March 29th, 2009
When I was a kid my mom, Karen, made cupcakes to bring to my class on my birthday. She also sewed many gifts, requiring she stay up until into the wee hours to complete them after the work day at her theater. Easter baskets and Christmas stockings often had dolls tucked inside–a hand-painted Punch (of Punch & Judy), a velvet swan, the incredible Carmen Miranda with a tutti-frutti hat, outrageous embroidered eye make-up and nail polish, and fantastic red satin platform shoes.
This week I channeled Karen’s spirit to stay sane through the days it took to make a birthday cake for my honey. Frankfurter Kranz is what his mom used to make for his childhood birthday. Gudren is not alive for me to consult, or perhaps have a slightly manic giggle over the twenty-seven steps involved. There are many reasons I am bereft to not have met her, but this cake is among them. Sometimes a cake is more than a cake.
Creating the cake involved making my first Pâte á Bombe (French Buttercream frosting). With a whisk. No electric beater, no candy thermometer, no proper measuring device. No packages at the store in a language I understand. Speisestaerke… Maisstaerke… Is this corn starch? And who puts corn starch in anything anyway? Three lemonish bundt cake layers slathered in buttercream and covered in handmade hazelnut praline topping. A lot of math making liters and grams and cups and teaspoons talk to each other, though mostly they just bickered incomprehensibly.
One night while I baked I watched Rosemary’s Baby dubbed in French while my arm dangled from its socket from the beating of a “thread-thin” stream of boiling sugar water into nine egg yolks. This is what makes the frosting “French”–the Swiss use the whites instead, which could offer shorthand cultural critique–the Swiss here speak French and are on the French border, but allegedly don’t like them. I can imagine the feeling is mutual. Neuchâtel is however said to be the “most French” of the Swiss towns, which means I think, we support the idea of joining the EU, but I was too busy freaking out to ponder this egg issue for long.
The advice I googled was all so dramatic, cautioning about the impossibility of this actually becoming a spreadable substance and not simply scrambled sugar eggs that even I, otherwise wearing time-earned kitchen ease, found myself disproportionately anxious. It was midnight. I was praying for the magic of alchemy while visions of Tannis Root filled necklaces and Carmen Miranda dolls danced in front of my eyes. a chicka chicka boom!
Ever a New Yorker (which translates to possessing an undying real estate envy, even from another continent), I was also wishing for an apartment in The Dakota even if it meant hatching the devil’s spawn, which is rather what my first Frankfurter Kranz looks like, no? I was told however it tasted just like childhood, and so my efforts were rewarded.
On Sunday morning our neighborhood church, L’église Collégiale de Neuchâtel rang what I call the “repent bells” that sound ceaselessly for fifteen minutes from 9.45 to 10, subtly suggesting you crawl out of bed and get your infidel self on up there. As with every Sunday we resisted, in this case we did it while eating cake, which seemed especially heathen. It is however a lovely building and grounds, and so in the afternoon we finally made it up the mount for a tour with Alfonso’s godmother Sylvia. (On the day of the first snow this season I made some panoramas there.)
The church grounds feature a statue of Reformation hero Guillaume Farel, “The scourge of the priests.” Farel’s firey, tactless preaching forced him to flee for his life from France and elsewhere: The pope was antichrist, the Mass idolatry. He traveled tenaciously with his wild red beard, while ridiculed, beaten, and shot at. He was still being rescued from jail at seventy-two years old. I’m not partial to Protestantism any more than the “superstitions” of Roman Catholicism he rallied against, but I appreciate his energy and truth to his convictions.
We affectionately call him the “read my book!” man, for the pose he assumes outside the Collégiale. For the last twenty-seven years of his life, Farel pastored our church in Neuchâtel, one of the first towns that he had won to Protestant belief in 1530. This weekend I learned he lived in this nearby house, which is one of my favorites around town.
Next to our “read my book!’ man is a Suisse grandma, reading her own book in a giant fur cap, Jackie O glasses and confounding old school Adidas: black with white stripes circa 1976. Spring is busting out all over.