My Scones Rocked! Baking Pastries Beats Fish on Milton

When you compare the professions, pastry chef really has it over journalism, don’t you think? At least at first glance. I mean, your pastry chef, if he or she is good enough, always pleases people, makes them smile, even moan with pleasure. Your journalist, if he’s done his job, makes people, well … angry, irritated, bitter, uncomfortable. “Afflict the comfortable,” says the journalist. “Comfort the afflicted,” says the pastry chef.

My decision to spend a morning as assistant pastry chef at a neighborhood bakery and restaurant called Café Indulge was born of a number of factors. Not disillusionment with journalism, or with writing, which I still love in a love/hate fashion, but desire for a bit of contrast.

Of course, journalism has taken a lot of knocks lately. I loved Toby Young’s book How to Lose Friends & Alienate People , laughed out loud frequently at many points, but his book’s portrait of what journalism is-even glossy-magazine journalism-is kind of limited, mainly to the kind of professional freeloader and semi-official celebrity stalker whose ambition it once was his to be. (Although he does get big points for citing repeatedly one of my heroes, Ben Hecht, and his amazing memoir A Child of the Century ). But what about Murray Kempton, my ideal and inspiration? Yes, he was one of a kind, but he produced journalism that combined thrillingly precise observation, which comes from a joyful immersion in the world, with a complex, sometimes comic awareness of paradox and an idiosyncratic style that will make even his ephemeral works lasting treasures of American culture.

And what about the journalism of ideas of the sort that Lingua Franca published? (O.K., Lingua Franca is dead, but that kind of journalism isn’t.) I was just leafing through Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca , the forthcoming anthology from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. An anthology I’m pleased to say that, according to a note from editor Alexander Star, had its “genesis” in my column ( The Observer , Nov. 12, 2001) praising the magazine and lamenting its loss. Toby Young could have come to America and restarted the Modern Review (the magazine of “Low Culture for Highbrows”) he founded and folded. Or, failing that, he could have become a star of Lingua Franca like Emily Eakin or Larissa MacFarquhar, who have since done quite well elsewhere. Toby Young is the quintessential quick study: highly educated, sees through sophistry, and can capture people and ideas with ease and flair. You can find all that in Quick Studies , along with glimpses of the great mysteries of existence and the nature of human nature. It makes you realize there’s a lot of good journalism to be done that doesn’t involve celebrities with a film to plug.

And just to mention some more examples of why journalism in America shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand: In the realm of literary journalism, there’s John K. Leonard’s superbly knowledgeable dissection of Stanley Fish’s new Milton book (in the July 18, 2002, issue of The New York Review of Books ). Mr. Leonard expertly demonstrates why Mr. Fish’s original Milton book, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost , still deserves enormous respect, and how, in his new postmodern guise, Mr. Fish has clumsily remade Milton into a one-dimensional fundamentalist, virtually a Taliban poet.

And a word for a younger writer Daniel Pinchbeck, who has reinvigorated what might be called intellectual-adventure journalism in his forthcoming Breaking Open the Head , an account of his worldwide search for shamanic experiences, which raises provocative questions like whether 10 hours of puking your guts out during a yage ceremony in Ecuador is worth the “ten years of psychoanalysis” Mr. Pinchbeck suggests it’s the equivalent of (the yage , not the puking, I think). And then there’s Koba the Dread , Martin Amis’ remarkably fierce and thought-provoking new study of Stalin, Stalinism and the legacy it’s left on the Left. A book that reminds me in some ways of Murray Kempton’s Part of Our Time , an enduring classic of political journalism.

So, as I said, I love writing, and I love reading the work of such talented colleagues, but like many people-many writers, anyway-I do entertain ideas of roads not taken, fantasy alternate careers. My two main, most persistent alternate-life fantasies are country-music songwriter (if I could just write one song for Rosanne Cash!) and pastry chef.

I guess country-music songwriter is not that much of a stretch from writer-O.K., in my fantasy life I’m a singer-songwriter, maybe like Rodney Crowell. (That’s a stretch, but what do you think of the title of the song I’ve been working on for five years: “I’m Lookin’ Forward to Lookin’ Back on You.” A good start, no?)

But pastry chef, that’s a real alternative; living my life in a cloud of flour, butter, cream and confectioner’s sugar. Turning out tarts and cupcakes (that doesn’t sound quite right, but never mind) with buttercream icing, almond-cream filling, coconut-cream layering. Spectacularly intense sweet things that leave people in a coma of pleasure, moaning with gratitude.

