I have something important to tell you. It’s important to me, and may not be quite so to you, but I need to get it off my chest. You know I love Lebanese cuisine and all flavors Middle Eastern. That my grandparents on both sides were all Lebanese immigrants. And that I grew up in Lebanese-American home. I do want you to think of me as your go-to person when you wonder how to make a Middle Eastern dish, or just want to talk cooking. Or, above all, when you want to read a good story and see some pictures.
But I have another side, the side that went out of her mind with excitement (I must have seemed like Kristin Wiig’s Sue on the Saturday Night Live “Surprise Party” skit) the second half of every week during culinary school, because that’s when we studied pastry. Choux paste, laminated doughs, confections. Cake decorating, meringues, and buttercreams. When an assistant was needed for the part-time evening pastry class at Tante Marie’s, I raised my hand like the kid in the front row who knows the answers and can barely contain herself before she’s called and gets to shout it out, knowing she’s right. After that, two nights a week I stayed on at school to measure out ingredients for the wonderful pastry instructor and cookbook author, Cindy Mushet, standing behind her watching her every move while trying to remember I was there to help too, and needed to keep an eye on the caramel I was cooking for her or to remove the used baking gear as she demonstrated.
While I am constantly scouring my memory bank, my cookbooks, relatives, friends, chefs, the web and anything else I can get my mind into about Lebanese cuisine, I’m also making pastry. Over the summer the kitchen here in Harbor Springs hosted a parade of my croissants (over-baked them), crème caramel (came out great), napoleons (puff pastry was a too tough), and my mother’s favorite, cream puffs (came out great). This fall, pies and cakes. My obsession reaches back so far that I can’t remember ever not being crazed for pastry. The Betty Crocker Cookbook was my mother’s guide, and therefore mine. She tried to preserve the book over time, at one point covering it with her kitchen wallpaper to hold the binding together.
Her pie pages are so oiled up that they look like they flaked right off the top of a pie crust themselves. The candy and cake pages have been turned so many times that they are falling out of the book: photos of pure white divinity, a Teddy Bear cake which my mom made for a Boy Scout event, and the amazing house cake topped with Necco wafers, which she made for my sister’s third birthday. For my birthday, it was always a cake with Pink Mountain frosting, usually with hearts on it since my birthday falls just before Valentine’s Day. My own experiments included, just for the fun of it when my friend Joan was over one night back in the 7th grade, floating islands. If you haven’t tried them, it’s probably best to keep it that way. My classmates at culinary school turned up their noses at these “Oeufs a la Neige,” and I saw that I was the only one who liked eating them and loved, truly loved, making them.
That’s because of the meringue. It’s pure white. It’s fluffy and full-bodied. Meringue, or marshmallow, or bright white soft-serve ice cream for that matter do something to me that I can only describe as a form of euphoria. Healthy or not, I will look for any reason to make or be around or eat a pure white sugary confection.
Which leads me to last week, when I embarked on a baking adventure that was inspired by a longstanding desire to pipe cookies with royal icing (I get that “longstanding desire” and “pipe cookies” are not two phrases you would typically put together. I have other longstanding desires; this just happens to stand out right now). Other than the piping, the cookies are not something we covered in culinary school, and it’s a method I’ve been wanting—needing—to master.
So when my brother Tom got engaged last summer to the girl who doesn’t eat olives (we love her anyway), we started planning a shower for her. While we talked location and dates, I was busy thinking about what sweets I would make to honor the occasion. I was especially intent on the cutout cookies with royal icing that I had seen in one of my favorite bakeries in Chicago, Bittersweet. No, I had never made them before. But that’s one of the great, or perhaps treacherous, things about having gone to cooking school. It makes you take on projects like that, believing without question that you will be able to do it.
Do I need to change the subhead of my blog, “Modern Musings on Lebanese Cuisine,” in order to bake random sweets with you in addition to all of our Lebanese delights? Or is my modern musing just that—musing on all that inspires. And pastry does inspire. My guess is that it inspires at least some of you. There is of course plenty of ground to cover where the two worlds of Lebanese cuisine and pastry meet, like our Orange Blossom Rice Pudding.
I’ve been told that cooks and bakers are two distinct animals: the former a Maserati driver, the latter a Porsche driver. It’s the difference between being driven by the fast pace of a race and being driven by precision. I love the processes for both the savory and the sweet, and I like taking side trips down streets of both, so I’m not sure what that makes me. I guess I’m just a girl, standing in front of a
boy stove, asking it to love her.
Tomorrow: Wedding Cake Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing.