Daniel Nayeri

Daniel Nayeri is a writer and children's book editor in NYC. He loves pastry chefing and Street Fighter 2, hates the word "foodie," and was once an award-winning stuntman.

Intro to Pastry

As we prepare to launch a new site, we wanted to celebrate a few articles from The Curator’s archives. This article was first published at The Curator in August 2008. 

So first of all, my contributions to The Curator will only be about dessert. And dessert is completely unnecessary.

And they’re all going to start with the word “so.” No particular reason. I just really like “so.” It reminds me of Raymond Chandler novels that start, “So I’m sitting in the stale air of my PI office, main-lining gin and joe when she walks in, legs as long as a national epic . . . ” Love it. Also, it lets me call them my “so-so stories,” which cracks me up in a self-abasing, self-aggrandizing sort of way.

Anyway, I really like dessert. I work as a pastry chef in New York City, so I should. One of the most exciting parts of the job is talking about it. At any cocktail party, it’s the easiest conversation piece, since everybody loves sweets except for Adolf Hitler and diabetics – and let’s face it, we all secretly disapprove of diabetics.

But there’s no way to get around this: in any cocktail party crowd, my job is also the most useless. It has zero point to it. It shouldn’t be tasteless, though it can be off-color depending the company. It’s not unimportant, exactly. But it’s not important either, in the way that irrigation engineering in the Third World is important, or even running a sock factory.

Really, it’s luxury. It’s fashion. It’s art.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m not prepared to say that any of those things are worth eleven hours of every day. For any professional pastry chef, half the job is in justifying your own existence. It takes a willful forgetting of the inequalities of the world, and the fact that some of us have never tasted a chocolate bar.

That’s why we tend to cultivate that rarified air of an artisan, rather than a craftsman. A savory chef, no matter how hoity-toity, can always claim lineage all the way back to the first fire roast. The savory chef is continuing the tradition of the hearth, enacting one of the three primal directives. But if food is instinct, then pastry is centuries of evolutionary largesse.

It’s the most basic argument to say we need food to live. Real food, like apples. We don’t need dessert. And there’s really no way to pretend we do. Sure, at the fancy places, their vol-au-vent is a far cry from the sustenance of a few fish and a few loaves-but you definitely don’t need Gianduja tarts with mango sumac custard to live.

Dessert is extraneous, extravagant, essentially inessential. It’s half again the price of an entrée. Your parents only let you have it once in a while. Most of the ingredients – vanilla beans, gourmet chocolate, lavender, butter – are expensive, and most of the processes – soufflé, flambé, brulée – are specialized.

Expensive is a key term here. If a restaurant can afford a full-time pastry chef, the place is doing pretty well. But when the clientele is down to nothing but a handful of regulars and the occasional walk-by tourist, like any luxury, pastry is the first thing to go. Everyone will blow sunshine about how airy your croissants are, but when it comes down to it, you can always change the menu to tiramisu or sorbet and have the sous chef scoop to order. It’s like having the gym teacher coaching the orchestra once the school board cuts the music program.

And here’s where my artist friends always threaten to stone me – that’s exactly how it should be. I mean, I want my kid to know how to play “Free Bird” on the clarinet as much as the next guy, but not at the expense of him walking around not knowing how to add. Art makes life worth living, fine, but math makes sure you don’t get hustled. It also makes sure you can be of use to the world (and not in the saccharine “art will save the world” kind of way, but in the “inoculation will stave off malaria” kind).

The fact about pastry is that you can’t afford to have someone like me twittering around the back kitchen, talking baby talk to my proofing yeasts, and giggling like a schoolgirl over candied fennel, unless you are seriously committed to wasting money. Because you can’t cut cost on pastry. It’ll show.

I know a guy who can take weeks old chicken, leftover mise en place vegetables, and bread scraps from under the tables and turn it into a banquet worthy of the Raj Royale. But no matter what you do to it, a Hershey bar will always taste like curdled milk, chemically burned and kneaded out of some sad shrunken udder.

You want to know why Thomas Keller‘s chocolate chip cookies taste better than yours? He pretty much uses the same recipe on the back of a Tollhouse bag. But he buys pure Vermont Farms butter, organic eggs brought from the farm that morning, unbleached flour, Madagascar vanilla beans, and, heaven help you, the chocolate chips are the Valrhona 66-percent dark pistols – those magnanimous ebony doubloons, with a sheen like a Diablo in the moonlight, a snap like a Testarossa popping into fifth gear, a melt like my pants sitting in an Enzo. It’s the vastly overpriced, utterly worth-it European sports car of cooking chocolate. I could staff my kitchen with a special education class of howler monkeys, huck a bag of Valrhona in the middle of them, and still serve a molten chocolate cake that some witless marketer would call, “choco-orgasmic!”

Pastry departments are like bloodletting. Ice-cream machines, the good kind, are the price of a car. Convection ovens can run as much as some homes. And those are the basics. Flash freezers, chocolate conks, compressors, those’ll cut you so deep you’ll be hemorrhaging cash before you even think of all the ingredients.

With the money it takes to open a full-scale pastry studio, you could adopt ten thousand manatees, or take the pope to orbit sub-space and buy the two seats next to him for putting his feet up. You could open a half dozen soup kitchens and serve porterhouse for the first year. And maybe I’m betraying my profession here, but you probably should.


The only snag in my approach here is that Alissa, my editor, says I have to present things that contribute to culture in a positive way or pose important questions. So here’s the exact opposite of everything I just said:

So pastry is a trifle trifle, fine. But for me, pastry is that second of forgetting. It’s the short counterpoint to the rest of an all-in-all pretty awful day. It’s the unapologetic wasteful misuse of all your resources, a slap in the face of the daily grind. It represents all the bucked-up, jaw-out, defiant yop of someone spitting into the winds of fate. It’s that shatter your plate, yell “Oppah!,” and laugh at the brazen opulence of a life as blessed as ours. That we can eat cake. That we can be luxurious, if even for a second, if even with a Twinkie.

We’re pretty over-privileged, you and me. We not only eat cake, but we lounge around talking about it. You read about it, and I get paid to make them all day. That’s got to amount to something. No matter all the rest of it going wrong, whatever bones we have to pick with God, it has to mean something that we can afford the indulgences.

I don’t think you should do it everyday. Or even every week necessarily. Because like all art, for me at least, dessert is a guilty pleasure. But every once in a while, a piece of expertly tempered 70-percent dark seeping between your molars is as good as anything therapy’s ever done.

But I’m being serious when I say there are a billion more important things. It’s just that I figure I can’t write on those subjects.

