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Food Stuff 

PEG, PAUL 'N' PASTRY

When I invited myself to Dish, a gourmet takeout eatery on Detroit's east side, to observe a day in the life of a pastry chef, Peg Sulek said, "This is a good day to come. We're doing a wedding cake."

Great, I thought. I'll get to watch sugary roses emerge magically from a pastry bag. But this wedding cake was decorated as a leopard skin. Peg and her husband, Paul Sulek, also a chef, were experimenting with leopard spots crafted from caramel rimmed with chocolate ganache.

When they had the combination they were looking for, the spots were created on a sheet of parchment paper and tucked into the walk-in refrigerator to harden so they could be transferred to the cake. Before I left, Paul was laying the spots on the buttercream frosting. Peg was concerned that some of the spots should wrap around the right angles of the layers.

Peg makes her caramel from scratch. Sugar is heated until it looks like wet sand, then it melts, and when it turns the perfect color, she adds a chunk of butter and whisks in heavy cream. Her partner, Lisa Debs, has a vivid impression of the process: "It comes alive when the butter is added," she says. "Spitting and steaming. It's scary."

Sulek is a self-taught chef. She says she learned by trial and error, then adds, "Paul went to the Culinary Institute, and I learned from him." They have a library of more than 200 cookbooks. She showed me one of her trade secrets: Quarts of heavy cream with 40 percent butterfat (the whipping cream you buy in the supermarket is only 30 percent butterfat).

"This is only for the cakes," she says. "Everyone here knows they better not touch my cream."

Sulek's repertoire includes 20 different tortes,17 cheesecakes, a dozen cookies and an assortment of tarts, flans and pies. Many of the recipes come from her mother, whom Sulek describes as a "horrible cook but a great baker."

On Mondays, Sulek bakes all the chiffon layers needed for the week. It takes 48 eggs. She also starts on the cheesecakes, a two-day process.

The next day she makes cookies — Dish sells more than 300 a week. Another day is devoted to assembling tortes, and the next day she makes the tarts, pies, crème brûlée and bread pudding.

At Dish, everything is made in-house, but Debs, who is the restaurant's business manager (and a chef, and an artist who paints the furniture in animal skin patterns), understands the temptation to buy desserts from wholesalers, as many restaurants, even fine ones, do.

"It's economics," she says. "They're looking at the cost of a pastry chef versus the cost of buying out." Fortunately, Sulek and Debs have taken a leap of faith that homemade quality will pay off.

Dish is located at 18441 Mack Ave. (takeout only); phone 313-886-9977.

TREATS

Give the gift of hunger relief with a donation to Forgotten Harvest. Donate in someone else's name for a holiday tribute, or buy a package of holiday greeting cards. Call 248-350-FOOD. ... Vegetarian on your gift list? Sign 'em up for cooking lessons from Lenore's Natural Cuisine in Farmington Hills. Call 248-478-4455.

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