At the end of my first week of pastry school in Paris, I discovered “le degustation”, also known as “the tasting”. After days of pastry-making, exerting iron willpower and tasting nothing, I imagined the class bearing down on the plethora of pastries like seagulls. I, admittedly, was not dissimilar to said seagulls. I frantically bit into everything, twice…OK fine, four times. To no one’s surprise, 20 minutes later, delayed pleasure turned into delayed sugar coma.
In sauntered the svelte school director holding a tiny palette knife in one hand. He slowly and purposefully cut each pastry in half to inspect the construction, tasted a pinch of each element to decipher the pureness of each flavour and finally took a small bite of each, allowing it to penetrate his senses, and then moved on. He later chose one pastry (his favourite Baba au Rhum) to enjoy. That was my first lesson on tasting pastries … and perhaps a little tutorial on sophistication amongst copious amounts of food.
Now I do tastings almost every day and host them regularly on my pastry tours in Paris. So here are some general guidelines on hosting a pastry tasting of your own.
Before you begin:
Choose your theme.
What kind of pastry tasting you want? It is often helpful to narrow down your options by picking a theme such as summertime desserts or chocolate desserts. You could even choose a specific item like chocolate chip cookies and compare cookies from different bakeries side-by side.
Assuming you are doing a tasting with more than a single type of pastry, the next step is to do your research. Find out who is the best in your area, you might as well start your “research” with extraordinary examples.
Excite the palate.
Crunchy, delicate, gooey, rich, citrusy, spicy, chocolaty, hot or cold? When deciding what pastries to include, whether it is cookies, cakes or croissants, look for a variety of textures and tastes to keep the palate excited.
Taste the pastries.
Do this in a sequence that won’t fatigue your palate and so that delicate pastries aren’t overwhelmed by dominant flavours. Or else the poor pastries won’t stand a chance, no matter how good they are.
Lightest to heaviest.
Taste delicate flavours before heavy ones. This way, the flavours of the pastry prior won’t overshadow subtle nuances in pastries following.
Cleanse the palate.
Have bubbly water at hand to cleanse the palate between each bite. I personally like Badoit.
Take tasting breaks.
When there is a long progression of richer flavours like cream or chocolate, I find it nice to introduce something acidic like a citrus to cleanse the palate.
Tips for making the most of a pasty tasting:
Not on an empty stomach.
It’s counter intuitive to eat before, well, eating again. However, tasting a large variety of sweets on an empty stomach can be difficult, even for the professional. Remind guests to eat a light lunch beforehand.
What is it?
Understand the components of what you are eating. Cut the pastry to see a cross section of how it was constructed. If you are confused about an element, don’t be afraid to ask the bakery! Great shops love to share knowledge on their products.
Take a taste of each element.
This is only applicable to pastries with multiple elements like entremets. Some pastries have up to 15 different elements and it’s nice to see how each work separately.
Taste as a whole.
Take a bite with all the different elements together to see how they work together. If you get a bite of chocolate chip cookie without chocolate, it doesn’t give you a good representation of the cookie as a whole.
Odd tip perhaps, but breathing actually intensifies the flavours much like wine.
Things to keep in mind:
It’s hard to give guidelines on how to judge a pastry since the category is so diverse and each should be judged according to what it is meant to accomplish. However, here are a few questions I often ask myself when tasting.
Do I like it?
That’s the most important element. If you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter how elaborate or innovative the pastry is.
Is it balanced?
Flavours should usually be balanced, so taste and see if one element is too exaggerated, like overly sweet or sour.
Are the flavours defined or confused?
We should be able to pick out distinct flavours separately without being muddled. For example, a pistachio cherry financier should taste of pistachio and cherry separately, and they should also taste great together. In the worst cases, the flavours seem confused and unpleasant.
Are the textures right?
Generally, a cracker should be crisp and a cake should be soft and moist. One caveat, it becomes trickier with pastries like brownies or cookies since they can be cakey, chewy or fudgy depending on personal preference.
What is it trying to accomplish?
Pastries all have different purposes and intend to evoke different emotions. For example, is it a morning pastry or an after dinner dessert? Desserts can withstand being sweeter than breakfast items. Is it trying to be innovative and inspiring or remind you of home? Perhaps both?
Would you purchase it again?
The final and arguably the best test is “putting your money where your mouth is”. If you wouldn’t pay for it again, chances are, it didn’t pass the test!
Don’t forget to have:
Many times, offering cheese and crackers can be a welcome break from the progression of sweets. It can act like a reset button, so a tray of savory snacks on the side can be a welcome break.
Lots of tasting spoons and knives to portion.
Have a plentiful supply of utensils on hand to ensure flavours don’t blur from one to the next when moving from pastry to pastry.
Boxes to take away leftovers.
Trust me; your guests will thank you for easing the pressure to finish everything!
Photos by: Joann Pai
Jackie Kai Ellis is the owner and baker of Beaucoup Bakery, CEO/co-founder of The Paris Tours, JKE, Bespoken, Recette and The Invisible Thread. To Learn more about her, follow her on Twitter @JackieKaiEllis.