Amy DeWitt calls herself "a little Miami Jewish girl" who was drawn to the Cuban culture early in life.
"I started learning Spanish when I was ten years old," she says. "When I got to Boulder, I missed Cuban coffee so badly. It was so white here, so barren of ethnicity. Everyone was starving for something colorful and Latin."
DeWitt and her partner, Lourdes Sanchez, are owners of the Cream Puffery, a tiny eatery that occupies a space on Boulder's 15th Street opposite Liquor Mart and next door to the Word Is Out bookstore. We're sitting at one of the restaurant's two round tables, opposite a long, gleaming mahogany bar looped with small white lights. A nook by the window boasts a chair, a small French rosewood settee and a 300-year-old Chinese bookcase. The effect is cozily elegant.
The two moved to Boulder with the intention of opening a pastry shop. Before embarking on the venture, DeWitt tasted various cakes around town. Everything struck her as dry. "I thought: Good, they can use me," she remembers.
"My pastries are classical European," she explains, "but I did Latin them up a bit." This means filling traditional puffs with mango- or passion-fruit-flavored cream, using dulce de leche in place of caramel and creating her own version of a pithivier -- which normally consists only of a layer of frangipane between layers of puff pastry -- that featured an almond cookie crust and raspberry jam. DeWitt also makes cakes: An American Culinary Federation silver medalist in her teens, she has won several prizes for artistry and taste at the Boulder County Safehouse Chocolate Lovers' Fling. There's the PMS torte (frangipane, chocolate chiffon cake, brandy syrup and bittersweet ganache), a chocolate hazelnut torte, a guava cheesecake and a mint-chocolate cheesecake that DeWitt describes as "a creamy version of the thin-mint Girl Scout cookie." She does wedding cakes and other elegant, high-end confections to order, as well: "I go wild with marzipan flowers, ribbons, foofy stuff," she laughs.
She gets up to make me a cortadito: Cuban coffee with evaporated milk and lashings of sugar. It's thick, delicious and intensely strong, but with no trace of bitterness. Two or three sips and I'm so zizzed that every word DeWitt utters shimmers. "Cuban coffee is richer than espresso," she observes. "It's not roasted as dark, so the sugar caramelizes in the bean. And they use a trace of robusta" -- a less-fine coffee -- "which is oily and makes the coffee creamy."
Things were difficult at the Cream Puffery during its early days, and Sanchez and DeWitt weren't sure the place would survive. Customers ignored the exotic sweets, asking for brownies and chocolate chip cookies instead; DeWitt had to retire her pithivier and Basque cake. Other patrons asked for sandwiches and Cuban coffee, but the owners stuck to the original concept of specializing in pastry.
Then came September 11. "People wanted comfort food," says DeWitt. And nothing, she adds, is as comforting as Cuban cuisine.
The baked goods already represented a fusion of such Old World elements as ganache, buttercream and meringue with tropical flavors; now the Cream Puffery itself became a hybrid, combining its intensely sophisticated desserts with homey, peasant main dishes -- all served in an atmosphere reminiscent of a Viennese coffeehouse.
Because the kitchen is tiny, DeWitt knew she'd be unable to prepare entrees à la minute; everything would have to be made ahead of time. Still, since there's also little freezer or refrigerator space, almost everything the Cream Puffery serves has been made fresh that day. DeWitt began to develop a small repertoire of entrees -- and that's where Lourdes Sanchez's background came into play. Sanchez had lived in Cuba until she was seven.
"Lou said we had to have guava pie and pastelitos," says DeWitt. "I asked how you make them. She said, 'I don't know; just try, and I'll tell you if you've got it right.'"
Sanchez has joined our conversation. "The dishes don't leave the kitchen unless I've tasted them first," she says. "Amy's nailed every recipe. My parents were blown away when they visited."
"Our flan is Lourdes's grandmother's recipe," adds DeWitt.
