Friday, April 13, 2007

I miss Maura

I really miss Maura. From a story I'm writing about food and girls:

Maura gave me shredded phyllo dough for the kunefe. She knew I was trying to impress this girl, and another also, and my car had gotten stuck in a massive snowbank on the street outside my house. We’re not paying you, so here, she said, rummaging in the walk-in for a box of phyllo. It was the next-to-last time I’d be in her kitchen, and I knew it then, so I was stuck on trying to memorize every detail of what we did in the hopes that one day I too would be able to put together dessert half as complex, flavorful and heartfelt as everything she did. In one week, she’d finished putting together two new desserts for the menu, and she fed me samples: a brown sugar frozen chiboust with black walnut strudel, and tiny profiteroles with Arabic ice cream made from ground gum mastic and rosewater. The ice cream was minty and warm in my mouth, with the rose flavor. Another thing I’d come to crave. I lingered, offered to bring things downstairs, tried to stay with her, because she was the only person I’d worked for in the industry I liked and admired, and because I still thought she had so much to teach me.
I made other Lindsey’s kunefe the night before our date, shredding the phyllo in my roommate’s under-powered baby Cuisinart and soaking it in milk and butter. I opened a bottle of French champagne I’d had from New Year’s, popped my old cardamom pods in a baby mortar and pestle, and tore strips of lemon zest with my paring knife. The syrup simmered. The phyllo concoction baked, two layers of dough swaddling a mascarpone center, a sandwich I’d soak with syrup when it finished baking. Hungry, I read Chef Ana’s introduction to the recipe in the restaurant cookbook. Chef Ana described the perfect kunefe as a caramely, hot toasted cheesecake, and I thought I knew how it would taste just from reading her words. I could barely wait to cut myself a slice of kunefe, after I’d doused it with the syrup.
Mine wasn’t crunchy. The syrup was lemony, with the aftertaste of cardamom rolling around my mouth. Cardamom was a spice I knew I didn’t understand. I could describe it, I could taste it, but I knew that I had no control over how to use it. I could only mimic other’s suggestions, the mark of a weak chef. My kunefe was limp, and the mascarpone center no more than a schmear of cream cheese. I’d baked the dish for the time listed, and having worked with Maura to batch test recipes for food magazines I knew her process was perfect, but there was no crunch. The caramelization wasn’t as deep as I expected. I wrapped my sad kunefe in plastic. I’d wanted to give Lindsey more.

Learning by myself is fun. Having a boss who says, go, do whatever, just use the fruit, it's amazing. Especially less than a year out of culinary school. But I miss being inspired by someone I'm working with. Miette, not so inspirational. Interesting. Frustrating. Useful, I hope. Fun at times. It's very realistic. But I need to be in some kitchens for a while. Maybe Alice's kitchen (if Alice ever is in there), zesting fruit for the Chez Panisse kids. Or Elizabeth Falkner's artier-than-thou, tongue in cheek mecca of perfect lemon squares. Somewhere in this city I'm just getting to know. Maybe I just need someone to talk about food with.

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