Sweets Sculptor

Sweets Sculptor

Thirteen hours at the side of pastry artist Paul Masse, whose culinary career began with his sister’s Easy-Bake oven.

At 5 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, the full moon, like a wafer of white chocolate, glows above a dark, deserted Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley. But the back room at Masse’s Pastries is a hive of activity. The enticing smell of pear tarts emanates from the warm oven, pale croissants puff up in the proofing box, and pastry chef Paul Masse wields a small blowtorch to unmold a chilled blood-orange mousse cake. One of his assistants, Ernesto, pours tropical-scented mango glaze over a passion-fruit-and-white-chocolate tart, while another, Giovanni, deftly deals chocolate-studded cappuccino cookies onto baking sheets.

Masse, a fiftyish Boston native with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a twinkle in his eye, has still not had his morning coffee. He tries to get into a rhythm of continuous motion before allowing himself that indulgence. “I like to have something baking in the oven, something cooking on the stove, and something chilling in the refrigerator before I stop,” says Masse. Six refrigerator doors line one kitchen wall, neatly corresponding to the six days a week the bakery is open. He checks the fluttering white order forms taped to each door—a life-size week-at-a-glance—to determine which orders need to be started today. Then he pours Belgian white chocolate wafers into a large metal mixing bowl that he places over a bain marie (hot water bath) on the stove. Later he will use the melted, then hardened chocolate to create flowers, stars, and squiggles to adorn his creations.

These exquisite cakes and confections in the French tradition have earned Masse the raves of devoted pastry lovers from all over the Bay Area. Since he opened his shop more than 10 years ago, customers have flocked to the modest storefront located in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, but few realize how many hours of work and preparation go into every one of his desserts.

Finally, at 5:40, Masse makes himself a triple cappuccino. He wears a checkered cap, white shirt and apron, houndstooth chef pants, and cracked, once-black shoes that he laughingly refers to as “broken in.” He has owned this Berkeley bakery for 12 years and often puts in six 14-hour days a week, to produce works of art that would look at home atop museum pedestals. But his mango mirror cake, chocolate raspberry torte, and the most delicate almond cookies this side of the Seine will grace lucky dessert plates instead.


Masse found his passion early. At the age of seven, he commandeered his older sister’s Easy-Bake oven and began to experiment, discovering that 100-watt bulbs produced faster results than the recommended 60-watt variety. He was delighted to taste the products of his playtime. His Italian family provided a food-rich environment, and his studies took him from the Culinary Institute in New York City, through stints at Ritz-Carltons in both Boston and Chicago, to a year in Zurich, Switzerland, studying pulled sugar (the art of heating, stretching, and folding sugar into a glossy medium that can be fashioned into anything from flowers to castles).

At 6 a.m., the croissants slide into the oven. Masse turns his attention to the now-softened white chocolate. He removes a large baking pan from the refrigerator. One side of the pan is covered with long dark chocolate stripes that were made using a simple painter’s tool the previous day. “These days, I get my inspiration from hardware stores and design blogs; everything in pastry books has already been done,” says Masse. His favorite task is crafting the intricate chocolate flourishes that enhance his handiwork. “When you are through you have created a nice-looking finished product from a melted blob,” says Masse modestly. “Nice-looking” barely describes the miniature masterpieces that Masse consistently turns out. Consider, for example, Masse’s classy mocha-walnut torte. Chocolate and espresso Bavarian cream layered with caramelized walnuts sit atop a disc of chocolate blackout cake. The creation is wrapped in a sheet of white and dark chocolate with a woodsy grain and garnished with chocolate hoops and rods.

At 6:30, the golden croissants emerge from the oven, exuding the rich scent of butter. It’s time for a quick call home to wake wife Marcia and daughter Bella. “I am more effective than the alarm clock,” says Masse. After Marcia drops Bella off at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, she will arrive at the bakery to begin her day as designer, decorator, finisher, barista, janitor, human resources department, and business manager.

Beeping timers go off intermittently in Masse’s kitchen, but he and his co-workers usually anticipate them. “Timing is everything with chocolate. It’s very temperamental, sensitive stuff—too cold and it cracks, too warm and it’s soup in your hand.” Masse and two or three assistants perform a kind of culinary choreography around a communal wooden table, knowing their parts so well that not a movement is wasted. They glide past each other to mix, fold, and whip; each performing a solo routine, but united in the larger production.

By 7:30, a deliveryman has wheeled in a large box of finely-ground almond meal, containers of blood-orange purée from France, and a bottle of Japanese yuzu juice (an exotic, aromatic citrus fruit, and the current rage in culinary circles).

At 7:40, Masse quietly announces, “Time to go into ‘frontal mode.’” His assistants bring in trays of pastries to fill the shelves before the shop opens at 8 a.m. as he makes the coffee, pours milk into pitchers, and opens the store, whose buttery yellow walls and bold black-and-white dishes provide a perfect backdrop to showcase his vibrantly hued pastry.

