Call Me Puff Daddy

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I knew I was different when I was seven years old. While all the other kids in the neighborhood were playing in the Jennings’ backyard, sniggering at stolen copies of Playboy and knocking back enough Pez, Twizzlers, and s’mores to make our dentist start shopping for a new ’67 Acapulco blue Mustang, I was hiding out in our kitchen.

“Don’t hang from the oven handle,” Momma Leite would yell, thwacking me on the back of the head with her constant companion, a wet dish rag. “And don’t open the door until they’re done.”

Inside were four Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers. One for her, one for my dad, and two for me. It was the occasional dessert she deigned to serve when I would purposely convulse at the grocery or pronounce in front of company that I was adopted and that my real family lived in a mansion by the sea.

☞ MAKE THE RECIPE: PROSCIUTTO-GRANA PADANO GOUGÈRES

I stood vigil, forehead pressed against the splattered oven window because I desperately wanted to watch the puffery in action. Too many times I’d grown impatient or distracted and stepped away from four flat, pallid triangles only to return to a quartet of buxom beauties, just a hint of their lovely juices seeping through the frills of their ruffles. But that afternoon, I was determined to study every tiny transition in this alchemy. I watched how the sealed edges were the first to blossom and split into a million layers. As the turnovers began to brown, I watched, spellbound, while they bubbled and heaved as though they were coming alive, becoming bigger and firmer until they’d risen, fully engorged! What can I say? While the Freeborns and Jennings ogled what Lynn Winchell, Miss December 1967, had to offer, I was becoming addicted to a very different kind of porn—one that  conveniently required no confession with Father Fraga at St. John of God on Saturday afternoons.

Looking back, my life has been punctuated by puffs. Turnovers, vol-au-vent, profiteroles, éclairs. By the time I was 25, I was a waiter at the Hors d’Oeuvrerie at Windows on the World, and had fallen in love with all kinds of international desserts. But the puffers remained my favorite. I’d given up my childish ways—and Pepperidge Farm—in favor of the more adult pleasures of the queen of all pastry doughs, pâte á choux.

I wasn’t alone in this fixation. Every so often the seemingly misanthropic Alan Lewis, the general manager of Windows, would come in for lunch. He was the right-hand man to the explosively temperamental Joseph Baum, one of the famed restaurateurs responsible for the Four Seasons, the Rainbow Room, and Windows. Lewis would sit by himself and read his paper, every so often lifting his head, watching, and waiting to spot something out of place. Although only in his mid-60s, he reminded me of Winston Churchill’s bulldog in its later years. All the waiters hated to wait on him.

The first time I took his order, I climbed the stairs terrified—not unlike how Dorothy & Co. approached the Great and Powerful Oz. He mumbled his order into his newspaper, never looking up, which suited me just fine. A few minutes later, I slid a plate in front of him and he paused.

Shit, I thought. I did something wrong. Demerits or a tongue lashing or extra breakfast shifts were sure to be mine.

“You’re new.” How could he have possible gleaned that from my hand putting down a plate in front of him?

He glanced up.

“Yes, sir.”

What’s your name?”

“David.”

“Huh.”

Then he returned his formidable gaze to his newspaper.

After that, he asked for me by name. (To this day I have no idea why. I know for a fact that he preferred his eye candy to be of the feminine persuasion.)

“So what do you do besides this?” he asked me one day, sweeping his hand across the room. Knowing he was famous for trick questions, tripping up unsuspecting staff by revealing their less-than-fanatical devotion to the industry and idolization of the kitchen, I smartly sidelined acting and blurted out “baking” out of a primitive sense of self-preservation. He seemed to like that.

“What do you bake?” he asked as he looked up with an arched eyebrow that clearly telegraphed, Don’t disappoint me.

“Um, well,” I stalled, mentally flipping through the sticky pages of my only cookbook at the time—a bargain tome with recipes from around the world that weighed as much as a VW Bug. “Éclairs and gougères. Oh, and Paris’s Breast,” I added with just a hint of smugness. I knew the plump, cream-filled pastry ring, which symbolized the five-lane avenue that circled the city’s great big nipple of the Arc de Triomphe, would impress him. Even if I’d never seen one before in my life.

“A paree bress?” he said, both correcting me and expressing considerable doubt. “Bring me something.”

