Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Taste: who cares?

So, on my journey to taste things more completely, it makes sense to find out who is professionally and personally interested in this topic. When approaching research projects, I always start with the premise that someone has written a PhD thesis on the topic: first find what's out there. There must be an enormous amount of research on this topic; since I can't find it perhaps it's just not aimed at a general/foodie audience?

Several groups come to mind initially:
  • medical professionals who deal with the senses, especially doctors and researchers who study and treat the loss or diminution of taste and smell
  • chefs and food professionals, both teaching chefs and those who are exploring new tastes and techniques, such as the molecular or modernist chefs
  • food scientists who are involved in developing and testing food products, particularly sensory professionals who have constructs and standardized testing procedures to understand what consumers can discern and what they enjoy
  • farmers, beekeepers, livestock breeders, spice brokers and everyone else at the beginning of the food supply chain. Or for that matter, anyone at any point in the chain whose business it is to discern small differences among foods.
These folks ought to have some answers for us foodies - how can we experience our food more completely?

Image: graur razvan ionut

Friday, March 11, 2011

How can I get better at tasting food?

One can and should focus on the skill of tasting.

After a long respite, I am returning to blogging about food with a new interest and focus: How can one learn to taste better? Let's use the world of wine as a metaphor. Serious oeneophiles learn how to appreciate wine. They bring an approach, a language, experience and sometime training to a glass of wine. I think - and they believe - that when we share a bottle, they actually perceive more with each mouthful than I do. Also, when they want to experience more, do they go try and make a bottle of wine? No, they learn more about how to taste wine and they experiment with the range of tastes that exist. There are also recommendations that help them try new tastes based upon their existing preferences.

So I love to eat and I get a great deal of enjoyment from cooking, what can I do so that I can actually perceive more tastes? Can I perceive more in a given food: what are the different flavors in a coffee or a chocolate? Also, are there tastes that I have not yet tasted that are worth tasting?

I want to understand if I can do some simple things that will help me perceive and enjoy foods. So here are a few topics to start:

  • How does the anatomy of tasting work and how can I help it work better?
  • How can I tell how much of the spectrum of taste I am actually experiencing?
  • What is normal and what are the ranges of ability to perceive different tastes?
  • How can we talk about taste and tasting? What are the dimensions of taste: texture, aroma, etc.
  • What are some simple things to improve my ability to taste - and let's experiment with them: breathing strips, chewing longer, palate cleansers and other things that help me to perceive tastes and smells better.
  • What can we learn from sensory professionals about tasting?
  • How does the world of sensory testing talk about taste and food? What is the taxonomy and how can we talk about the dimensions of taste?
  • How can we map the world of tastes to know where we've gone, and perhaps more importantly, where we haven't?

Photo credit:

Friday, November 20, 2009

Trader Joe's Pithivier

Everyone has that story about the best "something" they ever ate - that cheese in Vermont, that BBQ in North Carolina. For me, perhaps the best baked good I ever ate was in Brittany at a little bakery on a cold and foggy day. The bakery was closing and they let the two of us in, but just for a moment. I picked the first thing that looked sweet and the woman behind the counter cut a wedge from a large flat disk on the top shelf of the vitrine.

Pure bliss. Puff pastry with a still warm, not too sweet almond filling, topped with sugar. Pithiviers.

For years I have looked for it in bakeries, literally all over the world. Well, now Trader Joe's has it in the frozen case. Pithivier, which dates back to the 1600's is a traditional bakery item from Pithiviers, a town about an hour and a half south of Paris. It is quite simple - frangipane sandwiched between two layers of puff pastry.

It comes frozen, uncooked and the directions instruct you to cook it for 30-40 minutes at 375 degrees. I cooked up a first and consistent with the "serving suggestion" dusted it with powdered sugar.
It was good, but not great. What was missing? The Pithivier I remember had a sugar crust, so on a second try, I baked one with an additional teaspoon or two of granulated sugar scattered over the top, which caramelized in the oven and added a nice contrasting sweet crunch to the crust.

Pure bliss.

Great, but now for the "so what?" What are the implications for operations and strategy when we see this in the frozen case?

Recent developments in yeast cultures and manufacturing and freezing processes have enabled these frozen baked goods to stay in the bakery case for the two to three months or more required by the supply chain - from bakeries to warehouses to store to home freezer to oven. Some observers think that products that are frozen and then baked at home will be a breakthrough category. Par-baked breads, where the bread is baked 80% and then frozen and shipped and baked off at another location prior to sale have had some success in the frozen case for consumers, but the real impact has been on in-store bakeries, note the success of La Brea Bakery's and other's lines of products.

