Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.- Chili Davis
I don’t know which astonishes me the most: that I have reached this age and am still standing or that I am standing on the threshold of our second year at the Hôtel Diderot … and I am still standing.
“Oh, grow up!” he often says to me when I’ve said or done something particularly ridiculous, a smirk dancing upon his lips, a glint of humor in his eyes. “Would you really want me to?” is my usual rejoinder. We revel in our youthful silliness and utter disregard for the rules of behavior that most seem so urgently ready to apply to folks of our age. Another birthday has rolled around and I am now squarely centered in that “woman of a certain age” category. I look in the mirror and see the lines on my skin and the silver threaded through my dark hair, I feel the weight of the years upon my shoulders, pulling me down with unforgiving severity, gravity giving me a less-than-youthful appearance. These old bones creak and the back has a tendency to slouch, the elevator has taken precedence over the stairs, and fabric seems to strain at snaps and buttons. Mademoiselle has forever been replaced with Madame, quelle horreur! But for all of the outward changes, that slow but inevitable metamorphoses that we each go through, the visible traces left by the advancing years, I somehow feel an inward subtle shift in the opposite direction.
So the “Oh, grow up!” followed immediately by the “Would you really want me to?” is a game we play, just more childish banter between two who simply do not feel that the years have made us grow old. We laugh in the face of Old Man Time and hold onto youth joyfully, in an ironclad grip.
The body is some strange foreign vessel, almost alien in its outlandishness. There is an odd disconnect throughout our youth and well into adulthood, this relationship we have with our outer shell, as if wearing someone else’s ill-fitting clothing. As a child, we often have moments of not quite being able to control our movements nor do we quite understand the changes that happen seemingly overnight as we sleep; as a teen, there is discomfort and embarrassment in every lump and bump, every growth spurt and unruly, out-of-control development. There may be a brief moment when we achieve the perfect balance, when we reach some ideal age, that place in time where it all comes together effortlessly, without blemish, pure and sublime, our hair, our skin, our figure; we glance in the mirror and smile, content, self-confident, at ease and at peace with ourselves. “Ah, I have finally grown up and grown into the person I was meant to be all along!” we exclaim, nodding in approval as we turn to blow out the 30 or so candles. But the moment is fleeting; it rushes by, a whisper blown swiftly away on the wind. We wake up shortly after, minutes it seems, and the walls begin to crumble; the skin sags, ever so imperceptibly at first, but we notice it a bit more every day; the first gray hair sneaks in, almost as a fine joke; the knees creak and crack as we climb the stairs to the apartment and it seems just that much more difficult to push ourselves out of bed in the morning. We catch a glimpse of our face, our body as we walk in front of a mirror or plate glass window and are stunned, wondering when it was that we grew so old.
Yet although I reached my stride quite a number of years ago, my peak physical years have come and gone, and although today, well, the lines are getting fuzzy, the streaks of sophisticated silver run their fingers brazenly through my unruly hair and keeping in shape takes more effort every day, my inner child is well and alive, thank you very much. Rebellious in nature, the youthful me bursts at the seams, a ball of energy, not willing to sit still and twiddle her thumbs allowing any old rather snooty Grande Dame to make the decisions. Some may say that there is something irreverent in the way I behave, that silliness does not become a woman of a certain age; others may shake their head in dismay at my adamant determination to simply not grow up, their eyes opened wide in disbelief at my jokes or antics. But although I have little control over the outer shell other than exercise, diet and a good haircut, a touch of makeup and the choice of what I wear, my spirit is my own to do with as I please.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of owning, running, being at the Hôtel Diderot, my birthday has faded into an afterthought although most days, every day, I think about my age and wonder (often aloud) at the physical stress and beating I have been putting this old body through. Up each morning by 5:30, standing for six, seven hours straight during high season as breakfast is prepared, served, cleaned up and put away. Jogging (well, trying to) up and down two flights of stairs day in and day out, heaving copper basins brimming with fruit and sugar from sink to stovetop as I stand in the heat of a summer afternoon’s kitchen stirring and jarring jam. Little time for exercise of the right sort, little time or energy to cook or to make sure that I am eating well. Yet I am amazed at my strength and stamina, my resilience, how well I stand up under pressure, how well this old body moves. And I am rather proud, I will admit it, of having taken on this formidable task at my age, squarely centered in the “woman of a certain age” space in time as I am.
But my youth comes out when I am with the clients or with the girls, teasing, joking, laughing. The staff often marvel at our silliness, our antics and our banter, surely laughing with us, not at us. And that laughter, that lightheartedness is what keeps me young.
