cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Hello Polo

 Hello Codet(tes). Today I am sharing with you an incredibly fun photo shoot I did about a week ago featuring beautiful animals, a stunning woman and an amazing oasis in the middle of Sao Paulo Capital city. Can you believe these photos were taken in the middle of the concrete jungle?

The shoot took place at the Sociedade Hípica Paulista, located in the Brooklin district in Sao Paulo. When you enter it's as if someone switched the city off. You hear crickets, smell manure and hay and see well-to-do people happily strolling about in their knee boots, riding gloves and strappy tights. You don't just feel transported out of the city, you feel as if you've left the country!

My model for the day was a true horse lover through and through. She frequents the polo center every Saturday morning to spend a coveted one hour riding atop a beautifully groomed polo horse. She doesn't play for a team, but rather needs that one hour weekly to decompress and feel like herself. We chatted about how expensive it is to have access to horses in the city, but we made a great comparison: some people in Sao Paulo buy asparagus to feel comfort and ease (asparagus are very expensive!) and others spend hundreds a week at shiny bars and clubs (even more expensive than the asparagus!!) but for her, instead of the clubs and bars (and asparagus for that matter) she chooses the horse and stays in on Friday nights. We all make different choices on what to indulge in, what to splurge on in order to relax and be happy. And if it makes you happy then it is beyond worth it.

The horse pictured in all the closeups is known as Mr. Wilson, he was a little shy of the camera. Enjoy.

Monday, May 5, 2014

A Real Wedding Cake

Hello Codet(tes.) Remember the cake tasting from a few months ago? The session with the bottle of bubbly and such indecision that all three flavors were chosen for the cake? Yes? Remember? Well i made that cake this past weekend. This was my first extra large tiered wedding cake. It was also one of the most difficult things i have ever made. For this, you should know that your wedding cake costs what it does because it is a miracle that it exists!

Because i am quite confident with my single tiered cakes, the ones ordered for birthdays and small occasional gatherings, i knew i would be able to make each tier look/taste pretty good on its own. The difficult part came with the anxiety over whether or not i would be able to stack it evenly and whether or not it would be strong enough to keep from sinking in or falling over.

It took two days to bake all of the layers inside this beast. Any layer that wasn't perfect, i chucked and started again. I went through over 45 eggs, six kilos of flour, and over four kilos of butter. This. Was. Intense.

The thing that nagged the most on my anxious mind, however, was the way the Swiss meringue buttercream would hold up. The bride hired me specifically for my style and specifically for the fact that i don't work with fondant. It's almost unheard of to find a wedding cake made without fondant here. When i tried to explain to the wedding planners that it wasn't fondant they looked so confused. I use traditional American buttercream on all of my small cakes, but for the wedding cake i grudgingly settled at SMB. Why? I'll tell you. American buttercream, the kind made from butter and powder sugar, dries hard at room temperature. After an hour or so after frosting the cake, it's set. While you might think that a set, dry-to-the-touch cake would be perfect for this, i wasn't so sure. When buttercream sets it has the possibility to crack, and in my case the certainty to crack. Cakes settle, cakes heat and cool on their own, and during transport or lifting to each tier to mount cracking loomed almost inevitable. AND fixing dried buttercream has never worked for me. It just doesn't. It lumps up and never lies smooth. SMB, on the other hand, only hardens when it is in the fridge. At room temperature it stays soft and sticky--meaning it can't crack or ruffle off in powder. It can also be smoothed out again if, say, your apron happens to swipe it's side. For this i went with SMB, a much more difficult buttercream to make (it requires five five times the amount of effort needed to make American buttercream) but in the end the benefits seemed to outweigh the risks.

We transported the cakes flat in their individual tiers. I sat in the backseat with all four of them. Holding my breath. The delivery took about a four hour drive to get to the small suburb city of Embu das Artes, which is half and half a poor suburb and wealthy cottage town for weekend getaways and event rentals. It was a hot sunny day, a little over 75F. When we arrived the wedding planners told me to assemble the cake outside on the dessert table. Outside? In warm weather? No cloud in sight? Under a glass roof no less? You madame, must be joking. I said i wouldn't, i wouldn't unless she wanted to present a crying bride with a cake of clarified butter. So while the wedding planners scrambled around to figure out their whole dessert table issue, i set the cake up on the dance floor (hence the horrible photo with no light and an ugly background) it was the only place with an open table away from direct sunlight. While i was finishing attaching the flowers, the planner came over to me and said "well, all the chocolate truffles we put on the table outside melted. good thing we didn't put the cake out there." Yeah, no kidding. 

