‘Ace’ holds all the cards when it comes to cakes


You’d think Duff Goldman’s ultimate Rosh Hashanah cake would be, say, a 15-layer honey cake topped with mammoth gates of heaven swinging shut.
 
Goldman, after all, is the “extreme baker” of the Food Network’s reality series, “The Ace of Cakes.” His concoctions include a 3-foot-tall performing Elvis, a rolling black Jeep Wrangler, a hot-rod engine that spews sparks and a seven-tier “Cat in the Hat” wedding cake.
 
His show features insane deadlines, aggressive brides, temper tantrums, bleeped-out expletives — and a star who is as likely to wield a blowtorch or a band saw as a rolling pin or cake knife. Critics have said “Ace” is to cake what “Monster Garage” is to cars.
 
So you’d expect Goldman’s holiday cake to involve Gothic gates or, perhaps, even a Bosch-like depiction of where bad Jews go if they’re not inscribed in the book of life (according to some rabbis).
 
But no.
 
Goldman takes his heritage seriously — especially his Jewish culinary heritage — so his idea is, well, serious. “I’d do a three-dimensional cake covered with a painting — an indistinct figure emerging from the darkness into the light,” he says in a telephone conversation from his Baltimore apartment. “It would represent how we should embrace the New Year by constantly moving forward.”
 
No one has ordered such a cake from Goldman, which is why he hasn’t baked it (it could cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours, depending on how many moveable parts are necessary). So in reality, he is more likely to make the honey cake recipe handed down from his great-grandmother, Mommo — as well as her luscious brisket and tsimmis. He still has those recipes, among thousands of others she wrote on index cards in her imperfect English.
 
“Mommo gave those recipes to my grandmother, and they were passed down to my mother and then to me,” he says proudly.

The Yiddish-speaking Mommo, who died when Duff was around 4, also apparently passed down her artistic and adventurous streaks. “When my great-grandmother was 14, things got pretty hot for the Jews in her part of the Ukraine, so she fled with her two brothers,” he says. “Her brothers ended up in Argentina and became like these Russian-Jewish gauchos.”
 
Mommo came to the United States and settled near the frontier. She traveled as far west as her money would take her, settling in Wichita, Kan., early in the last century.
 
Young Duff (ne Jeffrey Adam Goldman), now 31, remembers her as an avid baker, milliner and weaver. “She had this big, scary loom in her tiny little Wichita apartment,” he says of her textile work.
 
He keenly watched as Mommo prepared to make apple streudel by kneading a small ball of filo dough with her bare hands, until it covered the entire dining room table.
 
Back home in McLean, Va., Goldman first attempted to “cook” at age 4 by swinging a meat cleaver at some carrots. Several years later, he disdainfully tossed aside the child-safe tool his mother had given him to carve a pumpkin; instead he tried a steak knife and chopped off a finger (the digit was reattached, he reports).
 
No wonder his mother, Jackie, a stained-glass artist, refused to let him near the knives when she was cooking, although, in his words, “I was always hanging around when she was in the kitchen.”
 
Young Duff expressed his artsy side by spray painting graffiti on buses, subways and underpasses (he fought back when fellow taggers beat him up). He shaped up after his bar mitzvah, when he began sculpting in metal and snagged his first professional food job — at McDonald’s. “I could make 12 Big Macs in under a minute,” he says.
 
Thereafter, he worked in a series of restaurants and decided to specialize in cakes.
 
“I was drawn to pastry chefs because what they were doing was so process-driven and involved so much craft,” he says. “Even as a [youngster] I saw there were things to be studied, to figure out: protein content and freezing temperatures and so forth.”
 
While attending the University of Maryland, Goldman got a job making corn bread at a famous Baltimore restaurant. He went on to study pastry-making at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, then worked for Food Network celebrity chef Todd English and soon became the executive pastry chef at the Vail Cascade hotel in Colorado. There, he combined his sculpting and baking talents to make his first specialty cakes (power tools, he soon discovered, were just the ticket to create humongous infrastructures).
 
In 2000, Goldman opened his own Charm City Cakes in Baltimore, with what he describes as a “ragtag team of musicians and artists with experience in architectural modeling, graphic design, sculpture and performance art.”His creations were so jaw-dropping that he soon received national attention, replicating a piece of rare black Wedgewood china for Hillary Clinton, for example. His flavors included green tea and Thai iced coffee, as well as Goldman’s own version of honey cake.

