NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Yum! The Sweet History Of Sweets


Desserts have come a long way since the days of plum pudding and mince pie. The sweet treat to cap a high-end restaurant meal today might be made of spun sugar and flavored foam.

Adam Gopnik writes about sweets in tomorrow's issue of The New Yorker magazine. He's in our New York studio. Welcome to the show. Happy New Year.

Mr. ADAM GOPNIK (Food Writer): Thank you very much. Happy New Year to you.

HANSEN: So you gave up sweets a year ago. You said, you know, you wanted to lose a little weight. But you also write about losing your faith in desserts. What does that mean?

Mr. GOPNIK: It's as bad as losing your faith in religion, isn't it for a secular person? What I meant is that I gave up sweets for the reasons that we all give up sweets, sooner or later - because we, you know, we don't want to become stout people.

But I also found that whenever we went out to eat - my wife and I, anything approaching fancy food - instead of getting dessert, as you and I would have known from our childhoods: puddings, cake, something chunky and delicious on the plate, you were getting these complex collages. And I thought: What was happening to desserts?

When you give something up, that's when you start paying attention to it and it becomes your subject. I gave up desserts and it became my subject.

HANSEN: You spoke to Alex Stupak of WD-50 in Manhattan, and he described pastry-making as the closest people can get to creating a new food. What did he mean by that?

Mr. GOPNIK: Well, Alex was the first in a series of ferocious intellectuals of pastry who I talked to for this piece. And he meant by that, that what a pastry chef does is to totally transform. And he said to me, very severely, birthday cake is the most denatured food we eat. In the sense that a cake, a donut, anything that comes from the pastry kitchen has a very remote resemblance to the thing it originally was.

You eat broiled salmon and it's a side of a fish. You eat a pastry, even a beautifully made, organically grown, locally whatever one, and you're seeing something that a chef has transformed in his kitchen.

HANSEN: Do you think a good pastry chef has to start out as a good regular chef, to understand the basics of cooking, and then go into playing around with, you know, butter, sugar, cream, flour?

Mr. GOPNIK: Well, it's weird actually because I spent some time in Spain talking to the kind of visionary guys of this thing. And most of them got shunted off because they were younger brothers into the pastry station in a restaurant, and then discovered that it was a place where they could do great innovation.

I think that it is generally, historically it's been true that most great pastry chefs started off as general chefs and then came to focus on making sweets.

HANSEN: We're speaking with Adam Gopnik from The New Yorker magazine about sweets and desserts. The two brothers you met in you met in Spain, you write that they teamed up with a chemist to create rather bizarre desserts.

Mr. GOPNIK: Feran and Alberto Adria of El Bulli...

HANSEN: Oh, sure.

Mr. GOPNIK: Right. the legendary restaurant soon to close outside Barcelona. Yes, they were amazing because they had inherited this kind of slightly out of date, two-star French restaurant and they turned it into this kinda of Willy Wonka laboratory for culinary experiments. And almost everything we think of as sort of the new and the weird in cooking - salt caramels to cucumber foams -comes from what Feran and Alberto have done.

HANSEN: What did you see and what did you taste?

Mr. GOPNIK: In Spain?


Mr. GOPNIK: Oh, my goodness. I really crossed the salt caramel curtain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOPNIK: And it was really like being a kid who wins the golden ticket to Willy Wonka's factory. I went to a place that's actually a research station, a little research institute for desserts where they do all of their tasting blindfolded. They do everything blindfolded so you just are focusing on taste.

At El Bulli, they're studying - Alberto now has his own place but Feran continues to study the line between savory and sweet, and tries to break it every way he can. So one of the dishes I had was a plate of wild strawberries offered in a wild hare - like wild bunny - broth.

The theory is, is that the wild bunnies eat the wild strawberries and so the wild strawberries are expressed in a savory way in their flesh. While if we eat the wild strawberries, we're getting the sweetness that draws the wild hare. So you have a kind of whole picture of an ecological niche in one plate.

And then I went to the Rocca Brothers Restaurant where the Mozart of new pastry, Geordie Rocca is working - the youngest brother of three. And he does kind of classic desserts, in a way. They involve fewer of these kinds of crossovers between salt and sweet.

But he does things that are kind of these mad rococo desserts, including one which I write about in the piece, which represents the way that Lionel Messi, the great soccer player, feels when he scores a goal. And it involves your actually eating a series of edible soccer balls until one breaks through a spun-sugar net and releases a passionfruit mousse into your mouth, thereby recreating the emotions of intricate footwork and eventual joy that Lionel Messi feels when he scores a goal.

That's what desserts are doing now.

HANSEN: Adam, earlier this year, there was a documentary called "Kings of Pastry," about the ultimate pastry competition. On food channels, you know, there are countless competitions - a lot of them are desserts, you know, cakes and so forth. Do you think that that the basic pleasures of eating and making dessert has moved on to experimentation or competition?

Mr. GOPNIK: I fear that it has in a way. I mean, what I experienced in Spain was absolutely amazing and breathtaking, but it's not something you can do at home. And not only isn't it something you can do at home, it's not something that was ever meant to do at home. It's cabaret cooking, theatrical cooking, not narrowly competitive the way it is on cable television but certainly meant to dazzle rather than to delight.

My heart still goes with chocolate cake and coconut custard pie. I made a butterscotch pudding last night for my children. And that's I think where my dessert heart still lies.

I think that desserts naturally lend themselves to that kind of crazy cable competitive stuff, because, A, you just have to look at them to get a sense of what they are in a way you can't do with a savory dish. And, B, they are denatured. As Alex Stupak says, they're architectural. They always have been since the beginning of pastry when it was invented by Careme, modern pastry, in the 19th century. It's always had a close relation to architecture.

So you can look at it and admire. But do we really want to admire our sweets? Don't we really want to adore them?

HANSEN: Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, and his story about sweets appears in tomorrow's issue. He joined us from New York. Thanks a lot, Adam.

Mr. GOPNIK: Great pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.