Demistifying Baking and Why It's Important

This past weekend, I found myself making "pop-tarts". They have been included in a resurgence as of late in the bakery edition of "fad foods", and I was asked to re-create this kid classic for a birthday party. We all have seen the Cronut change peoples lives one flaky, "Is is at donut? Is it a croissant?" bite at a time. We have also been witness to other Frankenstein-esque bakery concoctions such as Rainbow Bagels in New York, Townies in London,  and even the Crookie from Toronto. But as I stood cutting cold butter into flour and salt to make something as anti-gourmet and simple as a pop tart, as people have done for literal centuries, my mind began to wander. And while yes, life has its much more difficult, much more worth while and taxing questions, it takes all kinds. And on this day, the simple pop-tart had my mind transfixed for hours.

I first started asking the obvious of what the hell is in a pop tart?

A simple search on the Kellogg's website can answer that. Yes there are versions of flour,butter, salt, and fruit, but they come in the form of high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, soybean oil, and citric acid, among many other ingredients, dyes, and artificial flavors (42 to be exact in the frosted strawberry option).

No- this isn't a post about how processed our food is, and how terribly unaware the average consumer is. Even though, yes it is, and yes, they are.

This is a post about good food, which a store bought pop tart, is not. The circumstance, however is a common one. The company has done such a good job for decades selling a product that is it's own thing. It's not a pastry. It's not dessert. You have never seen a pop tart in any other form than in the silvery, second-place Willy Wonka ticket packaging. They are even nestled safely in between the granola bars and the fruit snacks in every grocery store in the country. They have been feeding hungry kids and allowing parents to have their fussy eater eat "breakfast" for so long, it is now nostalgic. Creating a product that is nostalgic to consumers is the holy grail of marketing. Now, the product is loved not only despite, but because of its less-than-stellar ingredient label.

But the bigger question here is why? Why do packaged baked goods still have a place in a society who is pushing for natural, organic, non-GMO ingredients in almost every other food category? Why does the average processed baked good have so many ingredients, and so many different types of flavors, dyes, and "agents"?

Because baking is a craft that can not be mastered on a mass distribution scale. Baked goods have simple ingredients with short shelf lives. A loaf of bread from a good bakery lasts two or three days tops before it gets tossed (hopefully in to your bread pudding custard). A loaf of bread from the boulangerie is alive. The average croissant has so much butter in it, its taste and integrity can be changed in mere hours. That is why most bakers are working away at 2am everyday. They have to produce everything they sell, every morning. Chefs have more leeway. Properly stored and prepped produce can last weeks. In the category of cheese, meats, and wine, ageing as been a technique utilized for years. In some restaurants I've worked in, soups and sauces have been purposely prepped two days early as the depth of the flavor profile IMPROVES over time.  Not the case with baked goods. 

Enter: scientists. (Note:not bakers). How can we make a croissant last 21 days? How can we make a loaf of bread edible after it has been lost in the back of the bread drawer for a month? How can we make a a pretty little toaster tart last 365 days (yes the shelf life of a pop-tart is 365 days).  We humans are smart. We have figured out a lot. Certainly not limited to taking an antiquated art form like baking and turning it into a multi-billion dollar business plan.

So while I stood there, filling my rolled out pastry with a delicious homemade cinnamon apple jam, I really felt melancholy over the fact that so far, consumerism and marketing have beat the craft of baking. So many people don't have the nerve to experience the failure and success of baking. There are baked good obsessed people out there that have never had the cathartic pleasure of kneading dough. This is all because we have been sold a vision of quick and easy and been handcuffed to the idea that anything we make will not be as good. 

I promise there are few things more rewarding than baking a loaf of bread. Yes your first loaf won't turn out like the baker's who has been trained for years and knows the inner most feelings of yeast. Yes, you could just skip to the good part and buy one and save yourself hours. But just like you could have ruined your favorite book by reading a four paragraph Wikipedia article, you will miss out on an important aspect of life. With a victory will come confidence, excitement, and pride of having worked through a tough problem. You will have critical thinking skills, a working relationship with your oven, equipment, and most importantly, your ingredients. And yes sometimes you will fail. But such is life. If we have come to the point in life where we would rather suck on a chemical frosted, nuclear holocaust enduring sweet than having to experience failure, the man has won. He has sold you a cheaper and more demeaning version of life, and you have convinced yourself it is the only option.

Okay, its not as serious as all that. But seriously, you can do it! As I have said before, my favorite service I provide is cooking instruction, and it is for this reason. I love seeing people accomplish something they never thought possible. Cooking and baking is a craft that takes many different forms, and it all grew from one person, looking concerned and anxiously baby sitting their creation, all the while doubting their abilities.

Your not doing it right if it always comes out perfect. Have some faith in yourself, and enjoy eating the mistakes along the way.