The chef began appearing on Food Network competitions and caught producers’ eyes when he arrived at one contest lugging power tools and wearing a goatee, earrings and steel-tipped punk rocker boots (oh yes, he’s also a musician).”I didn’t read the rules very well, so I pretty much broke every single one,” he says. Goldman moved about his table when he should have stood in one place and spilled too much cornstarch on the floor. “But I made a really awesome cake,” he recalls. His piece de resistance looked like a giant peach tree, with the “cakes” hanging off the branches via fishing wire.
 
Producers rewarded Goldman with his own show, “Ace of Cakes,” which The New York Times called “‘Monster Garage’ for the culinary set.” “Ace” is typical of these kinds of reality series in that it highlights tension between the protagonists.But none of the stress is concocted, Goldman insists. “Running a bake shop is dramatic, because we have real deadlines,” he says.

Delice Solves Holiday Baking Challenge


When Julien Bohbot and Jacob Levy opened Delice Bakery on Pico
Boulevard two years ago, they had one goal in mind: introducing the kosher
community in Los Angeles to authentic French-baked goods that adhered to the
highest standard of kashrut without sacrificing taste or quality. So during the
year, that meant that Bohbot and Levy were paying three or four times as much
as other bakeries for ingredients so that they could use cholov yisroel (milk
that has been supervised), butter and cream to make Delice’s flaky croissants.
But at Passover time, the two men faced a greater challenge to make Passover
cakes that tasted as good as year-round cakes and make the cakes affordable —
or almost affordable — despite the high cost of kosher-for-Passover
ingredients.

Even to the experienced bakers at Delice, some of whom
Bohbot and Levy brought over from France, Passover baking was difficult. The
main ingredient of regular baking, wheat flour, is chametz and thus not able to
be used on Pesach, and over the years, bakers have come up with all sorts of
ways to make cakes and cookies without that main ingredient. They have made
cakes using only nut meal — finely ground-up nuts, which, while resulting in an
extra moist cake, does not make a very hardy cake or cookie. They have also
used potato starch, that brownish gray residue that separates from the liquid
that exudes from grated potatoes. It is a more robust ingredient than nut meal,
but it is also very dry, and cakes made with potato starch only give the palate
an experience of eating sandpaper.

The best thing to make Passover cakes with is extra fine
matzah meal, which is also sold as cake meal.

“But there is no matzah meal here,” said Levy, speaking from
the special kitchen that Delice set up in the Valley to make its Passover
cakes. Levy explained that the reason that Delice does not use matzah meal is
because there are some Jews who have a custom to not eat gebrohkts on Pesach,
which is when you add liquid to matzah, as a safeguard against some potentially
uncooked flour in the matzah coming into contact with the water, and then
turning into chametz.

Instead of matzah meal, Delice makes basic cakes using a
mixture of nut meal and potato starch. It adds extra eggs and oil to its
regular recipes to combat the dryness of the starch, and then, once the cakes
are made, they gussy them up with different mousses and pralines so it just
feels like you’re eating velvety cream cakes instead of a dry Passover sponge.

“You won’t believe it when you taste it,” said Levy,
preparing a little sample of a chocolate sponge cake that has been doused with
sugar syrup and topped with hazelnut praline cream. “It tastes very nice, not
too heavy.”

Not that it comes cheap.

“The cost is about 25 times as much as regular,” Levy said.
“We are paying $5 a pound for almond meal, instead of 20 cents a pound for
regular flour. We order 90 percent of our ingredients from New York, and
everything costs two or three times the price of what it does during the year.”

Delice makes about 30 different Passover cakes and cookies
that retail from $9.50 to $38. This year it expects to sell 3,000 cakes.

“Some people like our Passover cakes so much, that they ask
us, ‘Why don’t you make these all year round?'” Levy said.

 

Basic Passover Sponge

 

3¼4 cup sugar

6 eggs

1¼3 cup potato starch

3¼4 cup very fine almond meal

1¼8 teaspoon baking powder

pinch of salt

1 tablespoon oil

 

Extras:

2 teaspoons cocoa (for a chocolate sponge)

grated rind of one lemon (for a lemon sponge)

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (for a vanilla sponge)

 

Preheat oven to 350 F

Warm eggs and sugar on top of a double boiler, whisking
occasionally, until slightly hotter than tepid.

Using an electric mixer, whip on medium speed for 15
minutes.

In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients and cocoa,
if desired. Fold dry ingredients and oil into the egg and sugar mixture. Add
flavoring, if desired. Pour into a nine-inch round pan. Bake at 350 F for 40
minutes. Immediately invert the pan on baking sheet to cool.

Once cool, the cake can be frosted with kosher-for-Passover
pareve whipped topping that has been whipped until stiff with a teaspoon of
sugar.

Delice Bakery is at 8583 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A.. For more
information call (310) 289-6556.

