“Carrot cake?” a French woman asked me. “Ça gout du carrot? (Does it taste like carrots?)” I immediately answered, “Yes” because, to an American mind, the orange vegetable by definition lends the cake its distinctive flavor.
“Non,” my colleague immediately corrected me. “C’est plutôt épicé. (It tastes more like spices.)” I had scared a customer. The French woman went with an espresso and a cookie instead.
My coworker and I were both American; this summer we worked at Sugarplum Cake Shop, an American-style bakery in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. As interns, we learned to bake cakes and make lattes. For her, it was a way to get her foot in the door of the French pastry world. For me, Sugarplum was an excuse to stay in Paris after my spring semester abroad. All of our bosses were from the States, save one Canadian, and the official language of the bakery was English. Into this enclave of relocated Southern hospitality came the homesick American student; the English tourist looking for a cup of tea and a common tongue; the Australian seeking a better cup of coffee than the dishwater espresso served at most Parisian bistros; and, of course, the French.
Parisian patisseries dot nearly every corner in Paris just like Starbucks do in the United States. They serve deliciously flaky mille-feuilles and creamy éclairs, delicately flavored with almond flour and crème pâtissière. These are the kind of treats that are difficult to make and hard to come by in the United States.
Sugarplum specializes in basic American desserts that have begun building cultish followings in Paris—muffins, chocolate chip cookies, cupcakes, and brownies. Countless other customers come in specifically for the cheesecake, learn that we are out that day, and leave disappointed. Once, a customer mistook a layer cake for a cheesecake, and received an impromptu lesson on American baked goods; she opted for a safe iced tea instead. However, the most requested item by far was the carrot cake. Friends introduced skeptical friends to the novel confection, and customers rarely left unconverted.
In reality, I spent most of my internship at Sugarplum washing dishes. However, the rest of my time was spent in the café serving brownies and making lattes or in the kitchen baking cakes and scones on an industrial scale. That carrot cake recipe called for eight pounds of carrots and a 1/4 cup of cinnamon, which adds up to enough batter to make nine eight-inch rounds.
Because of my American upbringing, I had to learn a whole new way to bake—the French way. The hardest part of American-style baking while in Paris was the buttermilk. We made it from scratch, which was a matter of necessity rather than an Alice Waters–esque “everything is homemade” ethos. It can be difficult to make American cakes in Paris because buttermilk is nonexistent in grocery stores (to make, add a little white vinegar to milk and let the mixture sit). Also, French milk is more heavily pasteurized than its American counterpart, which gives it a different taste. Peanut butter, pecans, and Philadelphia Cream Cheese had to be specially shipped. The new textures and exotic flavors had to be explained to curious Parisians, many of whom are even unfamiliar with the concept of buttercream frosting, let alone a layer cake. Some have never seen fresh blueberries.
I speak French well enough, but baking is a lot like chemistry—put in the wrong ingredient, and explosions can happen. To make sure none of the English-speaking bakers mistook one ingredient for a look-alike, everything in the kitchen was labeled twice, its French tag overlaid with English, so no cupcake would contain double the baking soda, but no baking powder (“bicarbonate de soude” and “levure,” respectively).
Besides translating ingredients, we also had to convert ounces to grams. Since Sugarplum is American, its instructions use the U.S. system of measurement. Recipes had to be converted from cups to kilos, though some were a mixture of the two, which only complicated the matter further. A 1/2 cup of chocolate chips might be added to 750 grams of flour and two pounds of butter. Scales were constantly being changed from metric to standard and back again. Even though the coffee was filtered and served in mugs (the antithesis of the traditional miniature Parisian espresso), some foods were geared specifically to the French customer, which created a unique mélange of French and American traditions that would meet on the plate.
Nearly every vanilla cake the kitchen turned out was enrobed in a light green frosting that tasted of pistachio, a flavor rarely found in such form Stateside. Steamed milk was served with rose or violet syrup. The juicer was used for making apple juice but also for orders of straight lemon–juice “citron-pressé,” an unsweetened lemonade. And yes, American-style homemade lemonade was also available. A cold drink could not be served without a straw, and even Rice Krispie treats went out with a fork on the plate.
It was a little surreal to work in a cultural bubble in the City of Lights, a bubble that also served as a hub for anyone feeling alone in a foreign country and craving a bit of America in France. Sugarplum was the perfect place to feel connected to Paris while having a little piece of home at the same time often in the form of a perfectly spiced carrot cake.