We have been surviving on ready-made gazpacho, feta cheese, fresh bread and fruit. Why bother cooking? Once those 50 cupcakes were out of the way – do not mention the frenzy of getting those done, frosted, decorated and boxed – and other than an uncontrollable, inexplicable urge to make Berry Prosecco Sorbet and Lamb & Feta Gözleme, I have stayed well away from the kitchen. Nothing drives me. Au contraire, I feel a slight loathing, an overwhelming laziness where cooking and baking are concerned. I feel only a slight guilt at having nothing on the table for son to eat when the mood strikes his young, lanky body. As he slinks into the kitchen and inquires as to my plans for lunch or dinner, he is well prepared with the shrug of his shoulders and the roll of his eyes, somehow knowing what my harried… or languid answer will be.
Blame it on the summer heat.
A trip to Paris
The elder son, fresh from his Master’s Degree, sends the occasional, odd message of his travels through Vietnam via Facebook, only mentioning in private the tasty dishes of snake and mouse that he and his traveling companion dined upon or the rat discovered bunking up with them in their hut on the beach:
* Sains et saufs dans la jungle urbaine de Saigon.
Ile de Phu Quoc, tout juste formidable.
Sur la route de Dalat .... 7 heures de train avec Tham Han, Hanh, et une pelletée de gamins.
Après Dalat, Nha Trang, avant de partir demain pour un voyage de 14h vers Da Nang. Serpent, souris et croco au menu. (surement un peu de chien aussi).
While the younger, proud to have succeeded his first year of university and accepted into his first choice of section, applies himself to his summer job with all of the passion and minuteness and compulsion as does his own father when taking on a task or responsibility. (They are more alike than either would care to admit) He is up with the sun and done with his working day by late morning, plopped onto the sofa ready to explain in fine detail the ins and outs of his job to any and all who walk through the room or he returns to bed, not to be seen again until late afternoon. When he wanders back out to the kitchen to ask, hopelessly, what my plans are for dinner.
I work on my various articles and I pound out the chapters of my story as time taps me on the shoulder then rolls her restless, impatient eyes in the direction of the big black clock that hangs menacingly over my head. It is slow going, this memoir thing; I am not quite on a roll, still stuck in that limbo of 27 or 28 years ago when I first arrived in Paris, wide eyed and full of belief in myself. Full of hope and quiet deception.
But although our days were filled with museums and walks along the Seine, memories snapped on my pocket instamatic, it was also a time fraught with discomfort and worry. First there was language:
Off we trotted to Paris, confident in our few years of high school and college French, feeling armed to take on any market vendor or restaurant waiter, any salesgirl or museum ticket seller. Off we flew to Paris convinced that we were not one of those Americans, the ones who can be spotted and labeled by the shoes they wear or that telltale accent. We were determined not to commit one faux pas from that long dictionary list of unmistakable mistakes young Americans make on their first trip to Paris. We were as chic as the chicest parisienne, our accent right out of Gigi, more Leslie Caron than Stan Laurel! We were worldly yes indeed we were, comfortable anywhere but heavens! especially in Paris! Why, we may never have visited the City of Lights before but we were so sure of ourselves, feeling as if we already belong.
And then we made that first trip to the market, all agog at the splendor stretching out before us: stalls as far as the eye can see filled with cherries, apricots and peaches, fragrant cheeses, tumbles of tomatoes and a froth of lettuce! And the boulangerie at the corner! And we stumbled rather hesitantly up to the burly man on the other side of the ramshackle wooden stall spilling over with gorgeous summer fruit and….our minds went blank. How does one ask for two peaches? A pound of cherries? The first true test after years of reciting "Je vais à la piscine. Avec qui? Avec Sylvie." and "Je suis dans le salon. Je regarde la télévision." And we stood, mouth open, sweating just a little under the hot sun and, holding up two fingers with one hand, we pointed to the pile of peaches with the other and mumbled "Deux." We slunk away from the stall and headed to the bakery and, pointing at the gorgeous, golden croissants behind the glass, held up two fingers and mumble "Deux!" We had that studio apartment for the time of that first visit, one month, a bright month of August. Our initiation. The time to accept the fact that our French, just as our American manners and mannerisms, were not as we had imagined.
And then suddenly, between interviewing chefs and organizing rendezvous out in the vines of Anjou-Saumur, between writing articles and writing a memoir, after lunches at favorite restaurants and while battling the incessant, pressing heat, the sticky, sleepless nights, I decided to bake. I returned to a recipe from long, long ago, one I haven’t made for quite possibly twenty years. But, I reminded myself, filled with loads of whipped cream and summer’s ripest, sweetest berries, a cake light and moist, that this is the most wonderful summer dessert.
A cross between a cake and a dacquoise, the nutty flavor, the light, crispy top and the dense, moist yet light layers are the perfect accompaniment to cream and berries – I filled the cake with blackberries and raspberries but strawberries would be heavenly, creating a treat even better than the classic strawberry shortcake.