Compare that with the thanklessness of being a writer. Yes, sometimes you entertain people, sometimes they enjoy reading what you write, but only rarely do they moan with gratitude. Most of the time what you seek in writing is to challenge readers; often you end up irritating them, angering them-all in the good cause of making them think more deeply, of course. All well and good, but part of the appeal of being a pastry chef grows out of that aspect of me that doesn’t want to challenge people, but knock them out (in a good way).

I must admit that scones never figured heavily into my pastry-chef fantasy. I was never really a scone person. If I liked them on occasion, it was as a vehicle for clotted cream, Devonshire cream, that sort of thing, which I like a lot . But almost anything tastes great with Devonshire cream slathered on it. Scones occupied as well that border region between sweet things and, well, bread things. They never showed me much, and in most variations available in the city they tended to be bland, dry, disappointing, and sometimes sour and acidic-tasting. And then there’s the ugly transmogrification of scones into muffin-like vehicles, the downright nasty varieties you find in coffee shops with the frosting and the filling and the fruit salad of cheap flavoring embedded in some concrete-texture, cardboard-tasting dough, giving them all the appeal and authenticity of Dunkin Donuts’ blueberry “bagels.”

But even with the allegedly high-end scones-like the Balthazar Bakery varieties you can now find distributed in various gourmet-coffee-shop-type places these days-you might as well be eating unflavored drywall.

What got me into the whole scone thing, what convinced me that I had to try out the pastry-chef fantasy, was the opening of what was originally a pastry shop in my neighborhood: Café Indulge. It’s now a restaurant as well (you can find it at 31st and Second across from the Kips Bay megaplex), but originally it was just about pastry-really remarkable pastry. The place featured a remarkable pastry chef, a young graduate of the French Culinary Institute named Elyssa Robbins (now Elyssa Fournier-she recently married a French chef). From the beginning, Café Indulge employed the smart marketing device of placing Elyssa in the front window, steamy tendrils of butter flavor seeping out to the street-the fragrant tentacles of culinary temptation.

At first I was hooked on the buttery tarts. The sour cherry tart in particular, with its almond-flour-infused filling and smashing buttery crust, had my number from the start, though the blueberry and pumpkin tarts were capable of inflicting serious damage on my willpower as well.

Then there were the chocolate flourless cupcakes, which I resisted for a long time because lately chocolate has a tendency to give me mini-migraine-like symptoms. But then I tasted it and I decided that I don’t care-bring on the headache, I’m not going to deny myself the pleasure. Sometimes I’d buy them in the morning, hot out of the oven, still gooey inside, and vow to wait until later to reward myself-a vow I rarely kept. Yes, I’ve had chocolate flourless cupcakes for breakfast! I try to rationalize it. I knew from reading 18th-century novels and memoirs that this was something writers and aristocrats would do-begin their morning with a strong cup of chocolate instead of coffee, a very literary thing. But who was I fooling? I would have done it anyway; life is short (and getting shorter for me because of my refusal to deny myself buttery treats).

Then every once in awhile, Ms. Robbins would just sort of come up with some new creation that would knock me out. First there were her pear muffins, an amazingly buttery, rich creation incorporating buttery discs of Bosc pears. (Did I mention they were buttery?) I wondered if I was just imagining things, but I started bringing the pear muffins and Ms. Robbins’ cookies (particularly the ginger snaps and butter cookies) up to the Observer office, where I suddenly felt more popular (not that I wasn’t tolerated before, but the muffins and cookies were a big hit).

Her next invention was off the charts: a deceptively innocent-sounding apple cake, a large cupcake-sized creation of buttery crumbs, almond cream and tender, buttery apple slices (did I mention that it was buttery?) that came close to making me moan out load when I tasted it. I know it sounds simple-”apple cake”-but you won’t say that after you’ve tasted it. It’s enough to drive you mad with pleasure.

Where was I? Yes, trying to talk about scones, but I got off the track in describing some of the more sensational treats. That was the thing, exactly: These scones had to be pretty remarkable to shift my focus away from their rivals on the pastry spectrum. But it was precisely their reticent perfection that won me over.

That, and the running argument I would have with Elyssa over what kind of scones she should focus on.

