By my eighth week of working at La Farine the bakers were gifting me with a gigantic box of breads and pastries, to take home at the end of my shift. They wanted me and everyone I knew to experience their freshly baked Challah or egg bread, French baguettes, and my favorite – Irish soda bread. This bread had a hard crust and was bursting with apricot pieces, yet it was soft and creamy in the middle. I used to eat it for breakfast – toasted with butter, and enjoy its savory sweetness with a steaming cup of hot chocolate. My sister Lisa loved their sourdough baguette. I remember watching her eat an entire crusty flute with butter, in one sitting. Mom enjoyed the sourdough round, which had less crust and more of a chewy center, while my brother Peter liked the pastries, God bless him, the Morning Bun in particular. He would put the entire thing into his mouth and slowly chew with eyes closed, then he’d reach for another.
On rare occasions the bakers would include slices of their specialty cakes, which had become too dry to sell to the public, but seemed perfectly fresh to us. In truth, these were the pastries that I could not afford to try. Even their names, which were mostly in French, seemed off limits to me as I hadn’t a clue what they meant. Like the Gateau du Printemps, a rich coconut cake layered with tangy lime mousse and delicately finished with a thin layer of white chocolate buttercream frosting. Le Sicilian, a light chocolate genoise (or sponge cake) soaked with Frangelico liqueur, filled with creamy pistachio mousse and chocolate ganache, then coated with the perfect amount of white chocolate buttercream. Chamonix, which was a moist devil’s food cake, layered with creamy white chocolate raspberry mousse and fresh raspberries, frosted ever so slightly with yet again, white chocolate buttercream frosting. Suffice to say, after tasting cakes like these I was ruined, forever. Never again could I appreciate a German Chocolate cake from Safeway; they had become overly sweet and flavorless compared to La Farine’s exquisite French desserts.
Then one day it happened. After bussing it home from work, I opened my goody box and found a slice of the Reine de Saba inside. It was a cake I’d always wanted to try because it was simply chocolate on chocolate, which was my favorite confection. No fruit, no “bitter” liqueur, just pure chocolate. As I washed down each bite with a sip of cold milk, I felt my body lift into a realm I’d never know before. It was pure bliss, utter pleasure, but it was followed by guilt as I realized I hadn’t saved even one bite for my Mother, who had taught me the value of chocolate. Oops. When I went to work the next day, I thanked the bakers for their generosity, and for including a piece of their special chocolate cake. They just smiled at me, vaguely understanding the effect the Reine de Saba had on me.
From that day forward, whenever anyone called or asked me for a cake recommendation, I would youthfully tout the praises of the Reine de Saba. “It’s the best chocolate cake in the world! If you like chocolate, it’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven! I don’t know what they put into this cake, but it’s beyond amazing!” My customers would either laugh or look at me like I was on drugs, however they always left with a Reine de Saba under their arm. One day a woman came in and asked for a cake recommendation for her daughter’s 13th birthday. “We’re having a big party at the Palace of Fine Arts in the City with all of her friends, and she’s wanting something chocolaty, what do you recommend?” Easy answer. “She’s allergic to nuts, are there nuts in that cake?” “Nope.” I told her, “Just chocolate cake with chocolate ganache frosting and whole raspberries on top.” “Perfect.” She said, with a glimmer of doubt on her face. What I didn’t know was, what gives the Reine de Saba its unique characteristic is the fact that there are pureed almonds in the cake. So finely pureed, that unless you had a distinguished pallet, you would never know they’re in there. Hence, the cake is so smooth and the bakers so amazing at their craft, that there isn’t a hint of granulated almond to its texture.
The following day I worked the afternoon shift. When I walked in the door all eyes were on me and the owner was there, which was rare. I immediately started to worry, but said nothing. I just put on my apron, washed my hands and began freshening the display cases. Then the owner asked to speak with me. I saw in her eyes scornful disappointment, so I looked at the bakers for some explanation. Their faces were filled with wincing sympathy. I thought I was going to faint. My arms felt like lead and I started to shake. “What did I do?” I asked, my eyes welling up with tears. “Yesterday, you sold an almond filled cake to a woman whose daughter is allergic to nuts.” The owner said matter of factly. I looked around, my eyes searching for something, then I remembered the woman who mentioned her daughter’s allergy, and I was flooded with relief. “No, I sold her the Reine de Saba, the chocolate ganache cake with raspberries on top. There are no nuts in that cake? She must have eaten something else with nuts that day.” Her birthday, I thought, her 13th, she was a teenager now. I vaguely recalled my own 13th birthday and the big deal my Mom made about it, because I was no longer “Baby Cat” but “Teen Cat.”
The owner told me that the young girl had an allergic reaction to the almonds in the cake, and had to be taken to the hospital. The mother wanted me fired or she was going to sue the bakery. As tears streamed silently down my face, the owner explained that when I was trained I was told the ingredients of everything sold at La Farine, and I must have forgotten about the almonds in the Reine de Saba. The truth is, I wasn’t told the ingredients of everything we sold, but I was still at fault. I should have asked the bakers if there were nuts in the Reine de Saba. I was flooded with guilt, shame and sadness. When the owner handed me my final check, she looked sympathetic for the first time. I thanked her, apologized for everything then quickly walked towards the front door. As I was leaving I heard my name being called softly en español, “Raquel!” When I turned around I saw all of the bakers standing at their stations with their hats off, and their hands on their hearts. I nodded my head a few times, attempted a smile, then left.
Part III tomorrow…It gets better, I promise.