Friday, December 16, 2011

Yes, Benjamin, There is Possibly Not a Santa Claus

The gig is up. Or could be. It's hard to say. After dinner, Doug calls out to me from where he is putting Benjamin to bed. I trudge upstairs begrudgingly (Why can't he put the boy to bed by himself? Doesn't he know I'm doing the dishes/checking Facebook/playing a round of Angry Birds: Seasons?) until I see Doug's sad little pout at the top of the stairs. "Benjamin would like to ask us a question," he says to me, in a loud mock-conversational tone that parents use on each other when they're trying to impart hidden information.

I enter the bedroom. Benjamin is under the covers, but rolling around. He's not nearly sleepy.

"You're Santa. Right?" he asks me, point-blank.

Ahh, this conversation. "Why do you say that?" I ask, in that loud mock-conversational tone parents use on their children when they're trying to buy time.

"Because how can Santa Claus go to everyone? It doesn't make sense. So you guys are Santa Claus, right?"

I look at Doug. It's about time. Ten years old. About a third of the kids in his class, I figure, already know the awful truth, and most of the rest are on the verge. To be honest, I'd be happy if the gig were up; it would save a lot of time on subterfuge. I  hedge, asking him the question we've used several times before: "Do you really want to know?"

"Just tell me!" He's already over the cliff, there's no turning back.

We look at each other and then at Ben. We nod. "I knew it!" he yells triumphantly. But, almost immediately, I see a slight widening of his eyes, an inward stare as he processes his new-found knowledge. "So you guys give me the presents and stuff?"


"You eat the cookie!"

I shrug and nod sadly.

Repercussions begin seeping into his brain, supplanting the thrill of discovery. "But... it can't be true."

"Why?" Doug asks.

"Because... you guys don't lie to me."

Ooooo. Ouch. I want to point out that we didn't actually LIE, that if he read the transcripts of our conversations re: Santa he would see that we have sidestepped every direct Santa identity question with an adroitness that is positively Clinton-esque. Comebacks like, "Why do you think that?" and "How could I be Santa?" and "Is that a Pokemon under the table?" have always kept us technically lie-free, but such parsing of intent is not going to wash, here.

Doug fields the question as I die a little inside. "We don't lie. But we play games. Parents play this game with their kids on Christmas."

I recover. "To make it more magical, more special."

But something has short-circuited in poor Ben's brain. He's sitting with Leonardo DiCaprio in "Inception" and the café is blowing up around him. And then, another dread revelation prompts him to blurt out another question: "Are you the TOOTH FAIRY?"

Oh dear. Benj has a long and intimate relationship with the Tooth Fairy. Really, she's more alive to him that Santa. They've exchanged pithy correspondence (written by Doug on fancy artisan paper). 
He knows her name, for God's sake: Edith. When Ben lost a canine at his grandma's in Illinois, he prepped doll furniture for Edith so she could rest after the flight from California.

I begin to see the downside of our creative and extensive lying.

I give him a frown smile and say, "What do you think?"

But it's too much. He's gone too far. A panoply of iconic holiday characters fall, like dominos, in front of his eyes. And he can't lose Edith."No, I know you're not Santa Claus."


"Because... you're not!  How could you get presents here when we're in Hawaii? And... you're not Santa. I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in Santa Claus."

"Okay... if you want to believe in him, that's great," Doug says.

He's backtracking furiously. "Yes, I believe in him because the reindeer, they're real, Donner and Blitzen and Dasher... and his handwriting, I know your handwriting and Daddy's and he has different handwriting."

We've had our friend Sherrie wrap the presents (with different, new paper), arrange them under the tree and write the notes all these years. Damn my attention to detail.

We nod, as if he's made a reasonable request. "Okay," we say, and edge out the door, leaving him teetering on the brink of discovery, and maturity. He's pulled back because, more than losing this iconic character (and said character's gifties), I think he realizes that giving up Santa (and Edith) will bring him that much closer to growing up, a place where, at this point, he firmly does not wish to venture into. He already knows, instinctively, that entering into adult reality means losing—I don't think he'd call in innocence— the possibilities of childhood.

