If you plan on celebrating your birthday at El Bulli and you want to be surprised then look away now - and whatever you do don't scroll down to the picture at the end of this post.
The picture below is of Albert Adria and an El Bulli birthday card - taken Thursday afternoon at the French Pastry School in Chicago. He'd just finished teaching a three-day professional class - Artistic Plated Desserts. It was the longest single class that he's ever taught and he was exhausted. He told me that he started every morning at 5:30 - the class didn't start until 7:00.
The birthday card is part of the birthday presentation that was being done at El Bulli towards the end of last season. For birthdays, everyone at the table was given a birthday timbale. It looked like a shiny, oversized, dark chocolate candle - meant to be taken in one big bite. It's made by spreading a thin layer of dark tempered chocolate on small rectangles of guitar plastic - which are then rolled - with the chocolate on the inside - so the long ends just meet - and taped. This forms the outer shell. One end is sealed with a thinly spread freehand chocolate circle. The cylinder was placed over - and once it set the excess around the edge just broken off. The other end was sealed with a thick coin-sized chocolate brownie - studded with a brunoise of candied lemon zest. That was spread with a pralinee and feuilletine mixture - tastes like peanut butter and feuilletine are the crispy bits that are the by-product of making plain ice cream cones. At the time of service, the cylinder was filled with a lemon cream foam - dispensed out of a siphon - and then overturned onto the brownie round - which fit like a little cork. The top was garnished with a tiny dark chocolate flame - the bottom of which was slightly melted right on an oven door - which would invariably piss off whomever was baking that night - because in our inevitable rush to get the timbales to the pass, we'd never wipe off the melted chocolate right away. The timbales were then plated directly onto one of the black stone tiles at the pass. Finally, the plastic was sliced off - sometimes it was at this moment that the timbale would crush - which would mean frantically starting all over again. The only good thing was that casualties could be consumed. At the table, the waitstaff would present the timbales - and show the birthday card. The front cover is printed with "Happy Birthday" in eight languages - Catalan, Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, German, Chinese, and Japanese. It's opened - which reveals the paper pop-up fruit layered cake - photographed on a white doily no less - inside. At the top of the pop-up is a slot for a real candle - which is lit with a real flame.
I have to admit that when I first described this whole deal to my sister that I could not stop laughing. It's so ridiculous! To eat little cakes while staring at a big paper pop-up cake! We could not stop laughing.
Which is precisely the point - to really inject some humour into what could otherwise be so damned serious.
The paper cake was created for El Bulli by Escriba. The house of Escriba is over 100 years old - they are like the Laduree of Spain. Antoni Escriba just passed away this autumn - he was 73 - and had a tragic accident - fell at the Dali museum at Figueres. Ferran attended his funeral. It's legendary that Senor Escriba always wanted to be a sculptor - but had to follow the family footsteps into the pasteleria instead. There he made his mark as a master chocolatier - using chocolate as his sculpting medium instead. And at El Bulli his work lives on in paper. A whimsical, joyful, paper, pop-up, birthday cake.