The food I like best is simple. In winter hearty soups and stews, slow simmered oxtail and whole baked pumpkin. In summer big leafy salads and bowls of olives, thin slices of salami and piles of fresh cherries. And at all times bread—good crusty loaves the color of hot sand. It is the sort of food labeled today as ‘peasant’ cuisine, a rather fanciful label that bares scarce resemblance to the monotonous and meager diet of most of the world’s peasants throughout most of their history. But is sells well and has a nice ring to it. (Whereas plain old ‘bread’ can only sell for a couple of dollars, ‘peasant bread’ sells for at least double, an extra dollar tacked on to the price for each additional adjective. A loaf of ‘crusty Provencal harvest bread baked with heirloom wheat and kneaded by a sweaty, foul-mouthed, and cigarette smoking French baker’ would threaten the fattest wallet.) The modern gastro-science of gels and foams and spherified pig’s urine is interesting, in an abstract sort of way. And yet, for better or worse it is that straightforward and soul-warming, pseudo-peasant food that I like best and always return to cook and eat.
That said, I have an alter ego obsessed with culinary perfection and a mania for creating knee wobbling mouthfuls of something so unearthly—so blindingly blissful—that is silences the table. I do not claim to have achieved such a feat, but sometimes the alter ego takes charge and I find myself launching into frenzied attempts. Now and then it feels good to toss aside mundane considerations, like work and budgets, and bake a cake so complicated it takes a week to complete and requires obscure and outrageously expensive ingredients.
My excuse for this latest mania—a recipe by the wizard chef Heston Blumental for a monumental Black forest gateau—was my birthday. My parents wanted to take me out to dinner. Wouldn’t it be nicer, I suggested cunningly, if we had a BBQ at home? I would do the cooking, naturally. And bake the cake. We could even make it a double birthday celebration as my brother’s was around the same time. My mother agreed, unwittingly committing herself to pay for my explorations in the land of culinary absurdity, unaware that Heston insists on the use of the best chocolate and the most extravagant kirschwasser (cherry liqueur) in his gateau. But it was my birthday and I won.
Making this cake is more a combination of middle school science and architecture than baking. There are eight separate elements including ‘cherry stalks’ fashioned out of dried vanilla bean and an aerated chocolate that requires the use of a vacuum cleaner. The barbecue is this Sunday and so far I have only complete two elements: the basic chocolate sponge and kirsch cream. That leaves six to go and I know Saturday will be chaos. And yet I’m going to love every minute of it. From figuring out how the vacuum cleaner is supposed to aerate my chocolate to making my own ‘wood effect’ base on which to present the cake, this is just the sort of indulgence my alter ego needs. Then it will leave me in peace to eat my peasant food for another six months, until Christmas perhaps.
And I still hold out hope for a culinary masterpiece of magnificent, knee-wobbling proportions.