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November 6

This one goes out to my friend Natalie. One night early last month, she and hers were over for dinner, and I made an applesauce cake with caramel glaze for dessert. As they left, she asked about the recipe, and she's been patiently waiting for me to post it ever since. In the intervening weeks, our kitchen faucet sprung a leak - a leak that must have actually sprung a month or two before that, because by the time we noticed it, it had thoroughly saturated all the wooden surfaces below and around it, making them buckle and curl like waves on an ocean, a special ocean that smells like rot. We called Natalie and Michael, because they are handy people, and this past Sunday, they came over with their three-year-old son and gave their day to helping Brandon do a quick, cheap fix of the kitchen, ripping out approximately fifty percent of the counters and the sink (and heaving them, wheeeeeeee, out the window into the yard), patching the floor and drywall, and installing a stainless steel restaurant-supply sink and work table. I now really, really owe Natalie this cake recipe. I now owe Natalie a small-scale kitchen remodel.

I cannot take any credit for this cake.  I cannot even take credit for finding the recipe.  It comes from the great Merrill Stubbs of Food52, and I found it because the great Youngna Park, an artist / generally creative person / someone I admire, recommended it on Twitter. It was late September, and we were going apple-picking that weekend. We came home with enough apples to fill not only most of our fridge but also most of my mother's, and over the weekend that followed, Mom and I turned them into Judy Rodgers's roasted applesauce. And then I turned most of the applesauce into cake.

The original recipe uses a Bundt pan, and that's how I made it the first time. I did not take a picture of it, because we were too busy eating it. A few days later, I made the cake again, but this time, I used one standard-size loaf pan and one mini loaf pan, with the intention of delivering the smaller one to my mom. I did not, because we were too busy eating it. I did, however, give her half. (Of the smaller one.) (With apologies.)

There are a lot of recipes for applesauce cake. But what makes this one so good is not only that it's very moist - thanks to a generous amount of applesauce and to vegetable oil, rather than butter - but also that it's spiced just enough. It calls for cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, and allspice, though I had no allspice, so I used grated nutmeg. (Never liked allspice much, anyway.) I also replaced the light brown sugar with dark brown sugar, because that was all we had, and because I hoped its deeper caramel flavor might sit well with the apples and warm spice. In any case, all of that made for a very, very good cake, plenty good as it was. But what made it a standout is this: once the cake is baked and cool, Merrill instructs us to make a quickly boiled glaze, cream and butter and brown sugar, and while the glaze is warm, to pour it over the top.

Taste the glaze on its own, and it's sweet sweet sweet: you can almost hear the sugar crystals between your teeth. But against the dark, fragrant cake, it's exactly right. Merrill calls it a caramel glaze. But even more than caramel, it tastes like a soft, thin layer of brown sugar fudge, or penuche - or Aunt Bill's Candy, for any Oklahomans in the crowd. Fudge! On top of cake!  Have a great weekend.

Applesauce Cake with Caramel Glaze
Adapted from Merrill Stubbs and Food52

If you have only light brown sugar in the house, by all means, use it.  But having made the cake both ways, with light brown sugar and with dark brown sugar, I prefer it with dark. The flavor is fuller, with a different depth.

For the cake:
2 cups (280 grams) all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 large eggs
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
½ cup (90 grams) dark brown sugar or muscovado sugar
1 ½ cups (360 grams) unsweetened applesauce (though the tiny amount of sweetener in this applesauce is fine)
2/3 cup (160 ml) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the glaze:
4 tablespoons (55 grams) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
½ cup (90 grams) light or dark brown sugar
1/3 cup (80 ml) heavy cream
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
About ¾ cup (90 grams) confectioner’s sugar, sifted

Position a rack in the middle of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a standard-size (12-cup) Bundt pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, pepper, and spices, and whisk to mix well.

In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer, beat the eggs with both sugars until light. Beat in the applesauce, oil, and vanilla until smooth. With the mixer on the lowest speed, add the flour mixture, and beat briefly, just to combine. Use a rubber spatula to fold gently, making sure that all the dry ingredients are incorporated. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake for 10 minutes in the pan on a rack before turning it out and allowing to cool completely. Make sure the cake is not at all warm when you make the glaze.

When you’re ready to glaze, set the cooling rack (with the cake on it) on top of a rimmed sheet pan. This will catch drips.

Put the butter in a medium (2- to 3-quart) saucepan with the brown sugar, cream, and salt, and set over medium heat. Bring to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly. Boil for one minute exactly, and then pull the pan off the heat. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes, and then gradually whisk in the confectioner’s sugar until you have a thick but pourable consistency – and note that you may not need all the sugar! I don’t use the full ¾ cup (90 grams). Really, eyeball it, and go with your gut. If you’ve added too much sugar and the mixture seems too thick, add a splash of cream to thin it slightly. And do not worry if the glaze seems to have little flecks of powdered sugar in it at first; just keep whisking, and they will dissolve. Then immediately pour the glaze over the cake, evenly covering as much surface area as possible. Let the glaze set before serving the cake.