I left the cake, standing there in the middle of the dance floor, alone yet looking quite regal. I can't believe i made that thing on my own. Well, i had a little help. H drove like an old man to ensure safe delivery, he also ran to the corner a few times to pick up more butter...and he cut the 15 dowels that secured each layer. Thanks H.

This was my first wedding cake and for this i attribute the anxiety and difficulty. I'm already confident that the next one will be easier and much more beautiful.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Carrot Cake, Presidents, Parties, Markets, the Photo Stream OH MY!

Codet(te)s, please, i beg you. Please forgive me for this absence. There is no excuse other than laziness. Laziness and perhaps an end-of-day repulsion from my computer. But, at the moment, i am 3/4 through the Easter Holiday weekend (in Brazil this holiday weekend covers Friday through Monday. lucky lucky) and i have time to do a recap of everything that has happened (professionally) over the past two months. As i uploaded the photos to Salty, i realized damn...i have been busy. But I want to share all of this movement with you, if you are still there. Movement that include birthday parties, mean-spirited models, famous ex-presidents, birthday parties with s'mores, corporate galas, beautiful babies, market adventures, start up companies and Thai luncheons. On y va.

Jesus. I don't even know where to start. Let's just begin with some food then...a few skips back we had a luncheon for a Thai-loving client. To be honest, she begged for pad Thai. I have nothing against pad Thai, it's one of my comfort dishes...honestly who (in their right mind) doesn't love pad Thai? But i had already done a pad Thai luncheon for a few months earlier and really didn't want her to get bored. So in an attempt to lure her to something new (for me as well) I suggested Malaysian cuisine. Now, I don't make Malaysian food very often, but with the resent absence (one of my best friends moved away!) of one of my dearest friends, who happened to be from Malaysia, I had recently been doing a lot of research on the region's cuisine. I settled on a basic curry (basic curry is called laksa) with a coconut milk base featuring chicken. She went with it, luckily, and i made my first laksa. Amazing flavors. Malaysian cuisine is the culmination of a partnership between so many historically rich cuisines (Chinese, Indian, Eurasian influences and others) that just the mental exercise of recognizing where your food's (recipe) came from is an existential experience. Needless to say it was a success. Chicken laksa served over rice noodles, appetizers including shrimp spring rolls, pork meatballs, strawberry shortcakes and some naughty goat cheese that weaseled its way in. It was a pretty good affair.

 A week later we had an intimate dinner party for eight celebrating a 50th birthday party. The birthday girl wanted it to be casual apartment cocktail-style with a variety of fun appetizers and self-service treats. For this event i had one of my most trusted member of my wait staff with me to serve hot items around the room and help out with assembly. Appetizers are fairly simple because you don't have to worry about platting and temperatures, however, appetizers signify many small pieces...many small pieces that must be put together one by one, garnished, sauced, plated on a tray and that takes a lot of time. Having staff in the kitchen with me is quickly starting to be a necessity, but luckily im starting to build a good team. The birthday cocktail menu included puff pastry caprese sliders, individual beef bourguignon pot pies, blue cheese and apple crostini, couscous and garlic shrimp tasting spoons, pork in fig jam tasting spoons, a variety of pates and breads and of course, a red velvet birthday cake.

Already getting tired? I'll try to speed it up. A few other notable food events this past month included our stand at the SP Night Market where we sold banh mi sandwiches, chickpea salad in a cone and a sweet box full of brownies, biscotti and other goodies. This market was particularly amusing because we held a raffle to give away a two-tiered strawberry cake. The conversation about what a family of two or three would do with a cake for 50 was quite interesting.

The final two foodie events I will bore you with are big ones. Both events were estimate at 50+ attendees; one was a birthday party for a six year old boy and the other a cocktail party book-release for a former Brazilian president. Say what? Oh, you know, just starting to build up my celebrity-client base.

