Interview with Franzi Thomczik, Pastry Chef of the E5 Bakehouse

27 June 2014

Franzi Thomczik, pastry chef of the E5 Bakehouse
I’m continuing along the Make and Cake Tangent here at TWIHM. After recent efforts or “dabblings” with sugar craft for the Cherub’s birthday, we are moving up a notch or two; an interview with a bona fide pastry chef. Franzi Thomczik is creator of cakes at the E5 Bakehouse in Hackney, an establishment famed for its sourdough bread but also a purveyor of cinnamon buns, opera cakes and salted caramel & chocolate tarts beyond compare. Even Nigella has sent her blessings from Twitter heaven upon the latter. And the day I had the chance to be a guinea pig for a prototype, inhouse version of the Tea Cake – Oh, the dark chocolate. Oh, the mallow. Oh! The berry jam! - will go down in my personal history as a Significant Life Moment. 

Cinnamon buns. A little known but very effective cure for writer's block.
Franzi hails from Berlin where she trained as a Konditor. This is somewhat more than a mere baker of cakes. The emphasis for a Konditor is on cakes’ decoration and artistic presentation. We’re talking about a profession with a fair wodge of history behind it. The trade’s origins kick off around the 12th century with the introduction of sugar from the Middle East, exciting, moldable and edible stuff like marzipan (thank you Medieval Venetians for both of those) and candied fruit for sweet breads. Oh, and it seems convents, abbeys and other religious institutions played an important part in the development of decorative, cakey deliciousness to coincide with religious feast days. There was a big emphasis on almonds and honey in various forms of tart. 

For those who fancy practicing their rusty German, there's a potted history on the German Konditor Guild's (Yes! They have a guild and have done since the 16th century) website, here.

Right, dragging myself from the fascinating medieval history – be still, my beating heart – back to a very contemporary London where Franzi moved to. There she worked at Peggy Porschen, the bespoke and very chic cake maker in Belgravia, where she learnt many an additional whizzy thing about decoration and sugar craft. However, a bread internship at the E5 Bakehouse resulted in a job offer and Franzi headed East, away from society wedding cakes to create her own pastry section. Franzi very generously sat down with me and we had a marvellous chat about cakes, baking and a few tips of the trade.

Cake. That is all.
At first Franzi’s move East was an interesting one. “It took time to get established here at the Bakehouse. The tastes are so different here to West London.” But by observing customers, responding to their requests and excitement about new cakes Franzi soon had a very strong pastry selection. Support and creativity also flowed from her colleagues, both bread bakers and other pastry chefs who later joined the Bakehouse. “There are so many people from all over the world here at the Bakehouse; the variety is fantastic. I could travel the world but everyone’s ideas are all together here.”

Ah, there’s that theme again of international networks influencing cakes. Curiously, these influences are sometimes unknown to keen consumers of cake. Brownies and lemon meringue pie are amongst the most popular requests but so part of the baking mainstream have these imports - hailing in their current form from America -  become that they are considered English classics. In fact, “you tend to get a lot of muscovado and treacle in classic British cakes, more nutmeg, ginger and cardammon. It’s spicier here than in Germany where we use much more cinnamon and cloves”.

On another sweeping historical tangent here I wonder if EMPIRE might have something to do with the distinctive flavours of British versus German cakes. All that muscovado and treacle hailed from the Caribbean sugar plantations (British). Meanwhile nutmeg, ginger and cardamom came from – respectively – Indonesia (granted, this was a Dutch territory but the British had Malaysia. Close enough), South China before cultivated in West Africa and the Caribbean (British trade connections with the former and colonies in the latter two) and India (East India Company, anyone?). However, Germany was an uncomfortable mélange of independent kingdoms, dukedoms, princedoms before concentrating on becoming a united German Federation during the 19th century. There’s not too much time for empire-building and exotic spice cultivation in those sort of circumstances.

Hence cloves in German baking. Cinammon. And butter. And cream. And other delicious ingredients that are traditional.

It’s fascinating how themes like tradition and nostalgia do play a significant role in cakes. “Yes”, says Franzi “It’s often what drives customers’ requests. I have free rein to try new things at the Bakehouse but you can’t reinvent everything. There is a reason you have classic cakes, like the Eccles cake. It’s great to keep these traditional things more traditional”.

