What's old is new again: Milwaukee reclaims the lost art of pastry
Look around and you'll see an endless resurgence of ancient foods and techniques that faded away, but that are quickly returning to the mainstream.
One great example is artisan bread. Another is the art of pastry.
Both are seeing a revival in Milwaukee, and there's nowhere the trend is more evident than at Rocket Baby Bakery in Wauwatosa where Geoff Trenholme and Matt Haase spend their days in the kitchen whipping out countless handmade sweet and savory pastries, treats, and old fashioned European style breads.
"The arts were never really lost," says Geoff Trenholme, pastry chef and owner of the bakery. "They were bypassed for economic reasons. Eventually it becomes evident that people don't always want the quick version."
Trenholme points to the "baguette revolution," a phenomenon of 1970s France.
"There's this idea that there's a golden past that was great, and then we lost it," he says. "It simply isn't true. The baguette, for instance, is pretty much a 20th century innovation."
In France, the 1920s were a heyday for baguettes thanks to the advent of steam ovens, which assisted bakeries in achieving breads with a crisp exterior crust and a soft, pliable inside. But, then the Second World War hit, and bread began to suffer. Flour was sub-par, and bakers were unable to produce the quality loaves to which they'd been accustomed.
"Then, after the war, everyone got large production mixers," Trenholme explains. "They went from bread that was barely mixed to bread that was super mixed. It became puffier, lighter, whiter. But, then, starting in the '60s, there was a move toward using the technology to achieve the great results we've traditionally gotten from making bread by hand."
The United States followed a similar path.
You can trace the cycle by looking at the past 50 years or so right here in Milwaukee. In the 1960s, Milwaukee was teeming with family owned bakeries. But, then the wind shifted and most disappeared, with the exception of standards like Sciortinos, Canfora, Scardina, and Naional. In the 1980s there was a trend of buying par-baked breads and frozen bread. There were fewer bakeries, and supermarkets were trying to meet the demand for freshly baked breads, something that had been lost in an era of high-production products like Wonder Bread.
Harlequin Bakery was one of the trailblazers who brought back the idea of the old school skilled bakery, opening in 2005 and selling homemade croissants, expertly decorated cookies, and a host of other hand-crafted items. They captured the imaginations of the hipster set, and introduced great pastry to a new generation, setting the stage for artisan bakeries to come.
"As people moved back to eating whole grain breads and sourdoughs," Trenholme says, "Americans have really led the way with the demand for seedy, artisan products. It's more of a cycle than anything."
Trenholme says he's honored to be part of a tradition of great bakeries, and he pays tribute to the ancient art of bread-making in his approach, while making use of modern technology to improve the process.
"We're honoring those traditions by adhering to the components that have been proven over time to make a superior product," he says. "But, modern conveniences like refrigeration allow us to control temperature. Gas oven replicates a wood-fired oven, but cuts down on labor. We are able to knead by machine – not in a wooden trough by hand."
Trenholme also places importance on old methods when they make a difference in the finished product.
"The color of pumpernickel bread comes from slow cooking, the caramelization of sugars. It's not coloring. It's not coffee. It's part of the process – which takes a long time. But, people don't realize that."
For Matt Haase, who handles the pastry end of the shop, it's all about making a nod to traditional techniques and offering people a level of skill in his work that they might not find elsewhere.
"It's about bringing back laminated doughs, croissants, breads, and using older techniques like pulling sugar and using it for decorations. Or making caramels," he says.
"Sugar work is just for decoration, so there's no point in using it in most restaurant kitchens," he explains. "Many restaurants don't even have pastry chefs any more, and many of the ones who exist haven't necessarily been through training in the traditional sense with the old school pastry chefs. They're savory guys who just happened into it."
Haase knows the game firsthand, being himself a savory-trained chef who made the switch and attended pastry school just last year.
"When I was in savory I thought anyone could do pastry. But, then I realized that so many people with that mentality only have about five items in their repertoire."
Among those items, he cites flourless chocolate cake, fruit crumbles, cheesecake, and a few other items commonly found on Milwaukee restaurant menus.
"Glazing a mousse cake would never happen in a restaurant, because I'd probably be doing something more deconstructed," he says, giving it as an example. "But, it's the sort of thing you'll learn in pastry school."
Haase also says most people don't have the time to spend to get really good at some of the techniques required for pastry, like mastering the art of a flaky croissant, for instance. Trenholme agrees.
"It's possible to spend an entire lifetime trying to make the perfect baguette or the perfect sourdough," Trenholme says. "But, you reach a point where all the tweaks are minute things that just about no one will notice. We're to that point with our process that we're investigating ways to improve things at that level."
But, if no one else notices, what's the point?
It's about mastering the craft, says Trenholme. "It's about being so obsessed with it that you pay attention to the little details … it's gotta be like this."
Haase is constantly looking for ways to perfect what he's doing in the realm of pastries. He says that most recently he's been making headway by playing with the recipe for the bakery's éclairs.
"Most éclairs are covered in glaze. Glaze is shiny. Things shine because they have higher sugar content; but, they don't necessarily taste good."
So, Haase gave up on the gloss and put the emphasis on flavor. His éclairs are now covered with ganache, because the flavor is superior to an ordinary glaze. He's also spent months playing around with a variety of fillings.
"Usually you fill an éclair with pastry cream. That's a gut bomb," he says. "We've never filled our éclairs with pastry cream. First we cut pastry cream with whipped cream. Then we played with some really modern techniques. And right now we fill them with creameaux or whipped ganache."
When I asked him if people miss what they might see as a more traditional product, Haase shakes his head.
"Part of it is education. If you have a good quality product, and you are able to show people how and why, it makes a huge difference," he says.
Haase says they're always looking for ways to improve on everything, including ingredients that have become the industry standard.
"We don't use coffee extract," he says. "We have great tasting coffee right here, so why would we use an extract? Instead we make our own infused cream with the Anodyne coffee beans."
It's also about creating flavors that evoke a sense of place. Next up, Haase plans to play around with a ganache that captures the terroir of a place where both coffee and chocolate are grown.
"The chocolate I'm using is from Guatemala," he says, "So why not pair that with Guatemalan coffee? I'm excited to see how it turns out."
Want more? Stay tuned. This article is the kick-off for a series of interviews with local pastry chefs, including Kurt Fogle of Surg, Kelsey Williamson of Smythe and Chase Anderson of Wolf Peach. They will share tips, tricks and their views on the state of pastry in Milwaukee.
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