The Baker’s Rack Strikes Again

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The moment we arrived to Boston, I started feeling foolish. My ears flushed and my temples started to thump as I anticipated intruding on someone else’s kitchen.  Sierra and I were traveling to our best friend’s wedding and I was bringing the cake.  Armed with extra buttercream, a bouquet of offset spatulas, and even extra cake batter, I had thought of every disaster scenario – except one. I had overlooked an important detail – what I would look like when I arrived to set-up the cake at the reception site. I had brought neither whites nor slip-resistant clogs.  I’d even forgotten a bandana or hat to cover my hair. Instead, I sported a scoop-neck blouse, in which any dishwasher, chef, line cook or server could ogle my cleavage.  I felt the shamed presence of every female chef who had cooked, sweat and fought for an iota of respect.

I called the chef’s cell to alert him of our arrival and tugged upward on my poor choice of travel-wear. Feeling like a second rate Giada, it is no surprise that the chef was dark and handsome. After finding parking, I picked up the largest tier of the wedding cake.  Resting on my tense, 90-degree forearms, the cake’s placement perfectly framed my bosom.

Of course it did.

Breast next to cake and cake next to breast, I took a reluctantly, voluptuous, breath and stepped carefully and confidently into the underbelly of this Bostonian Brasserie. While I may not have looked like a qualified pastry chef, it would take more than tall, high-heeled boots and puddle of melted ice to take this professional down.

The kitchen was a truly fantastic, city kitchen. Intensely focused cooks cut French-fries in time to the saucepans that sizzled like the percussion section of an orchestra. The precision of this kitchen only highlighted my wardrobe folly. Alas, there was no going back now. I clopped though the kitchen in my heels and began to set-up the cake. One tier after the next, I hoped that the quality of my work proved that I was more than just a nice pair of cupcakes.  I shoved a side-towel into the belt-loop of my skinny jeans and ignored the judgmental stares of other two women in the kitchen.  Didn’t they understand that they were witnessing an act of unyielding female sprit?

When the cake was complete, I was relatively pleased with it.  Methodically, I cleaned up.  I returned dirtied bowls to the dishwashers and thanked them, saluted the cooks and shook hands with the chef.  He looked shorter than when I first met him, or maybe the weight of the cake had been lifted from my own shoulders. I was a true pastry professional — my baker’s rack and all.

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The Bun to Hot Dog Ratio

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I’m no longer planning goodie baskets and guest lists.  For months, real life was put on hold as I neglected class reading, forgot about writing and turned my thoughts to dress sizes, bouquets and veils. I’m proud to say that that I only had one major conniption along the way that involved the transport of cake stands. My deepest apologies to Matt, Buffalo Wild Wings and, of course, my ever-understanding husband.  Since the whole rigmarole is over, it’s been difficult to get back into the flow things. The other day I signed my new name about twenty times to regain control of my signature and delete years of automation. Reclaiming control of one’s hand is a detail I’d never considered.  

During the short period of time I’ve been married, I’ve already learned that H and I will never be able to maintain a proper balance. While I don’t think this will create any long-term problems between us, I think it’s important to discuss and examine.  It always starts out perfectly fine with 8 hot dogs and 8 buns, but somewhere along the road I will eat a hot dog without a bun. Before living with H, I’d never considered the fate of the forgotten bun – that manufacturers intended each hot dog to be nestled between soft, white bread. While H doesn’t seem to follow any particular order in his other consumption habits, throwing off the bun to hot dog ratio seems to upset his culinary sensibilities. While I know that relationships are about compromise, I don’t believe that I can stop my naked hot dog consumption. As bizarre (and perhaps unappetizing) as it may seem to some – sometimes I enjoy a naked hot dog. I boil it, pick it up between my thumb and index finger, wobble it around a little and eat it. Weird? Probably. Satisfying? Always. I don’t even need the ketchup.

I’m not sure where this leaves us…except that there’s always a little imbalance in life. I’m not sure what it means to be married yet, either.  But, I do know I will continue eating hot dogs without buns. The other night, I took the lonely buns, speared them with butter, garlic and salt, put them under the boiler, and called it garlic bread. Maybe that’s what being married means…Turning hot dog buns into garlic bread.  

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A Drink (or two) at Grand Central

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My legs were feeling particularly unruly – I tugged on my skirt and crossed my legs, hoping to create a streamline look.  To no avail, I sipped on a glass of wine and though, “to hell with it.”   Not even my body was going to cooperate today.  I took comfort in the rhythm of the restaurant and the bartenders who understood the meaning of a Saturday night rush.  I’d never had to worry about dimples showing when I wore my chef whites.

I must have looked particularly wistful because a busy, latino server noticed my ennui (or perhaps my disobedient thighs) and topped up my glass with genuine smile.  This was a professional.  I felt conspiratorial and suddenly, hopeful.

