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A Brief History of Baking and the Pastry Arts

Why is history so important? It gives us tradition, legacy, and a platform to spring from. Knowing why, where, who, and what about a subject enhances it, makes it valid, gives it purpose to pass down from generation to generation. Like the fine arts, the pastry arts can be considered revolutionary in the sense that it moves forward by reflecting and reinventing itself.

No one may ever know who the first baker was or how baking came to be, but we could be more than certain it was accidental. However we are indebted to that perceptive person for pursuing and developing this method of cooking. It may have been one of the most important discoveries in history. It gave man a way to sustain life with just a few limited ingredients.

Bread made by soaking grains in water and then cooking it on hot rocks or embers may have been the first formula used in baking. Yes, formula.

In the professional kitchen “formula” is the term used to describe the ingredients, amount of each ingredient, and the procedures needed to create a specific product. This may seem odd, but in reality it is more accurate and appropriate to describe the process of baking. Baking, more than cooking is more of a science. Precise amounts of ingredients mixing times, temperatures, and the chemical and physical reactions that occur during the mixing and baking process govern it.

As time went on, this simple method would transform simply by leavening. Unbaked bread dough left out and exposed to the elements for extended periods of time, exposed it to wild yeasts in the air causing it to ferment. This, and perhaps frugality, led them to save a piece of the dough to add to the next day’s bread making. Surprisingly, it would take years before bakers would learn how to harness and control the power of yeast in making bread.

Greeks had invented enclosed wood headed ovens around five or six hundred B.C. It is alleged that people had access to communal ovens to bake their breads, unless you were wealthy enough to have one of your own.

Several centuries later ancient Rome would have established mass production of breads and the profession of baking. It is also during this time that bakers began to enrich formulas by adding fats, and honey to create sweet enriched breads or pastries.

With the spread of the Roman Empire across Europe the knowledge of bread making spread with it. And with its demise, bread making almost vanished. Not until in the late Middle Ages did baking and pastry make a come back, in part to fulfill a need of the upper class.

French bakers and pastry chefs began forming guilds at this time in order to protect and develop their art. They were able to control the membership, prohibit any one but certified members to produce breads to sell, and establish an apprenticeship program that would protect and insure a way of passing down knowledge from one generation to another through education. Along with this came consistency of and mass production. The profession grew and developed. As it did, so did the formulas. Dried fruits and honey were added to breads and cake batters mostly with religious significance in mind and for specific celebrations. Unsweetened pastry dough used for items such as savory pies were also established.

In France during the 1400’s, pastry and baking began to separate into two distinct art forms. This change initiated a rapid development of the art attracting more artisans and developing new products.

In addition, the discovery of the Americas generated a revolutionary approach to pastry making. The discovery and availability of sugar and cocoa added to the complexity and further experimentation in evolving new formulas. By the 1800’s many of the pastries we are familiar with today, including laminated dough, egg, and milk-enriched dough were invented.

It was during the nineteenth century that the profession was elevated to the science, as we know it today. After the French Revolution, servants and artisans were freed. They started up individual business allowing everyone to enjoy edible treasures once reserved simply for royalty. Some of the patisseries opened during this time also serve Parisians today. So you can say that there was some irony in Marie Antoinette’s last words when she allegedly said, “let them eat cake”.

One of the first recognized chefs was Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833). His work with sugar and pastries elevated the trades of cooks and pastry chefs to a respected profession. In his book, The Pâtiessier Royal, Carême details his craft and is one of the first books published to do so.

It was also a time of technical progress as well. From inventing machines that would help expedite and improve some of the process required in producing large amounts of baked goods, to the availability of new products harvested from the Americas, such as different wheat varieties. Because of the higher protein content it aided in the higher production of white bread.

Today we can practice our craft at home because of the advancements in technology. Making available and affordable tools, equipment, and ingredients we need to become proficient artisans of the pastry arts at home. We just need the passion, desire, and time to succeed.

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