Know what dessert your admission ticket entitled you to at the first Academy Awards at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929? A scoop of vanilla ice cream and a scoop of chocolate. With a couple of cherries on top.
Know what the dessert will be tonight at Morton’s Vanity Fair Oscars party? “I’m sorry, sir, but we never discuss a menu with the press,” answered a rather severe young voice at the restaurant. “It’s Morton’s policy to keep the menu secret until our guests arrive. I’m sure you understand.”
Of course. The disclosure of Important Secrets can cause a ripple effect of seemingly unconnected events that affect the course of human history: A menu is leaked to the press, a butterfly flaps its wings in Scotland, an elephant trumpets in Thailand, Graydon Carter gets indigestion, volcanoes cool, economies tumble, the big button is pushed, apocalypse now.
Geez, how did it come to this? How did an event that originally resembled a Kiwanis dinner become so self-important that foreknowledge of a piece of pastry would be considered a breach of academy security?
“Naah, I don’t think of it as secrecy. I think of it as a big surprise,” says Sherry Yard, the executive pastry chef of Wolfgang Puck’s far-flung food empire. Yard, 41, is also the 2002 James Beard Award winner for outstanding pastry chef and author of the acclaimed “The Secrets of Baking.” “The Governors Ball is like a big birthday party, and all these stars are like excited kids running around--'Oooo, look at my pretty new dress!’ And what’s the best, most fun surprise at a birthday party? When the cake comes out!”
Fair enough. So we’ll help keep the secret, sort of. Attention all nominees and academy members: Put down this magazine and step away from the breakfast table. Go to the other room and take a nap. You’ll need your strength later tonight.
That leaves the rest of us free to see what Yard is cooking up for the 77th annual dessert at the Governors Ball.
At the massive, labyrinthine Puck catering kitchens at the Hollywood/Highland complex that’s the site of the Kodak Theatre, the Oscars venue, Yard confers with pastry chef Sixto Pocasangre on the state of various projects. In the closet-sized pastry “office,” Yard holds up a curved 1 1/2 -inch-wide ribbon of sugar with the cut-out image of Oscar.
“When we started doing the Governors Ball 10 years ago, the venue was first at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and then at the Shrine Auditorium, where the ballrooms were big,” she says, waving the wafer-thin centerpiece of this year’s dessert, which she says Puck named “The Oscar I Love.” “But since moving here four years ago, I’ve realized the theme of the design of the ballroom and the food and dessert should harmonize.”
Yard says she learned this lesson the hard way at last year’s design presentation to the academy board, when she brought in a 1950s chocolate concessionaire’s box (complete with 3-D glasses) only to find that the proposed room design was “Louis XIV, periwinkle blue and gold fleur-de-lis.”
The design for this year’s ballroom is “sort of chic nightclub,” she says. “There are these wavy white panels suspended from the ceiling, chest-high tables with chairs that are a little higher than bar stools, and on every table are lamps that remind me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs. The overall feeling is very intimate and elegant.”
To match the design, Yard decided on a variation of an opera torte. The first layer is almond cake, topped by coffee cream and then a layer of coffee creme brulee. On top of this is a thin chocolate wafer meant to suggest the tabletop. Dotting the “tabletop” are dabs of chocolate cream, chocolate sauce and coffee cream. Perched in the middle is the undulating Oscar.
“The appetite starts with the eye,” Yard says. “So, of course, I want there to be a big ‘Oh, wow!’ factor happening when the dessert is presented. And then I want each bite to be a big explosion of flavor. I want them to have a party in their mouth.”
Yard even has a secret weapon within the semi-secret dessert. “By the time they get dessert, it’s going to be getting on toward midnight, and they will have been sitting in the Kodak for hours and hours. So I designed the dessert with the espresso cream and the coffee creme brulee to give them that giddyap and go. After all, they’ve got a lot of parties to go to and a lot of dancing to do.”
Almond and Espresso Torte With Velvet Chocolate Cream
Adapted by Sherry Yard
4 ounces Scharffen Berger bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 cups heavy cream, divided in half
2 tablespoons sugar
Place the chocolate in a medium mixing bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring half the heavy cream and the sugar to a boil. Pour over the chocolate and allow to infuse 1 minute. With a whisk, stirring from the center, whip together the hot cream and the chocolate until smooth. Stir in the remaining cream, and whisk until homogenous. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, about 2 hours. Whip the chocolate cream to medium-firm peaks.
1 1/2 cups almond meal (also known as almond flour)
1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
5 eggs, at room temperature
4 egg whites, at room temperature
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons butter, melted and kept warm
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a half-sheet baking pan (12 1/4 by 17 by 1 inch ) with parchment paper and coat with nonstick cooking spray.
In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the almond meal, confectioners’ sugar and flour. In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with a whip attachment, whip the eggs until light and a ribbon forms, about 8 to10 minutes.
Whip the egg whites to soft peaks in a separate bowl. Stream in the sugar and whip to medium peaks. With a rubber spatula, alternate the whipped eggs and the dry ingredients one-third at a time into the whipped egg whites. Add the melted butter with the last addition of dry ingredients.
Pour into the baking pan and spread evenly. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the pan and continue cooking 6 to 7 more minutes, until the cake is golden brown. Remove from the oven and cool to room temperature. (Can be made up to 2 weeks in advance; wrap in plastic wrap and freeze.)
1 cup hot espresso
1/3 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Brew espresso and immediately add both sugars. Stir to dissolve. Add lemon juice and vanilla. Set aside.
To assemble, cut cake in half lengthwise and remove parchment paper. Place half on a large platter or the bottom of a half-sheet baking pan. Brush 1/2 cup of espresso syrup on the bottom cake layer. Gently spread with half of the whipped chocolate cream. Then place the second cake layer on top of the whipped cream and brush with the remaining 1/2 cup of espresso until the layer is soaked. Spread remaining chocolate cream on top and smooth to the edges. Trim all four sides so that the edges are clean. Garnish with gold leaf in lieu of “tabletop” Oscar. Slice and serve.