Today, on Coffee and a Blank Page:
The part of The Writer will be played by “Alice Channeling a Food Blogger.” Regularly scheduled programming will resume shortly. We thank you for your understanding.
Management would also like to acknowledge that The Writer has been particularly remiss of late in reading and commenting on other blogs, due to what she is terming a “dense period” lasting several weeks. We anticipate this will remedy itself shortly.
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This is Annie:
This is A, Annie’s human companion and best friend:
And this is a slice of the cake I baked for this year’s massive BYOF (Bring-Your-Own-Friend) party, which A throws every April in honor of Annie’s birthday:
The rest of this post is going to be partly about that cake — and partly about the path I traveled to become the official pâtissière to a horse. In true food blogging fashion, the recipe and directions — as well as other baking whatnot — will appear at the end, so please feel free to skip to the bottom if you’re here just for the espresso pastry cream!
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Coffee and a Blank Page is not the first blog I started. Like (I suspect) many bloggers, I had a false start or two in other blogs, before I’d really gotten a handle on what and how I wanted to write.
alice makes brunch was my attempt at a food blog. It consisted of exactly three posts, all written in the final days of 2012 and all dedicated to my then-obsession with curd. Primarily but not exclusively lemon curd, to be precise.
I did try to keep it going a bit longer. Looking back at the site’s draft folder this morning, I found seven more posts that I had started, each consisting of little more than a title and perhaps a badly-lit snapshot or two. With titles like “Risotto, the First Attempt” and “Potatoes Meh,” I think we can all be glad these posts never got written! Only one title suggests to me that anything worth reading might have come from its completion, and not for the cuisine.
“Cooking comfort food, or: Enlisting a French mother sauce in the service of American gluttony” is rather a highfalutin title for “so I did this thing where I added broccoli to a Martha Stewart mac-n-cheese and then I ate it.” Based on the accompanying photograph — in part, an old recipe of my mother’s for what she called “white sauce,” which only much later did I realize was just a basic béchamel, one of the five French “mother sauces” — I think I must have been trying to envision something broader than broccoli. A distant precursor to much of the writing I now do here, where all paths to self-care at some point pass through the gauntlet of old family stories.
The end of the food blog did not signal the end of the food writing, however. For much of 2013, food was almost all I could write about. I filled journals with page after page of listed thoughts — not even sentences — about food: recipes I want to make, ingredients I want to try, techniques I want to master, questions I want to ask a cheesemonger or a butcher or a person who makes their own pasta…
… I want … I want … I want …
The words rolled around my mouth like the stone of a fruit my tongue could not stop tasting. The refrain of the person who had not died the previous October 7th, of the person who very much wanted to be alive again even if she wasn’t sure how. In the absence of knowing, there was wanting.
And there was food.
I cooked more in 2013 than in any year before or, I suspect, in any year yet to come. With no one to feed but myself, I filled my freezer, used every piece of Tupperware I owned (mismatched lids and all), and stockpiled jars of jams and jellies.
Finally — very cautiously — I began offering to bring desserts to my friends’ gatherings.
“Cautiously” because of the small talk. Because when meeting new people, someone invariably asks, “So tell me, Alice, what do you do?” It’s a meant-to-be-harmless question we all sometimes ask (me included) when we’re starting a casual conversation. There are many socially appropriate ways to answer.
None of them include hyperventilating and starting to black out.
Even less cool? Jibbering at the friendly stranger about “I something’ed once upon a time but now I can’t remember what without squinting and not always even then and I’d check what it says on my resumé but looking at my own name in print makes me dizzy — ”
(If I’d known yet how much of this was PTSD, I might have said that. Still awkward and super-uncomfortable for us both, but at least a quicker way to release the friendly stranger back into the wild of the party-proper. Unfortunately I didn’t have that word to say for many more months.)
For a long time, A’s parties were the only events involving more than five people I’d attend. This is in part because: she throws fantastic bashes, thinks deeply about important questions, has friends who are interesting and eclectic, and possesses a personality that can make the whole room glow.
It is also because: she raves about my desserts.
Even at my lowest, most-dizzy-jibbery points, A would swoop in to answer the “so, Alice, what do you do?” question with an exuberant “ALICE MAKES DESSERTS! INCLUDING THIS ONE! RIGHT HERE!” At which point I could resume conversing in a mostly normal (albeit a tad Rainman-esque) way about curds, meringues, pavlovas, and my ongoing quest to make an Italian buttercream that doesn’t break.
