THE YEAR was 1965. Mme. Pepita Tejera Paris was the Washington hostess. An invitation to her parties at the Venezuelan Embassy was the most coveted in town. Even the first lady had come to lunch.
And after that lunch Mrs. Johnson asked Mme. Tejera Paris for the dessert recipe. The ambassador's wife was more than delighted to comply. She dispatched her social secretary to the kitchen to get the recipe from the cook, Cecelia Simoes.
Simoes was Portuguese but she spoke Spanish. She did not, however, speak English at the time.
The social secretary's mission was to write down the directions for making the esponjoso -- a dessert with just two ingredients -- while watcing Simoes prepare it. Then she was to give the recipe to the social secretary at the White House.
But it never worked. No matter how many times the social secretary at the embassy tried to duplicate the recipe, it fell flat. The newspapers got wind of the flap. Was Mme. Tejera Paris withholding her favorite recipe from the White House?
There could be only one answer. The cook, like so many cooks before her, was leaving out a vital ingredient. Cecelia Simoes became the fall "guy." (In those days there were no fall gals.")
Mme. Tejera Paris was mortified. It was reported that she threatened to fire Simoes if she did not give the social secretary the correct recipe. But nothing seemed to work. It was hinted that Simoes had become so enamored of her own publicity that she had decided to go into the catering business on her own.
Eventually McCall's magazine watched Simoes make the dessert. They had no trouble recreating it. But by that time everyone had already blamed the cook for the fiasco.
After a brief time in the spotlight, the dessert, which Simoes had named Venezuelan Esponjoso, faded from public view -- just as it seemed Simoes had.
Two weeks ago I met Cecelia Simoes in the kitchen of the Moroccan Embassy, where she often goes to help with the cooking. So now, 16 years later, here is Cecelia Simoes' side of the story.
"I tried to teach the social secretary to make the dessert. She came to the kitchen many, many times. She tried it herself while I watched her and it came out very well in the embassy kitchen. When she goes to make it heself she tells me the dessert does not come up very well.
"They blamed me for not giving the dessert right."
Simoes says she told Mme. Tejera Paris she would like to go to the White House herself and teach the chef, but the ambassador's wife wouldn't let her go.
Did Simoes get a bum rap? Everyone agrees she never left out any of the ingredients, but you do have to know your cooking in order to make the esponjoso successfully. The technique must be followed exactly and that means beating the egg and sugar mixture for a total of 38 minutes. So, many year laters, one can only guess that the social secretary left out one or more of the important beating steps.
Esponjoso is the perfect dessert for the new lighter way of cooking and eating. It's all air, or so it seems. The two ingredients are eggs and sugar. Perhaps it's time to resurrect it to a place of honor. VENEZUELAN ESPONJOSO (16 servings) 12 egg whites 2 1-pound boxes superfine sugar Boiling water English sauce (see recipe)
In large bowl of an electric mixer, let egg white warm to room temperature for about 1 hour. Meanwhile, place 1 1/2 cups sugar in medium-sized heavy skillet. Caramelize by cooking over high heat, stirring until sugar is completely melted and begins to boil. Resulting syrup should be medium brown. Pour hot syrup quickly into 3-quart oven-proof casserole; turn and rotate casserole until bottom and sides are thoroughly coated. Be careful. It will be hot. Set on wire rack and let cool.
Beat egg whites until very stiff -- about 8 minutes. Gradually beat in 1 pound of sugar, taking about 3 minutes. Scrapes sides of bowl with rubber scraper. Continue beating 15 more minutes.
Meanwhile (about 5 minutes before beating time is up), place 3/4 cup sugar in heavy medium skillet and caramelize as directed above. Remove from heat; let stand 20 to 30 seconds to thicken a bit. With beater at medium speed gradually pour this syrup into beaten egg whites; scrape sides of bowl with rubber scraper. Return to high speed and beat 12 minutes more.
Turn mixture into prepared casserole, spreading evenly. Set in large shallow pan; pour boiling water around casserole to 1-inch depth. Bake 1 hour at 250 degrees or until meringue rises about 1 inch above top of casserole and seems firm when gently shaken. Remove casserole from water; place on wire rack to cool. Refrigerate at least 6 hours, or overnight. Or freeze.
To unmold, run a small spatula around edge of meringue to loosen. Hold casserole in pan of very hot water at least 1 minute. Invert on serving dish and serve with some of English sauce poured over meringue, the rest passed in the pitcher. ENGLISH SAUCE (Enough for 16 servings) 6 tablespoons sugar 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 pint milk 2 tablespoons butter 6 egg yolks 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla 1/2 cup heavy cream
In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and cornstach. Gradually add milk, stirring until smooth. Add butter and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Boil 1 minute. Remove from heat. In a medium bowl, slightly beat yolks; gradually add a little hot mixture. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, just until mixture boils. Remove from heat; stir in vanilla. Strain custard immediately into bowl; place sheet of waxed paper directly on surface so skin won't form. Refrigerate until cool. Stir in heavy cream. Return to refrigerator until well chilled.