Science! I’m sure I’m showing my age but do any of you recall the Thomas Dolby song “She Blinded Me With Science!”? It featured Dr. Magnus Pyke (A British scientist) shouting the word “Science” at various intervals throughout the song. Dr. Pyke was a popular scientist and media figure while I was growing up but began his career as a food researcher during WWII. He became very well known for his on camera eccentric manner which endeared him to the British public. One can only assume the British took him to their hearts because they themselves are pretty much all eccentrics. I feel quite comfortable saying that as:
A. I’m British
B. I’ve been considered somewhat of an eccentric
C. I’ve been known to yell “Science” at completely inappropriate moments
Baking IS science it’s NOT art. Forget everything you’ve seen on TV about constructing outrageous cakes or putting together radically opposing flavors to shock and intrigue. While I’ve constructed several large cakes made to resemble buildings of one kind or another many of the baking and cooking shows on TV leave me feeling they’ve very little to do with food and more to do with shock and confrontation. I’ve come across many talented people who call themselves “Chefs” and can create fantastic displays using little more than granulated sugar, but couldn’t make a blueberry muffin or pipe a shell border on a cake any more than I could fly a Boeing 747.
The science that is baking has a long and rich history that has taken hundreds of years to perfect. Those of us lucky enough to have honestly attempted to learn its subtleties, nuances and often times paradoxes surly appreciate the sacrifices made by those who came before us. The simple act of mixing flour and water together creates not just a sticky paste (glue) but begins a transformation. Gluten emerges and once controlled (Pastry Chefs are just a bunch of control freaks) can be manipulated to create a myriad of different items. Think about it; Many baked items are created from the same five ingredients; fat (often butter), sugar, flour, eggs and liquid (often water or milk). Now consider the many looks, textures and flavors that baked items have. Breads are very different from cakes which are different from cookies which are different from pies which are different from tarts…… and yet all share very similar ingredients. The science that makes all these items different needs to be understood by the baker/pastry chef so that the ingredients can be manipulated in just the right fashion and the correct result achieved. The art of dressing up the finished pastries, while requiring a high degree of practice is nothing compared to the challenge and scaling, mixing and baking. Eating the finished product is the ultimate test. Baked goods can look like a million dollars but if they don’t taste good then what was the point? Sure it’s all got to look appealing but in the end it’s there to be eaten. Otherwise it’s like a great many politicians; All talk and no substance! Talk is cheap. Good baked products rarely are.
So next time you’re masticating on a well-made or a simply divine, must have another piece of, can’t live without slice of, this is to die for cake, consider shouting “Science”. Just remember to empty your mouth first.