There is something disturbingly strange, but wonderful, about restaurant people.  In a single motion, a cook can make obscene gestures with a ladle and artfully debone a fish.  He (or she) is a schizophrenic – pirate, poet and artisan, all in one.  The front-of-house have their own two-faced charms and can be as cunning as conmen, or downright courtly (or both).

I looked around and noticed an absurd number of businessmen with martini glasses. Apparently, the manhattan was the drink of choice and I was glad I didn’t order one.  Sure, I was on the customer’s side of the bar and I was off on a Thursday night, but I didn’t want to assimilate too quickly.  Of course, I missed making cakes and pies and cookies, but I also disapproved of these “regular” people.  The latino server returned with more wine.  Could he sense my snarly thoughts? Or maybe I looked particularly thirsty?  Whether he was trolling for a generous tip or my number, I’ll never know, but I appreciated his eagerness.

I left the restaurant thinking about possibilities, rather than deadlines.  My restlessness had cooled down a bit and I was ready to be home.  Boarding the train, I passed a herd of culinary students raving about a restaurant they’d just been to, and I wondered if they anticipated the anguish of their love affair.  In the meantime, I hoped that they smelled these last days of summer and had great ambition to do delicious things.  Maybe, down the road, I’d see them in some kitchen somewhere, but I was already busy thinking of stories, concocting new desserts and wondering about the next meal.

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Let’s get Coco-nutty.

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With a starched suit and slicked hair, the veteran waiter waltzed into the bakeshop inquiring if the coconut cake contained any nuts.  A customer with an allergy was concerned and the waiter was performing the necessary due-diligence.  At the time, I was very young and still new to the industry, but I was familiar the ingredients and let him know that there were no nuts in the product.

His brow got all twisted-up, as if I’d told him hamsters could fly.

“But coconut is a nut,” he challenged.

“Nope,” I responded as politely as possible, busy filling tart shells for an event later that night.

“But, it’s called a coco-NUT,” he insisted.

In no mood for nomenclature and baffled by this man’s insistence, I could only repeat myself and reassure him that a coconut was not, in fact, a nut.  This went on for another couple minutes until the pastry chef returned.  He asked her the same question, completely disregarding our previous conversation.  Now, she looked at him as if he were a flying hamster.

The waiter left, still seeming confused, but returned within minutes.  He’d looked coconuts up online and had come back to report his findings.

“Coconut is not a nut,” he announced with confidence.  We blinked, paused and thanked him for that information, as he returned to the dining room.

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Merci Bocuse

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I anxiously checked my phone for the time, as my mom ripped off another piece of roll.  We were stalling.  I’d booked the reservation for four about a week earlier and now, my grandparents were driving through torrential rains to get there.  (A perfectly clear day can be hazardous enough in my grandma’s mini-van.  Rain and a new route conjure thoughts of thirty-five miles an hour on the highway, while other cars beep, pass, flash and curse.  Not good.)

Meanwhile, a waiter hovered nervously.  We needed to place our order by 1:30 to get it to the kitchen before they closed.  We were dining at the Culinary Institute’s new, student-operated Bocuse restaurant (or the Beaucoup, as my grandma calls it), and the afternoon had suddenly balled itself up and crammed itself into the pit of my stomach – in other words…I felt anxious.  We needed to somehow put in an order for my grandparents, so their three-hour (usually 1.5 hour), perilous journey north was not for naught (willing that they arrive safely in the first place, of course).  Earlier, we had told them that the rain had picked-up, but they were not to be deterred.

We had delayed for twenty minutes, but it was 1:20 and we needed to take action soon.  To pass the time, I was parading my awkwardness as usual, staring intently and then averting my eyes from the Maitre d’, desperately trying to remember his name before he approached me, so I could carry a conversation like the gracious human I’d always hoped to be.   H-dawg had introduced me this man before (maybe two times), as these were all his co-workers, but for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with anything.  Maybe a 2nd glass of rose would help…

I came up with a plan.  We would order the 3-course prix fixe and just order entrees for my grandparents.  This way, they’d have the whole, first course to get through and we could still put in an order for them.

Mom’s black truffle soup (classic Paul Bocuse circa 1975) and my duck-pistachio pate arrived within minutes.  Normally, I’d applaud timeliness, but today, each minute moved like a second – far too fast.  We ate as slow as you can eat deliciousness.

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The first course – cleared.  We were down to the wire and the clock was running out.  Soon, we would be the two of us, seated at a 4-top, looking foolish with 4 entrees.  The Maitre d’ (what the heck is his name?) already looked concerned enough about the two leftover amuse-bouche sitting upon the vacant placemats.   Imagine two extra entrees without bodies!  C’est horrible!

Mom left for the bathroom (perhaps another tactical move?) and as if magic, she returned with my grandparents.  Voila!

I took the biggest, deepest breath when I saw them.

