Let’s try something different. Over the course of the next two months, I will share with you some short stories from my anthology “Unintended Lives: A Collection of Tall Tales”.
The first one is titled “Tiramisu (or pick-me-up)”.
It was the summer of 1998. Or maybe 1999. Her boys were 9 and 11, or somewhere thereabouts. It was August, of that she is sure. They had arrived in Antibes, planning to spend a month on the famous French Riviera.
Her younger son called her a pessimist back then, which surprised her, as she had packed them up and whisked them off on what was basically a whim, a product of the incipient madness that would envelope her in what would be a decade of strange and unpredictable life decisions.
It was the year she had the first of her many mid-life epiphanies, or crises (depending on who is telling the tale), and decided she was going to leave a perfectly good corporate position to become a pastry cook. She enrolled in a renowned pastry program that would give her a certificate in nine months.
Over the course of those months, she found that she loved the precision of measurements and movements required to make the perfect mousse or achieve the correct glaze of caramelized sugar. There was a comfort in following the dictates of a recipe – it was order imposed on an otherwise turbulent world. That was also the year her marriage fell apart.
She learned that, for desserts, it was all about the preparation. Meticulous gathering and weighing of ingredients, to be whipped or folded or mixed at just the right moment, bringing the parts together into a harmonious whole. Here, if followed properly, the rules wouldn’t let you down.
But, after completing the course, certificate in hand, she wanted to learn more. There was the allure of an adventure to be had, for her and her sons. So she landed an unpaid internship in a patisserie in the town of Antibes. She found an apartment with a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and even rented a small car to drive along the sinuous roads hugging the coast.
As an apprentice in the patisserie, she was only permitted a few tasks, so as not to spoil the otherwise flawless pastries that emerged from its kitchen. Basically, she cracked eggs. Hundreds of them. Carefully separating whites from yolks. She would wake up each morning at six, watch the orange-red sun rise over the water in its awe-full grandeur, drink her café (she was, after all, in France), and head to the patisserie to crack eggs until noon. Her boys would wake at ten, watch American cartoons dubbed in French, argue with each other, and wait for her to come home at noon to pick them up.
And then the magic would happen. They would get their favorite lunch (jambon-buerre baguettes) from the store at the corner and eat it at the beach. The boys would try not to ogle the women who, of course, were bathing topless (this so did not happen at Rockaway Beach). Or they’d pack into the car and explore the small towns perched in the sloping hills of the Cote D’Azur, visiting museums or perfumeries. They would hang-glide in Nice, people-watch in Cannes or Saint-Tropez, or drop into Monaco. Wherever the breeze guided them. Their favorite place for dinner was a small Italian restaurant in town, where they would order spaghetti and discovered tiramisu. How the boys loved tiramisu. They would finish the day by walking through the town center, bristling with people, laughter, and romance. Before heading back home in the evening, they would buy giant cones of gelato and eat the dripping confection as they gazed at the moon, embraced by the soft sea wind.
It was one of the hottest summers in Europe in decades, so the roads were teeming with refugees from the steaming cities to the north and east. They heard no English other than their own bickering. She threatened to get a tattoo. Or swim topless. The boys threatened to disown her. They wound up meeting other children on the beach, a jumble of French-Italian-German-speaking kids with whom they would play soccer, communicating in some universal language of their own making. By month’s end, her boys had achieved a certain French swagger, a semblance of sophistication that would serve them well when they returned home.
It was an enchanted month. An unexpected pause in their lives that would prove to be a remarkable gift. Twenty years later, her youngest son would no longer be alive. An event she was not prepared for. In hindsight, she is grateful for the impetuosity that spurred them to experience this extraordinary sliver of time together. It now takes all her energy to wake up in the morning and put her shoes on, one at a time, in preparation for the day. But as she closes her eyes at night, she can see his silhouette against the shimmering water of the Mediterranean, throwing a frisbee at his brother, tossing his curly hair away from his eyes as he waves to her and laughs, sounds of pure happiness.
TIRAMISU (Italian, from the phrase tira mi su or “pick me up”)
An Italian dessert consisting of layers of sponge cake soaked in coffee and brandy or liqueur with powdered chocolate and mascarpone cheese.
For the cream:
4 large egg yolks
½ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup heavy cream
1 cup mascarpone
- Whip together egg yolks and ¼ cup sugar until very pale yellow and triple in volume.
- In another bowl, whip cream and remaining ¼ cup sugar until soft-medium peaks are created.
- Add mascarpone and continue to whip until a spreadable mixture with medium peaks is created.
- Gently fold the mascarpone mixture into the sweetened egg yolks and combine.
For the assembly:
1 ¾ cups good espresso
2 tablespoons rum or cognac
2 tablespoons unsweetened coca powder
24 ladyfingers (store-bought) – easier than baking sponge cake
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate for shaving, if desired
- Combine espresso and rum in a bowl.
- Using a sifter, dust the bottom of a 2-quart baking dish with 1 tablespoon cocoa powder.
- Dip each ladyfinger into the espresso mixture and place, rounded side up, at the bottom of the baking dish until you have an even layer (use half the ladyfingers)
- Spread half the mascarpone mixture on to the ladyfingers in an even layer.
- Repeat with remaining ladyfingers and mascarpone mixture.
Dust top layer with remaining tablespoon of cocoa powder. Top with shaved chocolate, if desired.
Cover with plastic wrap and let chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours (the longer the better) before slicing or scooping to serve.