Piñata Cake

IMG_0289There are different ways to impress guests. You can serve the most refined and perfectly prepared dishes. Or, if you’re entertaining 8-year-olds, you can make a piñata cake. Cake AND candy! Two great tastes that taste great together. A guaranteed hit that will first make jaws drop and then mouths open.

I established a reputation in my little village here in the deepest, most lost depths of France profonde as somebody who made very strange gâteaux, but they were mostly good.

There was the carrot cake, at one of our earliest gatherings. A July 4 cookout, and we invited everybody we knew at the time. I had made a bunch of desserts, including a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, sheet-cake format, decorated with strawberries and blueberries to make an American flag.

I was about to cut it, but a friend said, “Oh, wait, I have to show everybody first!” As she carried it around, she called out to me, “What kind of cake is it?” When I said carrot, she just about dropped the thing. Her face was the picture of shock. And horror. But, being incredibly gracious, she recovered, and turned the conversation to the frosting. Answering that it was made with cheese didn’t help the situation.

The other desserts got eaten in short order, but the carrot cake sat untouched until finally one guest, who hadn’t paid attention to this exchange, took a piece. The others watched warily, and when his face lit up with pleasure, they all had to try this strange carrot cake with cheese on top. It disappeared in minutes.

Just FYI, these days a very branché (literally “plugged in”–hip) café in Carcassonne serves not only carrot cake but also cheesecake and many kinds of cupcakes. And is always crowded.

However, to my knowledge, at least in these parts, to get hold of a piñata cake, you have to DIY or see me. And I am about to spill my secrets.IMG_0279Now, a piñata made of papier mâche (pronounced pap-ee-ay mash, not paper mashay) is extremely uncommon around here. There is no going to Wal-Mart or Target, where you can get a wide selection of Mexican piñatas made in China. In fact, in deepest France, piñatas were quite unknown, even though Dora l’Exploratrice was a hit in a certain demographic on TV.

I made a piñata for the class, and was very proud of myself. It was the image of a popular cartoon character. I was completely unprepared for the reaction: horror. I had brought a tee-ball bat that a dear American uncle had given my kid, wanting my child to have all the benefits of American heritage, even while living in France. However, this uncle was quite aware that my husband is gifted at hitting balls with his feet or his head but not with his hands and that I am a complete and utter ZERO when it comes to anything round. Just forget it. I can’t throw and I can’t catch. (I can’t run or swim or …. well, you get the picture. Not coach material.)

So the piñata full candy and crayons and erasers (hey, not TOO much sugar!) was suspended from a stately plane tree in the school courtyard, but the kids were utterly horrified at the idea of beating a beloved visage into oblivion.

I should have known better. A few years earlier, I had done a Winnie the Pooh theme for a birthday cake and was very proud of my artistry…until it came time to cut the cake, and the children bawled like mad because I had desecrated Winnie. No, dear reader, if you have to cut it, make it something banal.

Of course, and I really should have seen this coming, with the piñata, it was Lord of the Flies. As soon as one child slugged it, then the others tasted blood and were all in.

Things went somewhat better with the cake. However, I warn you that while the first slice or two is utterly impressive, after that the architecture of the thing falls apart and you have a cake/frosting/candy mess. But by then the little devils are so hyped up they don’t even notice.

IMG_0286Piñata Cake

OK so here we can get into the whole French-vs.-U.S. (or wherever) supermarket supplies. You cannot find confetti cake mix in France. Forget it. In fact, they don’t sell cake mix at all. You can find a mix for flan, for macarons, for fondant (or moelleux–NOT THE SAME) au chocolat, but not for cake/gâteau. That’s because cake mix is a huge rip-off, and the French, being skin-flints in the most admirable way, refuse to buy it. Flour, sugar, leavening, salt…for crying out loud! Plus they have to add a bunch of chemical preservatives (OK, if you’re prudish avert your eyes, because “preservatives” in French means condoms (like for birth control, not like the French town) and the stuff that adds shelf life is called “conservateurs.”) It takes all of one minute to actually measure the dry ingredients, and even with a mix you have to add all the liquid ones.

So back to the recipe. You make a yellow (or white) cake. Chocolate would hide the confetti aspect.

