I’m back and road-weary, but not too weary to enjoy the comments and emails from the last few days. Some of the most enjoyable have read, in essence: Joe, in the last week you’ve dumped on both gourmet salts and real vanilla, are you on some sort of project to tick your readers off? That’s a fair line of inquiry since I wondered the same thing myself!
To answer the question, I’m not on some sort of temperamental bender, rather just expressing a core Joe Pastry belief: that ingredients are only part of what a baker needs to make superior pastry. Technique and understanding matter as much, even more. So I endorse cheap ingredients, especially chocolates, salts, flavors and whatnot. Not necessarily the cheapest mind you, since the very cheapest flours, sugars and butters can actually ruin a project. But you know, just the normal, middle-of-the-road stuff. In the right hands the so-so can be elevated to the miraculous. Just ask anyone with a grandma who bakes!
I worry when new “hot” ingredients emerge. The boosterism around them is designed to make all us home cooks and bakers think that Magic Stuff X is the thing we’ve really been missing all these years. Believe me, as a professional ingredients marketer I know where those messages come from! However my experience in the retail and business-to-business ingredients industry has shown me that there’s little point in paying up for truly great components when you’re not using what you already have to its full potential. This is a principle that’s known industrially as “ingredient performance” or “product performance” and it’s something every company is trying to boost, since wasted potential is wasted money, and no business wants that. The key to maximizing ingredient performance is of course: better technique.
If you combine cocoa powder with boiling water before you use it you’ll get twice as much flavor out of it. Most industrial users of cocoa powder don’t know that. Neither do most home bakers. But that’s knowledge that’s just as useful for us, right? In an ideal world we’ll be informed and efficient in the way we use what we buy too. This idea, culled from industry, was part of the genesis of Joe Pastry.
So don’t be surprised if I trash talk high-end goods every so often, it’s in my DNA…baked in the cake of Joe Pastry, as it were. There are true masters out there who can consistently get the most out of grand cru chocolates. Pierre Hermé and Thomas Keller for instance. Me, I’m lucky to tease the full potential out of a Hershey bar, which is why I keep buying them…and probably will for many years to come. Thanks, all you emailers and commenters, for some very thought-provoking reading. It’s great to be back!