I’m not sure A realizes how grateful I was — still am — for the sheer kindness of her acts of running interference. I’m not even sure she thought of it as running interference?
[But here’s a tip, if you’re curious how to get your amateur-baker friend to always volunteer for catering your birthday parties: Rave about her layer cakes exuberantly.]
Much time has passed since I needed to arrive at anyone’s house carrying my tray of sweets like a shield. Or maybe I carried it as an apology for my human frailty, or as tribute to the idea that life can go on, will go on, is — even now — going on…
Perhaps I won’t ever know for certain what my Year in the Kitchen was all about.
Here are a few things I do know: the act of feeding ourselves is the most elemental level of nourishing there is. To feed others is to participate in and create human community on a level I find profoundly satisfying. And, finally, I know this:
Part of my brain is already thinking about next year’s cake.
The Culinary Fine Print:
The Year 3 cake was a 6-layer chocolate cake, filled with three layers of dulce de leche and two of an espresso pastry cream.
Here’s a short video overview of the assembly process, which some mysterious and hitherto unknown app on my phone spontaneously created for me:
[Okay, that’s, like, the 23rd time today I’ve watched this — and it STILL cracks me up. I am particularly amused by Hildi’s appearance, looking for all the world as if the siren song of SIX-LAYER CAKE SET TO TRIUMPHAL MUSIC is calling her away from her beloved “tear holes in mama’s shower curtain” game!]
This year’s plan started with the fillings — I’ve made dulce de leche before, but wasn’t overly happy with how it turned out. So this easy-sneezy “drop a can in a pot of water and boil” suggestion from the Pastry Chef Online site was awfully welcome! (Takes two cans of sweetened condensed milk to make this cake, fyi.)
Since FIVE fill-layers of caramel seemed a tad redundant to me (and because I have a deep love for pastry cream — and most everything else that is sweet, squishy, and edible), I opted for pastry cream for the two big fill levels. Pastry Chef Online (she writes a really wonderful site for the “I wanna learn to DIY the fancy-schmancy stuff, btw!) had these basic guidelines for pastry cream; I just mixed 1 oz. of instant espresso powder in with the cornstarch. I was also far less fussy with exact weights as quantity measurements than she calls for: still turned out just fine!
I took the cake layers themselves and the chocolate frosting from this Martha Stewart recipe. Martha’s stuff tends to be very rich and very makeable, even without tons of baking experience — which is exactly what I was looking for — and this one definitely delivered!
- The recipe calls for safflower oil (I used canola) instead of butter, so the layers are easy to torte and fill. Also, it turned out plenty moist without any need for a soaking syrup. [Word to the wise: cutting the layers in half went much smoother with the two layers I froze first, so be sure to factor that into your prep time.]
- The frosting is very thick to work with, almost fudgey, which proved crucial in holding together all the layers of cake and goopy filling. It wouldn’t make a good go-to chocolate frosting in most cases, but for something this potentially slippy-slidey? IDEAL.
The original recipe doesn’t expect you to add an icing dam for any of the fillings — you just smear around some caramel and then plop the next layer down — but since I was using pastry cream (and preferred to have it NOT all squirt out the sides before I’d even finished the stack), I knew I’d need extra. So I increased the amount of frosting by a third stick of butter, plus proportionately more of everything else — and ended up using nearly all of it.
- My only real gripe: this recipe does that Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Form thing where certain ingredients appear only in the directions and not the actual list of ingredients. [Please take note, Recipe Writers of America: If your cake requires that I add 1½ teaspoons of salt to the dry ingredients — or 1½ C of warm water to the wet ones — THESE ARE INGREDIENTS AND SHOULD BE TREATED AS SUCH. It’s ish like that that makes the rest of us have to do such careful prep work just to follow your otherwise-very detailed directions. Any questions? Report to Joy the Baker STAT for further Baking 101 guidance.]
Got any great dessert recipes or success stories of your own you’d care to share? Please leave a link/description/photo in the comments!
Also, if you happen to live in the Philadelphia area, throw great parties, and find yourself in need of someone to bring the dessert: Negotiations start at 4 layers. #WillBakeForInvite