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.

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.