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At one time, I was briefly attached to a vaguely Latin American restaurant. There was a dessert menu in place when I arrived; one that I was expected to cook from. Unfortunately I was still working at another restaurant when I started the new job, and I was already swamped with production. I had no time to do any proper research on Latin desserts, so when I started, my life became a 14-hour-day hell of making unfamiliar items I had no love for. To make matters worse, my desserts were suffering at the first restaurant. I was, in a word, miserable.
Luckily, the busy season of a new restaurant doesn't last forever, and the hype died down after a month or so, meaning I could actually focus and experiment with my menu. I came in on off-days and baked countless test batches of flan and cake. It took a while, but I finally felt like I was getting the hang of both Latin techniques and flavor profiles, with my own touches added. Bright tropical fruits, generous pours of tequila and rum, and a lot of goat's milk products were added to my bank of ingredients.
One such product was Cajeta, often called Mexican caramel, which is simply dulce de leche made with goat's milk. We had it kicking around in squeeze bottles after it had been ordered to drizzle on plates of tres leches cake. It's gooey, sticky and definitely goaty. And it makes one heck of an incredible cake, especially when combined with a caramelized banana topping and some vanilla bean ice cream or anglaise.
In fact I though the cajeta cake was so incredible that I went right ahead and replaced the original tres leches cake with my indulgent, warm banana caramel confection. Immediately the backlash began.
"Everyone misses your tres leches cake!" they said. It didn't matter that it wasn't really my cake—I had just ripped it off a website and added some rum.
Despite strong support from my now-husband and a waitress (both of whom have Mexican abuelitas and an emotional connection to warm, gooey desserts with Cajeta in them), things ultimately came to a head when I was trekking through the full dining room during brunch service to bring desserts over to the first restaurant. One of the owners, who had been out of the country when I made over the menu, ambushed me. I juggled questions, demands, and a pile of desserts for the next ten minutes. I had almost made it out the door when my least favorite manager, who had been running the show while the owners were M.I.A. (and, interestingly enough, was never far away when I cut the Cajeta cake and there were copious scraps to snack on), swooped in. "Oh Anna, what about the tres leches cake? Everyone misses it so!" I had conveniently avoided that specific point, knowing the owners weren't happy about my enacting my right to creative freedom.
What followed was a fight (in the crowded dining room, mind you) that basically sealed my fate at that restaurant. The owner told me my new dessert "sounded disgusting" and told me to remove it immediately and bring back the soggy tres leches. I argued that we should let customers decide for themselves, that if they wanted dumbed-down desserts you can get anywhere, they probably didn't need a pastry chef. Less than a month later, the owners all apparently agreed and I was unceremoniously asked to leave and return to the first restaurant.
No great loss. I'm not big on working for people who tell me my work sounds disgusting without ever tasting it. And you lucky readers can judge for yourselves. Because you get the recipe.
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About the Author: Anna Markow is a pastry chef obsessed with doing things that no one else does and giving unusual ingredients their time to shine. You can follow her sometimes-pastry-related thoughts on Twitter @VerySmallAnna and see her adventures in creativity on her website, VerySmallAnna.
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