* Safe and sound in the urban jungle of Saigon.
Island of Phu Quoc, just simply astounding.
On the way to Dalat, 7 hours of train with Tham Han, Hanh, and a “shovelful” of kids.
After Dalat, Nha Trang before leaving tomorrow on a 14 hour trip to Da Nang. Snake, mouse and crocodile on the menu (surely a little dog, as well).
HAZELNUT MERINGUE LAYER CAKE with Whipped Cream & Berries
Don’t be afraid of the meringue if you are a novice; a hand or stand mixer and the trick is done practically with one’s eyes closed. Fold in the ground nuts lightly but firmly, spread in a pan and the deed is done. Just give yourself the time to very slowly and carefully turn or lift the layers out of the pan – I only had regular cake layer pans but springform pans would definitely work the best – so as not to allow the surface of the cake to crumble too much.
I used gelatin in the Whipped Cream in order to stabilize it: it will better support the top cake layer and will stay firmer for longer. Feel free to make straight whipped cream without the gelatin if serving and eating this cake the same day. The choice between using 1 and 1 ½ cups whipping cream depends on how much whipped cream you want between the cake layers. Do store this cake in the refrigerator.
For the Hazelnut/Almond Meringue Layers:
8 egg whites (approximately 1 oz/30 g per white = total 8 oz/240 g but no more)
Pinch cream of tartar or pinch salt + a couple drops lemon juice
Pinch salt (about 1/8 tsp)
2 tsps white vinegar
2 cups (400 g) granulated white sugar
2 cups (approximately 8 oz/240 g) ground nuts – either hazelnuts or almonds or a combination of the two
2 tsps flavoring: either hazelnut or almond liqueur, orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier or Cointreau or vanilla extract or a combo of a liqueur and vanilla
For the Cream & Berry Filling:
1 – 1 ½ cups (250 – 375 ml) chilled heavy whipping cream (please read the head note)
1 Tbs granulated white sugar
3 Tbs liquid: a combination of cold water + the liqueur used in the cake or all water if not using liqueur
1 tsp powdered gelatin
½ pint each raspberries and blackberries or 1 pint strawberries (trimmed and sliced)
Confectioner’s/powdered sugar for dusting
Prepare the Hazelnut Meringue Layers:
Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Butter the bottom and the sides (butter the sides well all the way to the top of the pan) of 2 x 8 ½ or 9-inch springform pans, line the bottom of each with parchment paper then butter again and dusted with flour.
Put the egg whites with the pinch cream of tartar and the pinch of salt in a large mixing bowl. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds and then increase the speed to high. Beat on high speed until soft peaks form. Beat in the vinegar and then gradually beat in the 2 cups of sugar until the mixture is glossy, very thick and stiff peaks hold, about 5 minutes.
Using a wide spatula or spoon, fold in the ground nuts (fold in about a quarter or a fifth of the ground nuts at a time) and the liqueur/extract until well blended; make sure no pockets of ground nuts are hiding in the meringue.
Divide the meringue between the two prepared pans evenly and gently spread all the way to the edges. Bake for 1 ¼ hours until the top of the layers is golden, hard when gently tapped and is pulling away from the sides.
Remove the pans from the oven to cooling racks and allow to cool.
Run a knife around the edges carefully to loosen; remove the sides from the pans. Use a long, thin spatula to loosen and lift the meringue layers from the parchment paper when ready to fill.
Prepare the Cream Filling:
Have the bowl and the beaters chilled in the refrigerator at least 15 minutes before preparing the whipped cream for best results. Make sure the whipping cream is quite cold.
Place the 3 tablespoons liquid (I used 1 Tbs Cointreau + 2 Tbs cold water) in a small saucepan and sprinkle on the teaspoon powdered gelatin. Allow to sit for 5 minutes. Over very low heat, heat the liquid for 5 minutes, stirring or whisking, careful not to let it boil, to allow the gelatin to completely dissolve (there was so little liquid in the pan I held it away from the heat for part of the time as I whisked). Remove from the heat.
Place the heavy whipping cream in the bowl and beat on high speed until soft peaks begin to hold; add the gelatin liquid in a slow stream as you continue to beat. Beat in the tablespoon sugar and 1 teaspoon liqueur if NOT adding gelatin and as desired. Beat until thick, stiff peaks hold. Place in the refrigerator to firm up for about 15 minutes or longer (if adding gelatin, this allows the gelatin to work).
Assemble the cake:
Gently and carefully slide one Hazelnut Meringue Layer onto a serving plate. Cover with the Whipped Cream. Evenly distribute the berries over the whipped cream then very gently and carefully slide or place the second Hazelnut Meringue layer on top. Dust with powdered sugar and serve. Slice with a serrated and chilled knife. Store leftovers in the refrigerator.