The corridors are filled with dust and noise. The hotel is closed for two weeks but don’t think we are idle! Renovations of Room #12 are underway, walls knocked down, bathroom fixtures torn out, insulation, electricity, plumbing and in two weeks the room will be ready for the upholsterer to begin his work covering the walls in gorgeous fabric. We are over the moon with our first renovation project! We have been furniture hunting not only for Room #12 but for the creation of a cosy little reading corner in the hotel where guests can spend quiet time. I am full on in orange season and have already made a variety of marmalades with 72 kilos of fruit, both bitter Seville oranges and sweet Maltaise.
And meanwhile, the door of the old oven crashed to the floor, shattering into a billion tiny pieces and I only received my new oven this past weekend. Splendid it is, but I haven’t had the time to truly test it out, and isn’t a birthday the perfect chance to try out a new oven?
Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. – Leroy “Satchel” Paige
And so for my birthday, I will share once again the recipe for this, my perfect birthday cake. French pastry shops are abundant in tarts of glistening fruit, creams of chocolate, raspberry or vanilla studded with poached pears or bright berries and crunchy with praline or biscuits, elegant verrines of layer upon delicate layer of mousses and bavaroises topped by froths of whipped chantilly; one jaw-dropping gorgeous, ravishingly delicious delight after another, it is true, but a birthday is simply not a birthday without a layer cake. And there is no better way to have exactly what you love best than by making it yourself.
I traditionally turn to this, my favorite chocolate cake recipe, one that was handed down from my father, and my simple chocolate buttercream frosting. I have added espresso to both the cake batter and the frosting, whisked in a container of fresh mascarpone to the buttercream for a richer, smoother, creamier frosting and I created my perfect birthday cake, a cake designed to bring out the joyful, youthful frivolity in each of us; dense, ultra moist, devilishly chocolaty layers with a diabolically inspired kiss of espresso, a cake at once flirtatious with its voluptuous swirls of mocha cream and serious in its sinful decadence. A flash to whip up and bring together, and oh so easy going down. Kid friendly indeed yet oh so incredibly adult.
- 1 ¾ cups (240 grams) flour
- 2 cups (400 grams) sugar
- ¾ cup (90 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
- ½ cup (125 ml) vegetable oil
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 cup (250 ml) prepared coffee *
- 11 - 12 oz (325 - 350 grams) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
- 8 Tablespoons (120 grams) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- 1.8 oz (50 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 4 tablespoons very hot prepared coffee
- 3.5 – 5.3 oz (100 – 150 g) fresh mascarpone cheese
- Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Oil and flour two 8 ½ or 9-inch round cake pans or three 7-inch cake pans generously. (I oiled the pans, lined with parchment and then lightly oiled the paper and dusted with flour.)
- Combine all of the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Whisk or whiz them with the electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds until everything is well combined.
- Add the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla. Beat on low until well blended then increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for about 2 minutes.
- Bring the cup of coffee just to the boil and stir carefully by hand into the batter until very well blended.
- Carefully divide the batter between the prepared cake pans – it will be liquid.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 35 – 40 minutes or until the center is set (30 – 35 minutes for the smaller layers). Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 – 15 minutes on cooling racks before turning them out onto the racks to cool completely.
- Using an electric hand mixer, cream the butter and the powdered sugar together. Add the cocoa powder and the hot coffee and beat, scraping down the sides as necessary, until well blended and fluffy. Beat in as much mascarpone as desired until smooth and whipped.
- Chill in the refrigerator until firm enough so that, when spread and the layers are stacked, the frosting does not slide or ooze out the sides.
- Frost the tops of the layers then stack, placing the bottom layer on a cake or serving plate. I slip strips of waxed paper or parchment under the bottom edges of the cake before frosting the sides in order to keep the serving plate clean and frosting-free. Smooth the frosting on the sides of the cake. Pipe rosettes of frosting and decorate as desired. Gently slide the strips of parchment out from under the cake and retouch as needed.
- Chill in the refrigerator until the frosting has firmed.
- Because the frosting contains mascarpone, it is best to store uneaten cake in the refrigerator.
If you want to make the smaller 3-layer cake and only have 2 cake pans: oil, line and flour the two pans and divide ⅔ of the batter between the two; the pans should be filled about ⅓ to ½ full. Bake the first two layers. When they are done, remove from the oven, allow to cool for several minutes, slide a sharp knife around the edges to loosen and invert (then upright) on cooling racks to completely cool. Clean, oil, line and dust with flour one of the pans and pour the remaining third of the batter into this pan and bake as directed.