Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain

26 Dec

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the darkAll the sweet, green icing flowing down.Someone left the cake out in the rain.I don’t think that I can take it.’Cause it took so long to make it.And I’ll never have that recipe again, oh no! –MacArthur Park (lyrics by Jimmy Webb)

I know that when Richard Harris recorded the song MacArthur Park, he was singing metaphorically about the end of a relationship, not about baking a cake. Back in the 1970s, when people owned record players (and even 8-track tapes) , my parents used to play the Irish actor’s recording of the song humorist Dave Barry deemed the Worst Ever Written. It was always a puzzle for me trying to figure out why anyone would be so upset about a cake with green icing. Who eats a cake with green icing anyway? Maybe Jimmy Webb’s metaphor was ill-chosen, but the lyrics resonate on a literal level with anyone who has ever spent time baking only to discover that his/her end product is not what he/she had envisioned.And let’s be honest, that’s everybody who has ever baked, from novice up through the professional ranks.

The line has already been drawn in the sand between the culinary and the baking and pastry worlds. Invariably, when someone finds out that I am pursuing baking and pastry arts, the response incorporates some combination of the words “precise,” “exact,” and “detail-oriented. ” In other words, baking and pastry folks are anal-retentive, perfectionist control freaks. Much like lawyers. (Hmm…does that mean I am doomed?)  And maybe it is true.

I know that in my case, that there are times when I tell myself (always in the voice of John Cusack/Lloyd Dobler), “you must chill.”

For this reason, when the cake doesn’t rise or the pie dough overbrowns, we are all very hard on ourselves.

This season’s Top Chef Just Desserts is illustrative.Remember Malika during the wedding cake challenge? She already had the nerve-racking task of designing and executing a wedding cake for Sylvia Weinstock, one of the most celebrated cake designers in America. And when her cake began to disintegrate, she wept bitter tears. I almost wept bitter tears for her. She was mortified by the prospect of having to present a less-than-perfect product to the guru of wedding cakes.  When Sylvia Weinstock pronounced her verdict for that episode’s Quick Fire challenge, however, she said something very wise. She told Malika to remember that no one died, and that it was “ just a cake.” If Sylvia Weinstock says it is just a cake, you gotta wonder.

These musings are occasioned by some recent experiences I have had since I started my professional studies in baking and pastry this fall. Yes, I had achieved less than perfect results on a number of occasions in my own kitchen, but I think it is a harder pill to swallow when things don’t go as you planned in school. First, you have several witnesses to your misadventures, many of whom offer their uninvited commentary.

Second, we learn so much in just a single day of our 9-day lab rotations that sometimes it is hard to process all the information and techniques. Third, I don’t have my cheerleader husband at school to put a good face on everything and to tell me that I am wonderful anyway.

I stayed after lab one day when I was particularly frustrated with my cake decorating deficiencies. Chef helped me put things in perspective by showing me a photograph of the first professional cake he decorated. While it is true that I would be happy at this point to achieve his results, he proceeded to point out the unevenness of the writing on the face of his cake and streaks where the frosting was not perfectly smooth. Also, as someone who, like me, had a previous career (he is a CPA turned pastry chef), he told me that there is more than one way to be successful in the industry.

It is funny how even 24 hours can give you valuable perspective. It also amazing how when you really love something, you can reach the highest highs, but also hit the lowest lows. Yesterday, I was very  upset with myself after attempting a recipe for Pear-Cardamom Pie with Almond Crust from the recent Bon Appétit Desserts volume. The cookbook was a belated birthday present that I had purchased using a gift certificate from my in-laws (thanks D and H). I had been saving it for just the right occasion and then I saw it. . . this glossy, beautiful, beckoning siren of a dessert book.  I had to have it.

Naturally, when I chose the first recipe to test out of the almost 700-page volume, I chose something with almond paste, because I love almonds, almond paste, marzipan, and amaretto as much as I love chocolate. I also chose the recipe because cardamom is one of the spices that I am trying to come to terms with when used on the sweet as opposed to savory side of the kitchen. It is a difficult taste to describe, and one of those spices that can only be used sparingly, lest it overtake everything in its path.

I started off on the right foot, and the pie looked like this when it went into the oven:

But today was one of those days. I could not read and follow simple directions. The recipes cautions clearly: “Brush top of crust (not edge) with egg glaze.” And what did I do? Brush the whole pie crust, including the edge, with egg. I thought I could salvage the edge by shielding it with aluminum once I saw that it was browning very rapidly and way before the rest of the pie. But it could not be helped. In the end, the pie looked a little sun-burned on the edge when it came out of the oven:

Yes, it was Christmas day, but I hadn’t intended for the little pie leaves I had so painstakingly cut out and veined with my pairing knife to look like “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”

I ended up beating myself up about it, but then I watched a couple of movies (True Grit and Going the Distance) and had a good night’s sleep. I woke up the day after, ready to blog about my failings, laugh at my mistakes, and begin a new day in the kitchen.

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