Edith has saved Santa for another year. Maybe.

Ben has since dropped the subject. He talks about Santa and it's not ironic, or sly. It's as if we never had the conversation. He's willing to suspend his disbelief for at least another Christmas. Which is fine with us. 

After all, he's got about 15 teeth to go.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Baking With Disaster

I almost entered into a baker's hell this weekend; you know, that particular lower circle where you're asked to make a birthday cake for a 40th birthday party and you spend hours on a new recipe and then find that it's becoming an utter catastrophe and you might have to start over from scratch and then you discover your cake shrinking just as your find out that almost double the amount of people are coming and you just might have to impale yourself on your offset spatula? That hell. Don't worry, it won't be a horror story; there will be a feel-good ending to this post. Eventually.

Why did I choose a recipe I had never done before? I violated one of the basic rules of baking for others: NEVER MAKE A NEW RECIPE FOR A SPECIAL EVENT (actually, this is one rule I break regularly; you'd think I would have learned). I decided on a Marquis au Chocolat, which is a chilled chocolate mousse cake, because the birthday gal was a lover of chocolate AND a Francophile, what could be more perfect? And, no baking! Here, this is what a Marquis looks like:

Yeah, well, what kind of parchment paper
makes that lovely cross-hatch design,
huh? HUH?
Notice the precise, clean lines; the delicate touch required for this simple-looking dessert. Precise & Delicate: two words which have no point of reference in the James Sie world of baking. Haphazard & Sledgehammer-like— that's more my style.

Still, I forge ahead, oblivious to my own limitations. I use a recipe from "Pure Chocolate" by Fran Bigelow— a cookbook I've used many times, but with varied results. I mean, I love all the gorgeous recipes in there and want to make them all, but I think it's one of those cookbooks that pre-supposes a finesse that comes from years of trial and error. Because, as my sister Allison pointed out, baking is a lot like woodshop. It takes a lot of dowels of wood on a lathe before you can come up with a perfect candlestick holder. You shouldn't expect to be able to figure out all the nuances on your first go. Yet here I am, melting my chocolate and separating eggs. Hubris, thy name is Marquis Au Chocolat! 

Once you make the mousse, after all the whipping and folding, whipping and folding (and an unfortunate over-processing of egg yolks and chocolate which threatens to granulate and break but which I manage to save with some hot whipping cream) you pour it into a loaf pan which has been lined with two sheets of parchment paper that have an overhang which you will use to lift out the cake after it's been chilled. Unfortunately, I've got parchment on a roll, which is hard to cut precisely, and a sloped glass loaf pan. "Eh, it'll be fine," I think, trying to fit the curling paper into the pan, "It's just chilling in there, what could go wrong?"

Here's what could go wrong:
What have you done to my baby??
The next morning I take out the cake, and, oh, it's a poor, poor thing. The wrinkles and folds in the parchment paper has created a brick of sadness. It's not an elegant birthday cake, it's a birthday TURD. Allison puts it more colorfully, if not more kindly: "It's like a literal Yuletide log, like after a big Yuletide feast." Yes, thanks for that, Ali. Oh, the cake looks like it should be floating in formaldehyde. Cutting the edges away is not an option; there are some deep gashes and it's too little as it is. I stare at it in horror, much like Mia Farrow does at the end of Rosemary's baby. What can I do with my runty chocolate abomination? 

