Friday, March 27, 2009

Chocolate Tart for Catherine's Birthday

Yesterday I was lucky enough to have a surprise birthday party to plan, bake for, and attend. Otherwise, I would have stared at the wall all day.

Shane McConkey, a friend from Squaw Valley and my boyfriend's best friend and ski partner, died yesterday in Italy. I don't really know what to say, if this is the forum or what. When I found out, time stopped. My heartbeat was audible, my chest heaved with pain. I wanted to sleep for the rest of the day. Yet, I had promised Catherine's husband I would be at her birthday party with a homemade cake and a smile. I was glad to have the task of baking in front of me.

When I am upset or unable to deal with things, deeply sad or just plain angry, I like to have my hands busy with a task. For example, I will frequently do dishes or clean the bathroom to occupy myself. Yesterday, with a heart full of sadness for my boyfriend's loss and for Shane's wife and 3 year old daughter, I tried to focus on my close friend Catherine and her wonderful family. As my brother said to me while I cried over the phone, "Be thankful for your friends you do have and that you can still celebrate with them."

I had already picked an intriguing recipe from the February issue of Food and Wine Magazine (an issue aptly titled "Comfort in The Kitchen") a Milk Chocolate Tart with a Pretzel Crust. (See recipe below.) Take a chocolate-covered pretzel, that "I just want one handful more" mixture of savory and sweet, and extrapolate it out to a full size tart. Instead of graham crackers for the crust, the recipe calls for crushed pretzels. Instead of powdered sugar for garnish, sea salt.

With Shane on my mind and Catherine's party that evening in my sights, I grabbed a mortar and pestle and started crushing pretzels into a salty flour. With every crush, my anger intensified. I don't know whom I am angry with; it just seems so wrong that a three year old girl will grow up without her father. I pulverized handful after handful of pretzels. I beat an egg and lots of butter and a little more flour into the pretzel mixture and I flattened the crust with a rolling pin. I had stopped crying.

Next, I chopped 12 ounces of milk chocolate into bits to be mixed with simmering heavy cream. I used just plain Hershey's Milk Chocolate, and it melted into the heavy cream to a perfect smoothness. After baking the crust for a half hour and brushing the inside of the tart with melted dark chocolate, I poured the filling in and let the tart rest and harden.

In my emotional haze, however, I had failed to keep track of time. It was 7:30pm. I had to leave for the surprise birthday party by 8:40pm. The tart was still liquid chocolate. Had I been thinking clearly, I would have read that the tart needs 4 HOURS to cool and harden. With a schizophrenic mix of haste and extreme care, I moved the still-soupy chocolate tart from the counter into the freezer, and prayed it would harden in time.

I drove to Catherine's house with a mostly hardened tart and sliced strawberries for a flavor contrast. We garnished the tart with more crushed pretzels and sea salt. Catherine came home with her husband Tim to a house full of friends with glasses of wine in hand and a beautiful chocolate tart on her kitchen table. The crust was too thick, probably due to overzealous pretzel crushing. I was a little shy on the salt garnish, not wanting to overdo it. Next time, I would go liberal with the sea salt. Though the tart was not perfect, the joy on Catherine's face erased any misgivings I had about my confection's quality.

Though my mind was full of thoughts of Shane, his lovely wife and their angelic daughter, and my dear boyfriend who was with Shane when he died, I took refuge in the birthday revelry. I drank pinot, I peppered Catherine with questions about her upcoming trip to Las Vegas and I enjoyed a rare but necessary cigarette with the birthday girl.

A death makes everything else seem trivial. What's a dessert when a man has lost his life? Why even sit down to write a blog? However, yesterday a chocolate tart was my illogical goal, my "keep going, just keep going" reminder that life must go on. At the end of a tragic day filled with sadness, I smiled, at least for a moment, knowing that I had made something special for a friend and I was able to celebrate with her.

We will miss you, Shane.

1 comment:

  1. Today’s blog is a breath of fresh air at a time someone can easily feel like they are suffocating. Your strength is going to help those around you cope and your beautiful way of looking at life and pushing forward is something few people have and I truly enjoyed reading your thoughts. Deepest sympathies to Shane’s family, loved ones and his friends.