Customer Charlie is a product manager at the Alternative Cake Company.
Charlie has had an idea for a cake made with a novel flour. Flour from edible Mediterranean acorns (safety warning, edible acorns exists, but only in countries around the Mediterranean, the ones you would probably find in a park in England aren’t edible, put that down, don’t eat that) always consult an acorn specialist before eating an acorn.
Charlie’s idea is that the Alternative Cake Company could make a chocolate cake with this flour and it would be gluten free. Also, all acorn flour is organic pretty much by default because it’s not really grown commercially. It comes from ancient trees (he can almost hear the marketing copy writing itself)
Charlie takes his idea to the board of Alternative Cake. They like the idea. For an alternative cake company they haven’t really come up with anything original in a while. They green light the project. It’s Christmas and Charlie promises them a delicious gluten-free organic acorn cake for Easter.
Sue is a contract development baker. She’s tasked with baking this cake and she’s glad of the work.
She tries to get a hold of Charlie to see if he has a recipe for acorn flour cake. He says he’ll get back to her. He doesn’t. His success with the acorn flour cake bid means that he’s now in demand all over the company working on other leading-edge baking projects. He’s busy on a parsnip flour cupcake and doesn’t really have time to talk.
But the deadline is the deadline, so, Sue tries to get on without Charlie. She tries to source her own acorn flour via her normal suppliers. She can’t find any acorn flour that is less than 80% wheat flour. She contacts Charlie and asks if he knows of a supplier of pure acorn flour.
Charlie is now pretty short with Sue.
“You’re the baker,” he says, “it’s nearly Easter. I have to present this acorn cake to the board in a week’s time and then I’ve promised three hundred cakes for the Nuneaton squirrel festival two weeks later. I need you to hurry up and get me the cakes. I saw acorn flour on the Greek island of Kea. I thought you were a professional baker. Maybe we made a mistake when we gave this contract to you.”
Sue feels slighted, and also worried that she might lose the contracts. Also where is Nuneaton? What on earth is a squirrel festival?
She spends a couple of weeks trying to contact bakers in Kea to no avail. Finally, she gets on a plane and goes out there. She follows her nose from the port and walks into Adonis’ bakery. She sees acorn flour products in a special display, gets a bit excited. She can tell from the smell that Adonis is a good baker.
She asks him about the acorn products. He shrugs. It’s interesting as a novelty. But any product that uses acorn flour needs to be at least eighty percent wheat flour. Why? Because the acorns have a powerful savoury taste — a bit like malted burnt toast. A hundred percent acorn flour cake is inedible. The other thing is that beyond twenty percent, you can’t get a cake to rise. A hundred percent acorn flour cake has the consistency of a doormat. Antonis waves in the direction of the display stand of foil-wrapped products containing acorn flour. All of these “cakes” are some variation on a brownie. The tourists buy them occasionally, but then they taste his baclava or his bougatsa or his tiropita. He smiles, “after that,” he says “they don’t want to eat the acorn cakes.”
Antonis’ recognises a fellow baker and gives Sue a couple of sacks of the acorn flour. He tells her that the name on the flour sacks is his father-in-law and he can send her more flour whenever she wants. He’s the biggest producer of acorn flour in Kea, but really, only because there’s an EU grant making it worth his while.
Sue pays the excess baggage fee on the acorn flour and flies it back to England. When she gets back, as a starting point, she tries to make traditional cakes with one hundred percent acorn flour.
Everything that she bakes, she tastes herself, obviously. But experience has taught her, that when she’s developing new ideas she can convince herself that almost anything is edible. So to keep herself honest and sane she also tests everything with her “kitchen cabinet”. A friend and a neighbour who will always reliably turn up for coffee at short notice.
She takes some tried and tested wheat flour recipes and tries make them with the 100 percents acorn flour.
Adonis is right. It’s a miserable experience. A sponge cake made with just acorn flour is like an offensive weapon. You’d feel more comfortable threatening to hit someone with it rather than taking a bite.
“I’d love to have a taste of that, but I’m a bit worried about my dentures” says Tom from next door.
And if you do take a bite. Oof.
“Lovey, are you sure you didn’t burn this? It tastes a bit burnt?” says Pam wincing as she chews.
Burnt. Spicy? Yes. But burnt? Also yes. And the sweeter Sue tries to make it to try to get rid of the burnt taste, the weirder the taste of the spice becomes.