I'm paralyzed. I could make another cake. I HAVE to make another cake. I'm Julianne Moore and I'm going to throw the cake in the trash and go to some hotel and take pills while water washes my bed away and Philip Glass will JUST NOT STOP with those violins. Surprisingly, it's Doug who comes to my rescue and talks me back from the edge. He quietly takes the knife from my hand, wets it in warm water and starts gently, slowly, smoothing the sides of the cake. Where the hell did he learn to do that?  Being mousse, it's quite malleable. Soon, he's ironed out most of the egregious slashes and has even mortared up some of the dents. It looks much better:

Still, what to do to make it, well, presentable? There's no frosting to hide behind. A Marquis' strength lay in its simplicity and elegance. I have a boatload of options in my head, but no clear path. After about fifteen minutes of babbling ("I could do cocoa powder, or chocolate shavings, what do you think about topping it with a cloud of whipped cream? Raspberries?") Doug is clearly at his limit for culinary empathy. You can tell by the glazed look in his eyes. Luckily, there's another ally. I hop into my X-wing and dart over to the Dagobah System to seek advice from a Jedi Master; or, less floridly, I send a message via Facebook to my friend Dawn Bach. 
"Help me, Obi-Dawn Kenobi,
you're my only hope."

I know Dawn as an actress and a musician, but I've discovered, via Facebook photos, that she's a wonder at fondant and cake design. Don't know is she sells them or gives them away or stuffs them in an attic with her embalmed mother but if precision and elegance is what I need, she's the Master. 

Luckily, she seems to be as happily obsessive about baking as I. After about twenty messages back and forth, she comes up with the idea of toasted almonds strewn at the base and some raspberries for color. Strewn...? THAT'S my style! I can strew! And then I think of my sister's scatological log comment, and  it clicks...

It was my "make it work" moment. I got very concentrated, and careful. I went with a more rustic woodland theme. Some shaved chocolate, some toasted almonds, and voila:
Doug made me lose the grape leaves:
"All Top Chefs need to learn to edit."

I guess it takes a village to make a cake. And it reminds me of another essential baking rule: YOU CAN ALWAYS COVER UP YOUR MISTAKES. Especially if you're being rustic.

When I got there it turned out to be more like seventeen people, up from 10-12. I didn't know if this pound cake-size cake would stretch that far, but, by god, it did! A small half-slice, a dollop of hazelnut whipped cream dotted with chocolate pieces and raspberries and a half-Pirouline lain in between; it was more than enough. There were even a few slices left! Most important, everyone loved the taste, which, in the end, is what really matters. 

"And to think I was going to throw you away!
Now Mommy loves you!"
I averted catastrophe, but if you'd like to see those who did not, check out Cake Wrecks, a VERY entertaining site. And if you want to be truly creeped out by a cake (I mean American-Horror-Story-kind-of-creeped-out) check out this icky baby and especially this one (don't say I didn't warn you!).

Now, I just need to make about 19 more of these puppies, and I'll be able to get it right!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

My Dinner with Two Hot Tamales

It's official: I've become a Top Chef whore.
I watch all the incarnations: "Top Chef," "Top Chef: Just Desserts" and "Top Chef: Masters"; if there was a "Top Chef: Reheating Lean Cuisines" I'd probably program that into my DVR as well. But, I swear, I've gleaned many useful directives from these shows. Contrast salty and sweet. Transform mistakes into inspiration. Don't add popcorn to a lamb dish. And never get thrown under the bus, if you can help it. I would never have known about this common public transportation hazard, had I not watched "Top Chef"!

Taking advantage of my residence in a major American city, I've taken my obsession to a new level: attending cooking classes taught by "Top Chef" luminaries. So far it's been three: a class by Fabio Viviani, the charming, English-mangling Italian alumnus of "Top Chef," and two classes headlined by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, the self-proclaimed Too Hot Tamales and Top Chef Masters. These are demo classes, meaning that for an all-inclusive price you get a meal and drinks while watching the chefs prepare the food you're eating. The audience is divided up between serious foodies and celebrity chef groupies. Predominantly female, with a smattering of gay men and reluctant husbands. The restaurant is always packed.

