The paranoid baker and his box of rocks.
Are "Secret Recipes" really that big a secret?
My dad told me this story when he was working towards his certification in Germany, of an old baker and his box of rocks. So fearful of his secret formulas being stolen he wouldn't use standard weights for scaling ingredients. Every morning he brought downstairs a box of colored rocks. Instead of using weights in Kilos and Grams of flour for a pound cake it would instead be measured in say, 3 red rocks, and 2 brown rocks. All the formula cards were written that way. He was certain his secret recipes were safe that way.
Now where this goes wrong is EVERY SINGLE bakery product has to follow standard percentage range for each ingredient.
(Not to be confused with Baker's Percentage*)
For a certain product, you may have 25% butter, 25% cake flour, 25% eggs, 25% sugar, and some trace ingredients. Oh wait, don't read that. It's an old super secret formula for traditional pound cake. The point is that butter for this formula should be at or close to the 25% range. If it goes below 20% or over 30% you have a different product.
The younger bakers in training could easily figure out how much flour was going in the bowl by what was left visually in a sack of flour. Once you know that and what you were making the rest is relatively easy. If you change the percentages too much then your sweet dough, for example, becomes donut dough.
Great myths and lore have arisen about secret formulas in bakeries. The ingredients are basically the same. The ratios are basically the same. What does make a big difference is the quality of ingredients, how they are combined and the use of flavors. High-quality ingredients, old-school production, and using fine flavors make a better product and if you've been doing it for years you can pretty much taste what's being used and how. If you value creativity and variety you don't publish "secrets" used by other shops just like magicians don't spoil the magic.
So secret formulas really are secret while at the same time not so much. The real secret is using the right stuff, the right way, and making it from scratch.
Having said all that one little-known factor is the water. Philly water has a certain ... umm, flair. I was on the radio once in another town where they were asking me about Philly pretzels and Philly steak rolls. Other towns can't match what we have here. People who move away become obsessed with the food they grew up on. They search and search and are almost always disappointed. I was asked why. "Simple, the water." There are 3 main water sources for Philly and all three are different. They taste different, at least to me they do and they are certainly significantly different from other parts of the country. People who grew up in South Philly raised on local Italian Rolls get hooked on them. No other rolls anywhere else come close. Add some homesickness and voila, obsession. Some roll companies have moved to or have always been in South Jersey and they taste just a little different. Not better or worse, just different.
Heat and high humidity will wreak havoc on baked goods. Especially those super damp early morning hours. I'm thankful for the air conditioning we have in the shop and to Willis Carrier for inventing it. Altitude is another factor that will ruin your day baking. Baking in Denver? FuhGetAboutIt.
Next time you have some awesome bakery product made from scratch in a local shop with locally sourced ingredients take the time to savor the creativity and effort.
* = Baker's Percentage is where flour is always 100% of a formula. Everything is by weight, not volume. All other ingredients are based off that so with the above recipe you have
Flour 100% - 1 lb.
Sugar 100% - 1 lb.
Eggs 100% - 1 lb.
Butter 100% - 1 lb.
Total 400% - 4 lb.
When you want to break down a formula the math is lot easier this way than halving or quartering cups of flour and number of eggs.