The presidential party was extremely tough, mainly because i put a lot of pressure on myself to make everything absolutely perfect. The menu included ten different (and complex) appetizers, adorned shortbread cookies and miniature strawberry pavlovas. The planning and prep before the party took a full four days. Every hour or so i was sure i wouldn't make it. Luckily, the obsessive prep paid off and, come party time, everything flew out of the kitchen like clockwork. I had my new sous chef G in the kitchen with me and my wait staff Indy and Reno serving food and beverages to the party guests. It went perfectly well. A real presidential affair. I think i slept for three days straight afterward.

Me and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso
Not to be shadowed by the president, a week later i had a fun birthday party for a little boy with an airplane theme. Children's birthday parties in Brazil can be a bit complicated. Most people expect you to go all out on EVERY single birthday party. These parties usually have guest lists of a minimum of fifty people including kids and adults, boast table shrines to the birthday kid, and offer way more in the realm of sugar than good old cake and ice cream. Most people expect to be fully fed as well. Pretty intense you say? I agree. I think i prefer the invite a few kids over from school, at your house and not a rented venue, parents drop off and pick up, play a few games, cake ice cream and pizza, boom. Done. But Brazil is not like that. Fortunately, there is something i can do to help out. Most buffet services that cater children's party offer monotone items including bread rolls, fried bread items, fried rolled bread items, and hot dogs. Lovely. Kids like to eat color, and luckily color is usually better for you. Our kiddo (and parents) menu included fresh Vietnamese spring rolls (yes, kids ate them), cucumber sandwiches, chicken curry sandwiches, fruit in whipped yogurt, ham and spinach pesto wraps, and a scone and muffin station with whipped butter, jams and creams. Yes, I'm a Jaime Oliver fan, don't feed your kids crap! Well, s'mores are alright (note: graham crackers aren't available in Brazil, my client happened to be in the US during the menu planning and was able to bring back a few boxes so we could make s'mores party favors.)

Have you noticed that i make Vietnamese spring rolls at almost every single event i have? Out of the four I have just mentioned, three featured these rolls. I love that people want to eat fresh healthy food, but i kinda screwed myself over with this one because spring rolls take absolutely forever to make. At least by now i've got them down to almost production line status. Spring rolls for life.

Ok, enough of that. Let's talk about photography now. I have three businesses here in Brazil you know and yes sometimes things get a little jumbled up in my mind. Alright, so lately i have been working a lot more with portrait and event photography, mainly because there is more of a demand for portraiture than there is for food, and i do enjoy it. Believe it or not, photography is a bit more stressful than the food side of my business. Why? Because there are humans involved, not just carrots. Clients are hit or miss. Most people are genuinely amazing and fun to be around, but then every once in a while you get those people out of left field who just completely boggle your mind. I'm still young in portrait and event photography, so i try to take the advice of my photo mentor J, and not let it get to me. But even with the bad egg, we've had some great photo sessions this past month. A graffiti tour in Vila Madalena, an office and park shoot on Faria Lima, frolicking with chickens at Parque Agua Branca, a corporate event at Tofiq House in Jardins, and (my personal favorite) a four-month baby session with sous-chef G's beautiful boy.

On the food side of the photo aisle we are still working every month with our favorite cupcake client, Sophie & Theo, and have luckily added on a new start up company; Pop Art Gourmet Popcorn. I love working on website photos for food business because it is the perfect chance to fuse both food photography and portrait photography. Humans and food, together at last!

Well, how was that for a recap? Tired now? I'll leave with my Easter cake. I hadn't made anything for Easter in years, but i was finally bit hard by the crafty bug. I make so many cakes for clients that i don't remember the last time i actually ate a piece of cake. So this speckled cake went with me to an Easter-eve dinner party at the home of some dear friends. It is a gluten free carrot and coconut cake with lemony cream cheese buttercream. The speckling is made from dark vanilla and cocoa powder. You splatter it on with a paint brush, but i used a frayed pineapple leaf. The nest is purely coconut and corn syrup, the eggs are hollowed out quail eggs filled with chocolate. Probably the most fun i've had with making a cake in a while.