After another week of experimenting and feedback from her neighbours Sue finally has a chocolate and cherry “acorn” brownie that both members of her kitchen cabinet will eat. And using other gluten free flours, such as almond, she manages to make something that’s roughly what Charlie asked for — a gluten free acorn flour cake, again, the kitchen cabinet will at least eat it, even if they’re not full of praise.
Sue hasn’t talked to Charlie in weeks, but he seems pleased and relieved when she says that she’ll have something to take to the Nuneaton squirrel festival. He’s too busy right now with some early concepts for a turnip trifle, so he’ll only get a chance to taste the new cakes on the day.
When the day of the Nuneaton Squirrel festival comes, Charlie isn’t pleased.
“I thought we’d agreed this was going to be a cake. This is a brownie. And what’s that weird burnt taste?”
“Yes, I know that’s what we said,” says Sue “but…”
“No buts,” says Charlie, “I want a cake.”
Now Sue is (silently) furious. She reaches under the stall and brings out a plastic box which contains a heavy, blunt, object — it’s one hundred percent acorn flour sponge cake.
Grimly she proffers Charlie a piece.
“Jesus, that’s disgusting.”
“I know. I think that maybe we need to rethink…”
“I’m not rethinking anything. I promised the board an acorn cake and that’s what they’re going to get. I’ve got another board meeting in a month’s time. You’d better have an acorn cake for me to share with the board, otherwise you’re fired.”
Sue knows that it’s time to go beyond the kitchen cabinet.
It’s time to ask the audience. That’s what she calls her widest category of user testing. She makes a blondie (a light-coloured brownie) and another batch of her dark cherry brownies and takes them to a meeting of the women’s institute. In the interval between two fascinating talks (don’t ask her what they were about) she offers the cakes to the ladies. She’s not quite sure what she’s doing with the blondie. But the aim might be to kind of put a frame round that burnt spicy taste. It doesn’t seem quite right in a cake. But is there anywhere that it would be right? A cookie? A cupcake? A baba?
Mostly people try to be nice. But everybody notices the burnt spicy taste. They best they can say about the black cherry brownies is that you can hardly taste it. But Sue keeps asking the same question. Where would that taste be good?
A stern lady refuses her offer of a brownie and says she’ll take just a taste — she’s on a diet.
Sue sees the familiar wince as the burnt taste of the acorns hits the stern lady’s taste buds. But then she could kiss her when she says “That’s the taste I always wanted from wholemeal pasta. But when I cook it, it always seems so bland.”
Pasta. Without trying it, somehow Sue knows that it’s right.
The day before the board meeting she manages to get a few minutes of Charlie’s time.
“Where’s the cake? You’d better have the cake.” He says.
“I don’t have the cake.”
“Then you’re fired.”
“Look, I know, you hired me to make you an acorn flour-based cake. I didn’t manage that but…”
“But, but, it’s always but with you.”
“But I’ve got these…”
Again, she shows him a plastic tub of heavy brown squares.
“What are these? Biscuits that we could use as anti-aircraft shells?”
“Acorn and rice flour ravioli.”
“Why are we even having this conversation? This is a cake company. An acorn cake, that’s what this project is about.”
“Please — give me ten minutes in the development kitchen and I think I can change your mind.”
You serve Mr C the ravioli covered in sage-flavoured olive oil and filled with a vegan ricotta. These babies are gluten and lactose free and vegan and they use organic acorn flour.
Charlie loves them. He eats them all, “that burnt spicy taste!”. As he eats he keeps complaining about how he wishes just for once he could hire the kind of decent, honourable, reliable staff who do what they say they’re going to do.
“From little acorns: how acorn pasta became the new food and health sensation” says the headline on the supermarket magazine. On the front cover is a picture of Charlie about to eat a forkful of acorn ravioli, inside is an interview where he explains his journey towards this culinary discovery. There’s no mention of sponge cake, there’s no mention of Sue.
But Sue doesn’t care too much about that. People in the industry know that she came up with acorn ravioli, new and more adventurous baking projects await.
Note: I made all of this up. Acorn flour maybe lovely in cakes (remember this are different acorns. There is no Nuneaton Squirrel Festival (maybe it’s in Ashby-de-la-Zouch).