The Art of Pastry
July 22, 2014
I had dinner last week in an expensive restaurant. As I read the menu my eye was drawn to a dessert:
PISTACHIO IN OLIVES cake is made with the oil from castelvetrano olives, layered with pistachio cream, sorbet is the juice and flesh of cara cara oranges, crispy pomegranate, kumquats preserved in blood orange juice and moscato
What a luscious-sounding dish! Olive cake with the crunch of pistachios, cream, orange sorbet, pomegranate, moscato. Everything goes together pretty well; everything sounds so good. Whatever I order for the dinner, I thought, I am going to have that.
And I did.
What arrived was not the slender slice of cake I expected but a tiny rectangle. On top was a small oblong of sorbet and the rest was presented in dots and smears and dribbles and crumbs. It was one of those austere pastry paintings, something done for the pleasure of the pastry chefs and having nothing to do with my dream dessert.
Restaurants make their most enduring impressions with what they serve first and what they serve last and both of those are baked goods.
Because they know that, most good restaurants buy bread from wholesale bakeries even though they would like nothing more than to serve their own and stop bearing the costs of good bread. They buy their bread from bakeries because good bread is expensive to make, requires an expertise not generally shared by their staffs, and because they can’t justify investment in the expensive equipment required.
But good restaurants do not buy their desserts from a bakery because they want to make money on their desserts and want to make “a statement about who they are.”
I don’t write that to demean them. Dessert is the last memory of dinner and it’s important. It is a shot of sugar and leaves sweetness in the mouth.
As this is the era of overeating, it is particularly important that desserts be more than just another reason for eating sugar of which we have far too many reasons already. Dessert ought to be sweet, yes, but not too sweet. It ought to be a little rich perhaps, an indulgence. And it ought to be small.
I acknowledge – and I have said this before — that I prefer under sweetened desserts and simplicity. I love dark chocolate because it’s bitter. I dislike white chocolate because it’s pointless.
Especially at this time of year – the season of peaches and raspberries – restaurants and bakeries have such abundant opportunities to make simple desserts. The pastry people at Bread Furst had already begun making a peach cake when I asked them to make in addition what we used to call Bobalie’s peach pie.
Bobalie was a great character in my life – in the life of my family. She was an immensely talented woman, ferocious in appearance and angry a good deal of the time. She started working for my grandparents at the age of 15 – lying about her age – and she worked for my grandparents for 60 years.
She was a brilliant cook and her great talent was simplicity. Her peach “pie” was a rectangle of exceptional piecrust with peaches arranged on top, a sprinkle of sugar and a few drop of lemon juice. It was served with whipped cream or ice cream but was just fine on its own – especially sneaked out of the still warm pan.
I was so excited when the test tart was presented me the other day and Chris was a little incredulous. “You like me to be honest with you: It would be improved by a little pastry cream (vanilla custard) underneath.”
Pastry chefs can’t give up complicating things.
I always wonder, however, just how much the pastry chefs who make artful desserts really like the pastries they make. Their smears and dots they put on plates are never big enough to convey flavor and I think flavor is what customers really appreciate.
I consulted Alex Levin, pastry chef at Osteria Morini who is smart, talented and artistic
A dessert that I make has to taste great. Or else, I might as well pack up my stuff and go home…Some of my desserts take a more traditional route – like my weekend specials of cobblers with fresh peaches and berries, oat streusel and gelato right on top of the hot dish, or the chocolate cake with espresso gelato.
Others are quite deconstructed, like my Goat Cheese and Lavender-Scented Peaches dessert. The elements though each play a role, and then I enjoy arranging them in a way that is visually interesting. Every sauce, cake, mousse, meringue, fruit, gelato, etc. plays a particular role in terms of look, taste, texture, temperature and contribute to the overall experience.
I started thinking about desserts in this way at my CIA student internship at Jean Georges. There, the goal was to wow the guest with the most delicious desserts that were equally as artistic and unusual looking.
Jean Georges. It’s those French again. I can understand why restaurant might want to wow its customers with artistry and looks but this is not high on my list of objectives (and in a retail setting not really achievable).
I want to make sweets that, like our chocolate cookie for example, simply makes a customer think, “This is really good.” I want to make desserts that evoke nostalgia because we love them as children and they can for a moment bring back those child-like feelings.
I want to make desserts about which customers say, “This reminds me of summers in Maine.”