And at the same time, this is a pretty good existence, when you think of the alternatives, and it should be enjoyed, damn it.

On Sprezzatura and Chupa Chups

This article was first published in December 2008.

So the story goes that when Enric Bernat, Spaniard and former employee of an apple jam factory, piped himself down on a barstool in Barcelona, it was the artist Salvador Dali who was sitting next to him. And it was also 1969.

This was eleven years after Bernat parted ways with the fruit preservation and canning business. His investors simply hadn’t entrepreneurial horizons as wide as Bernat’s, and refused to see the opportunities that lay in lollipops. In the meantime, Bernat ventured on his own, and became rather successful, with a product named Chupa Chups.

The rest of the anecdote about Bernat and Dali goes . . . Bernat asked the famous surrealist artist to design the logo for his number-one product, and Dali reached over, grabbed a cocktail napkin, and scrawled a cartoon flower on it. Then he handed it to Bernat. That was it: Chupa Chups as we know them.

Sure, I find this story colloquially winsome, but mostly I find it irritating. It’s the same cultural thing we do, reveling in discoveries (and sometimes great art) made by lazy accident, unwitting luck, or drunken boobery. Penicillin was discovered by neglecting a ham sandwich. Tea was struck upon when a dry leaf drifted into the Chinese emperor’s cup of hot water. At cocktail parties I never go to, but imagine, you can proffer these factoids and wonder at the concept of genius. Not excellence of craft, but something you kinda shamble into.

Also, I really hate it when two random dudes in a bar, friendly acquaintances, each happen to be on their way to fame and fortune in their respective fields. That wasn’t the case here, but it really bugs me, like I should be hamming it up with every jerk in every dive bar instead of working.

How seriously can we take the idea that Dali doodled the design for Chupa Chups? Also, can we agree the logo for the lollipop is as compositionally profound as Campbell’s Soup, or Coca-Cola? If so, then basically the question is: are we being stupid? Okay, maybe that’s always the question in a “take care of yourself, and each other,” sort of way. But more specifically, the question is whether we should celebrate art as effortless bungling.

In the song, “Remember the Name,” by Fort Minor (a rap anthem recorded, it seems, for the express purpose of making me want to join the UFC), this idea is almost perfectly illustrated. The entire song is about how hard these guys work, the driving chorus goes, “This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill / Fifteen percent concentrated power of will / Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain.” If we’re going to go the way of Russian Structuralism and map out the methods of creative output, I’d say this is pretty spot on. You got a dash of inspiration, some technical or educational foundation, and mostly, you got a lot of hard work.

The rest of the song paints the members of Fort Minor as blue-collar types. They don’t care about a “name in lights” or hype, they just want to be heard. And they know they have to work for it. In fact, one of them, “writes every note and he writes every line.” A practice uncommon for songwriters, it seems.

But later, near the end of the song, maybe in the service of a lazy rhyme, they say, “And those motherf**kers he runs with, those kids that he signed / Ridiculous, without even tryin’.”

What the? How does that work? Suddenly, the contradiction is played out on a conscious level. The artists want to be street, and grit, or whatever. Nobody gave them any handouts. But, it would be gauche to be seen trying. So, at end, you’ve got fifty percent pain, and one hundred percent God-given awesome.

This, of course, is also stupid.

What has always drawn me to Baldassare Castiglione’s concept of sprezzatura (The Book of the Courtier, 1528) is the idea that to be the man or woman of spontaneous skill, you must work your ass off behind the scenes. Castiglione describes the ideal man in one passage, saying at first he refuses to play an instrument for a crowd, citing his lack of skill and practice. But upon insistence, the courtier relents. And we know that secretly, the dude’s been practicing for years. So when he takes up the instrument, he proceeds to rock everyone’s face off. Now, that is motherf**king gangtsa. Word to the Duke of Urbino.

Sprezzatura, as a concept, is impossible to translate fully. It is bravura, a swagger you can back up, a cool beyond cool. It’s the years of laboring on card tricks or juggling, so that you get thirty seconds, somewhere in the undisclosed future in some bar with some stunning person, where you actually pull off the sleight of hand, or the turn of phrase, or just plain catch the tipping glass. It’s charm.

It’s also what every pastry chef is going for. As Enric Bernat will tell you, the process of making a Chupa Chup is so complex and requires such machine-like dexterity, that it’s frankly better to let machines handle it. The product, however, is a simple lollipop. Charm on a stick.

Ferran Adria, the father of molecular gastronomy, has a type of lollipop in his repertoire that is paper-thin, quarter-size, and made of flash-frozen yogurt, a process you need a laboratory to replicate. You would have to mortgage your house to afford the equipment necessary, then mortgage it again to get the education. But once Adria’s done all the work, he brings it out to a table. Guests might make overtures of gratitude, but like any good chef, he will say, “it’s nothing, it’s nothing.” Hours of painstaking work have gone into this moment, when they put the lollipops on their tongues, and they instantaneously melt into a shot of flavor. Imagine right now, the sour creamy flavor of Greek yogurt, mixed with a sweet and tart infusion of raspberry coulis. Now imagine it soaking into your tongue without your feeling the texture of any of these ingredients. It is an experience like cold dew. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a magic act.

I suppose that’s why I’m irritated by the anecdote of Dali scribbling a flower. I have to believe that he had spent the previous thirteen hours drawing the same doodle over and over again, until he was certain his off-the-cuff squiggle would be worthy of design legend. Precise imprecision. The constant practice of a rapper in his basement is what makes his free styling great. The half-dozen hours toward mise en place is what allows the chef to present a spontaneous collision of perfectly paired flavors and forms. Otherwise, it’s lucky you didn’t get food poisoning.

And Adria, he’s going to go home and soak his joints in Bengay. But for now, it is all-important to the presentation that he smile knowingly at your surprise. “It’s nothing,” he’ll say again. But trust me, it’s everything.

Caramel

This article originally appeared in The Curator September 12, 2008.

So long ago I can’t remember when exactly, I heard that cliché, “begin at the beginning,” and it made a deep personal impact on my writing life. No longer would I jump into a story with, “Assassin Prince Daniel wind-milled his arms as he leaned over the icy precipice…” From then on, I would only begin at the beginning. “Assassin Princes are cowabunga and rich and can do a move where their finger touches your brain. Assassin Prince Daniel was born on the back of killer whale…” This is only relevant because I proposed a series for The Curator on some of the basic ingredients/confections in every pastry chef’s repertoire-a sort of beginning in pastry as a craft. And here we are-caramel.

Photo by flickr user ReefRaff.

