There was a time when most Kenyans knew pastries as a cake that was brown, compact and spongy or mandazi. Now pastry chefs have upped their game, making from pies, tarts, quiches, to croissants, with bold flavours.
From sugar-free to gluten-free and even dairy-free, dessert is no longer only perceived as an unhealthy indulgence that sweet teeth enjoy.
BDLife spoke to Pascal Poitevin, the executive pastry chef at Sankara Hotel and Catherine Kariuki, the head pastry chef at Trademark Hotel on Nairobi’s new love for croissants and artisanal cakes.
At the Opera Patisserie, a Parisienne-themed cafe in Nairobi, Pascal, who is French, makes artisanal cakes, freshly baked pastries and coffee.
An inviting aroma fills the air at the cafe as baristas serve the morning customers. Chocolatey donuts, flaky croissants and crunchy cookies sit pretty as if they knew how inviting they look. A sweet tooth paradise this is.
“The pastry world in Nairobi has really improved. Most customers who come here are well travelled and they understand what proper desserts and pastries should look and taste like. So I ensure that they as authentic as possible, using French techniques and some French ingredients,” he says.
However to make pastries as they taste in France, he struggles to get the right ingredients.
“For example when I joined Sankara in 2010, I struggled to find good chocolate and other main ingredients. However, over the years, the opening of more hotels has led to an increase in demand for ingredients found abroad hence local suppliers are now stocking them,” he says.
“We now have imported equipment such as silicone moulds which enables us to make creative shapes and designs of cakes, similar to what you’d find in Europe,” says Pascal, who also comes with chocolate and new silicone shapes every time he travels to France. The silicone works by imprinting the design on the dessert. Silicones can also be custom-made into specific shapes and sizes although this is expensive and it is what bakers in Europe do to attain unusual shapes.
“For smaller desserts, we use miniature glasses to avoid the process of cutting pastries into small bite sizes. We use verrine, a small, thick-walled glass,” he says.
Pascal also gets inspiration from magazines.
“As much as we import some ingredients, we also use some that are available locally, such as fruits and vegetables,” he says.
Executive Chef Catherine Kariuki has 12 years experience as a pastry chef, working in South Africa and Dubai. I met her at Harvest Restaurant located on the second floor of Nairobi's Trademark Hotel. Catherine also manages the Tribe Hotel’s pastry kitchen and this is her first time working in Kenya, a role she has held for two years now.
“Various aspects have attributed to the growth of the pastry industry in Nairobi,” she says.
“Media, is one of them and especially now with social media, people get to see what other chefs in faraway destinations are doing,” she says.
“At Trademark, we use ingredients such as isomalt sugar, which is imported. We use in the finishing stage in cakes as opposed to using cream,” Catherine says.
The sugar is first boiled and different colours can be added onto it. It is then laid on cakes for a clean bright finish. Sprayed chocolate which essentially is cocoa butter sourced from Europe is also used at Chef Catherine’s pastry kitchen.
When it comes to creative shapes and designs she shared that they use high-tech moulds sourced from Italy which come in different shapes and sizes and result in unique shapes of cakes and pastries.
“On our red velvet cake, we spray a mix of the cocoa butter and white chocolate finishing to give it the velvety look,” she says.
For pastries, Catherine attributes their popularity to a method she uses. She spreads the flavours such as pistachio paste on the sheets then she folds the puff pastry and cuts it into patterns.
“This ensures that the favours are not only on the outer parts of the pastries but inside as well,” she says, adding that Kenyans cannot be classified as sweet tooths yet and the dessert space is still growing.