When I decided to become a pastry chef, I never thought I’d one day be sitting in the dirt encircled by villagers, whipping egg whites into a frothy meringue – with chopsticks.
Nor did I envision assembling a tiramisu on the back of a motorbike. I did, though, and it was delicious. I even enlisted the help of a baffled barista. As I kept motioning for a little more sugar in my espresso, he was unknowingly making the syrup for soaking the sponge cake. A moped key is a perfect stand-in for scissors to cut open a bag of cocoa powder. And a hair tie can seal it back up in a pinch. Who knew that you can make chocolate curls with a candy bar and a plastic spoon from 7-11? Or that this decadent layer cake can be cut with a plastic Pringles lid? (Or a rubber band, for that matter.
I came to Northern Thailand unsure of the baking conditions. I was prepared to milk a cow if necessary. To my surprise, there are two baking supply stores full of multicolored sprinkles and unfortunately waxy chocolate- not exactly battle conditions. No, baking adventures happen on bumpy bus rides to mountain villages and foot treks across borders- with a wedding cake in a bag slung over one shoulder.
I had the rare opportunity to introduce hundreds of provincial celebrators to the Western queen of cakes. The sweltering heat of hot season dictated an unfrosted version, and the Thai bride requested a banana coconut pound-cake. This unassuming brown stack turned into a wedding cake when adorned with dozens of handmade, sunset-colored royal icing roses.
An empty platter balanced on my lap during the lurching bus ride home told me everyone liked it.
These are not the conditions that lead to spectacular culinary creations, and yet, the urge to create will not be quieted.
Somewhere inside are cookies that want to be baked. It feels like Christmas Eve: There are literally sugar plums, mangoes and passionfruit dancing in my head. And they want out; kitchen or no kitchen. Suddenly what was considered necessary (refrigeration, whisks, running water) has been forgotten. It’s just you, a beaten up wok, and a propane tank. Go.
Most of the streets I walk down are lined with children’s inquisitive faces. I’d like to bake them all birthday cakes. Once I packed flour, baking powder, sprinkles and (melty) butter over the border into Burma to do just that, only to discover the oven was broken. One look into the beautiful dark eyes of the birthday girl and I knew what I had to do. Out came the crooked wok, and we made giant pancakes: vanilla and chocolate. Forget hot pads. There was not even a towel in sight. We flipped the scalding pan using a camisole and rolled up boxers. The wokcakes alternated with raspberry jam and brown sugar butter sauce to form a cake, in needful compliance. Decked out with candy and glowing birthday candles, it looked like a birthday cake- from a distance. The birthday girl beamed proudly as she blew out all thirty-two candles on her very first birthday cake. In this moment of humble triumph, there was something to sing about. And, the cake tasted pretty darn good.