prologue: long weekend
Friday morning. I wake and get dressed while it is still dark. I have an early train to catch; I am going to Washington DC for the weekend to visit my friend Anna. As Bella was my partner in crime during my semester in Rome, so was Anna during my semester in Paris.
Photography students, we explored the city with cameras in hand, ferreting out culinary delights that could be eaten on foot. Falafel pita in the Marais. Egg-and-cheese crepes at a stand by one of the Metro stops in the Latin Quarter. Viennoises and palmiers from the city's countless bakeries.
Four years later, Anna has a graduate degree and gainful employment, and I am struggling with the alarming notion that I will be a juris doctor in May. The cameras lie dormant. Neither of us has the time to spare for the darkroom.
Some things, however, do not change.
i. red velvet cupcake
The sky is overcast as we walk down the brick-paved sidewalk of Georgetown's M Street. A light rain begins to fall as we wait in line outside Georgetown Cupcake, a bakery where, as the name suggests, there is just one kind of baked good on the menu. The shop is small, and the line moves slowly. Every time the bakery door opens, the scent of vanilla wafts out.
Inside, the glass-fronted display has the air of a jeweler's case. The cupcakes are carefully positioned on tiered cake stands - concentric rings in ruffled paper cups, topped with swirls of frosting. The flavors are varied and tantalizing: mocha, coconut, pumpkin spice. I opt for red velvet, a classic. A bakery box is deemed unnecessary; we take our cupcakes in capes of greaseproof paper, and duck under a wide doorway to consume them immediately.
The red velvet cupcake has a deep red hue, well befitting its name. Its cap of cream cheese frosting is adorned with a dusky pink sugar heart. The first taste: dense, moist cake with the solid flavor of cocoa, a contrast to the salt-sweet of the cream cheese. We take generous bites, licking frosting from our fingers. Such greed. Such pleasure.
ii. strawberry cupcake
The clouds have begun to disperse, and there is faint sunshine. We seat ourselves on a flight of brick steps by the C&O Canal, and I remove a strawberry cupcake from a white paper bag stickered with the logo of Baked and Wired.
The cupcake has been baked in a folded cup of wax paper. I unwrap the pleats, and we break off pieces with our fingers. The pale yellow cake has a soft, moist crumb, flecked with tiny pieces of fresh strawberry. The frosting is pink, and agreeably thick and sweet. It puts me in mind of strawberry-flavored Pocky, and the thought leaves me smiling.
iii. criollo chocolate, 100%
Late afternoon, and we wander down 18th Street in bright sunshine. Inside Biagio the atmosphere is hushed, almost reverent. The shelves are stacked with bars of fine chocolate, tins of drinking powder, and various cocoa curiosities. Customers peer at labels and talk with the staff in quiet tones.
There are samples laid out in china bowls, thin wafers of chocolate arranged by ascending cocoa content. I begin in the sixties, but I am drawn to the darkest. One of the staff notices and offers me a sample of hundred percent, single-plantation Criollo from Francois Pralus. The taste is deep and wonderfully bitter. It has a texture that isn’t creamy, but positively unctuous, coating teeth and tongue. Once the last traces have melted away, I move a single bar from the shelf to the counter.
iv. chipotle-cinnamon hot chocolate
Evening. We have ventured outside to pick up groceries; we decide to meander a little before we make our return journey. On 14th Street, we pass ACKC, a chocolatier with a "cocoa bar." The night is just cool enough to contemplate the thought of hot chocolate; we push open the glass-paned door and walk inside.
The store is decorated for fall, with Halloween displays in orange. Though we glance briefly at the chocolates, the cafe area is our ultimate destination. The concoctions are named for old-time movie stars; I briefly consider the Ginger Rogers (ginger and wasabi), but finally opt for the Lucy (chipotle and cinnamon.)
We sit at a table decorated with images of Audrey Hepburn, cradling our mugs. A tall crown of sweet whipped cream demands to be spooned up before approaching the liquid beneath. The chocolate is rich and fragrant, just spicy enough to require slow sips. A comforting warmth settles in my stomach as I finish the last mouthful.
We head home to sleep, perchance to dream of sugarplums.