pieces of cake

When you gotta get into a deep, heavy topic with lots of underlying baggage, and you need a good metaphor, most people turn to onions: Onions are layered, they say. Peel off the layers and reveal what’s inside.

But when I go deep, I turn to cake.

I love cake. The smell. The presentation. And the possibilities. You can go from an unfrosted concoction with cream-and-fruit filling to a three-tiered behemoth lined with fondant and edible gold leaf.

In restaurant work, pastry production is often a relay. One person mixes a batch of dough. Another cuts it up and portions it. And a third fries it up and makes doughnuts. Who picks up the baton depends on the shift, and the one who ends the race is typically the cook working service, plucking off orders from the kitchen printer as they plate up desserts.

When I worked production, my favorite thing was to tackle cakes. I suppose the prettiest part was finishing the cakes, decorating them for display. But I also really liked to stack and fill them, because cutting into someone else’s product was often very revealing.

I could tell the cook before me was running behind schedule if the cake was underbaked. (Usually, I could cut around unusable parts.) Or if there were a lot of uneven holes in the crumb, that also meant someone was rushing things along and not mixing ingredients properly.

Maybe the cake was too dry, which meant someone was distracted. Or if a sheet cake was really uneven, it was likely that the intern had been practicing that day. In time, I got to the point where I knew who had made what simply by looking at it.

I felt like little clues were being left behind and I was deciphering their meaning like tea leaves in a cup.

Meaning is important with cooking. You’re on your feet all day, sweating by an oven or a steaming pot, picking up 50-pound bags of flour and constantly washing your hands raw. If all this doesn’t mean something to you, it isn’t worth it.

Sometimes the meaning was the end result. The perfectly level cake with the pretty frosting.

Sometimes the meaning was in the process. Taking someone else’s hard work and making it just a bit better so that the next cook could come in and turn your efforts into something greater.

It can be lonely in a kitchen sometimes. Either it’s a tiny place and you’re the only pastry cook around, or it’s a big circus and everyone is busy with their own projects.

That’s what I loved about cakes. Whether I was just baking off the batter, finishing it with frosting, or doing something in between, I knew I was one piece of a bigger picture. I felt part of something.

 

 

carrots in cake forever

I grew up in a household with a strict produce paradigm.

Salads had tomatoes or lettuce. Maybe celery if we were feeling spunky. Meat was seasoned with garlic and onions. Anything sweet was reserved strictly for dessert.

The only exception was our beloved empanadas. Chilean empanadas are made with a hot water crust pastry that encloses practically an entire meal within its folds. Ground or diced beef is spiced with cumin and onions, and is served alongside a sliver of a hard boiled egg and one black olive. Included in the meat mix are a couple of soaked raisins. That’s how Chileans rock their sweet-and-salty combo.

But this isn’t a post about empanadas. It’s about a line drawn in the sand. It’s about carrots.

I can still remember the day when I heard gringos ate cake with carrots. I was in school at Banyan Elementary, and my classmate, Andy, was celebrating his birthday. To do so, his mother was bringing in carrot cake, and when the teacher made the announcement, the whole class clapped. The whole class except for me.

I eventually figured things out. Carrots are naturally sweet — and the cream cheese and walnuts certainly round things out nicely. However, for me carrot cake stood out as an exception. Perhaps carrots were the clever maverick in the produce department, I thought. It’s not like mushrooms would ever belong in dessert.

But then they did. When I was in pastry school in Manhattan, a local chef visited to do a demo on savory-inspired desserts. And what did he make? Mushroom ice cream, of course. This time, I did join the rest of the students when it came time to thank the good chef.

Fast forward a couple years. That’s when I found myself working at a farm-to-table restaurant in the Flatiron District where the pastry chef had zucchini cake on her dessert menu. The garnish? Candied celery leaves.

Of course.

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.

 

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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maraschino cherry upside down cake with pineapples

Pastry school ruined my sweet tooth.

Once, my landscape of sugar options was vast and varied. Twinkies were amazing. Any midnight visit to a diner called for a sliced of pie. I kept a jar of maraschino cherries in the fridge like some people keep mustard.

All this was before I enrolled at The French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). There, I put on kitchen whites for the first time. I learned how to hold a piping bag and witnessed the many perils that can befall a wooden spoon left in the wrong place.

What also happened was that I was shown what really good food was. Every class started with the fresh baked baguettes made by the bread students at the end of the hall. We were taught how to make chocolate from scratch — as in straight from the cacao pod.

Without realizing it, my tastes began to change. My palette was shifting.

I found that I could taste pie dough not made with butter. Or a candy bar with inferior chocolate.

If this comes across as bragging, I’m not. Frankly, this left me kind of in mourning.

At first, I felt turned around. I had never considered myself a food snob. In 2009, I don’t think I’d heard the term foodie. I only identified as a sweet tooth. Thought that pretty well captured my very open enthusiasm for all things dessert.

As classes and internships exposed me to different ingredients and techniques, it dawned on me I was crossing some sort of gustatory threshold that I’d never return from. It was both a loss and a profit.

Today I’m different. I crave dark chocolate now. Even so, my everyman tendencies still come out to party now and again. Which brings me to the topic of cake.

See, at the end of the day, you gotta be true to yourself. That may mean maraschino cherry upside cake with pineapple.

 

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