Serve the (public) servants… a lesson in Freshness *

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*it’s a rant.

“So what’s fresh today?”

Truth be told I’ve, as I chuckle half-heartedly about it, sold my soul in some vein. I can’t conjure romantic images of a cutesy corner bakeshop when recanting the daily trials to people who ask “how’s work going?”

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But the health benefits outweigh the untrained, let’s ruin everything hahaha staff, and then the no staff to the new, getting-there I can breathe now staff.

The exchange, though not what was originally promised, has allowed me to do one thing: not think about work on my day off. Magically, as though it doesn’t even exist, or rather that it will most certainly continue to exist even if I didn’t, my worry that things will go to hell as soon as I exit the building has disappeared.

Maybe this is because I know things will go awry but that for today that’s none of my business, as my contract states that I must maintain a proper work-life balance, until I have to fix, whatever I must fix, tomorrow. I’m curiously okay with this.

What is another all too challenging issue is how closely I am to customers. I don’t often talk to them, not because I don’t want to, but things being as they are, I just don’t have the time. But on the rare occasion a dialogue begins, it’s often with the same opening.

What is freshly made today?

Can I be honest? Between you and me?

Probably nothing.

Then again, how do you gauge freshness? What are the requirements? On days when we have fresh fruit tarts, I mean sure the fruit is fresh because it hasn’t been dried, but let’s not kid ourselves here, there’s no strawberry patch upstairs. These strawbs are from Peru. They travelled here by train or boat, do you know how long that takes? Does that qualify as fresh? If it does than your concept of fresh should have some flexibility.

So I assembled the tart today, but let’s be reasonable here, tart shells are a pain to make. I have always made them in-house in the past, but this is a different beast, these are not house-made, they can’t be. They travel in boats from France. Fresh? Still crisp, still fresh.

Considering I don’t arrive at work until 7 and it takes an hour and a bit just to put finishings on and tag the product and get it into the display case, I absolutely did not make the pastry cream this morning. Consider this:

Pastry cream, made en-masse quantity needed in a place like this is like 7 litres at a time. You must cook pastry cream, per-litre, one minute for it to be considered safe. Seven minutes boiling time, not to mention the 20 minutes it took for it to get to that temperature in the first place (nor the scaling of ingredients), then it must cool down (at least 45 minutes in the fridge on a sheet tray) and congeal, then be whipped again for nice smooth consistency before going into the shell (fresh from France) then garnished with the (fresh from Peru) fruits, which takes like 30 minutes to prepare.

If I had an army of little pastry peeps whisking away back here, we could, if we started at 2am every morning, fill the case with fresh product every day. Let’s be serious guys, this is not a boutique. 

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Do you know how much that would cost? I mean, pastry is a skill. Technically a trade. You are buying pastries from the shop because you don’t know how to make them, yes? That is a skill you must pay money for, a service if you will. Maybe you do know how to do this but you are all “I don’t have time for all that!” Okay, I understand this but we run off the same clock. We have time to do the work we do because we are paid for it. But considering I can’t employ twenty people to make fresh pastries all day long, I can’t think of anyone who can save for Domenique Ansel who will be opening an 80% made to order bakery, but lets be honest Chef, don’t you mean assembled to order?

Someone is spreading a rumour that mousse cakes need to be fresh… I’m sorry to say, they cannot stand on their own if they are to be as fresh as you want them to be, so no that wasn’t made this morning either. Not real mousse, like what we make with fruit puree, egg white, sugar, and cream, nor this horrendous thing a lot of other places call mousse:

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How long does it take you to make a cake at home? 4 hours start to finish? Longer? In pastry, sometimes we have expensive things like blast chillers which cool things in minutes, these cost $20,000 and are $$$ to run, but they save hours, which translates to money. Few places can afford things like blast chillers to save them a few hours.

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People who are professionals in the pastry world are not magicians. We don’t conjure up anything, we actually work within the same time frame you do at home when you bake a cake. We are just more efficient and more confident. Oh yes, and skilled.

Fact: We don’t have ovens that bake cakes in 5 minutes. That doesn’t exist. It takes the same amount of time to bake a cake in a bakery as it does for you at home. That’s not lame, or lack of technology, it’s called science.

How can we make… 30 cakes in a day when you struggle to make one? We don’t. We likely baked the cakes one day, freeze them. Then we make the frosting or the mousse or whatever and assemble another day. Or several days after that. Then we freeze the whole thing. The process takes several days. I can assemble and finish a cake in 6 minutes, but that’s about as quick as it gets. Everything else takes the same amount of time.

Fact: The freezer keeps things fresh. Not indefinitely, there is certainly a finite lifespan of a frozen product, but it’s 1-3 months if stored properly. My preference, as is the preference of most proper pastry peeps, is to keep it frozen for as short a time as possible, and always practice proper rotation (first in, first out).

Fact: Pastry products, like wine, actually improve with age. I don’t mean months, unless it’s a soaked cake like fruit cake, but a day or two does wonders for flavour. Ice cream makers tend to allow the base mixture to sit at least a day to allow the flavours to mature, before churning. Custards develop their proper texture and full flavour, cake has a different structure from fresh out of the oven to the next day when it has fully baked.

A croissant will not taste better the next day. It will be dry. You eat croissants the morning they are made, please don’t hang on to them “for later” unless…

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You turn them into almond croissants. Almond croissants exist to add longevity to a delicious, highly laborious and costly product that has an extremely short shelf life. A dunk in some syrup (to eliminate the dryness), filling and topping of a soft, almond and butter-full sponge (frangipane) and a re-bake to refresh and cook the eggs — please keep in mind that re-baking will literally refresh or even improve a two day old loaf of bread, that is both science and magic — and voila! You have a new product, totally delicious in every way, and it is shelf-stable for more than a measly day, you could have that in several days and it would have better flavour than the day they were baked.

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So here is my plea, remember dear shoppers: Bread is for today, always buy your bread today, it will keep for the days you want to eat it, but don’t buy bread from yesterday, or as is the case of baggy bread, months ago (sorry, that Wonder Bread probably sat in a freezer for up to 6 months! Fresh??)

Cake is full of sugar and maybe chocolate and fats of all kinds, creams and soft things. Cake does not have to be from today. It lasts a week or more, if properly stored. And as with most things, as soon as it is sliced the shelf-life declines (think of ganache and buttercream as a kind of tin can, heck pie dough was the original tin can).

A cake I made 5 days ago but that sat in the freezer until yesterday? It’s still fresh. It will be tomorrow and the next day, the day after that. No worries.

It’s the cellophane straight-jacketed chocolate cake with the star-tube frosting in the freezer isle you should be concerned about.

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2 thoughts on “Serve the (public) servants… a lesson in Freshness *

  1. In this one beautiful rant you have done a great job at trying to explain the intricacies of exactly how tricky a pastry chef’s job is. I still remember your S’mores dessert… Keep the faith baby!

    • Thanks! I often worry I come off as too cynical or too bitchy, as I think a lot of us do on the sweet side of the industry, but it’s always out of love! Pastry peeps are some of the most passionate people around.

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