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When I had a bakery, sugar, almonds, eggs, and butter were the sweet quartet that defined our everyday rhythm. We scooped sugar — granulated, powdered, brown — from large round tubs on casters into bowls set on scales as we constructed desserts. Every one of them contained some form of sugar. We scooped nuts too, almonds most of all, into the bowlfuls of sugar on the scales, or processed them to a powder. We cracked flat after flat of eggs, using some whole and separating others into yolks and whites. We cut sixty-pound blocks of butter into manageable slabs for rolling, beating, and melting. Then we mixed these four staples in countless permutations, using different proportions and baking techniques to create a profusion of pastries. The absence of any one of them would have brought our work to an abrupt halt — no more croissants, tart dough, dacquoise, no more chocolate cake with almond paste, no more brown-sugar scones.
Yes, there are other ingredients in a baker's repertoire. Flour gives her creations structure, and chocolate imparts its unreplicatable flavor. But while flour plays an important role in pastry, it is in the bread kingdom, not the dessert realm, that it reigns supreme. And chocolate's deep complexity demands an arena of its own. While chocolate will dominate the taste of any dessert that includes it, any combination of sugar, almonds, eggs, and butter will blend more harmoniously. I can't visualize a dessert that doesn't contain at least two of this sweet quartet.
The factors that get these ingredients into the kitchen in the first place are infinite and ever-variable: weather conditions, human trial and error, symbiotic relationships between plants and animals, technological innovation, genetic manipulation, and government intervention. A flaw in just one of these can mean a less-than-perfect product. Then, no matter how much alchemy the pastry maker employs, the resulting dessert will not be gold. But when all goes well and the ingredients arrive in a pristine state, wonders can occur.
Desserts are sweet — sometimes just a hint, sometimes a punch — but sweetness is a defining quality, especially in the Western world. Our fondness for sweet food seems to be part of our genetic makeup, just as our attraction to music distinguishes us from other animals. Early people relied on fruit to bring this special taste to their diets. Tens of millennia ago, early Homo sapiens raided wild bee hives, braving stings from the inhabitants, for the pleasure of eating the insects' food. Later, people chewed fibrous sugarcane because it tasted good. Eventually, the canes were crushed to extract their sweet juice, and the first primitive sugar processing began. Cane sugar became a highly prized commodity and a staple of world trade. It reigned supreme until the eighteenth century; then a chemist extracted sucrose from beets, which could be grown in a wider range of climates. Today, much of our food contains sweeteners, most often corn syrup, so familiar a taste it may be hardly perceptible to us. Fortunately, fine desserts still depend on sugar to impart the taste that most of us crave.
Although other nuts are liberally sprinkled into desserts and pastries, almonds hold an exalted place in the desserts of the great cuisines, especially French, Viennese, and Italian. Their versatility is vast. Finely ground, they add texture as well as flavor to meringues, macaroons, tart dough, and financiers. Left whole, then cooked with sugar, they harden into a confection, to be broken into bits and swirled into ice cream or buttercream, or mixed with chocolate to make candies. If this cooked mass is ground between heavy rollers, the result is almond paste. With the addition of sugar syrup, almond paste becomes more pliable, and can be rolled into sheets to drape over cakes or hand-shaped into confections. The preparation of the almonds themselves is almost as diverse as the desserts they grace.
Just as ancient people stole honey from bees, the first eggs eaten were pilfered from wild birds. When fowl were domesticated, eggs were still precious, and no wonder, as they are almost the perfect food, containing all the essential amino acids and most of the necessary vitamins. It wasn't until the twentieth century that a shadow fell over the egg because of its saturated fat content. More recently, a worry about salmonella bacteria in eggs has made people cautious about how they are cooked. Now people eat them with less abandon, rationing their weekly allotment. And they have strong opinions about the eggs they do eat — brown versus white, fertilized or otherwise, from chickens that roam versus those in pens, from chickens given organic feed versus those given commercial. Duck eggs roll into American kitchens occasionally too. Their yolks are larger and fattier, astonishing in custards. I almost bought an emu egg at a farmers' market last year, a heavy gray football with iridescent green blotches, but as one of them scrambled would feed fifteen or twenty, it seemed excessive for just my husband and me.
So many desserts and pastries, from creme brûlée to virtually every cake in existence, depend on eggs. Weighing less than two ounces, an egg possesses the chemical properties for countless baking feats. It is a powerful player in a baker's repertoire. Beaten egg whites trap air that can make a cake rise, bake into crisp meringues, or make a silky meringue to fold into a mousse or mound on a lemon tart. Egg yolks add their richness to ice cream, pastry, and butter cream. Heated and beaten with wine and sugar, egg yolks foam into an almost instant dessert.
Butter's unctuousness vies with its taste in determining its importance to pastries and desserts. Its starring role in puff pastry, with support from flour, water, and salt, is a prime example. If the ingredients were simply mixed together in a bowl, a leaden paste would result. But assembled in a certain way — fashioned into a soft dough made with the flour, water, salt, and part of the butter, then wrapped around a larger piece of butter, rolled and folded numerous times, resting between each "turn" — they make a delicate construction of hundreds of layers of dough interspersed with sheets of butter that, in a hot oven, will release steam, pushing the dough to triple its height and giving an incomparable tender crispness.
How can I best convey my appreciation and spread my enthusiasm for these essential ingredients? With recipes, certainly, but each offers so much more. Each has a rich past, beginning before recorded history. And each has a complicated story to tell, right up to the present. I want to make the ingredients come alive, to celebrate their essences. However sterilely it is packaged, each begins on a farm. I realized I had to start there too. So I made phone calls and sent E-mails, looking for sources and information. Rather than merely talking to people who processed sugarcane, grew almonds, kept chickens, or milked cows, I knew I needed to visit the cane fields, then the mill and refinery. I needed to walk through an orchard with a farmer, not merely open a bag of almonds in my kitchen. I needed to peer inside a chicken coop; to visit dairy cows. My research took me far from home — to Louisiana, a major sugarcane producer in this country, and to France, home of the butter some think is the best in the world. Visits alone weren't sufficient; I needed to read to fill in the gaps, and to give the tales a sense of history. And I needed to taste. All the visiting and reading and time in my kitchen stirred memories, so I wove them into the stories too.
Although many desserts showcase one or another of these ingredients, like a true string quartet, their qualities are so intertwined that some of the recipes featured in a given section of the book would be comfortable in more than one chapter — meringue triangles with almonds, for example, could appear with equal ease after a discussion of sugar, almonds, or eggs. Sometimes one ingredient is the undisputed essence of the delicacy. Shortbread without butter? Each ingredient has its glories, and any two of them can unite to make a sterling dessert. But beware if someone offers you a delicacy that contains all four: It may be the pleasure experience of your life.
Copyright © 2002 Fran Gage