But before I begin the beginning, I should also add that my favorite part in The Watchmen, by Alan Moore, (soon to be the newest film that isn’t as good as the book) is when a character says that the first thing you should write is the saddest thing you can remember. That way you get the reader’s sympathy on your side. When I read that, I immediately changed Assassin Prince Daniel’s origin story to, “his parents get shot in an alley, and he was born an orphan on the back of a killer whale.”

These days, the saddest thing I can think of is caramel. Not honey caramel or crème caramel, just regular caramel. Plain as pine. Sugar, water, fire, cream. Simple. Demonstrably irrefusable. Ontologically delicious. In a lot of ways, caramel is the quintessence of dessert. It’s creamy, lustrous, opulent. It’s almost straight sugar, brought to a boil till it browns. Then it’s mixed with fat and milk solids so it’ll stay soft instead of seizing into hard rock candy. As a sauce, it adds a homey kind of indulgence, like slathering whipped butter on buttermilk pancakes. As a filling, it’s a sure favorite. As a main course, it would probably still sell through most nights. It is the Platonic ideal of sweet. Caramelizing something is pretty much the phrase for making it taste good.

But for some reason, every time I think about caramel I turn into a soppy dishrag. I won’t look you in the eye. The awkward intensity of my quiet would have you thinking I just plummeted from a sugar high so astronomical it would make John Glenn holla back.

I hate caramel because of Salma, my inimitable mentor-a lady so good at her job that she had time to guide me step-by-step through each day, and then go back and fix all the mistakes I made before service.

I began working for Salma right after my pastry job, which was actually as an instructor. So at that point I still only knew the stuff in the textbooks. For example, I could tell you the term caramel is referring to two things. The first is a stage in the heating of sugar (with a liquid, usually water) right after the “hard crack” stage (315-320F), when it begins to brown. The light caramel stage is at around 338F, while a dark caramel can go all the way up to 345-350F (Professional Chef, 49). A little further and you have “burnt caramel,” which some pastry chefs have managed to pawn off as gourmet. And after that you’ve got tar and a wrecked pot.

The other meaning of caramel, of course, is the confection made from adding boiling cream and butter to the caramel stage. That would be your caramel chews, Sugar Daddies, Milk Duds, etc.

The first meaning of caramel was discovered before The Crusades, by the Arabs (or it could have been the Persians, a proud and industrious folk, we may never know). Many Middle Eastern confections are fried dough, dried fruits, or ground nuts, candied in various syrups. In fact, their caramel was a simple sugar, water, and lemon juice, which harem ladies also used as a hair remover (Toussaint-Samat).

The caramel confection was discovered by a dude in the Midwest in the 1880s, who added milk to his butterscotch recipe. It almost immediately took the world over, especially Britain, where they already had a taste for their own invention, toffee. American confectioners went into mass production. A young Milton Hershey created the Lancaster Caramel Company, and later discovered a knack for butchering chocolate when he was looking for a caramel coating (Glenn Brenner, 26, 86).

That’s the kind of stuff I could rattle off for Salma, which is to say, useless factoids. It was Salma who made me learn everything, “with my hands.” She showed me how to feel when a batter is consistent but not over-mixed, or a custard is perfectly thickened but not overcooked.

Salma, if anything, has a melodious personality. She’d hum lullabies to her pizza dough before “tucking it in for bed.” She would prance around the kitchen telling me that everything would come together if you were in tune with the oven gods. Like some gastronomic guru, she’d show me how to roll flatbread paper thin, practicing to “move with the rhythm of the dough.” And crazy as it may seem, it worked. If you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, you know there is a mysticism to it-a bunch of chemistry, yes-but miracles too. If I moved stiffly, pulling the dough with one hand while cranking the roller with the other, the gossamer sheets would puncture and shred. But whenever I quieted that snide, snickering, child-of-divorce cynicism for one minute and actually bought in to the “harmony of the spheres” thing, I’d become a whirling dervish of perfect synchronous bread making.

So this one time, when we were making caramel together, Salma was telling me to keep the sides of the pot clean, as the molten sugar gets up to around 338 degrees. You have to be careful that there isn’t any trace amounts of dried soap or imperfections in the pot, because at those temperatures, if a bubble pops, and even a tiny droplet of the liquid spills onto your hand, it will sear through your skin and cling to the meat, burning down into your flesh as you scream and try to rip it off. And then, if it’s still hot enough, it’ll stick to the finger you grabbed it with and scorch that too. It’s the worst kind of burn, worse than steam burn.

Salma showed me a darkened splotch on the back of her hand, like a carved and craterous birthmark. “This was from about a half teaspoon of it,” she said. I looked at her hand-the rest of it was speckled with oven burns. She wasn’t proud of them, the way I would have been, whipping them out to show off like obnoxious ten-year-olds. They marred her umber skin into a burnt umber, a deep insecurity for her, when she wore sleeveless dresses.

“People think my job would make me a great housewife, but it’s not very ladylike. We’re not ladies in the kitchen,” she’d say while taking a smoke break (which she’d feel guilty about later). She had a sleeve of tattoos on her forearms, dainty red and yellow daisies intertwined like the tiaras little girls make. When I get stuck thinking about it, a girly tattoo is the most appropriate symbol for being a pastry chef. I don’t have any way to explain that.

So I remember thinking how sad it was that Salma had those burns from all the caramel she’d made over the years. How she’d always feel a little awkward to show her hands on a date. How obviously she wanted to be a lady, and how difficult it was to seem “ladylike,” in a kitchen no less, and on her way home, as the shiny office girls strutted in heels and she in her chef clogs. It would have been weird to try to tell her that she was a gentle woman, a beautiful person, hot as caramel, sweet as sugar, a lady if ever there was one-so I just got the cream and butter and poured it into the sizzling vat till she told me it was enough.

The caramel surged up in the pot-even boiling cream is too cold for the burning sugar. Salma stirred in the fats to create the perfect gloss and consistency. And then carefully, very carefully, I poured the steaming brew into pints.

Salma grabbed two of the pints to take up front for service, and I started wiping down the station. After mis-en-place is set up, dessert orders don’t come in for another thirty minutes or so, while the first wave eats their entrees. It’s a good time to clean the back kitchen and start production for the following day.