I believe that there is an opportunity for commercial bakeries who can master these new ingredients and processes to win shelf space and market share in the in-store pastry case, especially with puff pastry based items. Thaw and sell items will lose share and shelf space to a better product. The benefit for the consumer is that we should be seeing more and better pastry items in-store.

Maybe finally we'll be able to get a decent, inexpensive pecan roll out of it..

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cake Wrecks

If you don't decorate cakes for a living or if you didn't see today's New York Times's food section, ("When the Icing on the Cake Spells Disaster") you might have missed Cake Wrecks Jen Yates's blog, which uses the tagline "when professional cakes go horribly, hilariously wrong," is a chronicle of misspellings, miscommunication and good intentions gone bad. Besides her popular blog, Yates has a new book (Cake Wrecks, Andrews McMeel, $12.99) - a great gift for your favorite baker. While the examples of directions to the cake decorator ending up on the cake can become predictable, the shower cakes with babies coming out of pregnant bellies, well they have to be seen to be believed..

Friday, October 2, 2009

Memorable Desserts from the NE Dessert Showcase

Here are the most interesting desserts that I could find at the New England Dessert Showcase, which was at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf last Saturday. Taste and uniqueness were my criteria, with an eye toward what could be sold in a mass retail environment.

Mango/Apricot Cake
Delectable Desires

This cake, a genoise soaked with mango/apricot puree and layered with vanilla butter cream, was the best combination of originality and taste. I was raised on standard middle-American fare, so mango can verge on an overripe or even off taste for me. Carlene O’Garro, the founder and pastry chef at Delectable Desires has softened the mango with apricot. The puree makes the cake a bright yellow-orange and gives it a pronounced tropical flavor which is offset by the rich butter cream. This would be great as a component in a mini pastry tray or as a whole cake.

Milk Chocolate covered Honey Bread
Brazilian Bakery and Specialties Company
With honey, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, this Brazilian honey bread (pan de mel) is a dense spice cake enrobed in milk chocolate. It works as a dessert or snack cake and has a 10 day shelf life. Brazilian Specialties products can currently be found at Whole Foods and specialty markets.

Chocolate is my downfall, so it is no surprise that I would search out and find the most intense chocolate hit possible. And yes, I am consciously using “hit,” with its drug connotations – after all, what is the best delivery mechanism for chocolate? For starters, there were two items that have similar flavor profiles, but differences in texture, temperature and presentation.

Dark Chocolate Decadence Cake
Finale Bakery and Desserterie
You can always count on Finale for impeccable desserts and they showed up with one of their classics: a dense, almost ganache-like flourless cake with deep round chocolate flavor with a hint of coffee. Depending upon its ability to maintain its shelf-life at ambient temperatures, this could be a great addition to a fresh table. Finale has a centralized pastry kitchen which serves its three Boston-area locations and sells wholesale, with both frozen and fresh capabilities.

Chocolate Souffle
Boston Common Coffee Company
No, you wouldn't expect the coffee guy's dessert to be among the best, but these little hockey pucks, warmed and served with a caramel sauce, were fabulous. They are gluten-free and made with Callebaut chocolate. After speaking with the founder, Anthony Massari, I learned that Boston Coffee Company has John Paul LaPierre, a former Ritz Carlton pastry chef in their kitchen. LaPierre, whose work has been featured in Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines has worked in Boston for decades in senior positions for restaurants including Davios, Sandrines, 647 Tremont, Biba, Pignoli and Cornucopia. LaPierre described these as his signature dessert. Boston Common Coffee Company operates three neighborhood coffee shops and serves a retail market.

Hand Decorated Sugar Cookies
Starlight Creatives
Presentation promotes trial, but taste is what makes repeat buyers. These cookies win on both fronts. Sandra Rhoads produces her hand-decorated cookies in a nut-free wholesale facility in Lynn, MA. All cookies are delivered fresh and Starlight does not have frozen storage capabilities. Starlight focuses on seasonal and theme cookies, selling to Whole Foods and other New England specialty accounts such as Wilson Farms. I had two packs, one of which I sampled the day of the event and another which I sampled a week later. These cookies are markedly better fresh. I make these myself at the holidays and I can’t ever find a good, fresh moderately priced iced sugar cookie. Is there is an opportunity to do a fresh, everyday iced sugar cookie which is focused on taste and affordability rather than exclusively as an expensive specialty gift item?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

NE Dessert Showcase Update

Saturday, September 26, 2009, The Marriott Long Wharf, 296 State Street, Boston, MA

9 - 11am Trade-only Hours for B2B Networking
11am - 4pm Showcase Open to the Public
4 - 6pm VIP Ticket, Exhibitor & Media Reception
7 - 10pm After Party

Here is the complete list of exhibitors for today's show:

