Wednesday, March 23, 2011

CHAPTER 14: Desserts and a Story of Overcoming Fear

Starting with a disastrous chocolate cake my cousins and I concocted when we were quite young, I have had a fraut relationship to desserts. For a long period of time, say about 40 years, my luck with desserts didn’t improve much. Especially with cakes.

I now know that baking in general and making cakes in particular involves a chemical reaction. It requires just the right interaction between the ingredients in the cake and the oven. If you are working with a bad recipe, even following it exactly, or with a faulty oven, you’re doomed. As time went along I could make a pretty good Thanksgiving pie, a perfectly fine baked custard, and decent fudge brownies. Cakes still eluded me. When pushed, I would buy dessert for a dinner party rather than risk disaster.

Two people have changed my relationship to desserts. Our friend, Xochitl, pictured above, moved to the Bay area from Mexico with her husband shortly after we moved here from North Carolina. Xochitl suggested that we start a dinner party club, the only requirement being that the host or hostess had to make everything from scratch. I said that I was interested but couldn’t guarantee I would make dessert. Well, I never heard the end of it. Whenever we invited them for dinner, she would pointedly offer to “make the dessert.”

Finally I said to myself, “Enough. I cook a lot of really good food. Why not desserts?” Coaxed into action, I set to work finding reliable recipes and practicing so that the next time they came to dinner I could offer them something home made. I can’t remember the first one I made for them, but let me tell you, it was received with a great deal of laughter and enthusiastic praise.

My daughter-in-law Michelle Polzine has also been instrumental in this process. She is the award-winning and magical pastry chef at Range in San Francisco. Prior to my enlightenment, I would ask her to bring the dessert for every family meal figuring that she knew what she was doing and I didn’t so she should provide dessert. At some point I said to myself, “Enough. It’s not fair to ask someone who makes desserts for a living to make them for every family occasion. Give her a break.”

And so the learning process continued. I found more great recipes, including a couple of cakes. I practiced. I fed (and still feed) my favorites to my dessert-loving friend Sam to see how he responds. Over the years I have built up a pretty good repertoire of choices that are delicious, pretty and relatively simple. Best of all, with some confidence, I now serve desserts to Michelle.

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