That’s when the most inhuman howl of pain I’ve ever heard rippled through the restaurant. I ran to the dish washer’s station, between the front and back kitchens, where one cook was standing dumbfounded, with a pool of hot caramel burning through the mats at his feet-and Salma, screeching as she shoved her arms into the brown dishwater, clawing at the caramel eating away both her arms. By the time she pulled her arms out, shocked into silence, they were mutilated, the red and yellow flowers distended in the welting meat. The globs of caramel in the dishwater were still so hot they hissed at her as she hysterically searched for all the drops on her arms. Every synapse in her brain must have been rioting with pain. She couldn’t even tell where it was coming from. She ripped each one off as though they were leeches, flinging them as fast as she could into the water.

The dishwasher stood as far away as he could, eyeing me and the cook. None of us could do anything but watch her struggle. And then finally, with that calm of true emergency, she rushed out of the kitchen.
“What happened?” I said to the wide-eyed cook clutching his spoon like an excuse.
“I-I was just coming in, and she was going out.”

He didn’t need to explain that he had come in through the out door. I went back to my station. I tried to follow her, but she had already hailed a cab. I don’t think she’d let me come with her anyway. God knows the hell that would ensue from our patrons missing their daily immolation of bonbons.

I went back into the wash station to find the dishwasher fearfully, almost reverentially, wiping up the spilled caramel. I went out front and told the runner to 86 the caramel bread pudding. I thought of the sheepish way she’d shown me her scars earlier, how huge they had seemed then, and her uncomfortable relationship with the career she loved. I thought of how Salma wanted to be ladylike in an unladylike job. How she’d tried to cover the discolored pockmarks on her forearms with delicate drawings of flowers, almost like a little girl would. Those little burns that she was so ashamed of wouldn’t even register anymore. Most of them were probably ripped off in chunks with the candy.

And that’s pretty much the saddest thing I can think of.

After prepping for the next day, plating whatever orders came in, and being the last to clean up my station, I left for the day.

Salma’s better now, though when the savory guys have their pissing contests and compare scars, she can blow them out of the dishwater. I’m still petrified of caramel. People ask me why that is, and my best response is to mumble. But caramel is soooooo gooey and delicious, they protest, as though I’m an apostate Keebler elf. I don’t usually take the time to explain that it reminds me of all the ugliest parts of all the prettiest things-those misshapen flowers. Like that look on Gatsby’s face near the end of the party. So the only thing I ever think to say is, the daisies aren’t exactly daisies anymore.


1. Culinary Institute of America, The. The Professional Chef. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York. 2002. pg 49.

2. Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. 1987, translated by Anthea Bell 1992, Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, MA. (Another interesting fact I ripped from that book is that the name for the island Crete, in Arabic, was from the word “Qandi,” or “crystallized sugar,” because Crete was the site of the first sugar refinery, built by the Arabs.)

3. Glenn Brenner, Joël. The Emperors of Chocolate. Random House. New York, 1999. pg 26, 86.

Letter to a Young Poet

So vast was my fanboy admiration of Billy Collins when I was in college, so unencumbered by facts my ambition, and so shameless my neophytic insolence, that I wrote the Poet Laureate of United States a poem. An overconfident challenge ineptly disguised as a fan letter. It said, I am ashamed now to paraphrase:

Dear Mr. Collins, Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, respected peer of The New Yorker, deserving recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts fellowship, and all-around literary badass – you may in fact hold the highest appointed position of any American poet, but I’m a really really good English major, so, you know, make room.

I know.

And to make the audacity truly laughable, I wrote all this in the form of a poem. I will not here share that poem. Suffice to say that contrary to my undergraduate assertion, I was not really really good.

Points of Entry
• Billy Collins will be a speaker at the annual IAM Encounter, February 26-28, 2009 in New York City. (IAM is the publisher of The Curator.)
‚Ä¢ You can buy Billy Collins’ books on Amazon.com.

The poem, titled “Upon Reading Canada,” was an epistolary one-pager. No rhyme, meter, rhythm, or purposeful cadence worth mentioning – “free verse” would be what they aptly call it. It shared with Mr. Collins’s poetry only its general typographic shape. The rest was a haphazard cocksure motif of Billy Collins himself, cast as the heavy weight champion of the world. You see, boxing rings have lines in the form of boundary ropes, which you must grapple within. This is metaphorically similar to writing, which also incorporates lines-this time, of words.

You can see that the Muses had clearly favored me with a friend request.

As the poem swaggered on, I may have made unsubtle claims that a young challenger was on the way to the ring (this challenger was not, say, the talented Emanuel Xavier, but rather myself). You may have guessed that I wrote, printed, and mailed this poem in the span of thirty minutes, and you would be right.

Nonetheless, there is a shred of dignity I glom onto when remembering how poorly I presented myself to Mr. Collins. I was, after all, an infatuated 19-year-old. Armed suddenly with the tool of close reading, I had discovered my first Olympian. Rarely do you laugh out loud reading poetry. This is a disappointment I did not endure while devouring his books in my dorm hall. I was shushed by many a sleepy neighbor, but I would never let them mute the blaring advertisements that I was, right then, getting something terribly witty.

The truth is Mr. Collins is achingly clever. It is the first temptation in reading his poetry to assume you will only be entertained. His work is described as “gently and consistently startling,” (John Updike), “sometimes tender, often profound,” (NY Times), and “refreshingly devoid of tweed and pomp,” (some dude on Amazon).

I will not go into a close reading of Collins’s poetry. I can’t. I tried. A few hours ago I picked up Sailing Alone Around the Room to find a single poem I could dissect for you. After finishing it, I then picked up Picnic, Lightning. Then The Art of Drowning, my personal favorite. They were all delicious.

I will say his poems dazzled and sucker punched me that first time. Like all writers, my highest compliment could only be that I wished I had written each one. To credit my college self a tiny bit, this was the ending of the poem I sent him. It was upon reading his poem, “Canada,” that I thought I had discovered his first mistake. As I put it then, I felt almost relieved to see one poem, at least, that wasn’t perfect in my besotted gaze.

My reasoning for thinking ill of the poem is unclear. I think I pounced on a certain repetition of a phrase within as an error of redundancy. I’m not sure. Of course, by the time I had finished the poem, the purposefulness of each line had been made clear.

In the metaphor of the boxers, this is the unseen knockout blow. A wink from the champ preceded it, I was sure.

In a lot of ways, I suppose the redundancy is mine. This piece, too, seems like nothing but a fan letter. As for self-effacing, self-aggrandizing claptrap, well, there are more uses of the first person than the name Billy Collins. In terms of literary contests, I suppose I could lift more of his hardback editions than he could. Of mine, we could lift an equal weight, zero. Supposing we were both mysteriously turned into dancing bears, I think I’d have an easier go of it. Boxing kangaroos would be his, but never the dancing bears.