These classes are as much about entertainment as instruction. There's a reason we are sitting here at these restaurants instead of getting our hands dirty in a "Sur La Table" cooking class: we want the personality. We've spent time with these people on the screen: we've experienced the heartbreak of Fabio's failed "hambooger"; we've cheered the caramel-filled churro of Mary Sue. And, most exciting— we get to actually taste the food we've heretofore only viewed and salivated over on television.

The atmosphere of the classes are in synch with the individual style of each chef. They are very much the personalities you've seen on the screen; or, rather, they know very well the personnas they've created, and how to enlarge them for an audience.

Fabio, teaching at his restaurant Firenze 
Osteria in Toluca Lake, is unfailingly charming, casual and apparently hung-over. He demystifies risottos and sauces, scoffs at recipes and teaches very much the way an old-world Italian mamma might: a pinch of this, a handful of that; if your hand is smaller, a hand and a half. His insouciance is his charm, and you come away feeling like you could really make these dishes without a recipe.

Mary Sue & Susan are old pros, and it shows: in their casual but lightning fast technique; the seamless way they can work (and talk) over each other; the way they can push that food out. Their classes are at their flagship restaurant Border Grill in downtown L.A. Upon entering the old "Ciudad" space, you're presented with a margarita, and it feels very much like you're joining a party, with two very gracious and loquacious hosts. Susan is warm, funny and constantly digressive; Mary Sue is a little quieter but sly, and no less opinionated. She is also hung over (do all chefs drink like fish?).

They've got decades of experience together and miles of fascinating stories to tell, and if you've heard some of them from a previous class, you don't mind, they're so engagingly told. With all their banter you can't believe they'll get through the instruction, but somehow (with the help of a very attentive manager/producer) at the end of the two hours they've gotten through the menu. The last class was pre-Thanksgiving, and we learned how to make a complex turkey mole and an incredibly simple but flavorful kabocha squash soup that I've since made several times. The most recent class was also holiday-themed, and I've got many recipes I'm going to be trying out this Christmas, including a spinach pomegranate salad, a cheese-filled date with bacon wrapped around that is to die for, and a pear/cranberry crisp. They also prepared a spicy shrimp cocktail, Yucatan pork with shake salsa, a couple of simple sides plus a very festive cranberry Manhattan cocktail with brandied cranberries. You can't help but fall in love with these two. 

In both restaurants, you get a distinctive taste of what it must be like to be a celebrity chef; namely, the amount of hustle that goes into running a culinary fiefdom. Fabio's hawking for Bertoli and Domino's pizza and Michelin Tires, for all I know. He's also got a cooking app which I got mainly because, well, I thought he'd be so disappointed if I didn't. He's happy to pose for photos but doesn't want you saying something nasty about him on Facebook. The Red Hot Tamales are constantly shilling just about everything: the cookbooks, the coffee, the pepper/salt mills, the Spanish paprika, all for sale at the bar, book signing to follow. It is charming and self-deprecating shilling, but shilling nonetheless. There seems to be no rest for even two such established icons. 
My sister-in-law and her hubby got to
schmooze with Fabio last year.
There's such a remarkably thin barrier between these chefs and their customers. I imagine it's a symbiotic relationship; with so many new restaurants popping up every day it's important to create loyalty, to get the butts in the seats. And I'm happy to be the remora clinging to these culinary sharks. You get something from watching the pros in action that can't really be gleaned from any cookbook. It's the little nuances, the way they cook.  Observing just how Fabio throws ingredients into the pot, having him show you exactly how the risotto looks when it's ready. Having Mary Sue tell you why she loves sherry vinegar over balsamic, why they love their Takayuki knives (which they don't even sell!) and being able to hear the swish swish of Susan sharpening her knives on the whetting stone. When Mary Sue grated ginger over a cheesecloth and then gathered the cheesecloth together and wrung ginger juice over a bowl I gasped so audibly she looked over and smiled. 

Cooking class: $75. 
Parking: $5. 
Imagining yourself an apprentice to a Top Chef?: Priceless.