* Between The Sea (the Med) and The Alps -- {Pronounce: ontruh la mair eh lay zalp}

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Happy Birthday, French style

Cakes Sandra 1Once upon a time, I was a brand new bride, working in an office.  During a lunch hour, I was reading a magazine, and I came across an ad for making pretty cakes.  Not having a clue how to bake, I thought it would be fun to get some ideas.  It only cost $1 for the idea book.  So I ordered it.  To my chagrin, it was a catalog for buying all these tools for making beautiful decorated cakes.  Not what I had in mind.

However, the brand new groom asked what it took to get the tools.  It was a catalog.  I could order from them.  So why not?  Because that's a lot of money for something I don't know how to do.  How do you know you can't do it if you don't have the tools?

So we ordered a mid-level set of tools.  And thus began a journey that continues even today, even in a country that hasn't appreciated this style or texture of celebratory dining, although it does seem to be catching on more in recent years.

Cakes Sandra 2
One of my best friends

I started off trying to copy the pictures in the book.  I didn't know yet how professional food photography has nothing in common with reality, which resulted in years of frustration.  Little by little, I built up a bit of experience. 

When I was pregnant with #2, I had a wonderful opportunity of making my first two wedding cakes.  I got $50 for each of them.  I bought myself a KitchenAid mixer, which I had learned was THE tool to have.  It cost $100.  I still have it, Avocado Green and all.  It turned 40 years old last year, as did #2.  Now it gets transformed from 110 to 220, but it still gets used.

Ah, how much this machine has been a part of my life, probably 75% in making cakes.  Not only did I make birthday cakes for my own kids and the family of my best friend, I ended up making much more elaborate wedding cakes than those first two very scary endeavors.  Sometimes I ended up sewing the wedding party dresses as well as making the wedding cake.  Sometimes I got invited to the event just to cut the cake (there was no cake cutting fee back then like I understand exists now).  It's been an interesting ride.

Cakes Sandra 3
Butterflies are free

Several years ago, I did a local wedding cake.  From that, I got a birthday order.  Since this is not a French style cake, the customer had no clue what to order or what to expect, and I was totally on my own.  It was for her mother.  So I did something I thought I would like myself, although her mother is more part of my own kids' generation.

I designed a butterfly as a separate cake, then explained that it was specifically for Maman.  Turns out that she got a beautiful butterfly necklace as a gift, so I was completely right on track with my idea!

Cakes Sandra 4
Numero Uno
Later, the new baby turned a year old, and I got another order.  Bittersweet, as he was basically the same age as my own new grandson, and I wasn't able to share in that birthday.  So I came up with an idea I'd never done before and just pretended I was making it for my own family.  It didn't come out like I'd expected. 

Doing cakes here is really frustrating because I can't get the same ingredients I've always used, and I can't get the same results.  I am generally saved by the fact the French don't know any better.  The family had no clue how frustrated I was and absolutely loved the cake.

Fast forward a year, and Baby Dearest is having another birthday.  Surprise surprise, Maman asked if I'd do another cake.  Apparently, Dear Husband also just had a birthday, and she wanted a separate cake for him, too.  This double order should have been very exciting.  But I can't make scratch cakes to save my life, and Duncan Hines doesn't exist here.  What they do have is like generic cardboard, so scratch is what it has to be.  But the local flour is not like US flour, and even the best baker doesn't get the same results.

Having spent most of my life in the humid US South, we did not decorate with actual butter, which would melt in a heartbeat.  My icings were always made with Crisco shortening, which remained much more stable.  (And I got raves on the flavor, for those who think that sounds super nasty.)  Crisco doesn't exist over here.  Butter doesn't work the same and gives a yellow tinge to everything.  And while they at least have the powdered sugar, it too is different, and I usually have a more gritty texture than I'm used to.

But, most of the French in my world don't know what a proper US cake should look or taste like, so I can get away with just about anything, provided it's still pretty enough.  That doesn't help my frustrated soul while I'm working, but it does help my spirit when they love the end result.

Cakes Sandra 5
A French Mickey
Cakes Sandra 6
Happy Birthday in Niçois

Again, Maman had no clue what she wanted.  She suggested perhaps something Mickey for the kid.  Perfect, I have what is now considered a vintage mold (wasn't vintage when I got it). 

Dear Husband is fluent in the local Niçois dialect, and my own Doc Leo suggested I do something with that.  (Yay for the internet and all its info!)  As he also fancies himself a wine connoisseur, I came up with a masculine looking cake using an airplane mini wine bottle I kept for such a purpose. 

Maman was absolutely thrilled with the end result.  The decorator tried to forget all the frustrations involved in the creations.  Papa will be surprised; I can't wait to hear about his reaction.

Don't ever take your world for granted.  You never know when what you've always expected won't be possible, and you'll have to start all over with what you thought you've always known and had experience with.  The two main fields that made up so much of my past life, sewing and cake decorating, are almost two different animals trying to achieve over here.  There are some adventures I can do without.

1 comment:

  1. This is so interesting! Do the French not do cake? I googled French desserts and here's what I saw:
    Mocha pots de creme, Strawberry Savarin, Vanilla Creme Brulee, Tarte Tatin, Crepe cake and several others, but no plain old cake, which we're all really partial to! I think you're amazing to create all these designs and should applaud yourself!


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