At the risk of an all-out flame war, comparable to the east coast/west coast rappers of the 90s, I will say that Mr. Collins is a fine poet, but possibly a pitiful air traffic controller. This in addition to his underwhelming performance as a dancing bear.

And lest anyone think I am overstepping with the Guggenheim Fellow, please know the kindly gentlemen has tooth enough to defend himself. Six weeks after I sent off my poem, I was standing in my dorm lobby, buttoning my coat before rushing into the autumn gale. The lady at the front desk said, “here,” to save herself the effort of sorting my mail. A letter addressed from the office of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, in the Poetry and Literature Center, The Library of Congress, United States of America. The watermark was a bald eagle. There was only the following in verbatim, in toto:

Dear Daniel,

Ready to put the gloves on with you anytime, punk. See you at the weigh-in.

Bring your friends,

Billy Collins.

photo by:

Chocolate Tasting

So what are we talking here, like, four months till Valentine’s Day? Worst holiday of the year for pastry chefs. You’d think, “But aren’t all pastry chefs either sweet chicks or gay dudes who love Russell Stover’s cheap-ass grab-bags?” And man, would you be wrong. First of all, nice girls are almost always depressed on Valentine’s Day (take happy relationships in the U.S., subtract from population of women, voila, must-see-TV-night for one). And even the most tacky perpetuator-of-advertising-stereotypes gay guy has better taste than candy pastel hearts. So no, nobody in professional pastry likes Duane Reade’s apish attempt at our craft.

You’ve got all that, but also, V-day is one of the busiest nights of the year at fine restaurants. Not with the usual patrons, however, the regulars who come to the restaurant for want of good food, to try something new, something made with care. For those people I personally mix and match off-menu combinations, send out little amuse-bouches between courses, show them what I’m working on and weigh their input as though it was from Ruth Reichl herself. But those types know to stay away on the Valentine’s Day.

That night I get questions coming back with the waiters like, “If they have the tart without the pastry cream, is it half price?” Or, “Can you put ice cream on any item?” Or, “How many pounds are the stuffed dates?” Pounds? Listen, buddy, I know you didn’t want to come here in the first place. I’m sure you’d rather slug another Michelob in front of Season One of “Entourage,” instead of putting a shirt on and getting dragged by your girl to an overpriced frites house, but really, pounds? You one of those guys who leans over to the security guard in the MoMA and says, “So, how much you think that one goes for?”

If you took the first issue of X-men, crumpled it up, shoved into Wynton Marsalis’s trumpet, and then duct-taped that to the back of a Westminster poodle, it still wouldn’t weigh as much as a pair of muddy Doc Martens. “Name” by the Goo Goo Dolls is under four minutes long. It doesn’t take more than an afternoon to finish “Shadow of the Colossus.” The collected works of William Carlos Williams are way under any weight limits. Heck, it only took Kimbo Slice fourteen seconds to get cold cocked by a guy half his size, and that was a freaking masterpiece.

But hey, what the heck, I’d love to scoop ice cream onto my cheese platter, why the heck not? If you can gorge 72-ounces of my sweet potato flan, I’ll throw in a free stomach pump! You can tell your bros all about it while you’re tea-bagging noobs on Xbox Live.


However, if I may, since we’re so fearfully close to the actual day, I’d like to recommend a Valentine’s Day solution: the chocolate tasting. It’s unique, celebratory, cheaper than a wine tasting, and so thoughtful you’ll definitely come off as the best partner the next day at your loved one’s office. Trust me – professional chocolate tasting. This is how it goes:

You walk into a chocolatier (Michel Cluizel has fantastic offerings here in New York City). Usually, they’re closed, or they’ll take you to an intimate corner for your private tasting. At this point your girl or guy has given you the raised eyebrow, cause you know, you’re cool like that.

Your guide will present each of you with a row of individual chocolates from their house line, beginning with a white chocolate all the way up to a 99% dark. Ice cream isn’t available, but alcohol can be. It’s fairly straightforward after that. You pick up the white chocolate, your guide begins a casual lesson on how chocolate is made, you wink at your partner (whose pants have been charmed off), and you eat. By the time you get to the 72% percent Venezuelan, you’ll have so many endorphins running through your brain that you’ll consider a shotgun a wedding.

For about 45 minutes to an hour, you’ll hear stories about Aztec customs, modern plantations, and the many benefits of cocoa butter. You’ll learn how to taste chocolate properly, how to judge its sheen, its snap, and its melting point. You’ll appreciate and recognize the flavor notes. Your guide will say stuff like, “Cherries, are you getting cherries? Now let it slide, let the tannins slide down your tongue. Are you picking up the oak or the brandy-sea breeze, it’s a briney sea breeze.” Entertaining, if not illuminating.

You’ll get to the 99% wondering how you ever managed to live without knowing the difference between flavor profiles from Sao Thomé and the Antilles. The 99% is so bitter that you’d have blown out your palette if you ate it first, but by now, you’ve worked your way up, and you’re ready. The experience is like your first cup of coffee. If you don’t like it immediately, you will later. You look at your date. That bleary-eyed look of pleasure should keep you out of Hallmark till Thanksgiving. And the best part is, you can buy their chocolate by the pound.

Sugar


By howzey on Flickr

So you might be thinking to yourself, “didn’t he do caramel last time?” and you’d be right, gentle reader, quite right. But just because caramel is principally sugar and butter doesn’t mean this is a lame repetition of the same subject. This is no dolled-up retread. I’m not feeding you Dunkin’ Donuts here (meaning this article wasn’t prepared by unwashed hands, with weevil-infested flour, then dolloped into used and reused oil vats, and a final dunkin’ in some fructose syrup before sale and consumption twelve days later).

The idea this time is to further the idea of component parts – first dessert, then caramel, now sugar. The idea of pastry as sweet things. In the culinary world, you have two departments: pastry and savory. By definition, pastry is the sweet counterpoint to savory dishes. Sure, there are a few savory desserts. Cheese and 99% chocolate have barely any sugar, sex is usually salty, and any number of savory ingredients can compliment traditional dishes, like olive oil gelato, salted bacon and caramel, and rosemary or basil on chocolate cakes.

But bottom line – what we talk about when we talk about dessert . . . is sugar. We’re talking about a substance here, as an additive (versus internal sugar, such as in fruits) that has absolutely zero nutritional value. None. In fact, when you add sugar to something, especially white refined sugar, you increase sweetness obviously, but also calories, your chances of obesity, tooth decay, adult onset diabetes, cancer, and even gout. Or is it gout, and even cancer? The point is, holy poops that is a lot of bad things. Gout? I’m not even clear on what that is exactly. I just know to be afraid.