Sweet Sorrow


A wall of neatly coiffed ladies charges up to the counter to place their orders for baked goods on one of the last days before the holidays and one of the last days before Brown’s Bakery in North Hollywood closes its doors forever. Some of the customers have been buying their cakes, cookies and bread here for as long as the bakery has been open, and that’s 42 years. Some have been Brown’s customers even longer, when it was Brown Brothers Bakery on Wilshire Boulevard; some for longer still, when Brown’s was in the Bronx, during the war.

Watching this crowd, it’s hard to believe they could possibly purchase their baked goods anywhere else. When Brown’s closes its doors April 15, God only knows what they will do. (In preparation for the bakery’s closing, one customer bought her birthday cake six months in advance and froze it.)

"Things have changed in this area," said Sheldon Brown, the burly, friendly second-generation owner of Brown’s Bakery. "The retail structure of the whole neighborhood has gone downhill. There’s nothing here now."

Looking up and down this stretch of Victory Boulevard, one can see ghosts of a Jewish neighborhood’s past. A dry cleaners, the Ventura Kosher Meat Market and the Circle M Market, all of which used to serve the large Jewish population of 30 years ago, are gone. Now there are only nondescript offices and empty shops. The only other store on the block is a beauty school, which might explain all the nifty do’s but doesn’t generate a lot of customers on this stretch of the Valley.

As far as closing his shop goes, there were other problems besides the neighborhood, Brown said.

"The Health Department told us that no one could walk through from the parking lot [in the rear] to the front of the store," Brown said. "Have you ever tried telling Jewish people they couldn’t walk through? A tank wouldn’t stop them; they’re going to walk here anyway."

Case in point: a stream of elderly ladies marches through the narrow kitchen, looking around at the freshly baked goods, nodding approval, and making their way to the front of the bakery.

"The baker just kissed me," one of the ladies said before disappearing around the corner.

Ten years ago, as the neighborhood went through changes, Brown saw his wholesale business take off as his retail portion began to decline. Brown realized it would be a waste of time and money to remodel.

Even with old customers traveling from all over the Valley to buy, the North Hollywood neighborhood could no longer sustain enough business. Finally, the landlord asked for more rent.

"That was it," Brown said, and decided to get out of retail. After April 15, Brown’s wife, Judy, will become new owner of the wholesale portion of the business. She plans to lease another space and continue to deliver to clients such as Brent’s, Art’s, Bagel Nosh, Billy’s, Roxy’s, Wylers, Robertson Ranch, and a number of other delis and temples and synagogues in the Valley.

"When people heard we were closing down, they began calling: ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘Where are we going to go?’" said Judy, who married Brown shortly after he opened the bakery in 1959. "We’ve gotten hundreds of flowers and notes; I never would have imagined the response. We try and do a good job and have a good product, and [Brown] loves being with customers, but after 42 years, it’s enough."

Enough, however, is not a word Brown’s customers have ever used.

"I am really going to miss this place," said Ruth Crystal of Valley Village. "I’ve been coming here for 56 years. We’re like family." She said she was a customer also when Brown’s was on Wilshire.

"I’m going to cry a lot," said Gladys Horowitz, who travels from Encino. "I’ve been coming since 1960."

"My whole family has been raised on Brown’s products," said Isadore Widre, an elderly gent from Encino who is accustomed to hanging around the kitchen. "I used to send packages up to my daughter when she was in college in San Francisco; I think she paid her way through school with Brown’s strudels and chocolate chip rugelach. Now she’s a successful speech pathologist, and she’s still getting packages from home."

"I moved away from this neighborhood, and I’d come back here to buy and put [baked goods] in the freezer," Joan Stein said. "Now I don’t know what I’m going to do."

"Please put a big caption in your story: We will miss you!" said Magda Hoffman.

"I used to be a customer of theirs in 1941 in the Bronx," said David Berger, an incredibly fit 87-year-old. "I worked on Park Avenue, and I’d buy Brown’s bread and rolls; I’ve been a fan ever since."

"You see what’s going on here," said Brown, standing in the kitchen, listening to his customers’ accolades. "Everyone’s schmoozing; it’s a happening. We’re like one big family."

Unfortunately, like all good things, even bakeries must come to an end, but one wonders how Brown, the preeminent baker of chocolate-chip sponge cake and babkas, who so obviously enjoys the social interaction of his customers, will adjust to not having a bakery. A guy like this must have his hands and back involved in his work and in the neighborhood. But if the neighborhood no longer exists, what does a person like Brown do?

"I can’t really talk about that now," he answered.

Instead, turning to his wife, he said, "Fix her up with a little something, Judy."

That’s a refrain his customers will sadly miss.