In past years, a life-size race car made out of chocolate graced the lobby of the Houston Hyatt Regency Hotel during Texaco Grand Prix weekend. But this year the giant chocolate car was conspicuously absent. We called Hyatt pastry chef Regina Ruiz to ask her about the missing car and the prevailing mood of American dessert makers.
Q. What happened to the chocolate car?
A. We couldn't get the chocolate, because of the airline shutdown. It takes about 400 pounds to make the car. But anyway, we're cutting costs.
Q. Business has been pretty bad?
A. The hotel was down to like 10 percent occupancy in part of September. It's coming back now. We've been running 60 to 80 percent.
Q. What's normal this time of year?
A. One hundred percent. And last year we were booked solid with parties and events too. But nobody is in the party mood right now. Many of the events that were scheduled have been postponed rather than canceled, though, so we're hopeful that things will soon be back to normal.
Q. So did you do anything special for the race?
A. Oh, of course. We sent small chocolate cars to the rooms of all the drivers and the race officials who stayed here during the Grand Prix. And we are also the official caterer.
Q. So what kind of desserts are you making today?
A. Let's see Today we're making Tuscan fruit tarts, which is a puff pastry with Bavarian cream, fresh peaches and strawberries and a glaze. And pear tortes -- they have a sugar-dough crust with either Asian or Bosc pears, depending on what I can get, and a frangipane (almond cream) filling. And also rum cakes, which are vanilla cakes with a Meyer's rum mousse inside. I'm making 5,000 white chocolate éclairs and 5,000 cookies today for a catering job, and then another 600 chocolate chip cookies for a function in the hotel.
Q. Sounds like a lot of work for one day. What kind of hours are you putting in?
A. Yesterday I worked 16 hours; today it'll be more like 18. But I'm not complaining -- I love it. This is my passion. I have this in my heart. I wake up every day and I can't wait to do this. Luckily, my husband and my family support me.
Q. How did you get into dessert making?
A. My mom worked at a bakery called the Cookie Kitchen when I was going to school. I would go watch her work. I loved the place. I loved the aroma and the magic of baking. I started baking cookies and brownies at home, and I knew this was going to be my life. My mom is retired now, but she's still an awesome baker. She makes this banana bread that is unbelievable, and she won't give me the recipe because she's never written it down. She just throws things in a bowl.
Q. Do you have any formal training?
A. I went through the culinary program at Houston Community College.
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Q. And what's your signature dessert?
A. Chocolate cappuccino napoleon. It's made with layers of chocolate Genoise cake and chocolate cappuccino cream.
Q. So have you changed anything else about your desserts owing to the not-so-festive mood in the country lately?
A. No way! I am not going to change anything because of those guys. I am standing proud. This is America! We're not going to sacrifice our desserts!