There is absolutely nothing about sugar that is good for you. We’ve had plenty of powder puff studies telling us a piece of dark chocolate or a glass of wine is good for your heart. But it would take a special kind of pseudo-science to claim sugar does anything to your body other than make things tasty and then promptly go down and mess shit up.

If pastry chefs had a Hippocratic Oath, it’d be, “First do some harm, then maybe add Chantilly cream.”

The one consolation is that at least you can use Splenda in your macchiatto now. First of all, it dissolves better, is sweeter, and isn’t processed with animal bones (oh vegans, what more will be taken from your diet of pine nuts and Play-Doh spaghetti?). The usual knock against artificial sweeteners is the ole’ cancer-giving possibility. And they might do that; who really knows? But so does regular sugar. And so does New York air. And stress. And anything involving Jennifer Lopez.

The problem is scientists couldn’t force feed mice their entire body weight in off-brand clothing lines and second-tier rom-coms, so they went with Splenda. And what do you know, cancer. Basically we learned that if you eat your body weight in anything, even blessed Eucharist, you get sick. I’m no Niels Bohr, but I think I saw that one coming.

Also on the subject of sugar: slavery. No other food product has such a close connection to the insufferable cruelty perpetrated on an entire people group (Sugar Daddys seem mildly sexist and racist now that I think about it, and Sno-Cone stands usually make fun of Eskimos in some way, but they’re no sugar cane).

A kitchen-friend of mine told me about a pastry chef who refused to bake with refined cane sugar. She called it “the blood of the slaves.” Of course, that meant she could only use brown sugar, and gourmet raw sugars like muscovado, which runs about fifteen times more expensive that regular white (and could make a spare tire taste like a danish).

And with all that, I’m actually still a fan of sugar. With just sugar, milk, eggs, and flour, you can make just about 60% percent of the desserts known to man (statistic completely made up, but number is high). With it you can glaze, caramelize, thicken, and enhance natural sugars (it’s the secret ingredient to many a chili and pasta sauce). When you put sprinkles on an iced cookie, you’re pretty much decorating sugar with sugar. Sorbets are frozen fruit juice without it. Rice pudding would taste like rice paste. Lemonade would be lemons.

It is the only preservative you should use in making jams, jellies, or fruit preserves. It was noble in its ability to save frontiers people from food spoilage. Sugarlips is a cute thing to call someone in the workplace. Candy, Candi, and Candee, are all great names for your daughter. Sugar and spice are part of everything nice.

See, sugar can be good for you. Good for your soul. I’d much rather have Lemon Mascarpone Crepes for the Soul than frumpy chicken soup. Cream of chicken, maybe, if paired with a nice zucchini bread, and a sugar crumble topping.

Consider, for example, that sugar and salt are the only two ingredients we have that are pure in their flavor. This is how chefs break down their dishes and discuss how to improve them, using the science of “flavor profiles.” The tongue can only taste sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory (savory is a little abstract, and we’ll deal with it later). The rest of the flavor combinations you perceive (tangy, citrusy, buttery) are mostly because of your sense of smell.

Sugar, then, is fundamental. It is the principal element of dessert. If you ask a judge what his job is in one word, it’s probably “discern”. A doctor would be, “heal”. A televangelist, “swindle”, and a politician, “televangelize”.

And a pastry chef, “sweeten”. If it was a phrase, it’d be, “Ask for dental.”

Caramel

From styeb
From styeb on Flickr

So long ago I can’t remember when exactly, I heard that cliché, “begin at the beginning,” and it made a deep personal impact on my writing life. No longer would I jump into a story with, “Assassin Prince Daniel wind-milled his arms as he leaned over the icy precipice…” From then on, I would only begin at the beginning. “Assassin Princes are cowabunga and rich and can do a move where their finger touches your brain. Assassin Prince Daniel was born on the back of killer whale…” This is only relevant because I proposed a series for The Curator on some of the basic ingredients/confections in every pastry chef’s repertoire-a sort of beginning in pastry as a craft. And here we are-caramel.

But before I begin the beginning, I should also add that my favorite part in The Watchmen, by Alan Moore, (soon to be the newest film that isn’t as good as the book) is when a character says that the first thing you should write is the saddest thing you can remember. That way you get the reader’s sympathy on your side. When I read that, I immediately changed Assassin Prince Daniel’s origin story to, “his parents get shot in an alley, and he was born an orphan on the back of a killer whale.”

These days, the saddest thing I can think of is caramel. Not honey caramel or crème caramel, just regular caramel. Plain as pine. Sugar, water, fire, cream. Simple. Demonstrably irrefusable. Ontologically delicious. In a lot of ways, caramel is the quintessence of dessert. It’s creamy, lustrous, opulent. It’s almost straight sugar, brought to a boil till it browns. Then it’s mixed with fat and milk solids so it’ll stay soft instead of seizing into hard rock candy. As a sauce, it adds a homey kind of indulgence, like slathering whipped butter on buttermilk pancakes. As a filling, it’s a sure favorite. As a main course, it would probably still sell through most nights. It is the Platonic ideal of sweet. Caramelizing something is pretty much the phrase for making it taste good.

But for some reason, every time I think about caramel I turn into a soppy dishrag. I won’t look you in the eye. The awkward intensity of my quiet would have you thinking I just plummeted from a sugar high so astronomical it would make John Glenn holla back.

I hate caramel because of Salma, my inimitable mentor-a lady so good at her job that she had time to guide me step-by-step through each day, and then go back and fix all the mistakes I made before service.

I began working for Salma right after my pastry job, which was actually as an instructor. So at that point I still only knew the stuff in the textbooks. For example, I could tell you the term caramel is referring to two things. The first is a stage in the heating of sugar (with a liquid, usually water) right after the “hard crack” stage (315-320F), when it begins to brown. The light caramel stage is at around 338F, while a dark caramel can go all the way up to 345-350F (Professional Chef, 49). A little further and you have “burnt caramel,” which some pastry chefs have managed to pawn off as gourmet. And after that you’ve got tar and a wrecked pot.

The other meaning of caramel, of course, is the confection made from adding boiling cream and butter to the caramel stage. That would be your caramel chews, Sugar Daddies, Milk Duds, etc.

The first meaning of caramel was discovered before The Crusades, by the Arabs (or it could have been the Persians, a proud and industrious folk, we may never know). Many Middle Eastern confections are fried dough, dried fruits, or ground nuts, candied in various syrups. In fact, their caramel was a simple sugar, water, and lemon juice, which harem ladies also used as a hair remover (Toussaint-Samat).

