Butter and Love


I have been away from this blog for far too long, dear readers. Today, a memory inspired me to return. Butter and Love. 19 years later, this phrase still brings a smile to my lips, and warms my heart.

When I was in high school, I was involved with an organization called “Peer Leadership”. The upperclassmen who were selected for the program were paired with incoming freshman matches – one per student. We served as mentors, helping them acclimate to high school, balance their new schedules and life demands, get involved in extracurriculars, and most importantly, we were there for them, listening and supporting them. Being good friends to them.

Every summer, the entire organization traveled to a camp in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for a weekend orientation. We would bond with our matches, and work with our bigger groups, developing teamwork, problem solving and communication skills. (Trust that there were a lot of trust falls!) One of the best parts about this camp was the outdoor ropes course. SO MUCH FUN!! Obstacles galore and super scary high ropes. We looked forward to it every summer.

As I ran today along my favorite route, the sky so perfectly blue, with nary a cloud in sight, and the sun beaming down upon me through the amber leaves of the trees, I was reminded of those summer weekends in Wisconsin, the woods filled with the gleeful shrieks of high school kids sipping through the tree line.

The camp also had a wonderful old kitchen, manned by a wonderful elderly lady. Every morning, we’d line up to get breakfast, and every morning, we’d giggle with delight at the hand-crocheted framed sign that adorned the faded yellow wall:

Everything in this kitchen is made with butter and love

Even then, at the tender age of 15, I loved it because it reminded me of my grandmother and her mother. They didn’t use processed anything – and you could tell! Another heaping serving of butter and love, please and thank you!

Here I am, 19 years later, following in my ancestor’s footsteps. From my flaky pie dough (no lard here!) to my irresistible croissants (which I patiently laminate by hand!), to my luscious curds and buttercreams, all made with European butter (the good, rich, yellow, high fat stuff!) presided over with loving devotion.

I want that sign. I need that sign. If someone crafty with a crochet needle needs an idea for a Christmas gift for me this year…you’re welcome! And to show my appreciation, I’ll whip up something extra buttery and lovely just for you!

Dog days. Down dog. Upside down cake.

Perhaps my recent re-dedication to my yoga practice has inspired me in the kitchen. For some reason, I couldn’t get the thought of stone-fruit upside down cake off my mind. Here it was, nearly 95 degrees outside, and all I could think about was what fruit, and what spices would be best for a Labor Day weekend upside down cake. Had all that downward facing dog succeeded in getting me to admire the world from a different angle? Or had it merely caused me to temporarily lose my mind, yearning as I was to crank the oven up on such a hot day?

Hot as it may have been, the cake won. I headed to the market and picked up 2 pounds of gorgeous Italian plums. Back at home, I cored each plum, then carefully cut them into perfect thin slices. I whipped up a cake batter, spiked with a touch of cardamom; caramelized brown sugar and butter together in my cast iron skillet; then artfully arranged slice after slice of delicate purple plum in concentric circles around the skillet. Finally, I spread the cake batter evenly over the tops of the plums, and popped the skillet into the oven. It would be a gorgeous gooey work of art. And I couldn’t wait to sink my fork into it!

I didn’t even know if my friends were fans of plums. I would do my best to win them over with this dessert! A few minutes into baking and the heavenly scent of cardamom began to fill the house. I knew I had made the right choice then, heat wave be damned.

The cake baked up light, airy, springy and golden, the plums below caramelized to perfection, their natural tartness balanced by brown sugar’s sweetness and cardamom’s spice. When turned out onto a plate, it was pretty as a picture…but I forgot to take one! My apologies, loyal readers. But never fear, as my favorite food tester said, you MUST make this cake again!!! I can’t let my fans down, so make it again, I shall :)

Biting into the cake, I was transcended to that blissful state of complete and utter Zen…not unlike the effect of downward facing dog. Hmmm…perhaps I should take more culinary cues from my yoga practice. If this cake is any indication, amazing things can happen when your mind is completely clear.



We are Pastry Chefs

This is awesome. I couldn’t have said it better myself, so I will allow Pastry Wunderkind Michael Laiskonis to say it for me, and all my sugar-yielding kind:

We are pastry chefs. We are the red-headed step-children of the culinary brigade. You’ll find us in the basement, or in some hard-fought and carefully carved-out corner of the kitchen. We are protective of that space, our equipment, our atmosphere. We are particular. We strive to be masters of several disparate disciplines. We are sugar burners, cream puffs, the keepers of ‘Candyland’- and to too many who don’t know any better, we must certainly be just plain ‘bakers’ (not that there’s anything wrong with that). We are respected, feared, and ignored.

We are pastry chefs. We treasure our autonomy within the rigid structure around us. We are often left to fend for ourselves and we embrace a do-it-yourself spirit. We are part of a community. We band together, share ideas, and push each other. We take full use of modern technology to create a subterranean network, to shrink the physical space between us. We speak a different language. We seek to explain our intentions through references others just don’t understand. We look at things through a slightly different lens.

We are pastry chefs. We find comfort in repetition and sameness. We are precise, clean, and dexterous. We prefer control to chaos. We are also spontaneous and prone to occasional fits of whimsy. We are students of subtlety. We seek to provide maximum impact. We must predict the future as we cook. We cook with clear intention. We are constantly receptive to inspiration, and that inspiration often comes from the unlikeliest of places. We like to break things that aren’t broken, just to see what happens.

We are pastry chefs. We find pleasure in hidden things. We are often most proud of what you rarely ever get to see. We want to let you in on our secrets. We like to speculate as to what your secrets might be. We are in the nostalgia business, and we have a unique opportunity, nay, a responsibility, to tap into your psyche. We recognize the powerful potential of food as a means of dialog. We want to make you happy.

We are pastry chefs. It is up to us to leave a pleasant last impression. Our work is often an afterthought of guests already satiated by savory. We admit that what we provide is mere luxury, yet we know we satisfy your innermost cravings. Each of us, at one time or another, has wished we could simply send dessert first. This is our chance. We just want to kill you with dessert.

It’s so true! And let’s be honest, how many of you would rather sit down at a nice restaurant and “ruin” your meal by ordering dessert first? It’s a prime childhood desire. And now that we’re adults, I say, why not go for it? Order that lemon panna cotta; chocolate ganache torte; banana cream pie…or hell, all three! I guarantee you’ll make the pastry chef’s night when you do.