Thursday, October 15, 2009

Perfectionism in a Bun

When it comes to bakeries on the mainland, it's usually the French bakery that reigns supreme.   Here in Hawaii, it is the Japanese bakery that is the place to go for the best stuff.  Japanese bakery, you say?  But, how can that be?  Aren't baked goods a European thing?  What do Asians know about making baked goods?  Well, attribute it back to the Japanese obsession with perfectionism.    The same care, attention to detail, and meticulous precision that goes into making their udon, goes into their baked items.   There are many little Japanese bakeries around the island, but the one that I like most, the one that kind of sets the standard for all the others, is St. Germain / Dee-Lite Bakery.

Sandwich Bread from St. Germain
The Japanese originally learned how to make bread (and all other baked goods for that matter) from the Portuguese.   That is why the Japanese word for bread, "pan", is so similar to the Portuguese word for bread, "pao".   But like cars and electronics, once they get their hands on something they go to excruciating lengths to perfect it.    Look at their basic sandwich bread.   Only the Japanese could make a slice of bread so completely perfectly square.   Every slice the exact same thickness.   It's exactly the same as how they were genetically engineering watermelons to be perfect cubes that could be stacked for storage.  But it isn't the shape that is so wonderful about their bread, it's the texture.   The bread at St. Germain isn't light and poofy like buying a regular piece of white bread.   It is far denser, but at the same time incredibly soft and spongy.  Imagine a single cotton ball in your hand, how light and delicate it is.  But at the same time, it falls apart when exposed to wetness (like the filling of your sandwich).  By contrast, imagine stuffing your hand with 20 cotton balls.  The cotton is still very soft and squeezable, but now it's got some strength to it (to hold together your sandwich).  That is what St. Germain bread is like.   And every single slice is like that.   Their bread has complete uniformity of texture (no air pockets), throughout the entire slice, throughout the entire loaf, throughout every loaf you buy.   It is my second favorite bread in the entire world.   (My favorite still goes to the French bread at Saigon's, because of the flaky, crunchy crust which gives it an edge.)  It's more expensive than buying a loaf of Love's, but it's worth it.

Besides their bread though, it is all of the little Japanese style pastries that I really love at St. Germain.   They are also not what you would expect out of a pastry either.   While they have their assortment of sweets, it is the savory pastries that I like the best.   Getting one of those for example, makes for a far more satisfying breakfast than something sugary.

Corned Beef Doughnut from St. Germain
Forget jelly filled doughnuts.   Take one bite and the jelly squirts all over you anyway.   I would much rather have one of the ones from St. Germain, that are filled with curry, or in this case, corned beef hash.   They almost taste like a variation of the croquettes you get at the okazuya.

Pizza Roll from St. Germain
Can't have a bakery without baking some form of mini-pizza right?  The pizza rolls from St. Germain are really superb.

Tuna Roll from St. Germain
My favorite thing from St. Germain though, used to be their awesome tuna rolls.   The tuna roll used to be in more of a danish form (like their pizza roll), but they've since switched it so it's more of a round bun with a bit of tuna in the center.   The bun is a little "breadier" so I'm not as fond of it, but it still tastes good.

Ham Roll from St. Germain
In the absense of the original tuna danish, my favorite thing at St. Germain is the ham roll.   Forget apple or any fruit danish, getting one with ham and a little dollip of mayo is the way to go.   I used to like the tuna roll more because of the anticipation of hitting that little pocket of tuna and mayo (kind of like biting around the cake part of a Hostess Cupcake and saving the pocket of cream filling for last).   The ham roll on the other hand has ham, mayo, and onion throughout, which makes for a more even bite, but none of the "Bam!" of hitting that pocket in the center.   Still the ham roll is delicious, just the thing for an early breakfast or afternoon snack.

An Pan from St. Germain
However, if there were one quintessential item in the repetoire of Japanese bakers, it would have to be an pan.   The little roll stuffed with azuki beans is not unlike a black sugar manapua, or a black sugar mooncake.   I remember watching a magazine style TV show from Japan once, that featured a young man who gave up a lucrative white collar career to pursue his dream of being a great baker.  The man got a job working at a bakery, apprenticing under the master baker.   From the get go, the baker wouldn't let him do anything because he felt he didn't have enough spirit.  So all he would allow him to do was greet customers with traditional call of "IRASSHAIMASE!!!".  But even then, he felt that he was not up to par, so the man had to practice in the basement, yelling at the top of his lungs til his voice was hoarse, for months, until he was deemed worthy.  After more months of greeting customers, the master began to teach him how to make his first item, an pan.  But whatever he baked, the master did not deem good enough and would not sell it.   Again, he had to practice for months and months before the master would even taste his product.   When he finally did taste it, he said it was garbage and made him go many more months before testing it again.  All the while, the man worked such long hours at doing this every day, that he hardly ever saw his family.  Only once a week, on Sunday, did he see his children, and when he did he was naturally exhausted.   Finally, after months, the man was able to make an an pan that the master considered acceptable.   That was only the first of the several hundred items that the man needed to learn how to make.   The story was awe inspiring, and daunting to say the least.   In America, if you were to go through that much verbal abuse and belittlement, you would quit in a heartbeat.   In Japan, it is the norm.   That's discipline man!  That's dedication!  That show has stuck with me all my life, as an example of the work ethic they have.   I ask myself all the time, could I handle that?   Could I withstand that much abuse to perfect my craft?   Could you?

An Pan from St. Germain
I don't think that the bakers at St. Germain go through that kind of years long boot camp to learn how to make an pan.  But in Hawaii, their an pan is second to none.  Maybe here, we do things a little less hardcore, but we enjoy life more.   It is Japanese perfectionism, tempered with the spirit of me, the right balance.

1 comment:

  1. You should try their wheat bread. It has the same consistency as their white bread, but has that nutty wheat flavor. it's also better for you.