Strawberry Hill Confectionery
Sugar Me Cookies
Sugabettens Baking
Cassis Bakery Inc.
Delectable Desires
Sister Nadine's
Godiva Chocolatier
Finale Desserterie and Bakery
Simply Dahlicious
Brazilian Bakery Specialties & Co
The Cholive Company
Brooke the Cook
Children's Trust Fund
Wheeler's Frozen Desserts
H. T. Berry Co.
Simply Divine Brownies
Pic-cha Sistas Photography
Boston Common Coffee Company
Starlight Creatives
Party Favors
B B Snaps
Geoff and Drew's Incredible Cookies
Aroa Fine Chocolate
KJW Productions
jBagz Photography
Biga Breads/Wildflour Catering/..Cakes Milton
Beacon Hill Hotel & Bistro
Salter College
Boston Chart House
The Melting Pot of Boston

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Trendspotting or Another Bakery Show?

The New England Dessert Showcase

Friday, September 25, 2009, The Greatest Bar, 262 Friend Street (between Causeway and Traverse), Boston, MA

7 - 9pm Cocktail Networking & Opening Night Party

Saturday, September 26, 2009, The Marriott Long Wharf, 296 State Street, Boston, MA

9 - 11am Trade-only Hours for B2B Networking
11am - 4pm Showcase Open to the Public
4 - 6pm VIP Ticket, Exhibitor & Media Reception
7 - 10pm After Party

Here's something of interest happening in Boston this weekend. This is the first year for the New England Dessert Showcase, an event run by Anthem Entertainment, which promises to bring together bakeries and potential wholesale customers. In addition to the B2B side, the event is open to the public. For a more detailed schedule and information about exhibiting or attending, go to

The confirmed list of exhibitors as of last Monday follows. Presumably it has grown as more folks decide to exhibit in the last two weeks before the event.

Sugar Me Cookies
Sugabettens Baking
Cassis Bakery Inc.
Delectable Desires
The Specialty Bean
Finale Desserterie and Bakery
Simply Dahlicious
Strawberry Hill Confectionery
Brazilian Bakery Specialties & Co.
The Cholive
Brooke the Cook
Children's Trust Fund
Wheeler's Frozen Dessert Company
H. T. Berry Paper Co.
Street Eats
The Chart House
Simply Divine Brownies

In addition, several hotels will be attending, including the Intercontinental, the Eliot, the Boston Harbor Hotel and the Hyatt. Erica Johnson of Anthem said there will be "close to 100" caterers, event planners and wedding planners attending. Despite the fact that the Showcase's website says it will benefit exhibitors who are interested in "mass commercial distribution," it appears that Anthem is focusing on the catering and hotel market., a website that follows Boston Restaurants and eating, is sponsoring a cooking demonstration with Nicole Coady, Executive Pastry Chef at Finale Desserterie and Bakery and Shannon Black, the Pastry Chef at Beacon Hill Hotel and Bistro. Mike Prerau from will host.

Anthem Entertainment, which as its name belies, is an entertainment promoter rather than an organizer of trade shows, so there is a lot of focus on the party aspect and less - if any - on professional development.

Don't miss the after-party.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Some ideas from Canto 6

Canto 6 Bakery and Cafe
3346 Washington Street
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130

A few meetings have taken me out of my normal routine and into other parts of Boston, so I have had a chance to visit Canto 6 in Jamaica Plain and Clearflour in Brookline over the last two mornings, both of which are exceptional European-style bakeries. As usual, I was looking for baked goods that could be translated into a larger retail setting.

Honored as the best bakery in Boston for sweets by Boston Magazine, Canto 6 is named after the ring of hell in Dante’s Inferno reserved for gluttons. They are known for their cannelés, a pastry which looks more like a burnt cork or a lamp finial than a dessert. Cannelés are made in small fluted molds, traditionally coated with beeswax, which caramelize the exterior of the vanilla and rum flavored batter. Trader Joe’s has quite good traditional and chocolate versions in their frozen section at $4.95 for six.

Having never been there, there was a lot to try: (clockwise starting in the upper left) the bourbon glazed bread pudding, a tappo - which means cork in Italian, essentially a bouchon which means cork in French, a milk chocolate hazelnut cookie, the lemon shortbread, a triple chocolate cookie, an oat cranberry bar, a plum-raspberry galette and an almond croissant. As an afterthought, I also tried a sugared brioche. Sadly, no cannelés.

So here are some ideas that may work in a larger retail setting:

  • Bourbon glazed bread pudding
    Baked in a Novacart paper mold, mine was doubled – perhaps a mistake but more likely necessary to hold the wet interior – it would need to be in a refrigerated or frozen section. Its great positive is the very attractive glazed and caramelized topping which tumbles out of the wrapper. It is breadier than I like my bread pudding, but visually very appealing.