The caramel confection was discovered by a dude in the Midwest in the 1880s, who added milk to his butterscotch recipe. It almost immediately took the world over, especially Britain, where they already had a taste for their own invention, toffee. American confectioners went into mass production. A young Milton Hershey created the Lancaster Caramel Company, and later discovered a knack for butchering chocolate when he was looking for a caramel coating (Glenn Brenner, 26, 86).

Also Caramel
From ReefRaff on Flickr

That’s the kind of stuff I could rattle off for Salma, which is to say, useless factoids. It was Salma who made me learn everything, “with my hands.” She showed me how to feel when a batter is consistent but not over-mixed, or a custard is perfectly thickened but not overcooked.

Salma, if anything, has a melodious personality. She’d hum lullabies to her pizza dough before “tucking it in for bed.” She would prance around the kitchen telling me that everything would come together if you were in tune with the oven gods. Like some gastronomic guru, she’d show me how to roll flatbread paper thin, practicing to “move with the rhythm of the dough.” And crazy as it may seem, it worked. If you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, you know there is a mysticism to it-a bunch of chemistry, yes-but miracles too. If I moved stiffly, pulling the dough with one hand while cranking the roller with the other, the gossamer sheets would puncture and shred. But whenever I quieted that snide, snickering, child-of-divorce cynicism for one minute and actually bought in to the “harmony of the spheres” thing, I’d become a whirling dervish of perfect synchronous bread making.

So this one time, when we were making caramel together, Salma was telling me to keep the sides of the pot clean, as the molten sugar gets up to around 338 degrees. You have to be careful that there isn’t any trace amounts of dried soap or imperfections in the pot, because at those temperatures, if a bubble pops, and even a tiny droplet of the liquid spills onto your hand, it will sear through your skin and cling to the meat, burning down into your flesh as you scream and try to rip it off. And then, if it’s still hot enough, it’ll stick to the finger you grabbed it with and scorch that too. It’s the worst kind of burn, worse than steam burn.

Salma showed me a darkened splotch on the back of her hand, like a carved and craterous birthmark. “This was from about a half teaspoon of it,” she said. I looked at her hand-the rest of it was speckled with oven burns. She wasn’t proud of them, the way I would have been, whipping them out to show off like obnoxious ten-year-olds. They marred her umber skin into a burnt umber, a deep insecurity for her, when she wore sleeveless dresses.

“People think my job would make me a great housewife, but it’s not very ladylike. We’re not ladies in the kitchen,” she’d say while taking a smoke break (which she’d feel guilty about later). She had a sleeve of tattoos on her forearms, dainty red and yellow daisies intertwined like the tiaras little girls make. When I get stuck thinking about it, a girly tattoo is the most appropriate symbol for being a pastry chef. I don’t have any way to explain that.

So I remember thinking how sad it was that Salma had those burns from all the caramel she’d made over the years. How she’d always feel a little awkward to show her hands on a date. How obviously she wanted to be a lady, and how difficult it was to seem “ladylike,” in a kitchen no less, and on her way home, as the shiny office girls strutted in heels and she in her chef clogs. It would have been weird to try to tell her that she was a gentle woman, a beautiful person, hot as caramel, sweet as sugar, a lady if ever there was one-so I just got the cream and butter and poured it into the sizzling vat till she told me it was enough.

The caramel surged up in the pot-even boiling cream is too cold for the burning sugar. Salma stirred in the fats to create the perfect gloss and consistency. And then carefully, very carefully, I poured the steaming brew into pints.

Salma grabbed two of the pints to take up front for service, and I started wiping down the station. After mis-en-place is set up, dessert orders don’t come in for another thirty minutes or so, while the first wave eats their entrees. It’s a good time to clean the back kitchen and start production for the following day.

That’s when the most inhuman howl of pain I’ve ever heard rippled through the restaurant. I ran to the dish washer’s station, between the front and back kitchens, where one cook was standing dumbfounded, with a pool of hot caramel burning through the mats at his feet-and Salma, screeching as she shoved her arms into the brown dishwater, clawing at the caramel eating away both her arms. By the time she pulled her arms out, shocked into silence, they were mutilated, the red and yellow flowers distended in the welting meat. The globs of caramel in the dishwater were still so hot they hissed at her as she hysterically searched for all the drops on her arms. Every synapse in her brain must have been rioting with pain. She couldn’t even tell where it was coming from. She ripped each one off as though they were leeches, flinging them as fast as she could into the water.

The dishwasher stood as far away as he could, eyeing me and the cook. None of us could do anything but watch her struggle. And then finally, with that calm of true emergency, she rushed out of the kitchen.
“What happened?” I said to the wide-eyed cook clutching his spoon like an excuse.
“I-I was just coming in, and she was going out.”

He didn’t need to explain that he had come in through the out door. I went back to my station. I tried to follow her, but she had already hailed a cab. I don’t think she’d let me come with her anyway. God knows the hell that would ensue from our patrons missing their daily immolation of bonbons.

I went back into the wash station to find the dishwasher fearfully, almost reverentially, wiping up the spilled caramel. I went out front and told the runner to 86 the caramel bread pudding. I thought of the sheepish way she’d shown me her scars earlier, how huge they had seemed then, and her uncomfortable relationship with the career she loved. I thought of how Salma wanted to be ladylike in an unladylike job. How she’d tried to cover the discolored pockmarks on her forearms with delicate drawings of flowers, almost like a little girl would. Those little burns that she was so ashamed of wouldn’t even register anymore. Most of them were probably ripped off in chunks with the candy.

From Yannick L.
From From Yannick L. on Flickr

And that’s pretty much the saddest thing I can think of.

After prepping for the next day, plating whatever orders came in, and being the last to clean up my station, I left for the day.

Salma’s better now, though when the savory guys have their pissing contests and compare scars, she can blow them out of the dishwater. I’m still petrified of caramel. People ask me why that is, and my best response is to mumble. But caramel is soooooo gooey and delicious, they protest, as though I’m an apostate Keebler elf. I don’t usually take the time to explain that it reminds me of all the ugliest parts of all the prettiest things-those misshapen flowers. Like that look on Gatsby’s face near the end of the party. So the only thing I ever think to say is, the daisies aren’t exactly daisies anymore.



1. Culinary Institute of America, The. The Professional Chef. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York. 2002. pg 49.

2. Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. A History of Food. 1987, translated by Anthea Bell 1992, Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, MA. (Another interesting fact I ripped from that book is that the name for the island Crete, in Arabic, was from the word “Qandi,” or “crystallized sugar,” because Crete was the site of the first sugar refinery, built by the Arabs.)