8:05—Regular customers Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, co-founders of MoveOn.org, amble in, greet Masse, fill a travel mug with coffee, and purchase a fresh croissant. “That is seriously delicious chocolate,” says Blades, pointing out a chocolate ruffle cake in the case made of devil’s food and chocolate mousse with specks of gold leaf fluttering on its fluted edges.

9:10—Marcia Masse dashes in to begin her day at the bakery (she has already perused her favorite design blogs at home, looking for inspiration). She and husband Paul amicably divide up the many tasks of running a bakery. “I care about what it looks like and he cares about what it tastes like. So no turf wars,” she says. But like the layers in Masse’s cakes, there is more to this bakery than just what meets the eye. Both Masses are committed to creating a European-style neighborhood bakery that celebrates the pastry arts. “We are working artists,” says Marcia, a pastry bag in her hand, expertly rendering birthday wishes in elegant chocolate script.

During the holidays, the Masses design whimsical or sophisticated specialties that reflect the cultural diversity of their North Berkeley neighborhood, a spirited convergence of global academics, students, well-traveled hill dwellers, young families, political activists, and old hippies. There are a few witty detours from the Hallmark holiday road—a chocolate Eiffel Tower for Bastille Day and meringue bones and chocolate skulls for the Day of the Dead. Loyal customers appreciate traditional specialties like raised kulich bread for Russian Orthodox Easter, galette des rois (an Epiphany cake hiding a lucky bean), honey cakes for Jewish New Year, and yeast-free tortes for Passover. Easter brings not only cakes sporting sweet bunny faces, but chocolate nests cradling eggs and baby birds.

On this Wednesday in mid-January, the Masses are finalizing their lineup for Lunar New Year. This year’s animal sign, the ox, is a bit of a challenge. “Mice, monkeys, even chickens are a lot easier,” sighs Paul. “Bulls are hard.” He shows a prototype of a small chocolate ox head with slivered almond horns. Masse’s will also feature a green-tea opera cake, yuzu éclairs, and a Mandarin firecracker cake, in which light orange chiffon and mandarin orange curd are shaped into a red firecracker. On top is an edible placard with a Chinese character that Paul Masse writes in chocolate. A guide to the Chinese characters for words like luck, fortune, and peace hangs on the refrigerator. “I am getting good at this,” says Masse. “I can spot a ‘double happiness’ a mile away.”

12:30—On this relatively slow Wednesday, Masse can spare five minutes to chomp down a hamburger from neighboring Saul’s Deli. “Some days, just when I am ready to have lunch, that’s when it gets busy. So all I have is pastry and coffee. I can pretty well sustain myself on puff pastry with pears. But then I can’t wait to get home and have something salty.” After arriving home between 7 and 8 p.m., he cooks quick family meals from scratch such as curry chicken or stir-fried vegetables (but nothing baked).

Lunchtime provides a slight lull before the teatime crowd streams in. It’s a good time to schedule a wedding cake tasting. Prospective customers sample the bakery’s offerings and discuss thematic options with Marcia. She tries to help them come up with more than a literal representation, “something intangible that will remain in the mind long after it has been seen and tasted,” she explains.

Today a customer inquires about a birthday cake for her 4-year-old daughter who loves ladybugs. She and Marcia go back and forth and finally decide on a naturalistic scene: the cake will evoke a dark chocolate forest floor with twigs and green leaves on which a few ladybugs will be playing.

2:30—Marcia, who often can be found working the front of the shop, knows the neighborhood well and greets many who enter by name. Today she introduces two customers who share a common interest in world politics. “Amazing people live in Berkeley,” she says. “They appreciate the quality of our work and its global cultural influences.”

4:00—Teatime finds customers in cozy twos and threes at tables inside the bakery or outside under umbrellas, enjoying pastries, cookies, and tea on Masse’s signature polka-dot dishes and silver trays.

5:15—The last customers dash in to pick up cakes for various evening events. Oakland resident Soomin Lee purchases a black currant mousse cake for a friend’s birthday, but can’t resist a cup of coffee and some Russian tea cookies for himself. “I love this place,” says Lee, “because people eat with their eyes, too.” In the kitchen, Paul Masse transfers previously frozen pastry dough to the refrigerator in preparation for the coming day.

At about half-past five, Paul, Marcia, and their employees begin the unglamorous job of cleaning up. Time to wash the coffeepot, empty the case, take out the trash, and sweep. Paul uses a wet towel and his trusty blowtorch to clean chocolate drips off the wooden worktable and then grabs a mop. “We do as much mopping as making cakes,” he says. “Everybody has to pitch in.”

6 p.m.—As Paul Masse finally shuts the front door to his bakery, his apron splattered in a Jackson Pollock of raspberry coulis, bittersweet chocolate, and mocha cream, Marcia smiles in his direction. Her husband, she says, “knew his calling at age 15.” And, she adds, “There has never been a day that he didn’t want to be a pastry chef.”

Masse’s Pastries, 1469 Shattuck Ave. (at Vine), Berkeley, (510) 649-1004. Open daily, except Tuesdays.

Anna Mindess is a freelance writer specializing in comtemporary culture and food. She is also a sign-language interpreter. Find her work at www.annamindess.com.

Faces of the East Bay