By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
There's a colossal amount of stuff I don't know. Seriously. A lot. And I'm not talking about the specialized, esoteric knowledge that only a few specialized, esoteric people possess. I'm not talking about being able to translate dead languages, suss out the weight of distant stars, or speak at length about the historic or socioeconomic consequences of the Smoot-Hawley Act.
No, I'm talking about simple stuff. I'm congenitally incapable of doing math above a Sesame Street level, and I have responded with shocking violence when inanimate objects don't do what I want them to do. For example, I once punched an upright industrial Hobart mixer because it resolutely refused to macerate a batch of strawberries, choosing instead to fling them haphazardly all over my kitchen. It should be noted that no Hobart mixer has ever had a setting for "macerate," so I really had no reason to think the machine was capable of such a task, but that didn't matter. I broke a bone in my hand assaulting the recalcitrant mixer; the Hobart suffered no injury in the scuffle.
Cooking is the one thing I understand on a pure gut level, and I've spent most of my adult life trying to translate that understanding into expertise. But even after devoting almost two decades to this one small corner of the world's collected knowledge, I find that fully half of it remains a mystery. I can cook -- I can perfectly deconstruct a whole roast duck; turn eighty quarts of bone, water and marrow into just a few ounces of smooth, gleaming demi-glace; perform emergency surgery on a dishwasher with a paring knife and duct tape -- but I can't bake. Never have been able to, never will be able to. And I realize that after my first bite of pastry at the Cream Puffery.
Cooks and bakers are two separate breeds sharing turf and common passions in the kitchen but are otherwise as different in their work as impressionist painters and mad chemists. Line cooking is an instinctive art, all guts and brain stem. You work; you taste and tinker; you go where sense and reflex take you. While much of cooking is a repetitive grind -- a hundred pork tenderloins a night, 75 poulet with coarse mustard -- it is also immersive. Every plate needs personal attention; each dish is an individual achievement.
On the other hand, baking -- and pastry work both sweet and savory -- is science. There's no less art involved, and probably an even greater dedication to some strange and powerful galley theology, but the attitude is different. Bakers and pâtissiers can't improvise, can't work on the fly, can't just dive in there and play the way that cooks can. They have to do things like measure ingredients and set timers and take notes. They have to be able to see into the future, know what will happen when x amount of flour is mixed with y amount of water, sugar, yeast and so on, and predict exactly how everything will turn out without tasting along the way -- a feat that's totally beyond my ken.
Amy DeWitt has forgotten more about baking and pastry and the hard science of whisks and convection than I will ever know. Leaving her native Miami three years ago, she brought all of this accumulated knowledge to Boulder, where she and her Cuban-born partner, Lourdes Sanchez, opened the Cream Puffery and gave Colorado a little taste of Big Havana. Initially a coffee shop, the Puff has since morphed into a real, if tiny, restaurant, with Sanchez working the front of the house, assistant pastry chef Tanya Williams doing most of the grunt baking work, and Juliette Beale handling line and prep for lunch and afternoon-evening tapas service. But DeWitt is the yeast responsible for Cream Puffery's rising profile.
"It's not magic," she insists when I ask what separates cooks from bakers. "It's science. I think the difference is, cooks don't like to do math, and bakers don't like to get all hot and sweaty. But I think it's easier for a baker to start cooking than for a cook to start baking. And bakers can bend the rules, too; you just have to know what they are before you can break them."
To me, it's faith that illustrates the essential difference between the two. Cooks trust nothing, are genetically incapable of leaving well enough alone, cannot resist tasting and fussing and playing with their food. And despite what DeWitt says, I think bakers believe in magic.
For that matter, so do cooks. But we suspect that the bakers stole it all and won't tell us where they put it.
The Puff is a small place, and you could miss it, easy, if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, carrying the smell of savory spices and strong, rich Cuban coffee away toward the foothills rather than out to the streets. The dining room, such as it is, contains only four tables and a short counter, with a bar mirror fronted by neatly ranked bottles (mostly rum and tequila) in celebration of the Puff's newly minted liquor license, and an eclectic mix of glassware hanging from an overhead rack like a bar-baby's crib mobile. The little kitchen in back looks almost laughably cramped; it's filled with flour-dusted equipment, baking racks, sheet pans and half-constructed wedding cakes. And even the space behind and around the counter is jammed, packed with espresso machines, coffee makers and footed stands displaying cakes and cookies under domes of glass. Through it all moves DeWitt's crew, taking orders, pouring coffee and working the crowds.