Gluten free Coconut Carrot Cake:
1 cup white rice flour
1/4 cup brown rice flour
1/2 cup tapioca flour
1/4 cup ground flax
1 tsp baking powder
3 grated carrots
1/3 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1/4 cup shredded coconut
dash of vanilla
lemon zest

Mix together the flours and baking powder. Whip the butter, sugar and eggs together. Combine with the flour and add the remaining ingredients. Makes 4 cake layers for a small 14cm cake tin.

So, happy spring holidays, happy spring! We are entering winter in the Southern hemisphere though...either way. Hope to see you again sooner than later this time.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Figs & Chocolate

Hello codets. Figs can be a difficult business. I think they are very mysterious. I have no memories of figs as a child outside of the fig newton cookie. I don't think i had ever seen a whole, fresh fig until I moved to France. Figs are somewhat exotic to Americans, largely because they are native to the Middle East and Mediterranean regions, which is why they were so prevalent in France. I remember mentioning how much i adored dried figs in a post right here on the Salty Cod. If you decide to meander into the past please take note of the horrifying photos, everyone starts somewhere. The first time i tasted a real, fresh fig was here in Brazil. I thought it was very bitter. Looking back it was probably due to the fact that it was green and hard rather than a soft shade of bruise purple. Figs must be eaten ripe, even if you are going to cook them. A ripe fig is perfectly beautiful. 

source: Wikimedia Commons
Almost anything can grow in Brazil. Anything aside from russet potatoes, cranberries and holly bushes. Figs, though not native, thrive here. Even so, you don't see them around much. If you can't juice it, it's not very popular. I have never seen a snack bar on the streets of Sao Paulo selling fig juice. It is a more acquired taste, and similar to the filling of a newton cookie, i've seen jars of compote for sale. Figs have acquired a somewhat snobby connotation, --you know, the Master Chef quick challenge of douse a fig in honey and serve it ripe with a shaving of pancetta reputation.

There is a city not far from the old Sao Paulo countryside town where i used to live called Valinhos, where every year they hold a fig festival. Sadly I never attended, but the obscurity of making a festival around a single edible item hits close to my heart, as that is undoubtedly a very American pastime. For example, the lentil festival in Pullman. Someday i will make it to the festival. 

A few weeks ago we had chocolate covered fruit on the menu for a party we catered. Obviously, i had strawberries in mind. Unfortunately, when i arrived at the grocery store the strawberries, which were on sale the week before, had evaporated. What was in their place? Figs. Figs for pennies. The cheapest fruit is always the fruit that is in season. So, not sure if it would be a big hit or not, i grabbed a few boxes and decided to give it a go. After dipping them in chocolate and allowing them to dry, i was in awe at how beautiful they looked. Almost majestic. Even if no one eats these, i had thought, they will make a beautiful presentation on the dessert bar. And they did. During the party i was approached by an older gentleman who thanked me for reviving figs, as he put it, his favorite fruit that is severely underrepresented in everything. He proceeded to eat half of the display. If you've never had a fresh fig dipped in chocolate before, you are severely missing out.

So naturally this week i picked up another box of figs, for myself. Of course i dipped them in chocolate. How else could i share them with you then?

When dipping figs in chocolate, make sure the fig is completely dried after washing. Only use ripe, slightly squishy figs that have a deep purple tint. Allow the chocolate to dry completely, in or out of the fridge so that they obtain a hard crunch.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


 Hello Codets. Everyone in this country is complaining about the heat. I might as well chime in. It's bloody hot here. Last week was my four year anniversary of moving to Brazil, and i must say that in my four years here i have never experienced such cruel heat without reprieve for so long. Whatever is happening here is the southern parallel of the freezing snow storms hitting the northern hemisphere. I dream of hugging a snowman....Comfort aside, this blasted heat is bad for business. Do you think cakes like the heat? No. They hate it. They melt and buckle at the hips. Once-perfectly sculpted sides spontaneously sprout love handles. Smooth tight finishes crack and wrinkle, stretchmarks expanding with every minute. Yes, i had a few issues last week with melting cakes. We had a birthday party for thirty a week ago, the menu was fun. Small bites hot and cold and a large fiesta-toned cake covered in roses and gerberas. Unfortunately through transport (and lack of any room in my fridge due to the food-for-thirty) the cake melted out the bottom. Aside from the aesthetic damage done to the outer frosting, the biggest impact is on the height of the cake. The melting out and settling shrunk the beast by nearly half an inch. Ever seen me mad at a cake? How about mad at the sun? It was not pretty. But, when the guests were fed and watered though, and the cake prepared for serving, no one cared. It was gobbled up either way. But now I am very wary of the precautions that must be taken during these waves of inferno.

