May 13, 2010|
The same thought might have crossed your mind, but I’m afraid someone else beat you to it. Yes, I do often get challenged to cook. In fact, these days, an invitation to cook is always laced with an underlying desire to examine my knife skills and whatnot. The boundary separating the kitchen from the newsroom is slowly being whittled down by readers who protest that those who can’t cook should just shut up. I don’t know if I agree with that completely, but I promise you—I do cook.
In this particular case, it was at the behest of my friends Sherman and CSY, who not so subtly expressed a craving for cream puffs, filled with fresh pastry cream, pretty please. The couple—perhaps the most die-hard foodies I have ever encountered—seldom fight over anything other than the appropriate methods of making sourdough or the proper pizza stone to purchase.
They also somehow, with their sweet smiles and youthful energy, always manage to bring out the pushover in me. I swear they’ve got the puppy dog eyes thing down cold. So there I was, having raided another one of my friend’s kitchens, opening and closing drawers, blindly searching for a spatula. It also didn’t help that (also per their request) we had each brought along our dogs, all of which turned out to be alpha-bitches.
Once the cooking got started though, the autopilot kicked in. The first section of pastry in culinary school is all about pâte à choux, a buttery egg dough. We used it to make cream puffs, éclairs, and Paris-Brests. We piped it into swans, and dipped our miniature “choux” pastries in caramel to make croquembouches and St. Honoré cakes. It was one of my favorite sections if for no other reason than it ended with us frying up everything leftover. Fried pâte à choux tastes like spätzle. Fried pastry cream tastes damn good.
A few weeks later, I was called again to cook. This time by my culinary school friends Violeta and Claudia, who had arranged a reunion of sorts. We planned to make a Reine de Saba, the chocolate and almond gâteau that Julia Child said was the first French cake she had ever baked. The recipe recommended a slice as an ideal accompaniment to champagne. We settled for cheaper Prosecco, and got through the whole bottle before squinting at the crumpled recipe and realizing we didn’t have any scales.
We eyeballed the entire thing. A “that’s about right” fistful of that; a “looks good to me” pinch of this. The cake was a weird shade of beige, and our chocolate glaze separated because we spiked it with too much vodka (an ingredient the recipe did not call for).
Let me assure you, these ladies are both serious pastry chefs. One for a hotel; the other runs a catering business and school. The latter’s boyfriend, who jumped in to help, was a pastry chef as well. But our combined efforts produced a cake that was a total fail.
The cream puffs, on the other hand, came out without a hitch. It’s counterintuitive to think that the combined efforts of four people, each capable of baking their asses off, together produced something inedible. We’re human; we spend our lives working with food and still managed to get into the kitchen; we always volunteer to do the dishes. What have you done lately?