The Time Warner Center, a stone’s throw away from Manhattan’s Central Park South, is home to Masa and Thomas Keller’s Per Se, two of the country’s most expensive restaurants. It is also home to Keller’s Bouchon, a bakery that sells really good kouign-amman for $6.
As fate (and personal finances) would have it, I spend more time at Bouchon, stopping by at least once a week for the meringue-topped yeast doughnuts filled with lime curd, aromatic tarte Tropezienne laced with orange flower water, and coconut candy bars conveniently stacked at the register for impulse buyers. They are all nuanced, delicious, technical expressions of well trained pastry chefs and chocolatiers. I’d be well served to write more about all of them.
Today, I’m writing about Bouchon’s rainbow cake, a category of dessert that I’d generally be well served not to write about at all. For Keller’s polychrome, however, I’ll make an exception. The cake’s red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple layering are true to the ordering of the visible spectrum — as well as the rainbow flag that’s a symbol of gay pride. The cake, which has largely but not completely escaped from the vortex of listicles and ‘round-the-block lines that have plagued purveyors of rainbow bagels and milk shakes with too much stuff in them, came of age in an simpler pre-unicorn era: Pastry chef Nicholas Bonamico created the dish at Bouchon in June of 2015, shortly after the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage.
A blend of flour, almond paste, butter, and eggs, the cake is kissed with raspberry and apricot jams, topped with a layer of chocolate, and finished off with a sprinkling of what I’ll call “galaxy dust,” edible sparkles applied in a pattern mimicking the images that the Hubble telescope sends back to planet Earth.
Dessert hounds will realize what’s going on here. Bonamico, riffing on a family recipe by Bouchon Bakery director Alessandra Altieri, is tipping his hat not just to pride, but to the classic Italian red, white, and green tricolore — the cake or cookie that’s often left to dry out at the bottom of cellophane-wrapped cookie baskets.
Bouchon charges $5.50 for this delicacy, a sum I’ve paid too many times to count since April when I first photographed it, and ten minutes later, ate it. The texture is markedly dense: This is not a cake you eat with a plastic fork. This is a cake you eat with sturdy silverware. The moist cake hints at berries and stone fruits until you’re hit with a wallop of almond. It is almost as rich as pure marzipan. And then that chocolate softens all the aromatics.
An individual slice is barely the length of a deck of cards and just shorter than the loft of a croissant: but trust me when I say that it feeds two. A whole cake, which comes with a chocolate egg and gold leaf, costs $50 and feeds the office. I won’t call myself an expert in the art of the tricolore: Torrisi used to make fine versions, and I’m told Rocco’s in East Williamsburg does it right as well. But I prefer my Italian almond cake, a dessert that has never been shy about marketing itself with a bit of food coloring, with a bit more rainbow in it.
Skepticism over such a creation is understandable. Keller, like others, is taking a universal symbol of LGBTQ struggle and commercializing it. But a more generous take is that a big-time chef is quietly co-opting the language of virality, tipping his hat toward a movement with more substance behind it: a movement that means a heck of a lot more to Keller’s own employees, to the people who order it, and hopefully to people who simply look at the cake through the display case or on their smart phones.
Pride month is over. Keller’s rainbow cake is available year round at The Time Warner Center.