Last week a French-accented human metaphor marched straight into my radar, unwillingly shattering my composure and making me blush like a damn fool, but also unknowingly re-awakeing within me an interest in pastries as well as a nostalgia for the culture of caring – but like really caring – that surrounds it where I come from. A tiny shot of bitter, dark espresso with silky crema washing down something sweet or flaky. The chapter closed with the dry sizzle of a cigarette. That’s how it goes at a Hungarian kávéház (café).
My mom understands. It was our nostalgia and homesickness for this aspect of society that likely drove both of us to work in bakeries at some point. Granted, it was at a transitional time in both of our lives. Stripped of her Hungarian physical therapy license and practice, little immigrant Maman took a job at Hi Rise to make some extra coinage and – quite literally – feed the family. After school I’d get seriously wonderful hazelnut chocolate chip cookies. Though my parents couldn’t afford to buy me the Lunchables and Capri Sun Coolers I so desperately needed to fit in at school, there was never a shortage of crusty, fresh sourdough at my house. My mother always saw this as the most important thing. Quality of life, maintained. She would rather have starved than eaten a slice of Wonderbread, toasted or raw. (I still remember the bewilderment on my parents’ faces as they watched my brother – a growing lad of 25 at the time – push an entire loaf of flimsy Wonderbread into one thick slice, top it with butter and salami and eat it as a sandwich for breakfast.) I digress, though for a valid reason: I secretly believe my appreciation of good food goes back to this time.
My job, which has in the past few weeks entirely absorbed my social life, involves pastry. It once revolved around pastry completely before the incompetence of others forced me away from it. I lost quality time with a case and display of which I was once very attentive. I lost my passion and with it the attention to detail. But last week I was moved to re-imagine the potential of our pastry program and for the first time in a while I felt a sense of assurance, a pat on the back of sorts. I was asked to remember a croissant I had had in New York, made in house at Dean & DeLuca’s Soho location, and another one – almond – from Balthazaar down the street. They had both been pretty great, reminders of the epic train trips I once took around Europe with my best friend, of the pastries I had in Paris and the croissants in the Hauptbanhof cafe of Wien. These are memories that encourage me to improve an already existant and (technically) functioning pastry program.
The other day I visited Le Caprice with a friend. It was a mission, a type of research for work maybe. They are lauded for having the “best croissant in D.C.” by some source or another. It was an unnaturally hot and sunny morning, so I was hoping the croissant would be airy and light and have mercy on my body. The diagnosis? Good, but just not good enough. Not good enough to go back for and certainly not good enough to be called the “best of” anything.
We tried a plain butter croissant, which I guess is more often a base for some kind of egg and cheese thing here. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a croissant is. It’s not a type of bread. If it’s dense enough to serve as a base for a sandwich with cooked ingredients than its not airy enough to be a proper croissant. It’s also not supposed to be sawn in half. It’s supposed to be bitten into or ripped and twisted into little mouthfuls. And I guess, yeah, they’re croissant looked nice and layered and shiny on the top. It was crunchy at the tips, slightly doughy in the middle and flaky all throughout. But it just wasn’t alive. It felt deflated, like the air had drained out of it. It felt tired and broken and empty inside. The butter had seperated out of the dough and coated my fingers, leaving stains on everything I touched. We also tried a pistachio croissant, which had a similar base but a crunchy crust of mildly sweet pistachio paste painted over the surface. A thick layer of neon green pistachio puree served as the filling. Again, good but just not good enough. The filling was too thick and overpowered the bottom half of the pastry which, again, looked like someone had sat on it. I went back inside to look around for some kind of saving grace. But there wasn’t really anything appealing in there. The pastries looked glossy and fake and tired at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning, in the exact hour they should’ve probably look their best. The harsh white backlight probably didn’t help their appearance too much. Neither did the fact that they were just kind of piled onto shelves instead of towered for aesthetic purposes. There were about 5 classic French things there – pain aux raisin, some bichon or another and savory viennoiseries. But otherwise it was all fake-ass red velvet cupcakes, banged up macarons and iced cookies that looked a bit too home-made (in a bad way). I left kind of sad, though in good spirits, as I was in good company. When I got home I uncovered a book that has been dusting away in a pile on my living room table, “Culinaria Hungaria,” given to me by my sister-in-law the last time I saw her. I glossed over the pages and landed on one particular chapter, the introduction to which read the following: As a Hungarian who tends to travel quite a bit I can attest to the truth of this statement. I miss the culture of the cukrászda (patisserie). I miss the Krémes (better than a French Napoleon), the Rigó Jancsi, the Eszterházy. I miss Rétes with poppy seed and cherry and sweet túró (quark?). I miss Zserbó with its layers of apricot jam and ground walnut, a reworked French Gerbaud. I also miss the purée of roasted chestnut layered with whipped cream and topped with sour cherry, a dessert that my mom still makes quite often from frozen blocks of ground chestnut smuggled through customs. Most of all I miss Dobos Torta with its sheet of crunchy caramel and layers of chocolate cream. Above all else I miss the moments associated with these charismatic cakes. On summer vacations to Balaton Lake my grandfather and I would ride our bicycles over to the nearest cukrászda. Every person in the family was paired to their favorite cake. Getting the wrong one would be an unpardonable insult and crime. I kept reading…With each page I grew more homesick for this part of my life, more appreciative for the rich culinary traditions that make up my heritage. Lamenting all the while the quality of what has been voted best croissant in D.C., I came to realize that no matter how much effort I put in, I will never fully be satisfied with any kind of pastry program in a city that chooses such an unexceptional version of a croissant to call it’s best. There was a sense of quiet, humble resignation in Frenchie’s voice as he spoke of cheesecake and brownies and cupcakes and cookie dough. It’s a resignation I am starting to accept as well. All I can do for now is try to apply my ability to discern between good and mediocre in this department, an ability I believe is a birthright as a European. I can’t fill that case with legitimate tartes and Napoleons and tiramisu but I can get the best of what those pastries have been re-imagined as in the U.S., in D.C. specifically.
And if I ever leave this country in my wild 20’s again to create another exciting chapter to remember fondly as a bored, middle-aged American housewife, it’s clear where I will go. Back to Europe, maybe even back to Hungary, but back to Europe for sure. For inspiration to write, for coffee sitting down and for pastries that crackle and flake in a way that’s real by my mother’s and my definition of that word.