chocolate hazelnut crepe cake

When I was a kid, I was an immigrant.

I moved here when I was seven, and I didn’t even know how to say hello or thank you. Inevitably, this led to some awkward moments.

Like when my friend and I spent one bus ride to school discussing in depth the exploits of a particular orange tabby only to figure out that he was talking about Heathcliff, as in the television cartoon, and I Garfield, as in the newspaper funnies. While I was learning English, it was hard following tv — people talked too fast, and I missed what was happening. But with the paper, I had the time and imagination I wanted to fill in the talking bubbles myself.

It was kind of the same with pancakes.

Time went on, as it does, and my gringo language skills improved. I got the accent down, and forget cartoons, I was delving into MTV barely a year in the U.S. Still, there was much to learn.

See, I was born in Chile, where a lot of food traditions can trace their heritage to colonial ties. In many ways, eating customs in South America are more European than, say, American. Santiagoans make time for tea, for instance. In the U.S., people make time for second dinner.

Along the same vein, pancakes mean different things to Americans north and south of the equator.

My grandmother made me Chilean pancakes, because she was Chilean. Naturally, this dish actually consisted of crepes, which are French. While the thin, butter-fried pancakes where still warm, my grandmother Elia would spread her homemade apricot preserves on top and roll it up like a taquito (which is Mexican). It was heaven on earth.

So imagine my surprise when, one morning, my family and I, freshly arrived in Broward County, Florida, are at a diner ordering breakfast. I ask for pancakes, and what I get is a stack of wide, spongy patties that arrive with pats of butter and tree sap. I’m pretty sure I felt betrayed.

Confusion eventually gave way to clarity, and over the years I’ve come to realize that not only are gringo pancakes quite tasty, being an immigrant means sharing more cultural traditions, not less. And some of those traditions come in the form of crepe cakes.

 

pretty in pastel Easter cake

It’s been a while since I cut into the world of cake. (See what I did there?)

For the better part of a year, I’ve been dedicated to croissants. Laminating them. Shaping them. Proofing them. Baking them. Eating them.

Easter is a holiday of resurrection: no better time to dust off the old offset and go back to techniques I learned during my days running a cake station, whether at a high-bustle restaurant or an artisan bakery. Relived the satisfaction of leveling a cake by eye … and the grief of careless piping bag placement. Biblical for sure.

meringue cake with strawberries

One of my favorite cakes is, by definition, no cake at all.

The meringue cake is only a cake by technicality. It looks like a cake and cuts like a cake (albeit messily), so it lands into the cake category of confections. Only there’s no cake.

There’s filling, yes. Whipped cream. And there’s icing, sure. More whipped cream.

But the sustenance is meringue. Dry, crisp, airy rounds of baked meringue. No flour, no butter, only sugar and egg whites.

At this point most people would consider this cake to be like a pavlova, that flattened mound of meringue topped with a cloud of whipped cream and fruit. Sound familiar?

The layers make all the difference, however. I think the best way to eat a meringue cake is to not eat it. At least not right away. Let it sit in the fridge. Let the meringue soak up some of the cream and soften a little, because that’s when the world starts to shift. What was once dry and baked is now dewy and spongy, and you end up with this messy mix of crispy and chewy and soft and crunchy that’s more than the sum of its parts and it just makes you want to dance.

Talk about layered.

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chocolate tart with toasted meringue

Dear Old Me,

I just wanted to send along a small note of thanks for making sure all our piping tips made it to the new apartment. From the tiny leaf tip to the 1 1/2-inch St. Honoré, they survived 360 miles, a violent snow storm, and an overnight stay at a very questionable roadside motel. Your efforts were valiant.

Moving is hard. We know this. We’ve moved from one continent to the other, you and I. (Never mind we were seven and our parents did all the heavy lifting.) Crossed five states — and a federal district — for one particular address change, this inside a 20-foot moving truck with two angry cats and a very, um, sensitive suspension system.

We lived on a golf course in Florida, and, years later, a few alarming feet away from the scene of a shooting in Newark. We’ve lugged boxes up stairs and watched others steady sofas down other stairs.

Now here we are, Pittsburgh. City of bridges, city of steel. Spending our days organizing odds and ends in an apartment next to a train station in a building boasting rooftop views of a sports stadium. Kinda nice, this urban living.

What I’m trying to say is, anything can happen in a move. But you surprised me, Old Me, you really did.

I mean, there you go, making sure the piping tips are there, just under the drawer with the plastic chop sticks and the microwave egg poacher, but then what? What was I supposed to do when things finally settled and the mood called for a chocolate ganache tart covered with sexy ribbons of toasted meringue?

Yes, the removable-bottom tart mold was there. Even the torch was around, another nice touch. But what about the piping bags? Nah.

What gets to me is that tips and bags go together like boxes and rental trucks. I mean, why include the piping tip if you won’t have the piping bag?

There’ve been other things, Old Me. Cookie cutters without baking trays. Cake pans sans cake stands. All my notebooks from pastry school: check. How about the hundreds of dog-eared recipes I collected in the following seven years I spent cooking in restaurant and bakery kitchens? Not there.

There was a while there when every day was like tearing open a beautifully wrapped present only to find nothing inside. Sad.

Maybe it’s good to know that after all this time you can still surprise me.

Also, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to know — to the point of blind intuition — the fastest way to the storage unit.

I appreciate you.

Sincerely,

Me.

P.S. Future Us is gonna want the bicycle helmet. Where’d you put it?