Because Lewis’s descent on the Hors d’Oeuvrerie was capricious, to say the least, the chances of his arrival overlapping my work schedule were slim. Still, I carted a homemade chocolate éclair in a brown paper sack on the subway from South Oxford Street in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to the 107th floor of the north tower almost every day for more than a month, as cautiously as if I were transporting the Shroud of Turin. That meant every morning I had to bake said éclair, make said pastry cream, plop the cream into a plastic zip-top bag (lest the filled pastry lose its crispness), and be prepared at a moment’s notice to procure said glorious éclair. But as much as I groused to my roommate, Darrin, and much as I loathed lugging bags of groceries to our kitchen that was once a 19th-century walk-in closet, I secretly loved it. I loved boiling water and butter, dumping in flour, mixing until my arm ached, cracking in eggs, stirring until the batter shone, and scooping perfect little domes with my ice cream scoop.

When Lewis’s and my orbits finally realigned—by which point I’d gotten extremely adept at baking pâte á choux—I presented him with my éclair (with just a whiff of self-importance).

“Here’s one of the pastries I was telling you about,” I said, sliding the plate in front of him. He looked confused. “You know, the one, the pastry I told you I make.”

He took a bite and grunted.

That was it. A grunt. A single frigging grunt. After all that frigging work. Crestfallen, and, frankly, not a little pissed off that this man had me dancing on a tight wire for more than a month, I wheeled around and walked away. When I returned to clear his table, though, I noticed the éclair was gone. High praise, if you ask me. You could feed a small country with what he usually left on his plate.

Not long after, I quit and headed for the loftiest of culinary heights, albeit all the way down on the first floor of the Drake Hotel, at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s first U.S. venture, Restaurant Lafayette. I was one of his two first front waiters. There it seemed everything was puffed—the tender vol-au-vent, the majestic oeuf au caviar, the damask draperies, to say nothing of the egos of most of the customers. But it was the gougères that most delighted me.

Until Jean-Georges V., my exposure to the world of puffsters was, almost without exception, sweet. I adored all manner of creams—pastry, whipped, and flavored—nestled within a crunchy pastry bite. But at Restaurant Lafayette, savory gougères flew out of the kitchen faster than ping pong balls at a Forrest Gump match.

What I adored about these orbs of godliness was how light and airy they were and how the cheese—usually Gruyère—infused the puff with its nutty umami flavor. All I wanted to do was stuff them in my mouth chipmunk-style and eat, and eat, and eat. I had found my puff of preference.

Shortly before we opened to the public, Jean-Georges V sat all the waitstaff at a long table in the dining room for a private tasting session.

“Zis is the only time I want to zee you eating my food in za dining room unless you are a paying guest,” he said in his devastatingly charming Alsatian accent. “You take one bite of food while working, and you are—” and with that he drew his index finger across his entirely too thin neck.

It was my one chance to eat as much as I wanted and I wasn’t about to squander it. As he described each dish in the precise way he wanted us to present it to guests, I polished off a silver bowl of gougères by myself. One of the French waiters who’d been imported from Paris to make our very American waitstaff appear more international shot me a look so dripping with derision it practically slid down the slope of his sizeable nose and arced across the table.

Quoi?” I said sotto voce, daring him to test what he considered to be our American thuggish ways. He deflated back into the chair, a peacock without plumage.

The restaurant opened a few days later—without any international skirmishes—to four stars from Bryan Miller, the then-restaurant critic for The New York Times. Near the bottom of his fullsome effusive review, he wrote, “The crepuscular lighting sometimes makes it difficult to read the menu. When a waiter saw us straining, he came by and gave us tiny flashlights, the kind children twirl at the circus.” (That waiter was me!) Sadly, I couldn’t afford the $75 tasting menu, $160 in today’s coinage, so I never enjoyed the restaurant—or its marvelous gougères—as a guest.

Not long after, I trashed my bargain basement cookbook and splurged on a copy of  Larousse Gastronomique. While searching for a gougères recipe to commit to memory, I stumbled upon the entry for Paris’s Breast—its great mammary commemoration to itself. Due to what I’m convinced is an undiagnosed case of dyslexia, I was shocked to discover that the circular pastry had been created to honor the Paris-Brest-Paris bicycle race—its shape suggesting a wheel. Not a breast or nipple in sight. It made more sense, sure, but I liked the idea that it was kind of an edible Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction. What can I say? Once a pornographer, always a pornographer.