Yield: a good 10 servings


October 23

Last night I got to spend some time with my friend Sam. We hadn't hung out, just the two of us, for a while - maybe not since June was born, if I really think about it. Sometime in the next month, Sam will become a dad. We've somehow been friends for nearly a decade. When I got into his car last night, he had R.E.M.'s Out of Time in the CD player. "Texarkana" was on. We got stuck in traffic, because it was rush hour in Seattle, but it was okay, because we were talking about being kids listening to R.E.M., Automatic for the People especially, and all the Big Feelings we were just starting to know then, feelings set to the soundtrack of Michael Stipe's voice. I remember being thirteen, or maybe fourteen, dancing alone in my bathroom to "Sitting Still," in the rental house we lived in that year, between the house on Westchester and the house on Elmhurst. I was once fifteen years old, lying on my bedroom floor in a black t-shirt and a pair of too-big men's pants that I bought at a thrift store for fifty cents, listening to "Find the River" and sobbing without knowing why. I didn't like "Everybody Hurts," but for the most part, when I listen to Automatic for the People, I get a sense that I'm witnessing a person at the height of his power, the height of his art, the same feeling I get when I watch Stevie Nicks sing the demo version of "Wild Heart." I'd never really thought of R.E.M. as a band I particularly loved, but I've now spent all morning now listening to them, Murmur to "Oh My Heart," and it's been the best morning I can remember.

Earlier this morning, before my private R.E.M. listening party, I was helping June to put on her socks and shoes, and she asked me what the word "weird" means. I bumbled through an explanation that I hoped would be appropriately calibrated to her three-year-old brain, trying to explain why it's okay - more than okay; good - to be weird. I hope that, as she gets older, she finds people who can help her to understand it on her own terms, the way that Michael Stipe, and David Byrne, and poetry, and novels, and my spouse, and our friends, the way they've done for me.

Wow, this music is really doing things to me.

It's been a good week. Last night, we went to hear Alison Bechdel speak at Town Hall. I was first introduced to her work when I was writing A Homemade Life and my friend Kristen loaned me her copy of Fun Home. I didn't know why she gave it to me, and I'd never read a book in cartoon format, but I quickly understood that, as much as it's about Bechdel's coming out, it's also about the relationship between a father and a daughter, which is what I was attempting to write myself. And Fun Home is spectacular: honest, direct, funny, raw, and also deeply loving. Bechdel seems to be much the same in person, and I grinned like an idiot through her entire talk last night about writing, art, and creativity, and the complexities of family. Also! She mentioned Richard Scarry as an early influence, and HELLO, WOW, is my life right now ever full of Richard Scarry. I hope June is paying attention.

Speaking of formative influences, please go read this piece by George Saunders immediately.

Also terrific, thought-provoking, and only tangentially related to anything else in this post: an old episode of On Being"What We Nurture," with Sylvia Boorstein. (I subscribe to the podcast of On Being and highly recommend it.)

And I don't always listen to my own podcast, Spilled Milk, because nobody likes hearing her own voice, but I listened to the grapes episode yesterday and was still thinking about it, and laughing about it, when I woke up today.

Happy Friday, everybody. I hope you and yours are well.


On short notice

It's hard to start a post when I'm bored with the photograph(s) I have for it. The alternate title for this post is "A Life Fraught with Difficulty, by Molly Wizenberg."

But I am never bored with beans.

I don't remember how I first learned of Molly Stevens and her classic All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking, but if you've been around here for any length of time, you will know that it is a longtime favorite. I bought it shortly after it came out, sometime in 2004. I was in graduate school then, planning to become Michel Foucault, albeit with more hair, fewer turtlenecks, and a vastly inferior command of the French language. Like anyone who has tried to read the borderline unreadable, I had a ton of Post-It flag things in my desk drawer, and I intended to use every last one when I read Discipline and Punish. But then All About Braising came along, and it was so good that I put down my schoolbooks and plastered my Post-It flags all over Molly Stevens's recipes instead. By the time I was done with it, the book looked like a hastily plucked chicken, sprouting feathery flag things from every third page. And though I cannot say the sequence of events was purely causal, I quit grad school the following year. In the decade since, I've cooked more from All About Braising than from any other book.