Luckily, the food escaped the fate of the poor cake. The party was a cocktail-style party with easy to pick up and eat items. The menu included beet, pecan and ricotta salads in ramekins, spoons filled with melon gazpacho and spicy shrimp, Vietnamese meatballs, apple and blue cheese crostini, BLT sliders with a spicy homemade mayo, steak shoots with caramelized onion jam, couscous with chicken tagine en papillote (served in their own parchment paper parcels), chicken curry salad served in wonton cups and chocolate covered figs. The children's menu included shortbread cookies, cheese and chicken sandwiches and cupcakes. It was a lot for just one. Prep took a full day and a half and cooking took the full five to six hour duration of the party. I'm learning that even this size of a party desperately needs a sous-chef on board. But, the food was well received (except for the two older Brazilian women i overheard say "too experimental for me") but you can't please everyone now can you.

Cake buckling under the heat
Right after wrapping up the catering event i threw myself into planning another cocktail party, a surprise in-apartment gig for my husband's 30th birthday. Now, after complaining about how horrible the heat is you can imagine my fear of my little apartment filled with fifteen people. Luckily, guests BYOFed (brought their own fans.) The theme of the party was originally meant to be "James Bond" because it is très distingué for a 30th birthday party. But i hate corny decorations so it eventually evolved into "mid century" theme with era food, music and drinks. I instructed guests to wear cocktail dresses but the heat deterred many from getting in the mood. no harm. For drinks I served martinis and dirty Shirley's along with an avalanche of cold beer and Chardonnay. The menu wandered quite a bit from authenticity but was fun nonetheless. Wasabi pork, salmon rillettes, ham terrine, tomatoes stuffed with risotto, baked crab and dough wrapped sausages. The small cake i made also began to melt, but the smaller size made it less noticeable. Was he surprised? Yes. Especially by the fact that when he arrived there was no one in the apartment. Oh well, in Brazil everyone comes late!

The final event I must share with you today occurred on Saturday--my first wedding cake tasting session. I was contacted with a request for a wedding cake for a May wedding (will be nice and cool weather!) a few weeks ago by a bride looking for a "naked cake." Naked cake....this term applies to any cake that does not have an outer frosting or covering. Personally, I think small, single tier cakes can be beautifully "rustic" when naked. But when it comes to a three tiered mammoth size wedding cake, they can be a bit tricky. The majority of naked wedding cakes are covered in strawberries and powdered sugar dust: tacky as...... The biggest issue with naked cakes is that there is no possibility for blemish control. If a cake comes out of the oven with an odd pockmark or a slightly darker colored bottom, you will see it in a naked cake. Another issue is that they dry out in a very short time. Frosting both holds in and adds moisture to the cake as it hardens slightly to form a protective "shell." Naturally i told her i would do it and then gave her my website to show her ideas for using natural flowers. After she looked through my site she decided to chuck the idea of naked cakes and order a butter cream watercolor cake instead. Pretty flattered i must say. 

I gave her many flavor combination options and told her to choose three for a cake tasting session. For the tasting i made three small two-layer cakes; honey cake with lemon filling, brown sugar cake with dark chocolate cream filling, and dark chocolate cake with Irish cream truffle filling and vanilla cream. The tasting was in the client's apartment and i took a bottle of complimentary champagne with me. A bit over the top? Perhaps, but i want to stand out in this business here in SP. I want people to have an experience worth talking to their friends about. Fondant is the number one style of wedding cakes in Sao Paulo, butter cream really isn't much of an option at most bakeries. So I want to stand out on flavor and service. My cakes are natural. I want people to know that I use raw honey, real butter, free range eggs and real chocolate. Luckily it worked. They chose all three flavors, so each tier will be different (and able to disassemble). Needless to say, very excited for our first tiered wedding cake. Thankfully we have until May to practice.