I met M. through my wife, Linda. They belong to an aquarobic exercise group. Through M. I met her husband, their three grown daughters, and her three delightful grandchildren. In my mind, several things particularly commend M. She always appears in the most appropriate attire for the various occasions, formal or casual. She is always remarkably understated; style and colour never demand attention, but rather they quietly exude serenity. It is a style without style, or perhaps a style that is lasting rather than in the fashionable moment: tailored shirts, well-cut trousers, elegant shoes in a palette of muted and calming shades.
M. is a sensitive and caring person, and on top of that, M. is an excellent baker and a pastry maker par excellence. A few years ago, I received a most inventive Christmas gift from her, a once-in-a-lifetime gift. I received a certificate from her declaring I would have a monthly package of her baked goods throughout the year. I was absolutely delighted and considered that promise of pastries to be sheer luxury.
After Christmas, at the beginning of the new year, I received my first parcel of baked goods. It came in an unusual package; M. obviously has the knack of transforming ordinary items—tin foil, a box, a piece of ribbon—into a package of such artistry that I was hesitant to open it at all. Finally, the smell of the fresh baking that permeated the packaging induced me to open it. Inside, I encountered a dozen or so pecan tarts. The delicate tarts were about 4 cm in height and width, with a firm crust holding the filling. The filling was smooth, fragrant and topped with pecans. I picked it up with my fingers. It would have been too brutal to stab the tart with a fork.
In subsequent months I received exquisite shortbread, tender lemon muffins, molten chocolate cakes, Scottish border tarts, light raspberry friands, and more. In the last month of the year, I received a large, rich Christmas cake full of nuts and fruits.
Throughout the year, I tried to respond fittingly to these extraordinary gifts. I wanted to articulate my appreciation and enjoyment. But I found my reports were unstructured, lacking a comprehensive approach. My words each month were repetitive, and my thoughts were random. I was using the same words for each sensory experience. My responses seemed inadequate for such exquisite gifts. In a pragmatic way, I decided to construct an abstract framework for understanding this delightful experience. So I developed the Pastry Appreciation Framework, or PAF.
The PAF consists of three sections: the baker’s intent, the baker’s execution, and the eater’s sensory experience of consumption. The intent is relatively straightforward. First, I discerned the ingredients in the baking and the method of the baker. I teased out the baker’s wished-for impact. The intent is what fundamentally gives the parameters of the evaluation, for example, the baker’s intent regarding the level of sweetness or the intensity of a flavour. Another parameter is texture: does the baker want flakiness or density, crunchiness or smoothness? What colour is the baker looking for in the yellowness of the lemon cake, in the glossiness of the egg-white glaze, or in the browned rim of the custard tarts? Fragrance is another parameter, since the smell of baked goods is an inevitable part of the baker’s intent.
Execution is the second part pf the PAF. The key issue here is whether the execution matches the intent and amplifies it. Is the pastry truly flaky? Does the liquid chocolate filling of the molten cake truly ooze? Does the pink frosting dance in the sunlight to announce the coming of spring? Does the meringue hold its shape? Execution refers to knowledge, skills, and intuitive understanding, all of which realise and amplify the intent. M. has all these required competences.
The third part of PAF, the sensory experience of consumption, involves smell, sight, feel, sound, and taste. The first experience upon unwrapping a pastry is smell. It is what generates appetite and stimulates the desire to consume the pastry. Smell activates memory of past pastries. It can even conjure up images of places associated with such smells, like the stone cottage with the thatched roof, that the smell of the border tart invokes.
The sense of sight involves the colour, shape, and the aesthetics of the appearance of the pastry, from minimalist to highly decorated. As the Chinese saying goes, “We eat first with our eyes.” If the pastry looks appealing, I am halfway to thinking it is wonderful. Visual appeal comes from freshness. If a fruit is involved, its colour and shape are important. Visual appeal also comes from the light and colour of the baked goods. If the colour looks right, I can project that I will experience an agreeable taste and texture when I put it in my mouth. This can be true even if the shape of the pie crust is irregular or the criss-cross of the border tart pastry is not quite even. The appearance of the baked goods also is enhanced by its serving plate.
The sense of feeling involves the fork (or spoon), and most importantly, the sensation inside the mouth. Baked goods offer the largest range of tactile mouth-experience of all types of food. In the mouth, baked goods may be soft and custardy, crumbly and cakey, crunchy, sticky, and explosive.
The sense of sound is activated variously by various baked goods: crushing nuts, snapping crusts, mushing strawberries, and slurping syrup. Some sounds come from taking parts of baked goods onto a fork or spoon. All sounds are part of the rich experience of consumption.
Taste is the most important of the five senses for appreciating pastry. The first bite gives the most taste impact and heightens expectations for successive bites. M.’s pastry always balances flavours and stimulates the taste buds. Her pastries and baked goods over the year had a huge variety of flavours: chocolate, marzipan, fruits both fresh and preserved, nuts, and spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, ginger and anise, and butter.
The Pastry Appreciation Framework leaves out some other interesting questions about the enjoyment of pastry-eating. Particularly, it omits questions about how each pastry should be eaten. For example, when should it be consumed, morning, noon, afternoon, evening, or late night? The various utensils used to serve pastry are also an open question, as is the way in which it served. Plate? Bowl? Multi-layered display stand? Should pastry be consumed by itself or with liquid, such as tea, coffee, cream, port? A glass of limoncello goes very well with a piece of lemon cake.
Last but not least, with whom do you consume the pastry for maximum enjoyment?
One should never underestimate the power of pastry. After all, a significant piece of literature was created when the author smelled the madeleine cake.