FEAST: No Cake Walk

By on November 8, 2016

Birthday desserts call for two parts confection, one part reflection.

“I like birthday cake… It’s a tempting symbol to load with something more complicated than just ‘Happy birthday!’ because it’s this emblem of childhood and a happy day.”

– Aimee Bender, author of
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Greek Petit Gateau from confection luminary Atelier Ortega. (Photo: Traci McClintic)

The Greek Petit Gateau from confection luminary Atelier Ortega. (Photo: Traci McClintic)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – This year, we celebrated my 35th birthday in Idaho Falls shopping for the perfect sofa. After spending the morning running from store to store, flopping down on couch after couch, we found ourselves starving and stranded in that odd hour between lunch and dinner. We landed in a brewpub and sadly, for dessert, I found myself facing a candleless caramel pecan turtle cake. It was hard, stale, deflated, and completely lacking in personality, just like the many pieces of furniture we ecountered that day.

It wasn’t the failed shopping attempt so much as the cardboard nature of the cake that led to my feelings of utter deflation. But how could something as simple as a cake turn my day upside down? Maybe my expectations are a little high having had a chance to study in London under Chef Julie Walsh, whose voluminous portfolio includes the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday cake—a classic Victorian fruit cake rich with Courvoisier Cognac and Cointreau soaked currents, sultanas, cherries, candied orange and lemon peel, candied pineapple, and almonds. All three tiers of the 18-inch tall layers were masked in gin-flavored buttercream and decorated with a hand painted pictorial history of the Queen Mum’s life in watercolor.

Yes, something like that would have been nice to herald in the big three five, but I would happily have replaced the day’s cake with other mouthfuls of heartfelt intention. The Chinese, for instance, commemorate a person’s birthday with a bowl of Longevity noodles, carefully constructed to remain unbroken and symbolize long life. In Ghana, one would awaken to a large dish of Oto (mashed yam mixed with onion-infused palm oil) and a houseful of family, friends, and neighbors to help herald in the day. And in Australia, a child is served Fairy Bread—a crustless white wonder bread smothered in butter and topped with 100s and 1,000s (what they call sprinkles in the land down under).

Back in Jackson, in an effort to resuscitate my birthday glow, I visited master chocolatier and award-winning pastry chef Oscar Ortega at Atelier Ortega. He listened to my story and shook his head in exasperation, “Why did your husband not call me?” Good question, I thought, as he glided over to the pastry display to contemplate the row upon row of beautifully crafted petit gateau. And what he came up with was a spectacular dessert named, “The Greek.” Comprised of layered almond jaconde, pistachio creme, raspberry gele, smooth greek yogurt, lemon mousse, and meringue, this dessert more than melts in your mouth, it’s absolutely mind blowing. In between bites I asked Ortega about his favorite birthday dessert.

“You know, people don’t make me cakes now,” he said. “I think they don’t know what to make. But for my birthday, my grandmother always made for me a Mexican flan. Not complicated, but special.”

My spirits were indeed bolstered by The Greek and an afternoon spent surrounded by chocolate, but the subject was still on my mind when my friend Judith popped over for an afternoon tea. I knew she would understand my recent birthday lackluster. She had, after all, made for me the last best birthday cake ever—three perfect layers of chocolate sponge delicately wrapped in glossy velvety chocolate butter cream that she breezily referred to as an experiment adapted from the King Arthur Flour website.   

In the realm of baking, Judith is kind of a ringer. Having owned The Essex Village Bakery in Massachusetts for 10 years before heeding the call West, Judith’s experiments are always a sure bet. While she doesn’t bake professionally, anymore, she still understand the feelings, desires, and expectations that surround our special occasions.

When asked what compels her to get it right, she said, “I’m trying to make an experience for myself. If I try a cake and it’s a little dark or a little flat, then I try to fix it. It’s selfish. Really. A few weeks ago I was experimenting with donuts. In the summer, my mom would wake us up bright and early and drive us into town to see the donut lady. She made donuts in her garage.  They were cake donuts with a dark crust and a little bit of nutmeg. When I started making those donuts I added a little more nutmeg and a little more nutmeg. When I finally got it right, man, it was like having the donut lady right in my house. With baking, if you have an experience from when you are a kid, you can make it match.”

That’s what was missing from my birthday, the feeling of comfort from the past, the memories and warmth that radiates from a fork-full of a thoughtfully prepared dessert, whatever the form or fashion. Should birthday treats—whether noodles, yams, or fairy bread—made or presented with loving intention rouse one’s inner child, while simultaneously wrapping the entirety of our lives into one moment of appreciation for the years gone by, and all the years to come? Yes, I think so.

I also think it’s a good idea to always keep a good baker’s number on speed dial. PJH

About Traci McClintic

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