When you’re walking by a pastry shop, chances are that science and art are the last things on your mind. However, it’s the permutations and combinations of these two elements that go to make dream desserts, decadent cakes or eye-popping pastries, to say nothing of creamy confectionery. And ask the army of pastry chefs in any kitchen if they’d ever trade places with their counterparts in the main kitchen, and you’ll get a simple “never”. That’s how hooked the breed is to their vocation.
As Avijit Ghosh, Pastry Chef of The Oberoi, New Delhi, says, “The science lies in combining the traditional ingredients of a pastry kitchen – eggs, flour, sugar and butter – to get the desired result. Cream butter and sugar together, add eggs, then fold in the flour, and you’ll get a cake. On the other hand, whisk sugar and eggs together, then slowly add eggs and flour and you’ll get a tart base. If you beat egg whites with sugar, you’ll end up with a meringue.” If that’s the nuts and bolts of any pastry kitchen operation, where the art comes in is in decoration. It’s usually the part that every pastry chef enjoys the most.
Chef Keshi Nisudan of ITC Maurya Sheraton Hotel and Towers may have opted for the pastry kitchen in order to avoid butchery – an integral part of life in the main kitchen – but it’s here that he’s risen meteorically. The aspect of his job that he enjoys the most is working with chocolate. “It’s my version of visiting a gym,” says he. “I mix cooking chocolate and liquid glucose together. You get a malleable product that’s called plastic chocolate in the trade. I slap it around the counter and work it into all sorts of shapes. I strongly recommend it for everything from keeping fit to working off your tensions. The best part is that it’s completely re-useable.”
The pastry kitchen of a hotel is dramatically unlike the rest of the kitchen. For one thing, it’s far cooler – both pastry and chocolate require low handling temperatures. For another, there are fewer staff and more machinery. “This one is for moulding chocolates, says Chef Kuldeep Sharma, Pastry Chef of The Imperial, as he shows me around his domain, “and that is for spraying the finish at high pressure.” All around are heads bent low over painstakingly sliced strawberries and the shells of chocolate, sculpted into various shapes. “When you’re making a sacher torte, you have to stick to the traditional decoration,” explains Chef Sharma about his craft. “For chocolates, innovation is the name of the game.” The trick is in knowing when to innovate, and when tradition is paramount.
All food must look good as well as be tasty, right? However, in the case of confectionery, cakes and desserts, the looks are supreme. If you are shopping around for a dessert as a dinner party present, wouldn’t you pick one that is topped with glossy chocolate or dark caramel or luscious fruits? You may not know it, but what you’re doing is paying homage to the art of the chef who laboured over it.
In fact, even those hotels that don’t have a pastry shop, have a tea-time spread. The Imperial labours over theirs with platters of madelines and strawberry tarts. The Taj Mahal Hotel has a lavish spread, albeit behind glass counters in an area devoted exclusively to round-the-clock tea time. It’s called Emperor’s Lounge, and it features seldom seen before cakes and pastries. Sidewalk at the Hyatt Regency Delhi too, has an area dedicated to chocolates and pastries that are as dark as sin – and about as irresistible!
So, what exactly is a dessert, and what goes into a pastry shop? “There’s no indivisible line, but a series of pointers,” says Chef Bruno Cerdan, Executive Chef of The Imperial. “A dessert is made minutes before it is eaten, while a cake in a pastry shop has to have a shelf life of 24 hours, so that becomes the deciding factor.” According to Chef Cerdan, a dessert can be a hot soufflé, crème brulle, panacotta, moelleux – a semi-baked cake with an oozing center. Whipped cream, zabaglione – eggs and sugar whisked over a double boiler – and fruit coulis, all are grist to the decoration of a dessert. Desserts in deluxe hotels all over the world are labour-intensive, and the show-piece of the meal. Leave a dessert on a plate for one hour, and it’s in danger of collapsing, but that never actually happens, because desserts are always made for immediate consumption. It’s also where the pastry chef shows off his skills – a tuile or pulled sugar may be added for show, and in general, it costs significantly more than something you can pick up from a pastry shop.