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Comments

  1. Hi David – thanks for the redirection!!

    Hi Jennifer!
    Thank you very kindly for replying, and I must admit that at the time I wrote that comment, I was thinking about what advice you might have in your wonderful book – but for the fact that said book is sitting on a shelf in an apartment far away in Europe, and I am stuck here in sweltering Singapore (in between households at the moment!). I’ll certainly take you advice on the proportions and see how it goes…

  2. David, a fellow lifelong puff lover, I adore gougeres; here’s my recipe. Can’t wait to try yours with the prosciutto. And, hey, I still get a kick out of watching things rising in the oven. That’s why I made a point of getting a stove with an oven window when I remodeled the kitchen 6 years ago.

  3. My mother made Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers for my father. And I got to watch them rise, too. I didn’t get to eat them; they were my father’s treat. But I got to bring them to him as he sat in front of the TV in his easy chair. And sometimes a layer or two might have gone missing in the transfer from kitchen to living room.

    And then there were the large trays of Cohen’s appetizers for random holidays. Those were miraculous, too … not in taste, but in transmogrification.

    My mother also made truly horrendous popovers from scratch, though, and I think I feared The Puff early in life. But perhaps I will screw my courage to the sticking place soon.

    Thanks for reminding me about something I’d long forgotten.

    1. Justine, you are more than welome. It’s funny how these memories just bubble up, and how much of an emotional wallop they pack. Even memories around package foods–the staple diet of so many kids when I was growing up. They held near-cult status back then. I guess they bespeak of a very sweet and innocent time in many peoples’ lives.

  4. Somehow, I didn’t read this the minute it was posted, what with all the holiday hubbub. But this is another delightful post, just what I needed to read tonight. Thank you, David.

      1. It was lovely indeed. Quiet (when we weren’t busy in the kitchen) and small. Lots of laughter. And a ridiculous quantity of food! I hope yours were similarly swell.

  5. Love gougeres. Love the story. I am in danger of becoming very trite but these lovelies will find a way to my home in the not to distant future. (Tomorrow?)

  6. “All I wanted to do was stuff them in my mouth chipmunk-style and eat, and eat, and eat. I had found my puff of preference.” – could I love this line more? As a fellow-gougere addict, I relished every word of this post – thank you and all the best for 2013!

    1. Jeanne, thank you. And if you are indeed a puff addict, I suggest trying this–alone, with the blinds drawn, so no one can see you consuming the entire baking sheet worth of puffs.

  7. Love, love, David! I agree that’s high praise. In our house, Curtis says everything is good but if he goes to make a second plate, I know it’s really good.

    I love the new look of your home! LOVE it!

    Happy New Year, David! Hope we meet again in 2013!!

    1. Thank you Julie, on all counts!! I, too, adore the new look. Still some gremlins to take care of, but it’s like Fatty Daddy got a new wardrobe!

      Happy 2013 to you and Curtis.

  8. What a wonderful story! I love it.

    I’m trying to find a way to use up leftover mission figs and blue cheese – think I could sub? Hmmmm….

  9. Your suggestion to use a small scoop to form the puffs…genius…and it may get me indulging my love of savory puffs on a more regular basis. I have a drawer full of cheese in my fridge that needs a purpose!

    1. I find it so easy that way, Wendy. (It was actually the brainchild of our tester Susan Bingaman.) Granted they won’t have the craggy shape some people love, but when your Inner Martha calls, use a scoop.

  10. What a delectable piece! Although I don’t remember Alan Lewis as being quite the curmudgeon you describe, I, admittedly, am female and only knew him as the subject of interviews, not as a wait person. As for Jean-Georges: my long-time admiration of this unequaled Magician of the Kitchen matches yours, and apparently Bryan Miller shared our feelings in his four star NYT review of Lafayette. But I was brought up short by your description of his review as “fulsome,” defined all over the place but, here, by:

    Richard Nordquist, About.com Guide

    “Put simply, the adjective full means “complete” or “containing all that is possible,” while the adjective fulsome means “offensive” or “insincere.” And for over a century, most usage guides have encouraged us to draw this clear distinction between the two words. For example, The Associated Press Stylebook insists that fulsome means “disgustingly excessive” and should not be used “to mean lavish or profuse.” Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage defines fulsome as “not just abundant but offensively excessive.” (See also: Clang Association.)”

    Or maybe I’m just being annoying irritable because I haven’t had pate a chou in any form for weeks now?

    All Good Things to you in 2013!

