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Sweet Remembrance

A Former Waiter at Windows on the World Recalls a Remarkable Hazelnut Dacquoise

September 05, 2004|DAVID LEITE | David Leite last wrote for the magazine about Swiss chard.

When the horrific memories of the World Trade Center attacks sometimes threaten to crowd out everything else, I call up a different, comforting memory shared by perhaps only several hundred people in the world: sunrise from the north tower's 107th floor.

In the mid-'80s, I was a waiter at the Hors d'Oeuvrerie, the lounge and international cafe of Windows on the World, where women and men from around the globe came for perhaps a bit of then-unheard-of sashimi, after-dinner dessert and dancing, or the glittering, quarter-of-a-mile-high views of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Everyone from heads of state to rock stars to Broadway royalty visited the Hors d'Oeuvrerie on their way to or from the main dining room. Elegance and pedigree abounded, even among the staff: Waitresses wore satin sarongs and waiters bowed almost imperceptibly when greeting guests. The tall, silent piano player was rumored to be a protege of Leonard Bernstein.

During the day, though, the Hors d'Oeuvrerie was a private club, a place to conduct business lunches and the newly popular power breakfasts. When a waiter made it through the gantlet of personnel interviews, he was handed a taupe-colored, naval-style jacket--his day wear--and a schedule that included at least one breakfast shift a week.

Working dinner the night before a breakfast shift usually meant my head barely hit the pillow before I had to be up and at the restaurant by 5:30 a.m. Never a caffeine addict, I nonetheless needed a way to wake up, so I'd stumble to the dessert case and cut a generous slice of dacquoise, a delicate cake of hazelnut meringue layers with coffee butter cream filling. The cake, which was made the day before, was best then; the crunchy meringue had softened into a slightly chewy nougat because of the filling. I'd install myself at one of the east-facing tables, and with my feet up and my fussy uniform falling open like a bathrobe, I'd watch and wait. My reflection would fade while the sky turned from black to gun-metal gray to a luminous mauve, as if the world had just discovered Technicolor. On the clearest of mornings, I could see almost 90 miles, or so the bartender would always tell me.

When I'm in downtown Manhattan these days, I look up and try to remember exactly where in the sky I entertained guests, patiently pointing out landmarks and boroughs, and where I never tired of those sunrise views. And how a day could begin so sweetly.


Hazelnut and Almond Dacquoise

Adapted from a recipe in "How to Bake," by Nick Malgieri, one of Window on the World's finest pastry chefs.

Makes one 9-inch cake to serve 10 to 12

1 cup skinned hazelnuts

1 cup blanched almonds

1 cup sugar, plus 1/4 cup

2 tablespoons cornstarch

6 large egg whites

Pinch of salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

3/4 cup milk

1/2 cup sugar

4 egg yolks

3 sticks unsalted butter, softened

3 tablespoons instant espresso coffee powder dissolved in 1 tablespoon warm water

Confectioners' sugar

Line three jelly-roll pans with parchment paper and draw a 9-inch-diameter circle on each. Set aside. Set racks in the upper, middle and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees.

Place the nuts in a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse until coarsely ground. Spread the nuts in a jelly-roll pan and toast in the oven for about 10 to 13 minutes, stirring several times until golden. Remove and let cool. In a bowl, combine the cooled nuts with 1 cup of the sugar and the cornstarch.

Lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer, use the whisk attachment on medium-low speed to whip the egg whites and salt until white and frothy, about 2 minutes. Increase the speed and slowly beat in 1/4 cup of sugar in a stream until the whites form firm peaks. Beat in the extracts. Slowly fold the nut mixture into the whites with a rubber spatula until thoroughly combined. Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain round tip and pipe the meringue on the prepared pans into spirals starting at the center of each circle. Bake the layers until they're golden and firm, about 60 to 75 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking. Cool on racks.

While the layers are baking, combine the milk and sugar in a medium nonreactive saucepan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Put the egg yolks in a bowl and whisk to combine. Slowly whisk some of the hot milk into the yolks, then return all of the egg yolk-milk mixture to the saucepan. Cook briefly over low heat until thickened. (Do not overcook or the eggs will scramble.) Pour the mixture into the bowl of the electric mixer, and use the whisk attachment to whip on medium speed until cooled. Add the butter, then the instant coffee dissolved in water, and whip until smooth and fluffy.

To assemble, place one of the cake layers on a platter and spread with one-third of the butter cream. Place another layer on the butter cream and spread with another third of the butter cream. Top with the last layer and spread the remaining butter cream on the sides of the cake, leaving the top bare. Chill to set the butter cream. The cake is best the next day, so cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. To serve, bring to room temperature, dust with confectioners' sugar and cut with a serrated knife.

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