Everyone has heard of delayed gratification, but what about delayed disappointment? That is the best way to describe the outcome of what was meant to be a super cool and special dessert for my birthday. If you were following my kitchen adventures back in February, you may remember the luscious chocolate-cherry tiramisu that I created for a Valentine’s Day dinner with my husband, Les.
I was so excited about putting a fun flavor twist on the classic Italian dessert, which is a favorite of mine, but not so much for Les, who cannot stand the flavor of coffee. My chocolate-cherry version of tiramisu swapped out the usual espresso in favor of a brewed cacao beverage, and it was oh so delicious.
After that successful twist on a classic, my creative juices flooded over and I created an array of other flavors for tiramisu—at least, in my mind. Every time another great flavor idea occurred to me, I opened the notes feature on my iPhone and added it to the list. To date, I have imagined six more flavor profiles, and one that was particularly appealing to me was pina colada. Could you imagine? The sweet flavors of fresh pineapple and tropical coconut, layered with the mascarpone and ladyfingers—oh, I dreamed about it for months. And my birthday, right in the middle of summer, would be the perfect occasion for it.
Except for one thing. Pineapple has some unusual properties, and in my excitement about what I envisioned would be a huge “wow” moment, I failed to recognize or plan for that.
Nope, I only charged forward with my plan, thinking through the flavor aspects and the presentation and what ingredients I would substitute for the espresso, the brandy and the cocoa powder. I would dip the ladyfingers into a delicious coconut smoothie concoction, spiked with a lovely golden rum from one of our local distilleries. I searched three supermarkets to find a version of pineapple preserves with ingredients that met my approval. I would fold that into the mascarpone mixture, as I had with the cherry preserves in my perfect Valentine’s Day version. Rather than cocoa dusted between layers, I’d sprinkle it with toasted desiccated coconut, and serve it on my grandmother’s vintage plates, and it was going to be great!
I started mixing, following the inspiration of the same Ina Garten recipe that led me to success the first time, and I got to the point of mixing a splash of pineapple juice and rum into the whipped mascarpone mixture, and suddenly the silky, creamy stuff in my bowl turned into a clumpy, curdled mess.
If I had been a contestant on Food Network’s Chopped, this would have been the moment that the judges would begin to panic, foreshadowing my disastrous ending. My favorite judge, Amanda Freitag, would have buried her face into her hands, whispering, “oh no, did she just put the pineapple juice in there?”
Yes, I sure did, and now I was puzzled. It must have been too cold, I reasoned, remembering that Ina Garten’s recipe made a big deal about starting with every single ingredient at room temperature. Not to worry, though. I’ve seen plenty of TV chefs fix broken sauces with an immersion blender, so I grabbed mine and whipped that mixture back into shape. It seemed mostly OK, and then I folded in a few tablespoons of the incredible pineapple preserves I had found at Trader Joe’s. This stuff was awesome, and I could almost taste sweet success. And then, dang if it didn’t curdle again!
And that was the exact moment I remembered about bromelain, the powerful enzyme in pineapple that does freaky things when it mingles with protein. I knew about this from years ago when I had marinated a pork tenderloin with pineapple and cilantro. The soaking liquid had smelled and tasted incredible, and I was sure my tenderloin would be remarkable. Oh, it was—remarkably mushy with a paste-like coating after grilling. Bromelain breaks down proteins into weird particles, and it happens quickly. This is why the splashes of pineapple juice wrecked the whipped egg yolk mixture, and I’m sure the immersion trick would have proved only temporarily effective. But I had not remembered any of this in time.
It was clear to me then that my pina colada tiramisu was not going to be successful, and I faced a tough decision to either scrap the whole mess or try to salvage it into some other kind of dessert. It was serendipitous that I arrived at this crossroads while making my own birthday dessert. Birthdays for me are weird occasions anyway, and for many very old reasons, I tend to steer clear of setting expectations of any kind. If I don’t make a big deal of it being my birthday, then it stings less when things don’t work out. But this dessert disaster was more disappointment than I was prepared for, partly because I had spent so much time dreaming up this tiramisu, and partly because the person disappointing me was me. So I took some deep breaths and made my decision. I wasn’t ready to give up, because then I was telling myself that my birthday wasn’t important. I had to be true to me and try to save it. But how?
I had a very successful grilled pineapple and jalapeno ice cream last summer, so maybe I could retrofit this mixture into ice cream—except no, because the egg yolks were raw and already mixed with mascarpone so I couldn’t cook the mixture now. Could I find a way to shift gears and make a pineapple cake? I’m not much of a baker (unless it’s sourdough bread), but I dug around on Pinterest and found a recipe that could serve as inspiration. It called for three sticks of butter, and mascarpone is kind of like butter. So I started whipping new ingredients into the clumpy mess in my stand mixer and I combined it with flour until it looked like batter. And then I crossed my fingers and baked it. Well?
At this point, I had no idea whether the cakes would even be edible. In my mind, another Chopped judge, Alex Guarnaschelli, was pursing her lips and shaking her head. The cakes were so dense and flat, and I knew they didn’t have near enough sugar, so I cooked the coconut smoothie-rum mixture with some turbinado sugar and made a syrup. I poked a toothpick all over the surface of the two cakes and spooned the syrup over them, hoping against hope that they’d soak up some flavor and sweetness. We ran out of powdered sugar for the icing, so I sent Les out to get more, and I pondered why I even bothered. Sadly, birthday disappointment was setting in, but I pressed on. I whipped more powdered sugar into the icing, but I couldn’t get the coconut flavor right, despite addition of coconut power, extract and actual coconut. But at least it didn’t look horrible. I mean, the frosting dressed it up, right?
I thought of the Rolling Stones’ tune, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and I reassured myself that even if my heavenly pina colada tiramisu that morphed into a flat, flavorless cake turned out to be a total bust, it was not the end of the world. It didn’t have to ruin my birthday, and it would not be my last chance to create something spectacular. I stepped outside to call our kitty, and I saw this.
The cake didn’t look horrible, but it really was. It was dense, pasty, heavy and not very sweet. The cooked rum syrup had a strange metallic taste that was not at all reminiscent of pina colada, and it didn’t hurt my feelings one bit to slide the whole mess into the trash. My birthday dessert was, in fact, a bust.
I learned something important about myself, though, and perhaps that was meant to be the point of all the hours I spent on my project. I am not a quitter, and I have gotten better in my later years at changing course when a situation demands it. And though I didn’t get my birthday wish for a tasty pina colada dessert, I did have a front row seat to witness the reveal of my true colors. And that part wasn’t so bad.
Besides, this coming weekend, I’ll be making ice cream. 😊