And my grandparents even liked their entrees (Chicken fricassee and pan-roasted tenderloin of beef), and service flowed as if we’d been the most normal customers of the afternoon.  We ordered dessert together and everything seemed normal again.

Although we were the last table to leave the restaurant, all of us felt revitalized, full, and happy.  No one else seemed aware of the FOH setting up for dinner and anxious to get on with their own lives.

To boot, I ran into one of my most favorite pastry chefs at the school.  He remembered me and made me feel like I was important again.  The rain had stopped and we all went home again, filled with an ease and tiredness that only a three-course French meal can provide.

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Summer thoughts, spoiled milk and plans.

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Every time the weather gets hot, my car stinks like spoiled milk.  Due to a spill I had over two years ago on the way to a cooking exam, the rank comes back to haunt me in the summertime, but makes me feel curiously romantic.  It reminds me of trying to find parking in Southie, practicing Bavarian cream for hours in my non-air-conditioned apartment, and my first adventures as a professional baker.  It also means that summer is here again in full force.

For me, summer has always been a time for reclaiming order.  After a long, busy semester, the closets become disorderly, French fries show their true form as dimples (not the cute, Shirley Temple variety), and I realize I haven’t vacuumed the cat hair off the couch in over three weeks.

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This summer I am making wedding cakes, writing for the magazine, thinking about a wedding and plotting.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Eleanor Roosevelt, too, and visiting New Orleans again, and taking deep breaths and big sips of wine somewhere in the South of France (that’s the plotting part).  But for time being, I’m finding new rose wines to have on the front porch and listening to John Denver Pandora.  Because it is always my hope that there is a lot of front-porch sitting in summer and the world will slow down a little, like the town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird, where “The day was twenty-four hours long, but it seemed longer.  There’s no hurry, for there’s nowhere to go and nothing to buy.…and no money to buy it with.”

So, I’m plotting as usual, but mostly, I’m pursuing that order I mentioned.  I love going back into the restaurant kitchen to make the wedding cakes because order and chaos coexistent.  One drop of a cake or burnt steak and chaos takes over, but most days they live together in balance.  Everyone synchronizes to the same beat to create and cook.  That is what I’m doing this summer – Creating, cooking and breathing in all the smells of summer.

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Driving with cake.

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I would like to preface this whole thing with the fact that I believe people should eat whatever they want.  I’ve watched the videos from factory farm slaughterhouses, I believe in gluten intolerance, and I’m well read in Michael Pollan….And maybe, just maybe, I have a huge, impenetrable blind spot for Mallomars, Jif peanut butter, medium-rare steak, and Count Chocula.

Last weekend, I drove to the Jersey Shore with a “gluten-free pescatarian” – Basically, someone who eats fish and peanuts.  It is a life without crusty banquettes, finger-sticking racks of ribs, and basically any Italian food.    In fact, it pretty much excludes all of European cuisine- the Austrians and Germans would be without their Weiner Schnitzel, the Irish could no longer eat soda bread or drink Guinness, and the English would lose bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie and Yorkshire pudding.  Under the regime, sushi remains the only colorful cultural food experience left to enjoy.

But, people should eat how they want and do what makes them feel good.  For me, that means hotdogs when I’m at a baseball game.  For you it may mean frozen, organic entrees at Trader Joe’s.  Whatever flips your pancake.

So, I was in the car for five hours (2.5 hours there and 2.5 hours back), trying to make conversation and fill the awkward, radio-less void.  (I’m not sure why people don’t put on the radio when they’re with strangers in the car.  I think it’s a common courtesy to those of us who only confidently carry conversations about Muppets or laminated dough.) We were delivering a gluten-free wedding cake to a venue in Jersey.  I’d iced, decorated and was setting it up as a favor to a great, local, gluten-free bakery (Gluten-free pastries CAN be delicious.  Come to Beacon and give them a try).  Traveling into the misunderstood armpit of the East, I realized that I am an incredibly insensitive human when it comes to food preferences.  Not only did I semi-absentmindedly suggest we get lunch at a BBQ dive (and then laugh that he couldn’t), but my inner foodie started flailing, leading to spasms of the mouth.  I randomly interjected that I like Cheez Whiz (Although, Cheez Whiz IS vegetarian, it is not technically gluten-free.  I didn’t know this at the time of my Tourette’s episode, but I was pretty sure no one who was socially or healthfully food mindful condones The Whiz).

Throughout our five hours on the road, I defended Texas, raved about the “addictive” qualities of Cheetos, and declared my love for regional fast-food chains.  I was the worst sort of passenger, but in a frenzy of social awkwardness, defending my “friends” in hermetically sealed packaging, and having had one too many glasses of wine the night before, I couldn’t stop myself.

Dear Stranger in the Car, I apologize for my behavior.  I have hope that in the future, we can bond over dried mango slices, chocolate covered ginger and hard cider.

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