3. Glenn Brenner, Joël. The Emperors of Chocolate. Random House. New York, 1999. pg 26, 86.

Intro to Pastry

So first of all, my contributions to The Curator will only be about dessert. And dessert is completely unnecessary.

And they’re all going to start with the word “so.” No particular reason. I just really like “so.” It reminds me of Raymond Chandler novels that start, “So I’m sitting in the stale air of my PI office, main-lining gin and joe when she walks in, legs as long as a national epic . . . ” Love it. Also, it lets me call them my “so-so stories,” which cracks me up in a self-abasing, self-aggrandizing sort of way.

Anyway, I really like dessert. I work as a pastry chef in New York City, so I should. One of the most exciting parts of the job is talking about it. At any cocktail party, it’s the easiest conversation piece, since everybody loves sweets except for Adolf Hitler and diabetics – and let’s face it, we all secretly disapprove of diabetics.

But there’s no way to get around this: in any cocktail party crowd, my job is also the most useless. It has zero point to it. It shouldn’t be tasteless, though it can be off-color depending the company. It’s not unimportant, exactly. But it’s not important either, in the way that irrigation engineering in the Third World is important, or even running a sock factory.

Really, it’s luxury. It’s fashion. It’s art.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m not prepared to say that any of those things are worth eleven hours of every day. For any professional pastry chef, half the job is in justifying your own existence. It takes a willful forgetting of the inequalities of the world, and the fact that some of us have never tasted a chocolate bar.

That’s why we tend to cultivate that rarified air of an artisan, rather than a craftsman. A savory chef, no matter how hoity-toity, can always claim lineage all the way back to the first fire roast. The savory chef is continuing the tradition of the hearth, enacting one of the three primal directives. But if food is instinct, then pastry is centuries of evolutionary largesse.

It’s the most basic argument to say we need food to live. Real food, like apples. We don’t need dessert. And there’s really no way to pretend we do. Sure, at the fancy places, their vol-au-vent is a far cry from the sustenance of a few fish and a few loaves-but you definitely don’t need Gianduja tarts with mango sumac custard to live.

Dessert is extraneous, extravagant, essentially inessential. It’s half again the price of an entrée. Your parents only let you have it once in a while. Most of the ingredients – vanilla beans, gourmet chocolate, lavender, butter – are expensive, and most of the processes – soufflé, flambé, brulée – are specialized.

Expensive is a key term here. If a restaurant can afford a full-time pastry chef, the place is doing pretty well. But when the clientele is down to nothing but a handful of regulars and the occasional walk-by tourist, like any luxury, pastry is the first thing to go. Everyone will blow sunshine about how airy your croissants are, but when it comes down to it, you can always change the menu to tiramisu or sorbet and have the sous chef scoop to order. It’s like having the gym teacher coaching the orchestra once the school board cuts the music program.

And here’s where my artist friends always threaten to stone me – that’s exactly how it should be. I mean, I want my kid to know how to play “Free Bird” on the clarinet as much as the next guy, but not at the expense of him walking around not knowing how to add. Art makes life worth living, fine, but math makes sure you don’t get hustled. It also makes sure you can be of use to the world (and not in the saccharine “art will save the world” kind of way, but in the “inoculation will stave off malaria” kind).

The fact about pastry is that you can’t afford to have someone like me twittering around the back kitchen, talking baby talk to my proofing yeasts, and giggling like a schoolgirl over candied fennel, unless you are seriously committed to wasting money. Because you can’t cut cost on pastry. It’ll show.

I know a guy who can take weeks old chicken, leftover mise en place vegetables, and bread scraps from under the tables and turn it into a banquet worthy of the Raj Royale. But no matter what you do to it, a Hershey bar will always taste like curdled milk, chemically burned and kneaded out of some sad shrunken udder.

You want to know why Thomas Keller‘s chocolate chip cookies taste better than yours? He pretty much uses the same recipe on the back of a Tollhouse bag. But he buys pure Vermont Farms butter, organic eggs brought from the farm that morning, unbleached flour, Madagascar vanilla beans, and, heaven help you, the chocolate chips are the Valrhona 66-percent dark pistols – those magnanimous ebony doubloons, with a sheen like a Diablo in the moonlight, a snap like a Testarossa popping into fifth gear, a melt like my pants sitting in an Enzo. It’s the vastly overpriced, utterly worth-it European sports car of cooking chocolate. I could staff my kitchen with a special education class of howler monkeys, huck a bag of Valrhona in the middle of them, and still serve a molten chocolate cake that some witless marketer would call, “choco-orgasmic!”

Pastry departments are like bloodletting. Ice-cream machines, the good kind, are the price of a car. Convection ovens can run as much as some homes. And those are the basics. Flash freezers, chocolate conks, compressors, those’ll cut you so deep you’ll be hemorrhaging cash before you even think of all the ingredients.

With the money it takes to open a full-scale pastry studio, you could adopt ten thousand manatees, or take the pope to orbit sub-space and buy the two seats next to him for putting his feet up. You could open a half dozen soup kitchens and serve porterhouse for the first year. And maybe I’m betraying my profession here, but you probably should.


The only snag in my approach here is that Alissa, my editor, says I have to present things that contribute to culture in a positive way or pose important questions. So here’s the exact opposite of everything I just said:

So pastry is a trifle trifle, fine. But for me, pastry is that second of forgetting. It’s the short counterpoint to the rest of an all-in-all pretty awful day. It’s the unapologetic wasteful misuse of all your resources, a slap in the face of the daily grind. It represents all the bucked-up, jaw-out, defiant yop of someone spitting into the winds of fate. It’s that shatter your plate, yell “Oppah!,” and laugh at the brazen opulence of a life as blessed as ours. That we can eat cake. That we can be luxurious, if even for a second, if even with a Twinkie.

We’re pretty over-privileged, you and me. We not only eat cake, but we lounge around talking about it. You read about it, and I get paid to make them all day. That’s got to amount to something. No matter all the rest of it going wrong, whatever bones we have to pick with God, it has to mean something that we can afford the indulgences.

I don’t think you should do it everyday. Or even every week necessarily. Because like all art, for me at least, dessert is a guilty pleasure. But every once in a while, a piece of expertly tempered 70-percent dark seeping between your molars is as good as anything therapy’s ever done.

But I’m being serious when I say there are a billion more important things. It’s just that I figure I can’t write on those subjects.

And at the same time, this is a pretty good existence, when you think of the alternatives, and it should be enjoyed, damn it.

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