2.5 cups white flour

2 tsp baking powder

a pinch of salt

1 cup butter

2 cups granulated sugar

4-5 eggs, separated (4 if big; 5 if not)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup milk

1 cup sprinkles (or more!)

Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 C).

Sift the dry ingredients.

Beat the butter until it gets white and fluffy. Add the sugar, then the egg yolks and vanilla.

Beat the whites until they’re stiff.

Mix the butter into the dry ingredients. Stir in about a third of the milk, then another third, and another.

When the batter is well-mixed, carefully integrate the egg whites, stirring in ONE DIRECTION. This is the same advice as for Mousse au Chocolat and Baba au Rhum. Consistency. At the last minute, add the all-important sprinkles.

You need two identical Pyrex bowls, about 6.5 inches (17 cms) in diameter. Butter them and pour in the batter. Bake for about 20 minutes (but check after 15!).

Let it cool. Before you turn out the two halves, scoop out the insides of the cakes. Make sure you have at least 2 inches (5 cms) of cake all the way around, or else it will collapse.

Make the frosting. I just did classic buttercream–equal parts butter and powdered sugar, with a dash of vanilla. Later, I added food coloring.

I used something like M&Ms, which at that time you couldn’t find in France but now they’re everywhere. Nothing too soft or sugary or else it will dissolve with the humidity of the cake. In fact, let the cake get completely cool before assembling. Don’t make more than a day in advance.IMG_0275Put the bottom half of the piñata cake on the serving dish. Then pour the candy into the hollowed-out hole in the bottom half of the cake, carefully creating a talus hill above. Without disturbing the candy, apply some frosting around the flat lip of the bottom half of the cake. Delicately set the top half of the cake on it.

Frost the whole thing. As you can see, I’ve done this more than once. The smooth frosting was much easier than the little stars.

The last bit of advice: Don’t stress about it. Years later, my kid remembers only that I made birthday cakes from scratch (spatula licking was involved), vs. other kids whose parents picked up something random at the supermarket. It really is the thought that counts.


Let Them Eat Cake


The French really do win at lifestyle. One of the essentials of the good life in France is that they work to live, not live to work.

This is possible in no small part thanks to the minimum wage, or salaire mimimum interprofessionel de croissance, aka the SMIC (pronounced smeek. The French LOVE abbreviations.).

It is possible to live on the minimum wage here. Granted, it would be difficult in big cities where rents are high. But here in the rural south of France, it’s hard to find jobs that pay much more than the SMIC. And everybody I know is doing just fine anyway.

meery-3For 2017, the SMIC is €9.76 an hour or €1,480.27 a month (that comes to €17,763.24 a year, but I’m not sure whether it would be more because people generally are paid a 13th month of salary in order to be able to go on vacation). The workweek is 35 hours.

Looking at 2015 figures from the OECD that compare a bunch of countries using a constant exchange rate, France was at $10.90 an hour vs. $7.20 for the U.S.

The OECD also looks at how countries’ minimum wages compare to average wages of full-time workers. So 1 would mean that everybody earns minimum wage while the closer you get to zero the worse off minimum-wage earners are compared to everybody else. For France, folks earning the SMIC are at 0.62 of the median wage (which the OECD says is more accurate than the mean wage), while in the U.S., minimum wage earners are at 0.36 of the median wage.

In other words, there are rich and poor in France, but the poor are less miserable and the rich not as extravagantly wealthy as in the U.S. (If this post seems simplistic, it’s because it is a blog post, not a book. For the book, check out “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by French economist Thomas Piketty.)

The way to measure this is called the Gini index, with zero being absolute equality (no rich, no poor, everybody gets the same thing) to one being absolute inequality (a few rich have everything and everybody else is destitute). Obviously neither extreme is good—the first gives no incentives while the second is pretty much slavery. You want some incentives but not extreme greed, so the lower the number the better. In Chile and Mexico, the indexes for 2014 (latest year) are 0.465 and 0.459, respectively. Both countries have rich elites and large poor populations.