Franzi replenishing the pastry selection. This is always a happy moment for customers.
These traditional recipes were often created in response to the seasonality of ingredients. Seasonality, sustainability and local provenance are key elements of the E5 Bakehouse’s ethos so it’s all rather complementary. Once Franzi sees what’s available from suppliers, she can plan and experiment with her pending pastry selection. In essence, “summer is a time for refreshing flavours whilst winter is the chocolate and nutty season with quite a bit of dried fruit.” Spring is tough though: “People have had too much rhubarb and are over apples and pears!”

Ingredients have an important impact on the freshness and longevity of a cake. The more butter and sugar in a recipe – essentially many 'wintery' cakes like brownies, pecan pie, ginger cake – the longer it needs to sit. The flavour needs to develop.

However, “you must eat anything with fruit as soon as possible and the same goes for cheese cake.” French patissier-style cakes also fall into this category. “Choux pastry needs to be eaten quickly as it soaks up all the moisture from the cream”.

So there are some useful eating tips – always gratefully received – but what about making tips? Could a mere mortal with lashings of enthusiasm rather than years of professional training attempt a few tricks of the trade? Of course we can. Franzi notes that “silicon molds are really useful for making beautiful structures out of mousses and creams. The molds are also great for freezing and baking.” If you are trying some fruitier numbers “boil up some apricot with a bit of water and then strain it. Use it to paint the fruit and give them a glaze”. For those of the waste-not-want-not school of thought, “boil up apple peel and cores in water with caster sugar for an hour. Strain it and leave it cool. Heat it up again. The high pectin means you can use it to glaze cakes like Hot Cross Buns.”

But amongst the seemingly infinite panoply of cakes available to Franzi, which are her favourite? “To make, it’s the Opera Cake. It’s an elaborate one with butter cream and a lovely joconde all in layers. I love making mousses and choux pastry as they create the challenge of timing and precision. It’s the satisfaction of making something, knowing it’s not something everyone can do.”

Preparing brownies. Who gets to lick the bowl? Actually, is that even allowed?!

It’s a funny old thing that craft and cake tend to go hand in hand. Making things in a group as well as eating things in a group are important glues that bind families, friends, generations and communities together. The interesting contrast is that there is so much passion, creativity and excitement in both say, knitting and baking a cake, yet you’re left with a tangible relic from crafting. For years you could end up wearing the jumper you made. I mean, archaeologists recently found two pairs of 3,000 year-old woolen trousers

There’s longevity for you.

By contrast there is an ephemerality to baking, beautiful and delicious constructions that bring so much pleasure to the moment but are soon gone. Oddly though, it’s those ephemeral experiences that can be the most intense in our memories (Exhibit A: Indecent Tea Cake Prototype). A whiff of cinnamon or the taste of Crème Chantilly can transport you back to a past event or place with a rich immediacy that is breathtaking.

But it’s the process of making in both crafting and baking that bring so much pleasure and creative joy. 

And imagine having the privilege of making and enjoying that creativity every day. To my mind, Franzi falls into the same category as freelance knitters, indie yarn dyers and knitwear designers. They all have that privilege. To quote Franzi, “I’ve got the dream job. I am an absolute cake addict and when not at work, I enjoy eating cake. I pretend it’s for professional reasons but really, it’s because I love cake”.

Happiness is... a day job doing what you love. Bonus if that involves making cake.
With many thanks to Franzi for her time and generosity with this interview.

(Images: E5 Bakehouse)

The Great Make and Cake Tangent at TWIHM

20 June 2014

Let there be cake! To accompany the craft of course...
The title is a bit of a giveaway. Yep, I'm going off piste here at TWIHM for a few posts and writing about a topic dear to the hearts of many a crafter, nay, many a human blessed / afflicted (delete where applicable) with a sweet tooth:


The story begins a few weeks ago when I unpacked a box of Ladybird books for the Cherub. A box that had been sitting in the familial attic for a couple of decades since I was of more cherubic maturity and stature myself. Amongst the literary delights of On the Farm and Bunnikins has a Party was this gem of a cook book.

Making and Decorating Cakes.

Ooooh, the nostalgia. Look at these baked beauties. All of the recipes seem to involve margerine. The food styling is very much of its time, replete with geometric kitchen tiles in dubious earthy hues.

So much piping. So much margerine. Lots of earthy-hued kitchen surfaces that mean you can't see the worst food stains.
However, amongst the baked delights the Cherub pointed to this little number:

As one friend pointed out, "At least it's a cake that looks like a cake rather than some sort of cartoon character or gravity defying architectural structure." Indeed.
And declared that this, and only this cake, this thing of beauty, would do for her pending birthday party.

