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)

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