    1. Oh, you devil, Suzanne! It’s good to see that you’re still keeping me on my toes more than a decade later. I do apologize that it slipped by me, my editor, and copyeditors. But sometimes that happens, as you know having been a journalist all these years.I’ll mull on the correct word, and change it.

      Oh, and Allen Lewis was really tough on us. But of course we worked for him and demanded nothing short of excellence from us everyday.

      Here’s wishing you a happy 2013!

      1. You are FULL of wonderful, David! And I’m looking forward to jolts of happiness in 2013 via Leite’s Culinaria. (Would write more but I’m racing off to make Puff Daddy’s Puffs–a recipe so perfectly explicit , it could have been written by either of those two brilliant madmen at WOW.)

    2. Suzanne, if you’ve not had pâte à choux in weeks, then any irritableness is understood and excused! Language is a terrific, though tricky, thing, is it not? For example, the Greek language has, quite literally, dozens of words for what the English language has but one: love. To your point, the word “love” is, according to some, quite the antitheses to the word “fulsome.” But this isn’t the only definition. By way of explanation, we chose to use “fulsome” based on the traditional, and what we had thought was the more common, definition. This decision was, in great part, supported by what we at Leite’s rely on as our bible, Merriam-Webster. (Hey, call us old-fashioned. Much as we appreciate Urban Dictionary, we’re not quite reliant on it yet…) Although M-W notes the dual definition (see below), we felt “fulsome” to be the word that most fully conveyed what David had to say. But we so appreciate you bringing the confusion it causes to our attention. We’ll not be so fuddy duddy in our choice of language going forward! Many thanks and happy new year to you.

      fulsome |ˈfo͝olsəm|
      adjective
      1 complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree: they are almost embarrassingly fulsome in their appreciation.
      2 of large size or quantity; generous or abundant: a fulsome harvest.
      DERIVATIVES
      fulsomely adverb,
      fulsomeness noun
      ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense ‘abundant’): from full1 + -some1.
      usage: Although the earliest use of fulsome (first recorded in the 13th century) was ‘generous or abundant,’ this meaning is now regarded by some people as wrong. The correct meaning today is held to be ‘excessively complimentary or flattering.’ However, the word is still often used in its original sense of ‘abundant,’ especially in sentences such as she was fulsome in her praise for the people who organized it, and this use can give rise to ambiguity: for one speaker, fulsome praise may be a genuine compliment, while for others it will be interpreted as an insult.

  11. Another entertaining post. I had no idea – Windows on the World (could you have been there when I had my first coconut-battered shrimp in 1979? Or are you too young for that), Jean Georges. Amazing, given the experiences recounted here, that it took you so long to discover food was your forte.

    1. Thank you, Christine. Nope, we couldn’t have overlapped in 1979, as I was a mere pup of 19 studying away at college in Rochester, NY.

      Jean-Georges was indeed amazing. The highlight of my waiting career.

      Yeah, it was another 14 years before I started writing about food…and gaining the weight to prove it.

  12. I have a personal nostalgic connection with pâte à choux and so am delighted to see that you do, too. I love the story. Your stories and your writing as magical as always, the images voluptuous. And now I can picture myself lying on a chaise longue in a garden, feet propped up, listening to you recount the fascinating stories of your life one after the next. Perfect. Happy Holidays, David.

  13. David, I loved all the stories in here. Particularly about the guy who grunted at your eclair, but ate it all! Priceless. I guess he couldn’t bare to compliment you out loud, but devouring all of it was probably the best compliment of all.

  14. Oh David I am a lover of the puffs also! They are truly my most favorite foods! I so enjoyed this story. I was not to discover Pepperidge Farm turnovers until about 10 years ago….we are a little behind sometimes here in the South! But I love all things that are puff…both sweet and savory. I have had the wonderful puff pasteries that Williams-Sonoma sell. I also have tried to find someone in the Nashville, TN area that sells Dufour Pastry without any luck. I have never ventured to try to make is as it appears intimidating to me. I can only imagine how wonderful it must taste made at home! I look forward to trying your recipe. I need to get these made asap while I am in that free to eat what you want since it is Christmas timeslot. Thank you so much for your delightful story!

    1. Lin, ah, a fellow puff lover. They’re just irresistible, aren’t they? And I hope you can find Dufour pastry, as it’s the best commercial puff I’ve ever tried. And fear not! Making puff (and pâte à choux) at home is not that difficult. In fact, I find it therapeutic. Here’s a picture of a batch made last year.

      Homemade Puff Pastry

      Really, truly simple.

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