DeWitt's Cuban entrees are almost entirely authentic; she has made only small changes in the recipes. She uses roasted garlic instead of fresh because roasting brings out the bulb's sweetness. Where Cubans use green peppers, she prefers red. Cuban cuisine is well-seasoned with salt and pepper -- and "there's oregano and bay leaf in almost everything," she says -- but not spicy; while the Cream Puffery keeps Tabasco sauce on hand for those who crave heat, "that's a bit like asking for ketchup in a French restaurant."
There are savory prepared pastries on hand for breakfast and lunch, and every day of the week has a different special. On Mondays, DeWitt serves ropa vieja -- the tender, flavorful Cuban version of the stringy brisket she remembers her mother serving at Passover; Wednesday's special is albondingas -- meatballs with a roasted tomato sauce; Friday's is picadillo -- sweet-and-sour ground beef with capers, olives, tomatoes and potatoes. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, she chooses from chicken and pork entrees and a polenta with mildly spicy sausage. Everything is served with rice, beans and Cuban bread. And the hot-pressed Cuban sandwich -- a classic filled with pork, ham, cheese, mustard and pickles for which most transplanted Miamians never stop yearning -- is available every day.
Sanchez, who's a vegetarian, presses the sandwiches. "The smell drives me crazy," she says. "It's agonizing; it's torturous. You start living vicariously through everyone else."
Brisket aside, her mother was a wonderful cook, DeWitt says, recollecting chicken soup with matzo balls and her grandmother's kreplach. Her mother was also "a health-food freak" who wouldn't allow store-bought cookies in the house, DeWitt says, so she started making cookies at an early age. She remembers baking a batch of mandelbrot from a recipe in Sara Kasdan's Love and Knishes. "People think they're hard because you have to knead the dough, form loaves and bake them," she says. "Everyone said, 'You're such a great baker.' I thought, 'Oh, I'm such a great baker.' Then there's nothing you're afraid to try because a great baker can do anything...I might have had an easier life if my mother told me I was good at something else." She laughs, shakes her head. "But I love that this is my life now."
DeWitt continued to bake in college. Everyone living in her complex got fresh bread during finals, and the process paper she was assigned for an expository writing class was about making bread. "I got an A," she recalls.
But she had no thought of cooking professionally and instead went into her parents' real estate business. "Kitchens were always my favorite part of a house," DeWitt observes. She got married, then divorced, and started thinking about making a living at what she loved. Her alimony money put her through Johnson & Wales University, where she earned a degree in pastry and fine baking. She interned at Turnberry Isle, a famed resort, where "I had the pastry chef's full attention," she says. "We played so much in that kitchen."
She met Sanchez at a lesbian happy hour, and eventually invited her over for dinner; it began with a polenta dish that featured three cheeses and garlicky rapini. "The dessert was spectacular," DeWitt says. "Poached pears dredged in chocolate with crème anglaise." The plates were beautifully decorated, and there were also pear frangipane tartlets and a cognac ice cream. "I wanted to impress her," she remembers. She smiles across at Sanchez. "She does not like pears. I had no idea."
After her internship ended, Dewitt spent almost a year selling cakes from her home. Then two years ago, the couple decided to move to Boulder, where DeWitt's sister lives, and open a pastry shop. "It seems so glamorous when you watch the chefs on TV, but it's very hard work," DeWitt says. "I'm glad I didn't know at the beginning how hard."
But the restaurant has a loyal and growing clientele; the pithivier and Basque cake have returned to become its biggest sellers; DeWitt fantasizes continually about new dishes she wants to try, and overall, she's pleased with her decision. "Making marzipan flowers is more fun than selling a house," she says. "People don't trust you if you're a realtor, no matter how ethical you are. Cakes are very intimate. Your art goes into their bodies and becomes a part of them. Especially, I love wedding cakes. They represent the beginning of a couple's whole life together. I love feeding people. When they see my cake and say, 'Oh, it's too beautiful to cut,' I love that.
"Then I reach for the knife."
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