Chris Rosenblum: Baker looks to be king of the croissant

Charles Niedermyer displays the pastries he baked in Charlotte, N.C., while trying out for Team USA, the national baking team for the World Cup of Baking next year in France.
Charles Niedermyer displays the pastries he baked in Charlotte, N.C., while trying out for Team USA, the national baking team for the World Cup of Baking next year in France. Photo provided

Flakiness is good when it comes to croissants.

It’s less so for a pastry chef trying to make a national team and compete on a world stage.

You need to be methodical and precise, on top of myriad details in an unfamiliar kitchen.

You must be able to bake exactly 20 croissants weighing no more than a third of an ounce from each other. In a nine-hour window, you have to create dozens of delectable pieces from several original recipes, exhibiting both technical mastery and artistic creativity.

Charles Niedermyer knows the deal.

These days, the State College resident is preparing for the last round of the Team USA tryouts for the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie, known as the World Cup of Baking.

Held every four years, the Coupe du Monde brings together baking teams from nine countries. Team USA has an automatic bid from winning a silver medal in 2012.

Teams consist of three competitors specializing in a category: artistic design, baguette and specialty breads, and breakfast pastry. It’s down to three chefs for the Team USA pastry spot and the chance to bake in France next year.

Whether Niedermyer is the one depends on the finals in early March at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

“It’s really been about pushing myself to the next limit,” he said.

“It’s not that anything I’m doing is going to revolutionize baking, but it’s really pushed me to do and think about things that I haven’t thought about pastry. I’ve had some exciting ‘ah-ha’ moments, and I’ve had things that haven’t gone well, and I’ve learned from both.”

Niedermyer, a Pennsylvania College of Technology instructor in baking and pastry arts/culinary arts, has passed muster twice already.

To become a Team USA candidate, he had to submit four original pastry formulas, photos of the completed recipes, essay responses and his resume.

After his May selection, he honed his creations — batch after batch — until the December tryouts with six other chefs at the Johnson & Wales campus in Charlotte, N.C. Then he really went to work.

Over nine hours spanning two days, Niedermyer baked 20 croissants and chocolate croissants each, both required as classical breakfast pastries, along with four original recipes — an impressive 112 pieces in all.

“The competition went well in that I was able to complete my plan and I was able to stay on track,” he said. “I made very few errors. I had a good day.”

His journey to Providence began 15 years ago. A pastry chef he worked for was trying out for Team USA, which is sponsored by the Bread Bakers Guild of America.

“I watched her practice, and it was very intriguing and exciting, and I think that kind of lit the fire,” he said.

Seven years later, a spark of interest ignited. While he was in San Francisco attending a baking conference, the 2008 team final tryout was happening in the city. He went over to watch.

“I was just so impressed and enamored with the work they were doing, and the energy, and how they were pushing the craft,” he said. “Since that time, I’ve said this is something I really would like to do.”

Chasing his dream has meant tinkering, exploring ways to reflect the Coupe du Monde theme: Your country’s emblem through bread.

For the December tryouts, Niedermyer made pastries drawn from traditional American recipes, including one based on a red velvet cake theme, using beets, and another inspired by pineapple upside-down cake.

“I played around with these classic American flavors and turned them into breakfast pastry,” he said.

Though candidates are evaluated on the texture, consistency and appearance of their products, taste naturally tops the judges’ list. Niedermyer starts with particular flavors in mind, then highlights those by refining the textures of his doughs and fillings. Last comes the presentation.

Since the last competition round, he has been busy perfecting six new American-themed recipes for the finals, drawing every ounce from almost 20 years of professional experience to sharpen his game.

“It’s very precise, very numbers-driven,” he said. “I have all my formulas in Excel spreadsheets.”

He also has relied on the patience of his wife, Nova, and their three young children — who have contended with long kitchen stints for his time — and on the help of his students. They’ve been at his side while he has fine-tuned recipes, serving as assistants and enduring the hardship of being tasters.

One day next month, if fortune continues to smile on Niedermyer, they’ll celebrate together. Already, though, he sounds like a rewarded man.

“It’s been great to have the support of Penn College and my students and getting them involved,” he said.

“It’s been a lot of fun, and whether I make the team or not, at this point it doesn’t matter. I feel I’m doing some of my best work, and it’s opened my mind to a lot of new things.

“I really feel honored to be involved.”