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Alone in the Temple,
You've Glatt to be Kidding
By Michael Schulman
It's my caterer friend Esther's wedding. She's having 175 people, and she thinks she's going to cater it herself. After much soul-searching, she realizes she might be biting off just a little more than even she can chew. The only person she trusts to do the cooking is SuperJew. (Well, I shouldn't lie so early in this story. I am not really SuperJew. I am merely the Son of SuperJew.).
Since it's summer, the slow season for my catering business, and her job is for a lot of money, I agree to drive out to Western Massachusetts for the week to do all the cooking with a staff assembled by Esther, then run the show. There are conditions: It will be a kosher wedding, so I have to buy all the supplies fresh-even staples-since you can't bring food from a non-kosher kitchen into a kosher kitchen. I arrive with just my clean clothes and a new set of pastry bags and tips, still in the wrappers, so the rabbi can see that they haven't been used or contaminated. As I unpack the groceries, the rabbi watches and pronounces which things can't be used, since they lack a K or a U, the Kosher seals of approval. When he sees the balsamic vinegar, still relatively uncommon in the early 1980s, he isn't sure about it. Vinegar is made from wine, and there are strict laws about wine-making. "I'm going to have to call Boston to check on that. While you're waiting, don't use that vinegar. In fact, get it out of the kitchen-put it in your car or something until I confirm it."
Esther wants to bake her own wedding cake, and make the frosting with her own hands. But she knows cake decorating isn't her specialty, so she has asked me to frost it and decorate it.
Bissel problem: The wedding is a Sunday brunch. But Jewish law forbids work on the Sabbath, which starts at sun-down Friday night and runs until sun-down Saturday. So it's agreed that we will be cleaned up and out of the temple by sun-down Friday (the rabbi has a chart with the exact time.) Esther has chosen a menu that can be prepared in advance on Friday, and most of the food can either be reheated or just assembled Sunday morning. Except the cake.
The frosting can't sit on the cake from Friday until Sunday--the cake will suck the moisture out, making the inside soggy and the outside dried out and flaky. But it's too big and delicate a job to do Sunday morning under pressure. So the rabbi agrees that I can come in Saturday night, after sun-down, to decorate and assemble. But then either someone will have to meet me at the temple to let me in or-Oy!-they'll have to give me a key to the temple. After a lot of discussion of my credentials and references (when was your bar mitzvah? did you speak or sing the haftorah? how many times have you been to Israel? Never?) it's decided that I can be trusted with the key, mainly because no one wants to come out Saturday night to let me in. As if I have no vested interest in this event that I am being paid a lot of money for, by Esther of all people.
It's the middle of July, and the heat is at its peak. Late Saturday afternoon I head west along the Mass. Pike, driving into the mid-summer sunset. I arrive early, so I wait outside until it's really dark outside just in case Someone is watching. Then I unlock the temple. The kitchen has been closed since Friday, and all the windows are locked. With the heat from the ovens' pilot lights and the motors from the refrigerators, it's about 20 degrees hotter inside than outside. This makes it very difficult to work with frosting made out of cream cheese and butter.
The cake is huge. The temple doesn't have a platter big enough for the bottom layer, a circle 16 inches in diameter, so I take a huge oval Rubbermaid tray used for serving and clearing dishes, almost two feet by two and a half-feet, and cover it with foil. I cover the sides of the tray where the foil is showing with fern leaves and flowers, and put fresh flowers all around the cake, as per Esther's instructions. Then I attempt to frost the monster. I spread frosting on one side, but as I turn the cake to cover the other side the heat makes it melt and slide off, like a sand castle. I have to work quickly, putting each tier back into the refrigerator while I work on the next. When they are all finished, I quickly remove them, pile them up and touch up the parts where the tiers meet with more frosting.
I go to put the cake in the upright refrigerator, which only moments before had looked like it was big enough for the cake. I had actually put the un-frosted cake pieces in the refrigerator to make sure they would fit, and adjusted the shelf for the height of the cake. But the tray is about 2 inches too wide to fit past the bar that separates the doors. It will fit inside the refrigerator, but I'll have to tilt it to get it past that bar.
This is really a two-person job, but I'm alone in the temple at midnight on Saturday. It's just me, the cake, the eternal light burning in the sanctuary, and God.
So I prop open the refrigerator doors, bend my knees, and lift this cake, which weighs more than 40 pounds. I tilt it just enough to get the tray past the bars. But there’s nothing holding the cake to the platter. (Usually you put frosting
under the bottom layer to stick the cake to the tray so it doesn’t slide, but the bottom layer is on foil, which isn’t fixed to the platter.) My hand is there to stop it, and my thumb is completely buried, all the way to the joint. The cake is attacking me.
Trapped between the doors, my hand deep in the cake, with just the angels watching, I'm shaking as I laugh, trying not to drop the cake. Finally I steady us both, and get the tray past the bar. The cake is sitting upright again on the shelf inside the refrigerator, with a huge hole on the side of the bottom layer from my thumb.
I fill the crater with frosting and smooth it over, meaning someone is going to get a great piece of cake, but they'll never know how, um, holey it was.
And I never told Esther.
Michael Schulman has been catering since 1982. He still worries about running out of food. You can see everything you might ever want to know about him at manforallseasonings.com.
from the November 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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