Tuesday, November 13, 2007

What is a memory worth?

What is a holiday worth?

In time, in money, in labor, in goods. Who holds the power?

I just got home from work and I'm making a cake. A Ukranian torte to be exact, commissioned by a friend of a friend. This torte has a shortbread-like "crust" and three layers of filling--applesauce, apricot and chocolate. The dough I made this morning and am baking off. I'm in between batches right now, waiting for the cake pans to cool enough so that I can re-use them. The applesauce was started this morning and is continuing to simmer down on the stove. The chocolate layer is simple and will be made tonight if I've got the energy. Tomorrow the apricot layer will be made, and the whole thing will be assembled and frosted with whipped cream. The recipe is from Comfort Food for Breakups.

I wasn't sure what to charge for it, how much considering it was for a friend of a friend, but also the week before Thanksgiving. And my time is pretty precious this month. So I costed out the recipe and names a price--not as high as I wanted, but enough to ensure I'd clear some profit after the ingredients were bought, enough to hopefully be worth the time put into it in after- or before-work hours when I'd rather be sleeping or reading a book.

I've done some commissioned baking before. My first job was a wedding cake. Three months into culinary school. I flat out told one of the grooms I couldn't do a tiered cake (when he asked why, I explained because we hadn't gotten there in school yet). We discussed cake options and he went with a white sponge cake, soaked in rum, with strawberries and vanilla buttercream. His only specification was that I incorporate the color lavender into my decorated, so I made some lavender-colored white chocolate shards and decorated the main cake (there were 3 or 4) with fresh flowers. I even bought a 2-groom decoration for the top from the cake store. I didn't know how to properly re-cream buttercream then. Back in the day.

Then I did some Thanksgiving stuff last year. Caramel apple pie, pumpkin pie, cranberry cheesecake. That was super fun when the cutie pie ate one of the pies the night before and I had to give away my only spare pie!

When you bake for commission unless you have baked that thing a hundred times, there's an element of guesswork and surprise and having things break or not work out. That wedding cake, I used new cake pans and didn't spray them well enough to get the cake out, so one of the layers fell apart. I didn't have enough time or money to make another, so I was forced to patch out a couple layers. Non-bakers might be surprised to know exactly how much their food is sometimes handled. I stayed up till 2 am working on the cake. There may have been a blizzard, it being a cold New England winter, but I can't quite remember. I was working half the time on a table my roommate had built for me out of plywood. I went to bed without having finished the decoration, got up at six am, called in sick to my job, and was shortly thereafter greeted by my roommate who was making enchiladas and fried chicken for the wedding dinner. We shared the kitchen and I finished the cakes in enough time for him to take them over to their house. The grooms were drunks and fell asleep in bed while the guests, mostly catering people we'd worked with, got drunk and raved about how the cake was the best thing Ever. It took them a month to pay me, cause I thought it's be crass to make them worry about money on the day, and when they did they stiffed me ten bucks or so.

The shortbread's baked now and the applesauce is finished. I'm getting up early again to bust out the other layers before work so when I get home I can assemble the torte and send it off with the nice Ukranian folks.

Next week is Thanksgiving and I get daily phone calls discussing various details. But in the meantime I still have a full time job to do. I think, should I have charged them more for the cake? What is my sleep worth? Should I have charged them less, considering I know them? When you factor in my shopping time, and that fact that it's closing in on one a.m. and I should be sleeping, am I treating myself as well as I should be or am I selling the experience my hands hold for too little money, because I am used to the pay scale and workload of my industry?

It's fun. It's always fun. Watching something new unfold in the oven. Making applesauce for the second time in a month and noting how the color is different this time because if different apples used.

This is really funny, too:
I got a lesson today in how to tie my apron. My chef was like, C'mere. Take It Off. Now Put It Here--Or Here. I always thought my apron was flying all over the place cause I've got a potbelly and it just doesn't want to stay up, but apparently not. She and my sous chef laughed at me. When they asked me to turn around I refused. Yeah it was funny...and I was laughing...but it made me feel like such a kid.


Marusya said...

I'm very excited that you are making this torte. It is a torte I grew up with. My ma didn't make it,(every Ukrainian lady had her own signature torte) her slighltly loopy friend Dolly did. It would appear only on very special occasions, and only as a leftover , probably swiped off Dolly's dining room table by my mom to appease the pint-sized pastry fanatic also known as her daughter. I'm intrigued that you are getting to know this cake in a professional manner: a recipe treasured and in some ways "owned" by a Ukrainian lady now in her seventies.

As for pricing considerations: I know that my nice Ukrainian friend who commissioned this cake wanted to pay you whatever you felt it was worth; he respects your craft immensely. But as a sometime-freelancer I know how difficult it is to come up with a price that accounts for community, economic conditions, memory and culture. so yeh hey good luck with that! - and I cant wait to hear how it turns out.

Busy all the time. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Busy all the time. said...

hi! Torte is made. I bet Dolly would be proud to see it reproduced here in SF. Baking-wise, there were some things I did not love about it (the chocolate filling, the amount of sugar in the shortcrust, the way it gets handled/baked). But, craft aside, it is nice to make something you know is hard to find. Something with a tiny and dedicated audience. Something that can remind someone of home. And it's challenging to put a price on all the intangibles.

Anonymous said...

How is an apron property tied, anyhow?

Anonymous said...

ditto, re: the apron. the things we didn't learn in school, I swear!

Busy all the time. said...

re, the apron:

(I swear, I thought everyone would think I was a jackass for not knowing but apparently it's a tricky thing):

If you are not wearing it over your head, fold the front part down, pull the fabric tight and put it where you want it on your body, cross hte strings around your back and then tie the strings TIGHT. tighter than you want them to be.

tie it in front, and the fold down a bit of the apron over the strings, which either hides them or keeps them up or does something magical so the whole thing stays up all day long! who knew?

also, the proper way to accessorize with a side towel is to bring a corner of it up through the string so most of the towel is by your body and one flap is over the top. so you can pull it out easily.

yes, the things we learn in school ;)