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On Baking

Despite what my KitchenAid mixer and various accoutrement might signal to you, I don’t consider myself much of a baker.  Don’t get me wrong, I love whipping up sponge cakes on a whim and I stock bags of confectioner’s sugar in my pantry along with six different kinds of flour (AP, cake, pistachio, almond, corn and Wondra) just in case I need to bake in the middle of the night.  No small feat for our tiny NYC apartment and our even tinier NYC kitchen.  No, don’t be misled by these accessories for they do not make me a baker.  For every baking success I’ve had, once in a while I’ll encounter a recipe that knocks me back a few notches and leaves me swearing that I’ll never measure a cup of flour ever again.  Of late, those recipes are from a man called Hidemi Sugino.

Mr. Sugino is perhaps my favorite pâtissière of all time.  I first tasted his heavenly creations at his pastry boutique in 2008 after reading about him in my favorite food blog by Chubby Hubby.  My friend and I waited in line early on a weekday winter morning so that we too could partake in these desserts that I’d only read about in advance preparation for our trip.  After splitting seven different cakes between the two of us, each composed of at least four or five different components and meticulously presented, I pretty much fell in love and caught myself trying to sneak in glances into the kitchen to see if the man himself was behind the scenes and working his magic.  (He was!).  I returned to his shop a year later expecting to be half-disappointed thinking that the second time couldn’t have possibly topped my first, but it did.  From then on, I’dalways wanted to attempt making his small cakes, called entremets, but felt too intimidated.  First of all, his recipes are published in a book that outlines ingredients in French and instructions in Japanese!  Secondly, some of his ingredients are fairly exotic (e.g. Sicilian pistachios or kirsch-soaked Morello cherries).  Lastly, each cake takes at least half a day to make and assemble because they usually are made up of several kinds of mousses and genoise.

Well, now that I have some time on my hands and several food bloggers online have kindly translated these recipes from Sugino’s book, I finally attempted to make my very first Sugino entremet.  Encouraged by the beautiful results these bloggers achieved, I wandered around NYC acquiring the various cake molds, cutters and ingredients needed to make one of his entremet and discovered some great kitchen and baking resources along the way.  Finally, one afternoon, all of the pieces in place, I attempted to make Sugino’s B-Caraibe, a three-layer cake composed of a chocolate mousse, banana puree and vanilla chantilly finished with chocolate paint and a neutral glaze.  Six hours later, and I, well, I had a delicious cake on my hands but it looked NOTHING like the cakes I’d seen elsewhere online, let alone anything like the original by Sugino.  My husband attempted to placate me by raving about how delicious the cake was but I was beyond comforting.  Six hours of my life, gone.

This episode prompted me to write this entry and attempt to dissect what it was that lead to this failed episode of baking.  A good learning moment, perhaps.  It reminded me of something I’d heard at a chocolatier demonstration I attended a couple of years ago about the fundamental difference between culinary chefs vs. pastry chefs.  Pastry chefs are your typical type-A perfectionists – their counterparts, culinary chefs, look at them as if they have sticks up their asses because pastry chefs are precise, and, due to the exact nature of the baking arts, inflexible.  Baking is after all a form of applied chemistry and chemistry leaves no wiggle room for improvisation.  Culinary chefs, however, are the so called artists, or rather, they fancy themselves artists.  Developing intuition and ultimately relying on that intuition and adding in the ability to improvise is what makes a culinary chef great.  Even with the advent of gastromolecular cuisine rendering kitchens into chemistry labs, culinary chefs are ultimately hackers.  They make do with what they have, tweaking seasonings and ingredients, searing, poking, poaching and braising until the final umami result.

So, this begs the question, am I not anal enough to be a baker?  Up to this point in my life, I’ve been pretty well rewarded for being an obsessive perfectionist.  So what is it about baking, then?  Why is it that my cakes are sometimes so ugly that they’re the dessert equivalent of a child with a face that only a mother could love?  I don’t know, but damn it I will triumph.  Even if it means I’ll have to start learning Japanese to translate Hidemi’s recipe book one syllable at a time.  One day.

Rant done.

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