Yesterday started off bad. I woke up at 5 AM so I would have time to make 90 cream puffs for Sophia Rosoff's 90th birthday croquembouche before I had to go meditate at the Natural History Museum. However, psychotic with fatigue, I multiplied all the ingredients in my dough recipe by 1.5, except for the eggs, which I doubled.
I told him I was embarassed by the rookie error but happy to labor a little extra on behalf of Sophia. As Aramis says in The Three Musketeers: "The merit in all things consists in the difficulty." Plus I was hopped up on kombucha.
"Some days you sleep until noon and hardly do anything," Ethan marveled. "And some days you're up at dawn, making cream puffs and meeting monks."
"I'm a sprinter not a marathoner," I said.
I went to the corner bagel shop, where I had a 6:45 AM rendez-vous with a cool new yoga student. We took the subway to 72nd street, where we walked through the snow to the majestic American Museum of Natural History.
Nobody was in the galleries but us. Shades of Mixed-Up Files.... We admired the gigantic mosquito, 1300-year-old sequoia, stuffed tiger, and forest floor diorama. Rinpoche's meditation class was in "Ocean Life" beneath the huge blue whale. I could tell it was a she-whale, somehow.
How wonderful it would be if all sentient beings had happiness and the causes of happiness. May they have happiness and its causes. I, myself, will cause them to have happiness and its causes. Please, Guru-Deity, grant me blessings to be able to do this.
I spent about half of the 90-minute session meditating and the other half obsessing about cream puffs. After it was over, I headed off to New York Cake.
If you are a baker in NYC, you must visit this treasure trove of things cake. It will make all your dreams come true, unless your dreams involve friendly salespeople. Maybe all that lovingkindness-positive enery-whale stuff was working, though, because the workers were actually nice.
I bought a square gold platform for the cake and gold-covered jordan almonds to decorate it. I also bought an oven thermometer, some new tongs, cake cirlces in various sizes, and a cake comb. As always, I debated and forebore purchasing a $100 croquembouche mold, which looks like a huge metal parking cone. (Just googled "croquembouche traffic cone" to see if I can maybe buy or steal a traffic cone to use for my next croquembouche and found this great blog entry - apparently it works!)
I had some really good falafel in the city and took the subway home. It was now 1 PM and the party was at 7:30. I would need to move quickly.
This time I followed the cream puff recipe I should have used in the first place, from Jacque Pepin's the Art of Cooking, Volume 2, and I wrote out all my measures. The puff dough (AKA pâte à choux) came out great, but then disaster struck again. After 50 puffs, my old pastry bag split at the seams, mid-pipe. A fitting death for an old warrior, but now I had to shape the remainder of the cream puffs by hand and only wound up with 80 instead of 90, many of which were grotesquely large. I decided to put the large ones on the bottom and tell the guests that there were "approximately 90 cream puffs" in the croquembouche. Sophia always says that chronological age is meaningless.
I should mention that I'd already made the cream filling the previous evening, with mixed results. Pastry cream (crème pâtissière) should be a really basic thing, but I've always had problems finding the perfect recipe. Using Julia Child's proportions, my mix was so thick I could barely stir it to cook out the flour. I turned it into crème St Honoré instead, which is lightened by egg whites. I was on the fence about how it tasted.
St. Honore is the patron saint of pastry chefs and is said to have accomplished a miracle in which a pastry peel turned into a tree.
While the cream puffs were cooling I dashed off to buy another pastry bag at the houseware store a half-mile away. I was starting to feel tired by now and had to pump up T-Pain in order to make it. When I got home I piped the St. Honore cream into the center of each puff, made caramel, and assembled the 'bouche, using the hot caramel as glue.
I worked quickly and sustained only mild burns. Because I was doing it freehand, my creation was somewhat irregular, but once I adorned it with fresh flowers, spun sugar, and gold almonds, it was actually pretty beautiful.
Of course I forgot to take a photo, so I'll just put a unicorn there.
The party was in the lounge at the Kitano Hotel. Mike and Stephanie were kind enough to take a car in with me and help open doors. Sophia looked radiant in a black and red dress made for her, fifty years before, by her friend Hubert Givenchy. The party was mobbed with former students, many of whom hadn't seen her for years but recalled the way her classes had changed their life.
Stay tuned for my short piece about Sophia in the next Threepenny Review.
There were speeches and performances and I was sleepy and drank champagne. I told people they could break the cream puffs off with their hands, and the croquembouche got smaller and smaller as the night wore on. It tasted great.
In fact today is Sophia's actual birthday. As she will tell you, she is sandwiched between the birthdays of Virginia Woolf and Mozart. Long live Sophia and her devotion to emotional rhythm! Ten years from now, may I be baking her a tower of (approximately) 100.