  • Triple chocolate cookie
    There is so much chocolate out there, how is it possible to get excited by something new? For that matter, is anything new? This cookie is worth a look. It has a very wet, very pleasing uncooked center, with a light almost meringue-like exterior, that you might find on a French style macaroon. A problem, at least for me, is it leaves bitter remnants of cocoa nibs in your mouth - or was it the skins from the walnuts? The start is quite fantastic, but the finish needs a change.

  • Sugared brioche
    So lovely that I didn’t take a picture of it, a problem I repeated today at Clearflour. Consumed quickly as an afterthought, it was perhaps the nicest find of the visit. A rich brioche dough with a crusty sugared top. While Canto 6’s largest cost after labor is high-fat butter, it seems like this could possibly have containable ingredient costs that might lend itself to a larger retail environment. The crusty sugared top gives you a great hit of sugar that makes this less of a roll and more of a breakfast treat.

  • Almond croissant
    Why does an almond croissant warrant a mention? Its exceptional flakiness and rich almond filling which is baked onto the exterior, rather than the interior. I have always wondered why no one recreates the crisp, shattering exterior of a great croissant in a supermarket environment. Whole Foods seems to do a good job, but I expect that this is with items that are baked and sold the same day. Why are most store-bought croissants so soft? Is this because consumers use them to make sandwiches and they are essentially a bread replacement? Is this a constraint of the physical properties of the dough which cannot sit at room temperature for more than a day without softening, or is this a consumer preference? Half of this is up on my shelf, so we’ll see how it tastes after sitting in plastic for a few days.
Pictures and comments on Clearflour will follow.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Payard New York City closes

Payard, the phantasmagorical patisserie on New York City's Upper East Side, has officially closed. Francois Payard, the acclaimed pastry chef could not carry the burden of a 50% increase in rent required by the landlord. Tastings, the associated catering company will continue to operate.

While famous for it's brightly colored french macaroons, my favorite, tasted on a visit in January, were the small almond and pistachio tea cakes.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Starbucks rolls out their new baked goods. So what?

July 21, 2009

So what - well, there's a free baked good today at any Starbucks. That should be enough to get any self-respecting bakery category manager over to see the new spread. Okay, you have to be there by 10:30, buy a drink and bring the invitation you printed out on their website.

If you've been following the ads in major newspapers, such as the Wall St Journal, New York Times and USA Today, you're familiar with the fact that Starbucks has been positioning and promoting their new food menu, a significant percentage of which is baked goods. If you thought it was about baked goods, you're wrong, with Starbucks, it is always all about coffee. Starbucks has been under pressure from McDonald's McCafe and among other initiatives, is using the food menu to respond. Their positioning against McCafe? All natural, healthy and even low calorie options. And green and politically correct. There will be no price increases with this revamp.

What are the implications for folks responsible for in-store bakery? Well, if you want to emulate that positioning – healthy, natural, etc. – you can look to the bakery case to find what millions of dollars in staff, agencies and market research have told Starbucks: oats, blueberries and retro desserts. Specifically, Outrageous Oatmeal Cookies, Blueberry Oat Bars, Blueberry Streusel Muffin, Reduced-fat Very Berry Coffeecake, Banana Walnut Bread and Marshmallow Dream Bars. In the Boston-area stores we visited, there were also Old Fashioned Donuts – so misshapen as to give a new spin on the concept of handmade, Passion Fruit Coconut Bars, Morning Buns, Scones, Muffins, Apple Fritters and the traditional Cinnamon Roll. The Valencia Orange gluten-free cake, which debuted in March of this year, is also in the case.

Starbucks began a sourcing initiative over a year ago to control manufacturing costs and to reduce the total number of suppliers. With extensive RFPs and requests for detailed cost information, it was perhaps a familiar approach for major suppliers, but hardly SOP for Starbucks' smaller bakery vendors. Starbucks has moved from regional fresh suppliers to a national program with a significant thaw and sell component, working with a limited number of high volume frozen suppliers. One commercial bakery, Crestone Group of San Diego, is suing Starbucks for stealing their proprietary recipes and reneging on business agreements. Crestone had built plants specifically to supply Starbucks.

In addition, the food offerings have been simplified and made more consistent across stores. Along with a revamped product line, the bakery case changes have been launched with a mix of advertising, promotions and digital media. In June, Brandweek reported that Starbucks has 200,000 followers on Twitter and 1.8 million fans on Facebook. On Facebook, those who are interested are asked to RSVP to the invitation to meet for coffee and a free pastry.

Do the pastries actually taste better? Can it help Starbucks? Well, on those topics, your comments are needed.