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Divine Inspiration

How Rose Levy Beranbaum ’68 taught me to strive for perfection (but less than perfect is still pretty delicious)
by Linda Angrilli

The cake was shockingly red. Almost gory, in fact, against the swirl of cream-cheese and white chocolate frosting, ivory-hued, like the delicate throat of a pale maiden. I could think of it only as the Vampire Cake. When I rinsed the mixing bowl, it looked as if I had dismembered a body in the sink. But the cake was luscious, tender and yielding as…you get the idea. This baking project was going to be fun.
The Vampire Cake (actually red velvet) was my first dip into Rose’s Heavenly Cakes, the latest book by Rose Levy Beranbaum, Fashion Design ’68—a food-world luminary of the first order. She’s written nine books, including three comprehensive “bibles” on cake, bread, and pie and pastry. Her TV show, Baking Magic, ran on PBS for three years. She’s been inducted into the James Beard Foundation/D’Artagnan Cervena Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. Hue couldn’t do a food issue without her. I set up an interview. 
The thing about Beranbaum, the thing she’s famous for, is precision, the tiny details and extra steps required to achieve perfection. The New York Times said “she may be the most meticulous cook who ever lived.” A recipe might say: add egg yolks individually, beating for 30 seconds after each. She tells you “medium speed” on a Kitchen Aid stand mixer is 4, on a Cuisinart, 6. Her recipes tend to have more steps, and more explanations, than anyone else’s. She wants you to get it right. 
Now, I had a history with Rose. I’d baked an apple pie from her Pie and Pastry Bible, and I cheated. I obediently chilled the dough before rolling, and the pie itself before baking, but I skipped a step. “Rose, please,” I said to her invisible presence. “I am not chilling the flour before I make this dough.” And that crust was fine. The pie was gone before comparison studies could be made.
But this time, in the weeks before our meeting, I wanted the real Rose experience: no substitutions, no shortcuts. I wanted to know: is it all worth it?
In full geek mode, I stocked my kitchen with sugar (Muscovado light brown, superfine white, turbinado unrefined); dairy products (crème fraîche, sour cream, buttermilk, heavy cream, cream cheese, and cultured European-style butter; chocolate (alkalized cocoa powder, a sizable hunk of 62 percent cacao, white with cocoa solids and Madagascar vanilla seeds); flour (cake and all-purpose), nuts (almonds, walnuts), and, of course, lots of eggs.
Beranbaum, like many serious bakers, prefers to weigh ingredients rather than measure by volume, so I bought a digital scale. And cake strips, which make cakes cook more evenly. 

Then I baked. Apple-cinnamon crumb coffee cake, chocolate layer with caramel ganache, lemon almond (Rose’s favorite), shortbready gateau Breton.  The stunning Bernachon palet d’or on the Heavenly Cakes cover. The infamous Vampire Cake, twice. (Since this was research, I asked for comments from my “testers.” Mostly, they said, “Mmmf!”) I regularly read Beranbaum’s blog, Real Baking with Rose, and the Heavenly Cake Baker blog, by fans who are baking their way through the new book, posting photos of every step. Her fans are, to say the least, passionate. As USA Today puts it, “Rose Levy Beranbaum is a worshipped woman.” 
I meet Beranbaum at her Greenwich Village apartment. The tiny woman who opens the door isn’t the intimidatingly fussy person you might expect. She’s chatty and charming, the kind of person who instantly makes lifelong friends. 
If her cookbooks are orderly and precisely organized, her apartment, which she shares with her radiologist husband, Elliott, is not.

The tools of her trade are everywhere. Kitchen Aid and Cuisinart stand mixers, and a giant industrial Hobart, seldom used. Gorgeous French copper pots, pans, and molds in every size and shape. A large marble-topped island with many drawers is the heart of the room. There’s a simple, elegant hutch, made by her father, a cabinetmaker. Wine glasses are displayed in a shallow cabinet, also her father’s work, which once held instruments used by her mother, a dentist. The sofa is, mystifyingly, lined with many small identical potato-shaped stuffed dolls in Idaho Potato shirts. 
She’s wearing a multicolored sweater that she knitted herself. That leads to the story of how the future cake maven got to FIT. One grandmother was a sample maker, the other a finisher. Early on, Rose learned to sew, knit, and embroider. “I was a prodigy with my hands,” she says. Though she earned praise from her FIT teachers, she says, “I thought I was a great craftsman, but I didn’t think my gift was superior.” She had studied with James Beard before going to FIT, and now decided food was her field after all. She attended NYU (her master’s thesis was on sifting), honed her skills working in the Ladies’ Home Journal test kitchen, and studied pastry at Lenôtre, the famed culinary school near Paris. 
FIT alumni would easily relate to the qualities that make Beranbaum a success. The precision and perfectionism, certainly, and the dedication to craft; also the well of creativity that drives her to see the familiar in new ways. She has a remarkable visual sense that shows in the look of her cakes and her books. The jacket of Rose’s Heavenly Cakes shows a smooth-as-glass lacquered chocolate cake festooned with red currants. “I know what sells: chocolate and red,” she says. “See the translucency of those currants? They capture the light like rubies.” Amazon named it the best cookbook cover of 2009. 
Beranbaum is at the top of her game, and she loves it. The Cake Bible, published in 1988, is in its 45th printing. Rose’s Heavenly Cakes will be out on Kindle this spring; it will be Kindle's first cookbook,
To make the custard— egg yolks, whipped cream, meringue, and the poaching liquid from the pears—and the glaze, I used six bowls, two saucepans, a stand mixer, and a hand mixer. (I do not have a dishwasher.)  
Various things went wrong along the way. After poaching, the pear skins darkened in the fridge, so I peeled them, losing the yellowgreen edges. The crust was a bit too brown. But I panicked just once. The recipe said stir the warm custard slowly but constantly for 10 minutes, until the edges were softly set. But mine cooled completely in three minutes, and turned lumpy. So much for delicacy; I stirred frantically, and eventually it became smooth as, well, chiffon. I gently heaped it into the crust and carefully arranged the pear slices on the surface. I dissolved arrowroot in the last of the poaching liquid to make a shiny, clear glaze, and brushed it on the pears. Perfect? No. Beautiful? Delicious? Yes and yes. 
My adventure with Rose was worth it, though in the end it wasn’t about achieving perfection. Much of the pleasure is in the process, and I gained knowledge of techniques and ingredients that I’ll use forever. Meanwhile, my next cake will be neither biblical nor heavenly. It’s a honey cake recipe scribbled on a card by a friend of my mother’s years ago. The instructions include “Throw in some nuts, and bake in a fairly large tube pan.” It’s yummy.
linking to video demos. Her blog is number 30 among food and wine blogs worldwide. “I know everybody, living and dead, in the food business,” she says. “I’m one of the founding members of what food is today.” 
My baking experiment ended with the Gingery Pear Chiffon Tart from The Pie and Pastry Bible. The photo looked beautiful, with a lovely ribbon of yellow-green peel edging each pear slice. It was a bit risky, since I had promised to bring it to my office potluck. It was a three-day, after-work affair—1) poach unpeeled pear halves in a syrup infused with vanilla bean and pear brandy; 2) make crisp cookie-type crust spiced with grated fresh ginger; and 3) make pear custard and glaze, and assemble tart.
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