My Family Recipe

The Rosemary Fig Cake That Brought Two Chefs (& One Dog) Together

September 25, 2018

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.


You always step in whenever my buttercream breaks. You enter the kitchen with a calmness I don’t possess, taking the bowl of frosting from my hands and placing it back on the mixer. You paddle it, gently heating the sides of the bowl with a torch. I watch, flustered, as the frosting transforms into a fluffy success. Deep down I know better than to give up after such a trivial mistake, but when one thing goes wrong I can’t rationalize my feelings. I throw in the towel. And in moments like that, I remember how lucky I am to have you.

Our partnership began in the kitchen. We first met in culinary school—you in pastry, myself in savory—but we never took a class together. We had no mutual friends. You were quiet; I was intrigued. The only things we shared were passing glances and our well-worn whites.

What I consider to be our first date was actually a baking competition, held at school after normal class hours. Participants were required to enroll in teams of two, but none of my friends wanted to compete with me. (The woe of being a culinary—not pastry—student.) So I took the plunge and, on a whim, asked you to be my partner. You said yes. The competition was a mystery basket challenge, with savory ingredients such as rosemary and ricotta cheese strategically planted to confuse us.

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The way our bodies sailed through the kitchen, the unspoken choreography of knowing exactly how to finish each other’s tasks, made me realize there was something more than physical attraction between us. We were complete opposites, and it worked. I gravitated toward the savory ingredients like rosemary, while you prepared the most beautiful ricotta cake batter. We spread the batter into a pan, topped it with rosemary, sugar, and fresh figs, a fruit for which we both shared a love. Our timing and collaboration were effortless. In a flash, the competition was over and we presented our dessert: a ricotta-rosemary cake with fresh figs.

And with that cake, you came into my life. We may not have won—in fact, we didn’t even place—but it didn’t matter to us.

Pictured: buttercream, unbroken. Photo by Jenny Huang

Our relationship happened in stages, like baking bread. We didn’t rush into anything; we went slowly. We allowed our friendship to solidify first, to be steady, before heading into anything more. A courtship via the autolyse method. As the flour and water sat, it strengthened the gluten formation. And when our romance took off, it was like bulk fermentation, a rapid ascent to greatness. We ended up dating all throughout culinary school. You were kind, handsome, and driven; and I was the happiest I've ever been.


When our program came to an end, over a year after the competition, you drove from Rhode Island to Illinois where I was living at the time. You arrived in the middle of the night, looking disheveled. You’d packed up your pastry supplies and moved to Chicago so we could start a life together. You graduated early, moved back home, and promised to follow me wherever I ended up. You took a job as a pastry cook and climbed the ranks to become the chef. I, on the other hand, bounced from job to job, struggling to find my place in the food world.

You would listen to me complain whenever I came home with scars that gave credit to my daily struggles. There was the time I wore kitchen shoes that were too small and lost my toenails. The time I cut my finger on a meat slicer. The time oil popped and burned my eyelid. Without fail, you would tend selflessly to my wounds and assure me that I’d soon find satisfaction in my work.

When I finally got my first big break—the opportunity to food-style a noteworthy cookbook—it of course came with a catch. The subject matter was pastry. Stressed for the next day’s photoshoot, I would lie restless as you detailed the innuendo of a perfectly frosted cake. And when the day came for me to style the cover photo—the cake I was most stressed for—you stayed up all night perfectly constructing it for me. The next morning I took it to the shoot, taking full credit for your impeccable frosting job.

You didn’t mind. You just wanted me to succeed.

And I wasn’t the only one catching feelings. My family quickly fell for you, too, accepting you as their own. Phone calls from my mother shifted to phone calls to you. She was happy that her son found love, but maybe even happier that a pastry chef would be joining the family. She would call, asking you what brand of butter is best for buttercream, or why her tart dough kept shrinking. At first I brushed these calls off as insignificant, but realized that through baking, she fell for you, too. You became a second son to her.

I remember texting you on your day off, asking what you were up to. You had driven three hours outside of the city to go bake with my mother, helping her perfect her pie crust technique.

Months later, on one random Wednesday, my mother stopped by our apartment unexpectedly with a special gift. A bulldog puppy—she wanted us to have “a son.” (She wanted to have a grandson.) We were unprepared. We were terrified. We decided to name him Fig, in honor of the cake that brought us together.

Fig. Photo by Charli Nowak

But now, almost three years later, Fig is an invaluable addition to our lives—and our kitchen. His palate is versed in vegetable scraps, from rainbow carrots to purple sweet potato. And like me, he reaps the rewards of living with you on a daily basis. Like the peanut butter biscuits baked just for him. And although I would never admit it to your face, yes, you are his favorite—and I’m more than OK with that because you're my favorite, too.


Last week you helped me caramelize ten pounds of white chocolate for a pastry project I was (once again) over my head with. The technique was elaborate and required an absurd amount of mixing to execute properly.

"Here, I got this," you said, taking the bowl from me.

We stayed up all night and woke up with blistered hands and sunken eyes. You took the next day off to assist me on my shoot and helped me pull off a dessert far more difficult than anything I could have done alone. I was grateful, but your selflessness made it easy to take your help for granted—and I’m not sure I ever thanked you.

So thank you.

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3 Comments

Suzanne H. September 27, 2018
A recipe for love. Ok. I’ll stop. (But seriously YUM 💙)
 
Jeanne L. September 27, 2018
💜
 
KateisGreat September 26, 2018
This is so sweet! Thank you for sharing your love story.