"Oh crumbs" I thought (aptly). "There's a lot of piping on there. I spy sugar-crafted flowers. And what on earth is Royal Icing? That sounds scarily grand."

Reading the instructions this cake demanded a couple of weeks of work from start to finish as each stage needed to sit before startins the next. A bit like knitting a cardigan really. But stickier. So the cake base itself had to mature a day or two before you could paste on the apricot jam and the marzipan layer. Leave it to settle and in a week or so's time it was ready for the application of Royal Icing and piping. Again, it needed to recover for a couple of days before placing the ribbon and finally serving.

As a home baker, I'm pretty au fait with cakes. Like many a woman of my generation I have Nigella's How to be a Domestic Goddess on the shelf. For the Australian version but with less corsetry, there is Donna Hay. I can make squidgy cakes, biscuits and slices that taste pretty good. We won't mention the lemon cheesecake that I may have added bicarb of soda to instead of cornflour and wondered why everything curdled.

But presentation is not really something that these tomes emphasise. It seems you can hide a multitude of aesthetic sins with a lavish sprinkle of icing sugar or smother the thing in chocolate sauce.

Job done. It's not a work of art. It's an edible indulgence that probably won't last the next half hour. Never mind two weeks to make from go to woe.

What is quite amazing about this Ladybird book circa 1977 is the simple expectation that children of that era aged about 10 or so could manage some impressively elaborate cakes and their decoration. It's interesting to note that cook books aimed at adults today don't. You made the cake in one bowl? It tasted good? Brilliant. You survived. Now get back to whatever role you have supporting the market economy. There's no time for sugar craft flowers.

Reflecting upon this, I thought I quite fancied the challenge. And the Cherub had asked very politely too. I also knew this challenge would be supported by a specialist cake decorating shop in the neighbouring suburb, so I wouldn't have to travel far for guidance.

Thus we took the bus to the new centre of our universe since returning to Melbourne, Greensborough, where we trundled along to the Greensborough Cake Decorating Centre.

Yikes. It reminded me terribly of my first foray into a knitting shop, armed with an idea but with no plan as to how I should execute it effectively. And then feeling somewhat overwhelmed and school girlish in the face of so much creativity. This too is a place where amateurs and professionals make things. Like, amazingly elaborated and beautiful things.

Just out of sugar instead of yarn.

For example, some of these incredible pieces. Apologies for the dubious quality of the pictures, I was sans whizzy camera on the day.

Some of the impressive feats of sugar craft at the Greensborough Cake Decorating Centre. Yes. Those are minions on the bottom right. Made entirely of sugar. Want to learn how to make them? You'd probably best sign up for one of the workshops.
Ten thousand hoorays for a kindly and patient shop assistant who, after politely stifling a suprised giggle when I flashed out the retrotastic Making and Decorating Cakes, was all help and guidance. I returned home with a piping bag, nozzles and a few other accoutrements ready. For. The. Challenge.

I won't go into the details. There was an lot of sticking-out-of-tongue concentrating, maybe a bit of bodgery around the edges of the marzipan layer, the piping was possibly one of the most stressful moments of my culinary career to date, I needed a stiff drink when it was all over.

But here it is. In all its glory.

Ta daaaa! It's identical to the cake in the book. Really. Slightly wibbly around the edges maybe. And those candles look a but precarious but those minor detractions aside, absolutely identical. Ahem.
Was it a hit with the Cherub? Yes, yes it was. Even the tiny other guests at the party were in awe of the wobbly rosettes and the less-than-well thought out arrangement of the yellow sugar craft flowers.

It will be interesting to see if it sticks in the Cherub's memory. Will it prove more memorable a Thing Made By Mummy than a cardigan? As for me, will I return to the delights of sugar craft and some serious cake decoration? Probably not until the Cherub's next birthday and only then if I can't persuade her to have some brownies smothered in chocolate sauce instead. At least the knitting I can pick up and put down when my attention is needed elsewhere at very short notice (this is the way of things when mothering a small child). But this sort of cake decoration demands precision, concentration and a stretch of uninterrupted time to achieve anything. I haven't got too much of that at this stage of life but who knows what the future will bring. The topic of cake and its making is a fascinating one though and there will be some blogposts to follow that continue on this delightful theme...

(Images: Zoë F. Willis)