Chef Tirath Singh of Old World Hospitality, the company that is associated with India Habitat Centre at Lodi Road, has just returned from a stint with the Ritz Hotel in Paris’ Place de la Vendome. His observation is that in Western Europe, it’s only the top end hotels that still employ pastry chefs. Lower down the scale, desserts are outsourced from specialists, because of the formidable cost of hiring trained and skilled staff. “Even there, the trend is to use machinery cleverly so that each cake has a different look. Yet it’s done with the minimum of staff and the maximum of machinery.” Chef Tirath Singh feels that India is the diametric opposite of France. “Here, skilled personnel are easily available, but ingredients and machinery are, on the whole, in short supply. There, it’s just the opposite.”
The average pastry shop caters to a wide spectrum of tastes and customers. “I’ve tried hard to remove that old favourite – pineapple pastry – from my pastry shop,” says Chef Avijit Ghosh ruefully, “but it has its aficionados, no matter what.” For more adventurous tastes, there are a range of cakes, pastries and confectionery that is only limited by how much you want to buy. And as the festive season draws near, it’s time to celebrate the sweet tooth as well as to admire the art of a creative bunch of people. ends
Glossary of terms that you’ll need in a pastry shop(courtesy Chef Avijit Ghosh)
Bavarois: a jelly made with milk.
Butterscotch: caramel with butter added. May be hardened and used like granulated sugar or as a flavouring.
Caramel: sugar burnt to a pre-determined extent (i.e. golden or dark brown) to be used as a topping in desserts or a flavouring agent in confectionery.
Chocolate munch base: chocolate, praline paste, rice crispies that are mixed together and chilled for a pie base.
Choco glaze: cooking chocolate, liquid glucose, gelatine and cream that is warmed over a double boiler and poured over a chocolate cake. It’s softer than an icing, and, as its name implies, more glossy.
Collar: The sides of some cakes have a thin layer of cake made with two technical aids called respectively deco paste and deco sponge, baked together. They usually have a two-colour design and give a neat, professional look.
Compote: stewed fruit with sugar
Dacquoise: a cross between a biscuit and shortbread made with almond or desiccated coconut flavouring. Very similar is japonnaise. Can be used as a pastry with a layer of cream or icing between two layers.
Ganache: a 1:2 proportion of whipped cream and cooking chocolate. Usually a filling in individual chocolates or as a sandwich in chocolate cakes.
Glaze: The appetizing gloss on a fruit tart or mousse comes from fruit puree and gel cooked together and brushed over the surface. It’s strong enough to take decorations, which the mousse underneath isn’t.
Jelly: gelatin, fruit puree, sugar. It’s usually a dessert, but can do duty as a filling in a pastry.
Linzer torte: two layers of cake flavoured with almond powder, ristretto (double-strength black coffee) and cinnamon, sandwiched with raspberry jam.
Meringue: a 1:2 proportion of stiffly beaten egg white and sugar baked in a cool oven. Pure white, its crunchy texture makes it a dessert topping, garnish on cakes or as a dessert like vacherin with whipped cream. Italian meringue is a deeper coloured variation that uses cooked sugar and egg white.
Mille feuille: Literally thousand leaves, it’s called puff pastry in English and is used for patties, among other things.
Modelling chocolate: cooking chocolate and liquid glucose that is to pastry chefs what plasticine is to children.
Mousse: a soufflé folded with cream
Nougat: caramelized sugar with nuts
Sacher torte: two layers of rich chocolate cake sandwiched with apricot jam and coated with chocolate icing, that is the speciality of a famous shop in Vienna.
Sponge: the most basic of all cakes, made without butter. Usually flavoured with chocolate, coffee, vanilla or almond. They’d be too plain on their own, so they’re always dressed with rich butter icing.
Truffle: a 1:1 proportion of whipped cream and cooking chocolate. It has nothing to do with the fungus-like growth of the same name that is found in the forests of Italy and France.
Tuile: an extra thin lattice wafer of any shape. Can be used as a garnish in a dessert, or made in the shape of a cup and filled with dessert.