The Gini index for France is 0.294. For the U.S., it’s 0.394. Switzerland is at 0.295, almost the same as France, which shows that low inequality doesn’t mean poverty for all–it can just as easily mean relative wealth for all. In fact, the poverty rate in France is 8%, in Switzerland 8.6% and in the U.S. 17.5%.

meery-2There are a lot of reasons why life in France is good. Socialized medicine is a major factor. Workers pay about 8% and employers kick in about 13% more–so folks with big salaries pay more than folks earning the SMIC; the rates aren’t set according to your health. You don’t lose your health insurance if you lose your job because coverage is universal. In addition, low-income families get help, with public preschool starting at age two (that’s a benefit for rich and poor families), benefits for children and subsidies for nannies/daycare.

France is a lot more like how the U.S. was in the 1950s (a period of low inequality), with white-collar and blue-collar workers living in the same neighborhood in similar (modest) homes. (The average new home size in France is 1,206 square feet, vs. 2,164 square feet in the U.S.)

This makes sense when you start looking at salaries in France for professions that pay more than the SMIC.

I was quite surprised when the manager of my bank branch divulged that she makes €1,800 a month—€21,600 a year. But that’s more than a first-year school teacher, at €1,616 a month (€19,392 a year) before taxes (it rises to €3431—€41,172—after 30 years of service). Firemen make €2,311 a month (€27,732 a year) on average.

Nurses start out the same as teachers and max out at €47,710, while general practice doctors earned €72,500 to €83,120 a year in 2011. Among specialists, radiologists are the best paid, at €186,250 to €212,980 a year.

Are you choking on your coffee?

meery-4There are two big reasons for doctors’ low pay compared to U.S. doctors (an average of $223,175 a year for internal medicine): malpractice isn’t like in the U.S. and they have no giant loans to pay off from med school.

My doctor lives in a house a tad bigger than the French average, maybe 1,800 square feet, on a street with teachers, nurses, bus drivers, plumbers, acccountants, electricians and lots of retail workers. She has a nicer car and goes on cooler vacations than other people I know around here–and she totally deserves it–but she doesn’t live in a luxe bubble.

When I moved here, my new acquaintances told me I would be able to find a job easily because of being bilingual. The supermarkets would be sure to snatch me up, they said, to help deal with tourists and British expats who don’t speak French. I thought, there is no way I am going to be a checkout clerk at a supermarket. I have a master’s degree.

After living among people who are retail clerks, restaurant workers and other professions, I see things differently. I still don’t want to work in a supermarket. But I had lived in a circle of intellectuals and Type A overachievers who work hard and succeed, yes, but who always got straight A’s. Now I know lots of people who work hard and who never in their lives got an A or even a B, no matter how hard they tried. Unlike in the U.S., they aren’t punished for it.

meery-5I have a friend here who was thrilled when she was hired at McDonald’s. To me, McDonald’s is a good job for high school students. Here, high school students don’t work, certainly not after school, except for those who are studying a trade, and then it’s an apprenticeship. Their job is school, and it’s a full-time job. And here, a job at McDonald’s might be harder than, say, selling dresses, but it’s still a decent job. My friend proudly showed up at school pick-up while wearing her uniform, so all the other parents could see where she worked. Contrast that with a U.S. chieftain of fast food—NOT McDonald’s, which raised its U.S. wages—who said he hires “the best of the worst.”

Let them eat cake.

meery-1Obviously we need incentives for people to do jobs that require training, higher education or a lot of stress. Making a mistake on the job has different ramifications and different stress for a doctor versus a janitor and they need to be paid accordingly. Nobody would spend years studying and then hours bent over a microscope to try to find a cure for cancer if they were going to make the same thing as if they had a job that required no education or dedication. There are jobs that aren’t about clocking in and then switching off when you clock out, and nobody would do them if they paid the SMIC.

But we still need people to wait tables, pick up garbage, clean houses, and sell us stuff in stores. If they do it all day every day, shouldn’t they be able to make a living? In France, they can.

These workers do their jobs, do them well (the professionalism of French waiters is legendary), and go home to their families. In France, they are able to pay their bills as long as they live comfortable but modest lives, which really is all they want. Because they work to live, they don’t live to work.

What matters to them is a good meal with family and friends. With dessert.

This tarte and the Saint-Honoré at the top are from Noez bakery; all the others are from Meery Cake, two great places for desserts in Carcassonne.