When I wrote about dried beans a week or so ago, I mentioned a particular Molly Stevens recipe, promising to write about it soon. Here I am. For the past few years, during the colder months, I've made this recipe every other week, and occasionally more often than that. Molly, if I may use her first name, calls the recipe Escarole Braised with Cannellini Beans, though I've made it with every kind of white, or white-ish, bean I can think of: cannellini, corona, marrow, garbanzo, great northern, navy, and flageolet, cooked from dried, or out of a can. I call it Braised Escarole with Beans. It's one of my best back-pocket meals, one I can make on short notice, assuming that I can get my hands on a head of escarole, which is a pretty fair assumption to make in the fall and winter. In the crackling heat of the pan, the escarole goes slack and silky, olive green, curling around the plump, creamy beans. This is honest food, old-lady-with-crepey-elbows-in-a-house-dress food, soft and stewy and fragrant with garlic. Everyone in my house likes it, including June, though she thinks the escarole is bok choy and I am not about to correct her, because the child is crazy for bok choy. I know when to leave a good thing alone.

Braised Escarole with Beans
Adapted from All About Braising, by Molly Stevens

The original version of this recipe calls for cannellini beans, but any light-colored bean works. I wouldn’t recommend pinto beans or any other brown or red bean, though; the flavor is too dark and muddy here. And you’ll note that, if you use canned beans rather than beans cooked from dried, you’ll need to add some stock. I like chicken stock - though you could use vegetable, I’m sure – and in a pinch, Better Than Bouillon is more than adequate.

Be sure to have some bread on hand when you serve this, and be sure to toast that bread and rub it with garlic. We usually keep the bread on the side, but you can also ladle the escarole and beans over it and let it get all nice and juicy and sogged.

1 medium head escarole (about 1 pound; 450 grams)
¼ cup (60 ml) olive oil
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Kosher salt
1 batch of white beans cooked according to these directions, OR about 2 ½ cups canned beans (a little less than two 15-ounce cans), drained and rinsed, plus 1 cup chicken stock
½ of a lemon
Great-tasting olive oil, for finishing
Grated Grana Padano or Parmesan, for finishing

Cut the head of escarole in half from root end to leaf tips. Working with one half at a time, starting at the leaf tips and working toward the root end, slice the escarole crosswise into roughly 1 ½-inch strips. (Discard the little nub of root end when you get to it; it’s usually a little browned and dry.) Scoop the escarole into a salad spinner or large bowl, and add cold water to cover generously. Use your hands to swish the leaves around, rubbing with your thumb to loosen any stubborn dirt. Then let the escarole sit in the water undisturbed for a few minutes, to allow the dirt to fall to the bottom of the bowl. Lift the basket from the salad spinner (or lift handfuls of escarole from the bowl into a colander), and drain the water left in the bowl. Replace the basket (or put the escarole from the colander back into the bowl), and repeat the washing, swishing, and soaking. Escarole can be quite dirty, so I find it’s important to wash it twice. Then drain it, but don’t worry if they leaves are still a little wet; that will actually help with the braise. 

Combine the oil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a Dutch oven or large (12-inch) skillet with a lid. Place over medium heat. Warm just until the garlic becomes fragrant and barely golden around the edges, about 2 minutes. Do not allow the garlic to brown, or you’ll have to start over. Add the escarole a handful at a time, stirring and allowing it to wilt before adding the next handful. Add a pinch of salt with each handful. When all the escarole has wilted, spoon the beans and about 1 cup of their cooking liquid (or 1 cup chicken stock, if using canned beans) into the pot, season with a little more salt, and stir to incorporate. Bring to a gentle simmer. Cover, adjusting the heat to maintain a slow simmer, and cook until the greens are very tender and the cooking liquid has thickened somewhat from the starch in the beans, about 20 minutes.

At this point, the dish will be quite soupy. You can either serve it as-is, or, if you’d like it less soupy, remove the lid and boil for about 5 minutes to reduce the liquid. Season with a generous squeeze of fresh lemon juice and more salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature, with good olive oil and grated Grana Padano or Parmesan on top.

Yield: about 4 main-dish servings


While you're not looking

I went through a period a few years ago when I couldn't cook a pot of dried beans worth a damn. Every bean came out waterlogged and falling apart, like a rained-on newspaper, and on the rare occasion when every bean wasn't waterlogged and falling apart, it was only because a few holdouts had a mouthfeel closer to gravel. I did everything I was supposed to do: I soaked them, brined them, cooked them without salt, cooked them with salt, cooked them at a simmer, cooked them so a bubble only rarely broke the surface. Every way, the window of time in which they were just right, tender but not yet reduced to mush, was narrow at best. Occasionally I hit it, but often not. So I gave up on dried beans for a while, which is fine, actually, because canned beans are great. I can think of worse fates than going to my grave a crappy bean cooker - for instance, living an entire life without doing "Islands in the Stream" at karaoke. (Crossed that off the list.) But dried beans are cheaper than canned, much cheaper, and I wanted to get it right.

