Do You Believe in Magic?
There's a colossal amount of stuff I don't know. Seriously. A lot. And I'm not talking about the specialized, esoteric knowledge that only a few specialized, esoteric people possess. I'm not talking about being able to translate dead languages, suss out the weight of distant stars, or speak at length about the historic or socioeconomic consequences of the Smoot-Hawley Act.
No, I'm talking about simple stuff. I'm congenitally incapable of doing math above a Sesame Street level, and I have responded with shocking violence when inanimate objects don't do what I want them to do. For example, I once punched an upright industrial Hobart mixer because it resolutely refused to macerate a batch of strawberries, choosing instead to fling them haphazardly all over my kitchen. It should be noted that no Hobart mixer has ever had a setting for "macerate," so I really had no reason to think the machine was capable of such a task, but that didn't matter. I broke a bone in my hand assaulting the recalcitrant mixer; the Hobart suffered no injury in the scuffle.
Cooking is the one thing I understand on a pure gut level, and I've spent most of my adult life trying to translate that understanding into expertise. But even after devoting almost two decades to this one small corner of the world's collected knowledge, I find that fully half of it remains a mystery. I can cook -- I can perfectly deconstruct a whole roast duck; turn eighty quarts of bone, water and marrow into just a few ounces of smooth, gleaming demi-glace; perform emergency surgery on a dishwasher with a paring knife and duct tape -- but I can't bake. Never have been able to, never will be able to. And I realize that after my first bite of pastry at the Cream Puffery.
Cooks and bakers are two separate breeds sharing turf and common passions in the kitchen but are otherwise as different in their work as impressionist painters and mad chemists. Line cooking is an instinctive art, all guts and brain stem. You work; you taste and tinker; you go where sense and reflex take you. While much of cooking is a repetitive grind -- a hundred pork tenderloins a night, 75 poulet with coarse mustard -- it is also immersive. Every plate needs personal attention; each dish is an individual achievement.
On the other hand, baking -- and pastry work both sweet and savory -- is science. There's no less art involved, and probably an even greater dedication to some strange and powerful galley theology, but the attitude is different. Bakers and pâtissiers can't improvise, can't work on the fly, can't just dive in there and play the way that cooks can. They have to do things like measure ingredients and set timers and take notes. They have to be able to see into the future, know what will happen when x amount of flour is mixed with y amount of water, sugar, yeast and so on, and predict exactly how everything will turn out without tasting along the way -- a feat that's totally beyond my ken.
Amy DeWitt has forgotten more about baking and pastry and the hard science of whisks and convection than I will ever know. Leaving her native Miami three years ago, she brought all of this accumulated knowledge to Boulder, where she and her Cuban-born partner, Lourdes Sanchez, opened the Cream Puffery and gave Colorado a little taste of Big Havana. Initially a coffee shop, the Puff has since morphed into a real, if tiny, restaurant, with Sanchez working the front of the house, assistant pastry chef Tanya Williams doing most of the grunt baking work, and Juliette Beale handling line and prep for lunch and afternoon-evening tapas service. But DeWitt is the yeast responsible for Cream Puffery's rising profile.
"It's not magic," she insists when I ask what separates cooks from bakers. "It's science. I think the difference is, cooks don't like to do math, and bakers don't like to get all hot and sweaty. But I think it's easier for a baker to start cooking than for a cook to start baking. And bakers can bend the rules, too; you just have to know what they are before you can break them."
To me, it's faith that illustrates the essential difference between the two. Cooks trust nothing, are genetically incapable of leaving well enough alone, cannot resist tasting and fussing and playing with their food. And despite what DeWitt says, I think bakers believe in magic.
For that matter, so do cooks. But we suspect that the bakers stole it all and won't tell us where they put it.
The Puff is a small place, and you could miss it, easy, if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, carrying the smell of savory spices and strong, rich Cuban coffee away toward the foothills rather than out to the streets. The dining room, such as it is, contains only four tables and a short counter, with a bar mirror fronted by neatly ranked bottles (mostly rum and tequila) in celebration of the Puff's newly minted liquor license, and an eclectic mix of glassware hanging from an overhead rack like a bar-baby's crib mobile. The little kitchen in back looks almost laughably cramped; it's filled with flour-dusted equipment, baking racks, sheet pans and half-constructed wedding cakes. And even the space behind and around the counter is jammed, packed with espresso machines, coffee makers and footed stands displaying cakes and cookies under domes of glass. Through it all moves DeWitt's crew, taking orders, pouring coffee and working the crowds.
On my first visit to the Puff, I take my place among the supplicants like I'm waiting for communion; I listen to the radio playing Cuban love songs as I check out the big chalkboard that lists a dozen kinds of coffees, from strong, bitter espressos to Cuban lattes to organic joe, and also the smaller, dry-erase board showcasing the lunch specials, sandwiches and soup (homemade, but only on cold days, which strikes me as brilliant). When my turn finally comes, the woman at the counter smiles and asks what she can get for me.
"Lunch," I tell her. "I'll take one of everything."
She laughs, because she probably hears this a lot. But the Puff has a small menu, and one of the great benefits of this job is that I don't have to be joking when I say that. And this time, I'm not.
"Okay," I say. "One of each savory, then, and the lunch special, and a half a Cuban sandwich, and a latte with sugar. I'll come back for the pastries later." Laura has already snagged us a two-top table near the door. I point in that direction and say that's where we'll be waiting.