Basically, I thought that her currant scone was perfection itself, but she insisted on what I argued were unnecessary “improvements.” About those currants: I’ve never had any respect for those shriveled-looking little bits (the Mini-Me’s of the raisin world), but somehow they worked in Elyssa’s scones, allowing her not to tart up the dough itself with too much sugariness, providing instead little spikes of sweet counterpoint to the powdery fusion of flavor and texture in the scone. They served to heighten the contradictions, to throw the qualities of each element into sharper relief.

Anyway, the argument began when Elyssa insisted on trying out what I thought were mere crowd-pleasing experiments with her perfect scones, making chocolate-chip scones, chocolate-chip almond scones-that way lies Starbucks. I had a deeply held philosophical position that chocolate and doughiness were clashing categories of taste that undermined each other, although I admit her meltingly good banana chocolate-chip muffins (very popular at The Observer ) almost persuaded me otherwise. Even when she added less distracting elements than chocolate, like raisins or cherries, I felt that it somehow affected the texture, the coherence of the whole scone experience.

Anyway, out of this good-natured sconology discussion grew the notion that she teach me how to make her classic scones, so I could make my own while she was entertaining the masses with the chocolate-chip variety. Perhaps she would disclose the secret that made her scones so unusual. And out of that grew the idea of my spending a morning as her assistant pastry chef, to get a taste of what my fantasy career might be like.

And so it was on a recent morning that I arrived at Café Indulge at 7 a.m., put on a chef’s apron and went to work. I don’t want to keep you in suspense: My scones, made under Elyssa’s tutelage, totally rocked. I brought a bag of them up to The Observer after my stint that morning and-without my telling anyone I’d baked them-people loved them. My scones were better than Balthazar’s by far !

But scones were only part of the pastry-chef experience. There was something exhilarating about bringing trays of brioche dough from the proofing box in the basement up to the oven in the tiny Café Indulge kitchen and watching them bloom into mahogany-coated beauty. That was our first task. Then, under Elyssa’s guidance, I made dough for the shells of her incredible éclairs: a time-consuming process which, nonetheless, by the time I’d finished-covered with flour and pastry dough-had left the air perfumed with the mingled fragrances of butter and sugar. All of these infused with the varied fragrances of her muffins baking away, along with the dough for the chocolate flourless cupcakes that had become my post–Sept. 11 addiction. (Hey, we all have our different ways of coping with the stress of waiting for the day of the dirty nuke to arrive.)

After a couple of hours of being immersed in this fragrant atmosphere of butter and sugar and flour, along with mixing dough and sampling it (a little too frequently) and breathing its elements in, I had three insights:

1) Pastry is a language , with a lovely five-word vocabulary, a lingua franca that can be skillfully deployed to create a universe of sensual significations. The five words being: butter, flour, sugar, eggs (well, that’s really three words when you consider the different ways yolks, whites and whole eggs are deployed) and cream.

Yes, cream-especially heavy cream, which is the key ingredient in Elyssa’s scones. You can’t compromise on the cream. A low-fat scone is an oxymoron; it usually tastes like the stale muffin it failed to be.

2) My second revelation: There’s a difference between loving to eat pastry and loving to be a pastry chef. There’s a lot of hard work, a lot of heavy lifting, but more than anything it’s the breathing in of sugary, buttery fumes. You’d think you could never get tired of breathing in sugary, buttery fumes, but that’s because you’ve probably never breathed them in for hours at a time. It would be like eating sugary, buttery things for hours at a time -too much of a good thing. Blake said that one never knows when one has had enough until one has had too much. I think I’ll stick to eating pastry rather than cooking it.

3) And there was a third revelation: the secret of Elyssa’s scones. It has to do with lots of heavy cream and with cold, buttery disks. She likes to cut the cold butter into small disks and mix it into the dough in that somewhat nonhomogenized way so that during the baking process, the disks melt locally within the gelling architecture of the dough. Somehow this creates buttery layers within the scones. It’s an utterly unique texture thing, but not unrelated to the way the whole taste thing is organized, you might say.

Anyway, I’ve never done this before, but I’m going to include the scone recipe that Elyssa wrote out for me, because I’m a giving kind of guy (see box). By the way, I recently learned the tragic news that Elyssa and her husband will be leaving for the West Coast to open a restaurant of their own there. I have two words for her successor: butter and cream .