Sunday, September 28, 2008

Honored Memories

It is amazing how a cake can make you feel good. Case in point was the St. Honore I made on Thursday Sept 18th.

Sept 18th is my eldest sister Jeanne’s birthday and she must have been with me in the kitchen in spirit because it was one of those mornings where the stars aligned in the universe and everything went better than planned in preparing this gateau. My pastry base of pate sucree was tender, my choux buns were evenly shaped (and we secretly all want that!! ;-)), my crème Chantilly achieved the correct herringbone pattern, and Chef Tranchant even allowed us to let our inspiration take over in garnishing the cake with the leftover caramel. I poured this out in wild, intersecting circular shapes onto the baking parchment; once it hardened I chose the most interesting ‘mesh’ patterns and mounted the two best intersecting arches in the centre of my gateau. I got praised by Chef Tranchant for my piping skills with the crème and for the finished presentation with the caramel flourishes. Net, it was the first class so far where I felt like I left with a really stunning result, and something I had never attempted before in my home kitchen… but could and definitely would!

That afternoon I was scheduled to return to Geneva and this really made me happy as I had a lovely cake to share with friends and I knew I’d be experimenting further with this recipe on the weekend. I left Le Cordon Bleu with my St. Honore and returned to my Paris domicile with plans to eat a quick lunch & pick up my personal items before heading for Gare de Lyon. Given the vestiares at the school are so cramped and I am lucky to be staying close by, I try to bring as little as possible with me to the school. So that morning when leaving for class, I’d left pretty much everything of value in the apartment… passport, watch, wallet, car keys, TGV tickets, laptop, etc. I went to put my key in the lock…it wouldn’t open. I jiggled, retracted, re-inserted, repeated…it wasn’t budging! I started to panic. Here I am standing at the doorway of the apartment with a beautiful cake, my mobile but nothing else…with the minutes ticking away steadily towards my departure. I recalled that my logeuse, Isabelle, had mentioned she’d be going away for a long weekend and this made me panic further…what if she’d already left and, knowing of my plans to return to Geneva that afternoon, put an extra security lock on the door thinking that I wouldn’t be around! Normally I only see her in the early morning & late evening, so I expected that she must still be at work. I tried phoning her office number and mobile…no answer. By now my heart was racing. I started ringing the doorbell and then I just pounded on the door, partly in sheer frustration that this was happening to me. Finally as a last ditch effort, I rang the home number. To my surprise, she answered!

Indeed, she had come home early to prepare for her trip and had inadvertently set a second lock which can only be activated from the inside. The doorbell ringer is tucked away in a hall closet filled with winter coats, and she was 3 rooms away packing for her trip, so had neither heard me at the door nor on her mobile. For whatever combination of reasons that had caused this drama, I heaved a huge sigh of relief…she let me into the apartment with profuse apologies that she’d kept me waiting. I just felt so relieved to be on the other side of that door, I pretty much didn’t hear anything she was saying!

Isabelle seemed stressed…very unlike her normal relaxed behavior. There was paperwork spread out all over the kitchen table. She proceeded to tell me about the dreadful morning she’d had. An ATM had swallowed her Carte Bleu, there was an error with her train ticket….and she was supposed to leave that afternoon. She’d been on the phone all morning trying to sort out both issues, and whilst I couldn’t quite follow all of the conversation regarding the credit card, it seemed that this would not be sorted out prior to her leaving on vacation. She was pretty worked up about the prospect of going away without having her credit card with her. It was at that moment I decided she needed a smile and it might be good to distract her…if only for a moment.

That’s when I lifted the cake out of my carry bag and invited her to have a look, better yet a taste of what I’d made that morning. Her face lit up instantly and she proceeded to tell me that the St. Honore had been her father’s very favorite gateau…and how as a girl it had always been a treat to go to the patisserie with him to have one…and how difficult it was these days to find patisseries that still sell them since the cakes deteriorate so quickly once prepared. Hands clasped before her and with a large smile on her face, she proceeded to admire all the detail of the herringbone patterned crème and the caramel flourish. Despite insisting several times, I couldn’t convince her to cut into it and taste it as she wanted me to show off such ‘bon travaille’ to friends in Geneva…but she did sample some of the extra choux buns that I had filled with crème Chantilly and topped with caramel.

Isabelle remained quite calm after that (I think I even heard her humming to herself!) and finished her packing, then left the apartment with a cheery “tres bon week-end, Lisa!” I know it sounds weird, but I truly believe almost every cake or dessert offers us a memory and can transport us back to a place when we felt cherished, safe and happy. I bake a lot and I observe this often in people’s behavior, especially when I make colorful cupcakes or cut-out cookies. Cakes traditionally signal joyful celebrations and we somehow become children again when looking at them, or at least younger versions of ourselves, dancing on our tiptoes with an indulgent ‘me-first’ smile at the promise of tasting something so special and fun.

My work colleagues enjoyed this St Honore on Friday, and on Saturday I proceeded to make a few more….one for my friend Laura’s birthday and some mini St. Honores that I shared with Stormy & Nicolas and Ard. I felt even more happy and inspired with these, experimenting with the application of whipped cream and addition of Mara strawberries for extra color. This is definitely a recipe I’ll make again, for its simple elegance, delightful contrasting textures and happy memories …specifically those spent with friends and family who enjoyed these first attempts with me.

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