Perhaps it is because we have no indigenous culture of quality baking in India, but the subcontinent seems to have escaped the pastry boom that is sweeping the world. I was in Thailand and the Philippines recently and I was struck by the profusion of bakery shops and pâtisserie counters. Most evenings, there would be crowds and queues in front of these counters as locals packed bakery products to take home. From what I recall, this is as true in Singapore and Malaysia as well.
Contrast this with India’s big cities. Though the American Dunkin’ Donuts chain has been a big success in India, it has focused on the quality of its coffee and its newly-introduced range of hamburgers. Doughnuts are part of the mix but they are not the sole point of the exercise. And while there are cult bakeries (Bombay’s Theobroma, for instance) in our metros, the pastry counter is not a regular component of the food experience.
I am not the world’s greatest bakery fan and anyway, I try and avoid wheat these days. But there seem to me to be two distinct strands to the bakery craze. The first is the European strand, inspired perhaps by all those little pâtisseries in Paris that sell freshly-made crème caramel or the Austrian pastry shops that are justly proud of their sachertorte. But this is not part of the pastry craze that is currently sweeping the world. There is a second strand to the bakery business and it has its origins in America.
In the United States, baking has rarely been regarded as the sort of thing that makes a chef’s reputation. The interesting American breads, for instance, tend to be the Jewish breads which have their origins in Europe. Instead, Americans treat baking as a basic craft, so basic in fact that anyone can do it at home. The great American bakery classics – Mom’s apple pie or freshly-baked vanilla cookies or chocolate brownies – are all home-cooking specialities. They are a way of expressing love and affection rather than any great culinary sophistication.
Over the last few decades, however, as the number of mums who bother to make apple pie has dwindled, Americans have become hooked on the food industry’s bakery offerings. It is now common for people to grab a doughnut, a Danish pastry or a muffin along with a coffee on the way to work. Rarely are these products created by artisanal bakers. They are usually industrial foods produced on a mass scale.
Some canny marketer saw an opening. Since the beginning of the century, two new products have come to epitomise the American big city ethos. There’s the cupcake, packaged as a girlie product and sold at high prices with fancy names. And then, there’s the upmarket doughnut. This is almost exactly the same as the downmarket doughnut but it usually includes a glaze around it and contains variations in texture. The company that turned the upmarket doughnut into a global phenomenon is, of course, Krispy Kreme, and you will find its stores all over the world.
The key to the success of the girlie cupcake and the upmarket doughnut has been hype. Such shows as Sex And The City drew an audience that was looking for direction and wanted to be advised to eat trendy foods (and drink trendy drinks, wear trendy shoes, etc). In New York, a food product is only desirable if famous people like it or if it is hard to find.
Consider the story of the cronut. This is a doughnut made from croissant dough. It was invented in New York by a French chef called Dominique Ansel. In the beginning, Ansel prided himself on baking only 300 cronuts each morning. When people started raving about the quality of his cronuts in the media (including social media), Ansel found that he had a riot on his hands. Each morning a line forms outside his bakery and no sooner has he opened his doors, the cronuts are gone. You would think that he might consider expanding his production. But Ansel knows the value of hype and scarcity. His cronuts are prized because it is so hard to get your hands on one.
Scarcity creates its own compulsions. So, at least some of those who queue up for Ansel’s cronuts are not buying them for themselves. A black market in cronuts has developed with scalpers selling them at up to 100 dollars per cronut, which makes them the world’s most expensive upmarket doughnuts.
A doughnut black market is not as strange as you may think. A few years ago, when Krispy Kreme opened its first Thai outlet at Bangkok’s Siam Paragon mall, Thais would queue for hours for the dubious pleasure of getting to sink their teeth into one of Krispy Kreme’s glazed doughnuts. Inevitably, a black market developed and if you looked longingly at the Krispy Kreme counter while entering the mall, a guy would soon sidle up to you and offer to sell you the doughnuts at double the normal rate.
With the cronut craze sweeping the world, the Thais have been quick to capitalise on the trend. A few months ago, I was surprised to find that Bangkok’s Lebua Hotel was offering cronuts as part of its breakfast service. It turned out that the hotel’s two pastry chefs, Adrien Detti and Gilles Delaloy read about Ansel’s creation and tapped contacts in New York to find out how the cronut was made.
“It is not really difficult to make,” Detti told me. “We got the recipe and then we experimented again and again till we got it right. It is not as simple as making a normal doughnut with croissant dough. There is a trick. You have to fold the dough one more time than you would with a normal croissant. But once you do that, the dish is perfect every time.”
Ansel is said to be angered by the flood of imitators and has tried to patent the cronut name all over the world with some success. (Adrien and Gilles’ version is called croughnut because of copyright issues). The problem is that once a bakery product is out there, in the public domain, you can’t really stop people from cooking it. You can, of course, stop them from using your brand name but after a while that hardly matters. People work out that others are making cronuts that are as good as yours and begin to buy them no matter what name is used. Plus, potential buyers of the non-Ansel cronuts don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to block seats in the queue.
If you are interested in making your own cronuts (and you’d have to be a pretty good chef judging by how complicated the recipe is), I got Adrien Detti to part with the method he uses at Lebua. He’s not sure that it is exactly the same as Ansel’s original. But he promises that the results will be up to the standards of the New York version.
Which leaves the big question: why would you want to eat a cronut, anyway? I haven’t tried the Ansel original but judging by everything I have read about it, a cronut is about as heavy as a giant whale or an overgrown African elephant. Time magazine rated it as one of the 25 best inventions of the year 2013 but its description should tell you everything you need to know: “A croissant-style pastry that is fried like a doughnut, filled with cream and topped with glaze.” To that, one could add that it’s not just ordinary cream in the filling but a version that has been enriched with such ingredients as mascarpone. The average cronut has so many calories that you’ve got to be a cronut junkie to finish one.
I mean no disrespect to Ansel or even to the two French chefs at Lebua who turned out their own excellent version of the cronut, but I have to say, I am not a fan. It’s too heavy and too sweet for me. And I am willing to make a prediction. The cronut craze will quickly sweep the world and then will just as quickly retreat. This is not a pastry that is going to survive through the decades.
From HT Brunch, November 24
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