Brian Mercury: Pastry Demonstration
Harvest Restaurant’s Executive Pastry Chef, Brian Mercury spoke at Tufts earlier this year and much to my dismay, I could not attend. On March 27, I had another opportunity to see Mercury in action this time for a baking demonstration sponsored by the Culinary Society. Per TCS’s instructions, I crept through Dewick’s side entrance. My feeling of mischievous anticipation at getting a glimpse into the inner workings of Tufts Dining gave way to a sense of foreboding as the heavy door closed behind me, and I faced a dimly lit, windowless hallway. Goodbye world, I hope to see you soon. After a moment of panic, I found my way into the baking kitchen where Mr. Mercury had already begun to talk about the extra-salty sea salt he acquires specifically from Maine and sprinkles on top of his desserts to enhance their flavor. I squeezed my way into the crowd of nineteen students standing in a semi-circle around a large, wooden table, adorned with baking implements and Tupperware.
Mercury wore a simple, black apron over a plaid, button down shirt – an ensemble that attended his professional yet relaxed demeanor. His frank and animated manner was endearing as was his obvious excitement to share with us his expertise and love of food. When asked to list his favorite desserts, Mercury launched into a spirited defense of crème brûlée. Vanilla is a complex flavor, he said with a laugh, as if to apologize for his zeal. And how much would he pay for a great crème brulee? Nothing, he joked, I would make it.
After we broke the ice, Mercury got down to business. On the menu: a Taza chocolate cremeux and mint marshmallows. Cremeux, Mercury explained (probably in response to our vacant expressions), means “creamy” in French; the word describes a texture, not a particular dessert. So Taza chocolate cremeux is essentially a mass of immensely rich, creamy chocolate – count me in! But I rethought my wholehearted endorsement when Mercury told us that Harvest charges $11 per cremeux. 11 bucks was, in my initial assessment, a pretty steep price tag for some chocolate and cream.
However, Mercury’s performance dispelled my doubts. Minutes into the demonstration, it was clear that the price is a reflection of the effort and mastery required to produce such a dessert; his cremeux is not just the conflation of expensive, high-quality ingredients but also the product of closely honed skill. Though Mercury asked us to interrupt with questions about the process or let him know if he was going too fast, everyone was too mesmerized by the deftness and fluidity of his movements to interject. And while Mercury took care to explain the methodology and even basic science behind the various steps, it was abundantly clear that the technique and knowledge he espoused would take years to acquire.
The marshmallows required even more precision than did the cremeux. And whereas the cremeux recipe involved common ingredients (chocolate, sugar, cream, egg yolks), the marshmallows involved gelatin, cornstarch, and a candy thermometer. Anyone could recreate these desserts at home, Mercury asserted optimistically. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciated Mercury’s attempt to make these desserts accessible to the audience, and I think that he succeeded in explaining the process in a clear, concise, and relatable way. However, I thought his suggestion that anyone could make these desserts, though a well-intentioned, was unnecessary. I enjoyed the demonstration precisely because I could never, or at least not without quite a bit of determination and practice, produce what Mercy did with apparent easy. The demonstration was such a treat (no pun intended) because it was an opportunity to see a professional at work. In a way, to say that the layperson could create what is, at least in my opinion, a work of art is to do his craft a disservice.
The final product was topped with brown sugar granola, Maine salt, molten milk chocolate sauce, and mascarpone cheese. As if it couldn’t get any better, the middle contained a substantial amount of oozy, slightly salty caramel. The mint marshmallows were surprisingly refreshing but not overwhelmingly minty. And as I enjoyed them I was all the more convinced that even my best efforts would not yield such perfection. It was a delicious and a satisfying end to a wonderful demonstration. A warm thank you to Brian Mercury for sharing his expertise, humor, and cremeux – we very much enjoyed them all.