The flavors of the past can be deceptive. Do the foods we try to recreate seem to fail us because they don't, in actuality, live up to the treats upon which we once feasted? Or are they imbued with the savor of nostalgia, a flavoring essence that defies the possibility of true resurrection?
Not long ago, I had an exchange with my brother in the comments field of a post on this very blog. The subject was cakes we'd eaten in our childhood, including a chocolate studded ring-shaped cake, glazed in more chocolate and drenched in rum. It was made by a small French bakery called Le Chanticler in the town of our youth. This was not the other French bakery which also existed in the town, Le Gourmet. That was the one where every mouthful was rich with butter. No, Le Chanticler made bread, tough little cookies and had just a few workhorse specialties. Their "rum ring" was the only one my mother purchased with any regularity.
I decided that I would try to reconstruct this delicacy for my brother's birthday. I further decided that I would do it in time for the justly-celebrated David Lebovitz's edition of Sugar High Friday, using a brand-name chocolate. This way I could do a test-run and repeat the cake the following weekend for the birthday celebration.
I bought some lovely Green & Black's organic chocolate, and proceeded to construct a recipe. My memory of the cake was that it was similar in texture to a savarin or a rum baba, so I found an excellent brioche-style dough for savarin in Sherry Yard's The Secrets of Baking, and made it up with quantities of chopped dark chocolate folded into the dough. It rose beautifully, it baked gorgeously, and received its soaking of rum syrup as well as its glaze of dark chocolate.
Then we sliced it and tasted it.
G saw my disappointed face, and shrugged. "I think it tastes good," declared my loyal fiancé. It did taste reasonably good. It just didn't taste like the cake of my memory. Instead, it tasted like very good brioche with chocolate in it that had been drenched in rum syrup and glazed in chocolate. It was, in fact, a little bit bready. Kind of more bready than cakey. The cake of my memory had had that sodden yet supple quality of a good baba au rhum. My rummy chocolatey bready ring didn't quite cut it, as far as I was concerned.
I wrapped it up, put it in the fridge and ignored it quite pointedly for several days. Since I didn't serve him any, G promptly forgot about it as well. I didn't post the photos I'd taken of it during its rising and after its baking, and I didn't write a post about it for Sugar High Friday. I was too busy snubbing the sad rummy thing taking up space in my refrigerator. And I was too disheartened to try another run in time for my brother's birthday, especially since I wasn't quite sure how to remedy the recipe. [Instead, I ended up making the same cake I'd made for him last year -- *King of Chocolate* David Lebovitz's German Chocolate Cake, with a few of my own adaptations. It had been such a success that I thought "well, once a year is certainly not too often for this cake." It was received once again with much acclaim, including somewhat overblown statements like "This isn't just the best cake you've ever made -- it's the best cake anyone's ever made." ]
But the rum ring that refused to live up to expectations continued sitting coolly in the depths of the fridge. Finally I decided to take it to work for an afternoon staff meeting. Hungry high school teachers will eat anything, especially if it's sweet. Surprisingly, it didn't just get eaten. It got gobbled, amid declarations of love and avowals of fidelity to this cake/bread, if only I would ever make it again. Breaching my own disdain, I cut myself a small slice. To my surprise, although it still was not the rum ring of blessed memory, it was quite delicious. Unlike most cakes and people, it had benefitted substantially from a combined process of neglect and aging.
I will try the rum ring again at some point, I think. I'll probably find another recipe -- something eggier, chewier, springier somehow. I'll soak it in more rum syrup, and see once again if I can't recreate the Chanticler's special cake. I'll just try to bear in mind that while cake may be replicable, memory -- experience -- nostalgia -- is not.