

I definitely prefer pastry, mostly baking, to cooking – something that’s very obvious from the archives of this blog. It is something that I have thought of as a bit of defect, and have tried to correct (at least on the blog). I have thought of myself as  preferring pastry because I have a sweet tooth, and when I was at cooking school, because it was a calmer task than line cooking. These preferences are part of it, but this article also starts to get at something else which marks pastry apart from the rest of cooking. It is learning the techniques you need, and understanding the science behind the transformations in baking that really fascinates me, and draws me back to repeat, refine, adapt and develop.

The idea of constructing something new – creating new textures and materials out of raw ingredients – is fascinating. This is what Alice Medrich calls ‘a basic wardrobe for designing desserts’ and the part that appeals to ‘the engineer and architect’ in her. Armed with these techniques, and the ratios that make them work, you can create anything you care to dream up.  And because these are confections, they lend themselves to imagination and creativity. There’s no ‘meat and two veg’ target to hit, no nutritional points to count, no need for ‘food as fuel’. It is pure escape, like couture, the concept car or the Turner prize. (High end dining occupies a similar place, regardless of the courses.)

Something I’ve done before is to map out techniques or recipes, to see how learning one can lead you on to the next. This seems to work particularly well for pastry, where the same few ingredients can be combined in a huge number of different ways.

This diagram is an illustration of where these techniques can take you. A diagram of how to navigate the materials and techniques, and what you can access with each of them. This is a start – I would like to develop this further. If you can see anything that’s missing, or have any good ideas on how it could be used or developed, please let me know.

What about you – do you prefer pastry or cookery – and do you know why?

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I’m Louise, and I’m a compulsive baker, cookbook hoarder and a bit of a food geek. I learnt to cook at home, and later at Tante Marie’s cooking school in San Francisco. With a science degree and a background in IT analysis, I like to understand why a recipe works, not just how to do it. Why the rules are there and when they can be broken.

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