Blog: The Similes of Pâtisserie | The French Pastry School

Blog: The Similes of Pâtisserie

The Similes of Pâtisserie
The French Pastry School |
September 15, 2009

The oven’s temperature is set, the raw product is waiting on the speed rack and Chef is giving a few final instructions.  At this point in the demo, someone invariably asks how long it will take to bake and the answer is always a variation on the same theme: “It’s ready when it’s ready,” “It’s done when it’s done,” or “It takes as long as it takes.”

Pastry cannot be measured by time alone.  Even something as seemingly basic as baking bread depends on enough chemical reactions to fill a text book: dough is not bread until those reactions occur and those reactions will not occur until they’re good and ready, thank you very much.  The best answer a chef can give to such an inquiry is a rough estimate.  I’ve learned, instead, to ask, “What should it look like when it’s done?”  This way, we get much more accurate and much more colorful responses.

French patisserie is a poetic profession made up of people who are natural story tellers and teachers.  The first pastry chefs clearly loved to evoke familiar images to attract customers: the classics include an oval shaped dacquoise cookie which was named langue de chat because it looks like a cat’s tongue; Paris Brest, a wreath of pate a choux, came to symbolize the bicycle wheels of the famous race of the same name; and, of course, there are croissants, buttery puff pastry baked in the shape of a crescent moon.

It only follows that the process of making pastries should be equally filled with poetic visual cues and the chef instructors at the FPS are quite adept at describing them.  Meringue is done whipping when it looks like “thick shaving cream;” when it’s dyed it should be “pastel in color, like you might see in Bermuda;” if the simmering blueberries for our tart filling “start looking like tar, you’ve gone too far;” when the first set of ingredients for our Almond Sable is ready for the eggs to be added it should look “like sand on a Caribbean beach;” the pot full of thick chocolate mirror glaze is ready for our cakes only when it reaches “a haunted-swamp boil.”

Some descriptions are less vivid; for example, “If the chocolate financier looks raw on top, then it isn’t cooked.”  This seemed obvious to me until I took mine out of the oven too soon, mistaking rawness for moistness.  Another initially confusing description involved miniature sweet dough tart shells: on their first trip to the oven, they should be taken out when they are “a golden white.”  I had no idea what this meant until I saw it for the first time.
First hand experience is the only way to know how pastries should be—our chefs have been doing this for so long that they almost know it by instinct.  If you’ve done it enough times, a perfect meringue doesn’t look like anything but a perfect meringue.   I’ve been getting so much hands-on experience in class that I feel myself developing this sixth sense, but until it really becomes second nature, I look forward to more of my chefs’ poetic descriptions.