Such is the state of American pastry: cookie dough shaped into a shot glass and filled with milk, a croissant with its legs crossed into a pretzel, and soft-serve made out of strained cereal milk. Oh, and of course, there’s the Cronut™ and its mutant cousins: the bronut (a brownie doughnut), the brodding (a brownie pudding), the brookie (a brownie cookie), the crookie (croissants with Oreo cookies), the S’monut (doughnut pastry with marshmallow filling and graham crackers), the S’mookies (s’mores between cookies), the townie (a brownie tartlet), the broissant (a Cronut™ made by chocolatier Peterbrooke), the baissant (a bagel-croissant) and the cragel (a croissant-bagel).
It would not be going too far, therefore, to point out that the race for the next pastry portmanteau might have gotten out of hand.
But then again, you might find yourself in line outside the Dominique Ansel Bakery in chilly SoHo at 6:30 a.m., in line for a Cronut™ — arguably the original pastry mutant that started this candied ruckus in the first place. After an hour and a half of waiting (during which Dr. Frankenpastry Dominique Ansel himself tenderly handed you a freshly-baked madeleine), you took your first bite into the Cronut™ and it discharged a sudden squirt of pastry cream that dribbled all over your chin and onto your shirt. And you might have then thought to yourself: This here — right here — yes, really, truly, is worth it.
Over in France, pastry chefs compete for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France. The competition was started in 1929 during a time of ideas to remind the public of the importance of craftsmanship, expertise and labor. The MOF pâtissier competition happens every four years. Sixteen chefs, from an intial pool of 100, are selected to participate in the final round, during which they must make, among other things, 60 miniature pâte à choux, one three-tiered wedding cake, 60 chocolate candies, 1,500 grams of jam made with a summer fruit associated with a flower, 36 miniature afternoon tea accroutrements, a full-length chocolate sculpture, a body-length sugar showpiece adhering to the theme of the year, and a bijou, or jewel, to be presented in a Plexiglass case. Of the 16 competitors, any, and certainly all, have a shot at receiving the MOF distinction. The honor does not come with a finacial award or compensation for the cost of ingredients, equipment and travel.
Such is the state of French pastry, as it has been since the beginning: sacrifice, tradition, “Le Technique,” maniacal attention to detail, fanatical dedication to craft, fraternité, years of disappointment, blood, sweat and tears.
As Americans, reading this — perhaps in line at a bakery — we pity and we envy the French. What is this slavish devotion to craft for? What about the American Dream? Don’t they have Cronuts™ in France yet?
Flaky Cronut™ in hand, we remember that the modern American pastry temperament owes its roots, indeed, to France. Of the acclaimed pastry chefs in the United States, Dominique Ansel, of cookie dough shot and Cronut™ fame, is French. Maury Rubin of pretzel croissant fame began his pastry apprenticeship in Paris. Christina Tosi, creator of cereal milk ice cream, is a French Culinary Institute graduate. American pastry is built almost entirely around a pastry technique imported from France.
It is as if all these pastry chefs arrived to the American sweet scene and saw the lay of the land: cheddar apple pies, colored sprinkles and Pop-Tarts. They thought to themselves: Here there is work to be done. So they came up with Crack pie®, kitchen sink kookies and b’day cake pops. They made no éclairs unless they were pumpkin-spiced.
Is American pastry’s identity crisis just that then? French recipes, fervor and craftsmanship lost in translation during their transatlantic migration?
The American melting pot does not allow for French pastry excellence; there really is nothing French about a deep-fried croissant or people who are paid $100 to line up for Cronuts™ and deliver them. There is something brutal about this severe commodification of food. Popularist chefs trade craftsmanship for the sake of five-star Yelp reviews, tapping into our short attention spans and our basic cravings for excessive amounts of sugar.
Seen from afar, the state of American pastry looks bleak: We’re stuck in brand-driven creativity. Kraft over craft. Too often, we’re often much closer. Too close, with our faces buried in supremely flaky croissant-donut chimerae, wiping November special salted dulce de leche off our chins.