The day before I started culinary school I was attacked by a tuna can.
This was inauspicious at best, humiliating at worst. It meant I began the transition to my new career not in a haze of gauzy wonder but in several layers of actual gauze, taped over fresh stitches by the fine folks at Leonard Morse Hospital in Natick, Massachusetts. Imagine my introduction to my fellow students the following day.
"Hi, I'm Cheryl. Excuse me if I don't shake your hand, but really, you can trust me around meat slicers, robot-coupes, and giant knives for the next 10 months."
Our class bonded quickly, though we couldn't have been more different. There was Kiril, an 18-year-old boy of Russian descent; Patricia and Karina, two gorgeous Mexican women as kind and talented as they were beautiful; Joyce, a whip-smart Princeton grad and A's fan born and raised in San Francisco; Jess, a former financial analyst who has now written several wonderful cookbooks; Margaret, an attorney eager to start a new career but who later (I think) returned to lawyering; and others, including Eric, John, Lisa, Elizabeth, Beth, Ruth, and Diana.
And then there was me: thirty-two years old, a career-changing mother of two boys in diapers, my stitched hand wrapped up as subtly as a deli sausage.
That year was a good one. Our group coalesced. We found common ground though we were all pivoting from something else: from a layoff, a childbirth, a relocation, a misguided first career, or a future so blank that learning to cook seemed as good an idea as any. We weren't all sure what we'd do with the training -- none of us quite knew, perhaps -- but in our white coats and checked pants we formed a tight unit, and we gleaned what we could from the chefs and each other.
Towards the end of that year, someone threw a party. I think it was Ruth, though I could be mistaken. We gathered in a small apartment and feasted on a meal to which we'd all contributed. I brought a cake, a stacked coconut and chocolate number I'd made from François Payard's Simply Sensational Desserts.
I gilt the top of that cake with golden spirals. To do so, I'd used transfer sheets -- thin, flexible pieces of acetate that let you imprint words and designs neatly on melted chocolate. I was supremely proud of the results, not just because it let me show off what I'd learned that year at school, but because I'd pulled it off with two toddlers at home and a pug constantly underfoot. My life was far more chaotic, far messier than the pristine, spiral-printed surface of my pretty, embossed layer cake.
It was a fun night. The food was all great, and the cake did what I guess I wanted it to do: made me feel like I belonged, like I fit in with others who could cook and bake and craft something not just delicious, but pleasing to the eye.
Since then, my toddlers have become teens, my pug has passed on, and my cakes have taken a turn for the rustic. I still make that ganache-topped cake with the layers of flaky coconut, but as I've gotten older, the temptation to project a veneer of perfection has pretty much faded.
I've learned to embrace who I truly am: a woman who cooks and bakes, cuts her hands on tuna cans, and lives, messily, to tell the tale.
Recipe for Coconut Macaroon Cake with pistachios and coconut ganache
Adapted from François Payard, this cake is perfect for Passover because it contains no flour or chemical leavener. (Ribboned eggs provide lift.) In fact, it's completely grain-free, and since I've swapped in coconut cream for the heavy cream in the ganache, it's also dairy-free (assuming you choose a dairy-free chocolate). My streamlined version is scented with cardamom and flecked with pistachio. Be sure to leave time for the cake to chill before slicing.
Makes about 16 servings
For the coconut macaroon cake:
2 cups / 209 grams sweetened, flaked coconut (gently packed into the cups)
Scant 1/3 cup / 35 grams raw unsalted pistachios
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
Big pinch salt
4 eggs, at room temperature
2/3 cup / 133 grams granulated sugar
For the coconut ganache:
8 ounces / 228 grams finely chopped bittersweet chocolate
6 ounces coconut cream (unsweetened; I used Trader Joe's brand in the brown can)
1/3 cup / 43 grams unsalted pistachios, finely chopped
To make the cake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. Spray it generously, paying special attention to the corners and sides.
In a food processor, pulse the coconut, pistachios, cardamom and salt about 25 times, until the nuts are finely chopped and evenly dispersed.
Combine the eggs and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk on medium-high speed until thick, fluffy, pale-lemon, and ribbony, about 5 minutes.
Fold in the coconut-pistachio mixture, taking care not to deflate the lift. Scrape onto the prepared baking sheet and gently smooth the top. Bake until the surface is dry, the cake is golden brown, and the top looks speckled with bubbly holes, about 20 minutes. (The cake will not rise.) Run a knife along the perimeter, but cool completely on the baking sheet. Invert onto a large cutting board and ease off the parchment.
To make the ganache. Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Microwave the coconut cream in a glass measuring cup until liquefied and very steamy, starting with 30 seconds and adding more time in 10 second bursts, if necessary. Pour over the chocolate, cover the bowl tightly, and let stand for 5 minutes. Slowly stir the contents until the chocolate is completely smooth. If any lumps remain, warm the bowl either over simmering water or briefly in the microwave (if using a microwave-safe bowl). Stir until smooth.
To assemble. Using a ruler, cut a 1/2" border around the cake to even the edges. Your cake should measure 15" long x 10-1/2" wide. Cut it in thirds so you have 3 strips measuring 5" x 10-1/2". Carefully transfer one strip to a rack set over a baking sheet. Spread a thin layer of ganache over that strip, smoothing all the way to the edges. (It's okay if it drips over the sides.) Sprinkle lightly with one-third of the finely chopped pistachios. Top with a second cake strip, spread with ganache in the same manner, and sprinkle with pistachios. Repeat with the remaining cake, ganache, and nuts. You'll have a bit of ganache left over. (It keeps well in the refrigerator for several days.)
To finish. Refrigerate the cake for at least 1 hour before cutting so the ganache can set. Cut into squares with a hot, dry knife, wiping the blade between each cut to ensure the smoothest results. (Store in the refrigerator, but if possible, serve at room temperature.)