I do hate cupcakes. For that matter, I don’t much like sugar either. First thing in the morning, my very dark, acidic African coffee is tamed by Stevia so it might seem incongruous that I devoted myself to the pursuit of becoming a pastry chef. But there is a nexus between my passion for sweet food and my intense dislike for anything too sweet.
Every time I pass by one those ubiquitous cupcake stores with names straight out of 14-year-old girls’ journals (or tweets these days) I cringe and am reminded of Hello Kitty, little kids’ squeals and cavity inducing English toffee. No matter how cute or inviting the concoctions are, how creative the flavors and the wrappings, I remain unmoved. Cupcakes have no soul and no interesting history – they are like chick lit, delicious at the instant of consumption but completely forgettable.
Sugar, much like nicotine, induces a powerful addiction. The more you eat, the more you crave it and, very much like nicotine, it dulls the palate, which is why twice a year or so I cleanse myself of sugar altogether, to give my taste buds a break and come back refreshed like after a week at a tongue spa. Most people, when asked to describe a dessert, will talk in terms of the most overwhelming ingredients – sugar and chocolate, sugar and lemon, sugar and coconut but will hardly be able to describe any other nuances as they could with, say, a stew or a roast. I blame it on Hershey bars and frosting, two American food staples we could all have been better off without.
Anything sweet should be a treat. After all, sugar came to our tables late in the history of humanity and for a couple of centuries only the wealthy could afford it. But now we use it with abandon. Sugar should never mask the complexity of flavors that can be found in the pods of a vanilla bean, it should enhance but not cover the riot of natural fructose of a peach or an apple and, above all, it should always have an astringent or sour or salty counterpoint. Take a pie for example. The crust of any self-respecting pie is just a canvas, with little sugar in it – if well made, it’s the flaky, melt in your mouth vessel for its filling, whether it be a custard, a jam or fruit. Pies are finally becoming trendy and the thought warms my heart. Any baker has a home recipe to draw from because pie is actually one of those dishes that is invariably better when home-made – which doesn’t mean it’s actually easy to make. The perfect pie takes practice, takes mastering of a crust recipe, rolling-pin dexterity and flawless ingredients for the filling. Whether it’s fresh eggs, or real vanilla beans, good chocolate or ripe fruit.
Pies are also redolent of history – it’s impossible not to stand at a kitchen counter making one and not think of the million of women (and the few men) who have reached for the same ingredients before us. My un-American palate connects with pie because pie has stories to tell and I care to listen.
Not often, but there have been desserts that have made weep. My mother, who is not a baker but a wonderful cook, mastered only three sweet offerings in 70 years but her crostata dough is still the best that has passed through my lips – her secret is lemon zest and cognac. My aunt (now, here is the baker in the family) makes a yogurt tea bread that is fluffy and “vanilly” and lets the fresh, acidic taste of yogurt shine through. The English scones at the Ritz in London robbed me of much of my savings – my secretary’s salary could not afford them but I had to go back for more: warm, flaky, slightly salty and dotted with the tiniest currants were the perfect jumping board for the stroke inducing clotted cream. A pineapple parfait at Ramsay’s, also in London, left me sitting at the table, holding the straw in mid-air like a lunatic, trying to deconstruct the recipe (while all I had to do was look it up in his “3 stars” cookbook…). A peach and passion fruit gelato in Stellenbosch, in South Africa, literally stopped me in my tracks, the difference between biting into ripe fruit and the gelato negligible. All these examples, just the few my mind regurgitated on request, had a common denominator – sugar as the base for a necessary chemical reaction or to enhance an already nearly perfect flavor. It wasn’t the sugar that drew me in but the perfection of the recipe behind it.
As I get ready to give thanks in the form of a pecan pie, I push the corn syrup aside. Usually, my pie devours an obscene amount of pure Grade B maple syrup which, coupled with the high price of pecans to boot, might make it the most expensive pie in America. This year, I am experimenting with agave, a gentler sweetener than sugar or corn syrup but without the aggressive smokiness of maple. Oh, and brandy, because even if it cooks off, a touch of alcohol always helps – or so my mother says.