The Architecture of Pastry

Food Writer Gabriella Gershenson (@gabiwrites) wrote to me recently asking whether architects (well, this architect) would like to weigh in on the structural and aesthetic soundness of pastry:


"Marie-Antoine Carême, one of the most influential chefs of all time, famously said, “The most noble of all the arts is architecture, and its greatest manifestation is the art of the pastry chef.” This son of a stone mason grew up to be the Bernini of the banquet table, and made high art out of elaborate pièces montées, which are essentially edible architectural structures made from the elements of dessert. Just a few designs from his book The Royal Parisian Pastry Cook and Confectioner: A Hermitage on a Rock, A Turkish Pavilion, A Parisian Arbor, A Grand Chinese Summer-House.

"If pastry is the finest expression of architecture, then what would an architect think about some of the world’s finest…as architecture? With that question in mind, I asked James Biber, FAIA, founder and partner of Biber Architects to weigh in on the structural integrity, engineering prowess, and aesthetic appeal of a range of desserts, from Carême’s historic croquembouche to the modern-day Cronut™."


Below is my thoughtful consideration of the most architectural of the cooking arts:


Croquembouche

If Antoine Carême was right the “Gherkin” (30 St. Mary Axe, London by Norman Foster) should really be called the Croquembouche. 

Both are typical exoskeleton concepts, which in the case of the Gherkin is a “diagrid” of steel, and in the Croquembouche is, of course, the close packing of cream puffs. The outward thrust, which would cause the lower areas to bulge outward and collapse, is obviated by the high angle of the construction (and the caramel, which acts in tension binding the pastry puffs which are the compression elements). I am assuming a hollow center which is what makes it interesting as architecture, otherwise it is just a tall pile of rocks!

Croquembouche is a great design, sound structural concept, delicious module. For eating it should be dismantled from the top down, unless this is part of a game of Jenga. It would be interesting to remove pieces from the outside, carefully selected, to create a transparent construction. Put a small light or candle inside and you would have a truly lovely edible Christmas tree.


Cannoli

The Cannoli completely solves the big problem of the new Oculus by Santiago Calatrava. Two problems if you count the cost, which is $4B for the Oculus and about 1/billionth of that for a Cannoli. 

The rigid shell, with the beautifully articulated slot along the ‘roof’, is just like the skylight in the Oculus, and more importantly the generous, elegantly shaped ends are a brilliant beginning (and end). The Oculus has comically small, tiny little doors at each end leading to the enormous over-inflated interior space. It is like entering a church through a cellar hatch. 

The Cannoli is self-explanatory; it makes it clear exactly how one should begin eating (from the ends) building the filling/shell ratio up to the middle, then proceeding to get back the the cream we really care about at the end. 

The soft creamy white interior is exactly what Calatrava was trying to achieve, and the crispy shell is an inspiration. It starts as a circle and ends up being circular in all sorts of new ways. 


Souffle

The Souffle is as ephemeral and evanescent as the Blur Building by Diller Scofidio, and as difficult to carry off. A building, or a pastry, made almost entirely of air and water vapor is a tour de force and a temporal pleasure. They are also practically impossible, which is part of the thrill they evoke. 

These are not buildings or pastries in the typical sense; they don’t contain anything but air and a bit of vapor, disappear in an instant and leave barely a trace. While this is often true of pastry (well, good pastry, anyway) it is rarely true of buildings. They are, as an engineer once said to me, “structurally indeterminate”. Not much for holding things up, but what would the world be without them.


Mille feuille

Mille feuille is a complete failure as architecture, like building a wall with squishy mortar that never dries and brittle brick that crumbles when touched. It is such a failure that this pastry, which I have loved my whole life, is impossible to eat without at the same time destroying it. In fact it is both a conceptual failure as well as a practical one. Unlike the lowly Oreo it can’t be disassembled (or reverse-engineered) or enjoyed part by part. Unlike the Croquembouche it can’t be made even an inch taller than it is without collapsing under its own weight. It’s not inflated like a Souffle, or structurally unitized like a Cannoli. 

Someone needs to work this one out…


Jello

Jello is the closest thing to cast in place concrete that the dessert world has to offer. I don’t think it qualifies as “pastry” because there is no dough involved, but I love a one-ingredient solution, something that can take on any form, color or consistency to be the go to, mono-material. 

There is something so American about Jello; it’s perfect that the name and first incarnation of Jell-O was created by a carpenter. It takes a lots of different materials, attached in myriad ways and layered to shed water and cold to make a house, so it’s no surprise that a carpenter invented the exact opposite; a single colorful material that can do anything. It can suspend goofy “aggregate” in a transparent mass and moving or eating it makes it jiggle and ripple; it the funniest dessert ever.

It is also the fourth state of matter (solid, liquid, gas and Jello) hovering in a state between liquid and solid, making it a miracle of physics and chemistry. 

Jello is, and maybe always was, a harbinger of the future. 


Cronut™

My dog is a Mini-Labradoodle, so I am not against hybrids in principle, but nearly every Hollywood movie is described as “X meets Y”, so “a cross between a donut and a croissant” just seems, on the face of it, lazy. I have more self respect (barely) than to stand on a line for hours or offer the lucky $50 for a Cronut™ so I admit I have never had one. But that has never stopped me from having a strident opinion, so here it is: the Cronut™ is the “La La Land” of pastries: seems like a great idea on paper but really, is this the best of both worlds or the worst? 

Like the new donut shaped office tower in Guangzhou China, the Cronut™ seems like one of those pastries/buildings the world could have lived without. Sorry, but changing the shape of something is not necessarily a great stride in culture or the arts. The Croissant is a genius of shape and taste; the ends are crunchy and the middle soft and airy because consistency is not always 

What is next, donut shaped hot dogs (to fit on a hamburger bun)? Round French Fries (more efficient slicing of potato shape)? Some ideas have reached their natural pinnacle of evolution and only a dystopian future will demand Darwinian change.  


Baklava

This is why engineers shouldn’t design buildings.

Baklava is the structural engineer’s reaction to ideas like Mille feuille; stiffen the bonding material with lots of aggregate (nuts) to provide a truly load bearing item, with a rather brutish result. It’s easy to hold up a lightweight ‘roof’ with solid mass, the real trick is to do the opposite. 

Baklava is regressive, like mud walled homes supporting a thatch roof, they are made to succeed with low skilled labor and low tech materials. While the result is delicious, just as the mud hut is effective, it lacks the daring to be called Art.