Neither DeWitt nor Sanchez ever intended for the Cream Puffery to be a Cuban cafe. In fact, they never planned to serve more than a few breakfast pastries to go with their coffee. But their customers demanded more. "It was more our clients' idea than ours," DeWitt explains. "They would see the signs that said we served Cuban coffee; we would hear screeching brakes, and they would come in asking, ŒDo you have real Cuban coffee? Do you have Cuban sandwiches?' We resisted the idea of serving food for a long time, but we've had to reinvent ourselves several times over the years."
For a cafe that never intended to be a cafe, the Puff has its act down pretty well. Our food starts arriving almost immediately. First come the ham croquetas, breaded, deep-fried, fingerling appetizers about the size and shape of mozzarella sticks, but so much better that if I were eating lunch with anyone but my darling wife, I would shout, "Look! Elvis!," then shove them all in my mouth with both hands while my companion's back was turned. I don't try this trick, because Laura would shank me with a fork the instant I made my move, then eat my share while I sat there bleeding. A lovely woman, my wife, but she takes her tapas very seriously.
Possibly sensing the potential for violence, the kitchen quickly sends out more plates. Pastelitos this time -- wedges of puff pastry done turnover-style and stuffed with crab or Cuban picadillo. The buttery pastry deflates like clouds and crumbles impressively after the first bite, scattering crumbs and making a huge mess of the table. The green-onion-cream-cheese paste in the crab pastelito braces the solid but not overpowering flavor of good, fresh crabmeat. The picadillo is a finely ground mix of beef, tomato, garlic and onion, sweetened by raisins and spiced with sofrito -- the Cuban mirepoix -- made with peppers, garlic and onion, which DeWitt roasts for a fuller, sweeter flavor. On some days, the Puff offers picadillo as an entree, served over rice; on other days, the leftovers are used as pastelito filling. I like the picadillo better with a little age.
An order of ropa vieja -- the day's special -- brings brisket that's been boiled down for hours in an aromatic stock jacked up with peppers, garlic, oregano and onion, cooked until the stock works into every fiber and the meat falls apart at the seams like old clothes (ropa vieja: old clothes -- get it?), then soaked in a sweet Marsala and sofrito sauce. On the side is Cuban bread smeared with high-fat butter. The bread's homemade, but not with the traditional mounds of White Cap lard. Instead, DeWitt uses a half-shortening/half-butter mix so that vegetarians who come in looking for black beans and rice have something they can use to mop up the plate.
And even I'd be willing to go vegetarian if I lived close enough to the Puff to have DeWitt's black beans and rice three times a day. They're amazing: perfectly cooked, fragrant, with a wonderful texture and gentle spices. But then I'd miss the Cuban sandwiches with pork marinated in mojo (lime juice, garlic and cumin), thick-sliced sweet ham, mustard and pickles on a half loaf of that great bread.
On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the Puff now offers a happy-hour menu filled with tapas and smaller versions of the weekly lunch specials, all homemade. The board of fare includes green-chile-and-cheese tamales steamed in the corn shuck, more croquetas, mini spanakopitas, jalapeño poppers and tiny beef Wellingtons (which seem a little out of place but are delicious nonetheless). Order enough of them, and you're set for dinner.
And then, of course, there's dessert. Returning to the counter, I ask what's good to sample -- and instead of the usual Oh, everything's good, or just a shrug, I get a litany of everything the bakery is proud of. I order it all. Cranberry-macadamia-nut cookies? I don't like cranberries or macadamia nuts; I eat the cookies anyway. Guava-and-cheese pastelitos? They're a delicious mix of sweet and earthy flavors -- kind of like a Caribbean pumpkin pie -- with the pastry expertly tuned up with a crisp crust of caramelized sugar. Rum balls? On the entire menu (and I've tried it all), these are the only things I don't like: They're bitter, dry and aggressively harsh on the tastebuds.
But I'd forgive the Puff much worse for another piece of Key lime pie, which tastes just like a slice of the Florida Keys -- and nothing at all like what's passed off as Key lime pie outside that part of the country. Not cloyingly sweet, not abusively bitter, not horribly, unnaturally green, this filling is a creamy, gently sweet mix of Key lime juice, sugar, egg, sweetened condensed milk and DeWitt's experience and upbringing.
After all that, we take our slice of dulce de leche cake to go. The white cake has been frosted with ropes of caramel, then drizzled with sweet milk that pools at the bottom of the take-out container, sucking the sugar and starch out of the cake, getting thicker and thicker with each passing minute.
"Are you going to make it home with that?" the woman behind the counter asks. "Or should I put a fork in the bag?"
"Home?" I reply. "No. It'll never make it. Better make it two forks."
We haven't even reached the end of the block when Laura and I crack open the takeout container and dig in. We eat the cake sitting on a bridge over Boulder Creek, feeling lucky that dolts like me who can't make a cupcake without the fire department being involved can enjoy baking like this, the delicious fruit of all that measuring and weighing and serene belief in the infallibility of numbers. DeWitt and crew have merged magic and science in their galley, in a balancing act that I wouldn't have thought possible until I tasted it for myself.
Until now, I never believed that bakers this good could cook, or that cooks this talented could bake. Or however it goes. But then, there's a lot I don't know.
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