My friend Winnie Yang helped me, though she has no idea that she did. In 2007, she left a comment on a Serious Eats post about cooking beans, and in her comment, she described her favorite method, which comes from the great John Thorne and his great book Pot on the Fire. Thorne cooks beans in their soaking water, and in a very low oven, not on the stovetop. As Winnie put it, "His method produces peerless beans . . . the tenderest, most velvety beans just barely held together by the skins. There's not too much danger of overcooking, and you get optimum flavor." I bookmarked it in my browser, calling it "Winnie's Pot Beans," and then I completely forgot about it.  But I found it again recently, after a long stretch of dried bean avoidance, and I am now a believer. It is How I Do Dried Beans. Incidentally, here is Winnie, looking as sprightly and triumphant as I now feel every time I eat my own cooked-from-dried beans, only she's not in a kitchen but instead walking in the woods on a vacation we took with a couple of friends five years ago this month, to pick apples and watch the leaves fall and generally cook our brains out in a rental house in upstate New York.

Now that I've dug up that photograph, here are a few others from that trip, because it feels good to see them again, and because the trees outside my window look almost identical today.

My kitchen's Formica is a sad, wonky shadow of the Italian tile in that upstate kitchen, but it serves its purpose. It is a flat surface. I can put a bowl on it, upend a bag of beans into the bowl, cover them with cold water, and, in the reflection on the water, watch the trees outside knock around in the wind.

I try to soak my beans for a full 24 hours. But I don't know how much that matters. John Thorne soaks his for eight to twelve hours. However long you soak them, soak them. It makes a difference. But do not throw out the soaking water; it is not, how should I say it, infected with future "digestive distress." As Thorne puts it, and he in turn paraphrases Russ Parsons: "Neither cook nor eater can do much to reduce the problem of flatulence, except to eat more beans. (The more you eat, the better your digestive flora can handle them.)"

Here's what you do instead: you put a strainer over a medium saucepan, and you drain the beans into the strainer, catching their soaking water in the pan. You bring the soaking water to a boil. Meanwhile, you dump the beans into a Dutch oven, season them with salt and olive oil and other things, if you'd like, and then pour the boiling soaking water over the beans, clamp on the lid, and put it into a 200-degree oven for four to five hours. After four hours, you check the beans for doneness, and if they're not done, you keep cooking them until they are. While they cook, you need only stir them once an hour, or less, or whenever you think of it, and make sure they are covered with liquid. The rest of the time is yours.

It occurs to me that this might sound like a long, slow, possibly tedious process. But because it is long and slow, I feel comfortable leaving the house, even for a couple of hours at a go. I live for danger! Large beans, like corona beans, can take up to eight hours, meaning that I can very literally cook while I sleep. And because the oven temperature is so low, and gentler than most stoves, it's almost impossible for the beans to, poof, dissolve into mush while you're not looking. They're silky, plump, and most of all, consistent, each bean cooked properly through. By which I mean, happy Friday.

John Thorne’s Tuscan Beans
Adapted from Pot on the Fire

This is more method than recipe. I’ve used this method with all kinds of beans – cannellini, pinto, corona, flageolet, little heirloom beans whose names I don’t know – and it works with all of them. I don’t even measure my beans anymore, or any of the seasonings. You can wing it. [Updated to add: a couple of readers have called to my attention an important fact of which I was unaware: red kidney beans must be boiled briskly before consuming, because they contain a toxin. Thus I cannot advise this gentle oven method for red kidney beans. Go here for more information.) A few notes:

1. I’m writing the recipe below mostly as John Thorne intended, but you should know that I generally only season my beans with olive oil, salt, and sometimes red pepper flakes. That’s all. Do as you wish.
2. When you cook the beans, they should be barely covered with water, so that the water and bean juices reduce to a delicious, thick broth. (In the photo above, I used a little too much water, actually, and they were soupier than I intended. No real harm done, though.)
3. Also, even though I just went on and on about the sadness of an overcooked bean, well… when I cook them this low, slow, gentle way, I actually like to cook them a little past done. My friend Olaiya taught me to do that, because by the time they cool down, they will have firmed up ever so slightly, and they’ll be perfect. So when I think the beans are done, I don’t immediately take them out of the oven; I leave them for an extra 15 minutes or so, to take them just a tiny bit further.

½ pound dried beans (not red kidney beans; see headnote above), picked over, washed, and soaked for 12 to 24 hours in water to cover amply
¼ cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed under the side of a knife
3 or 4 sage leaves
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

Preheat the oven to 200°F. Drain the beans, reserving the soaking liquid. Remove and discard any beans that have failed to rehydrate. (They will be wrinkled and ornery-looking.) Put the beans and seasonings, everything but the soaking liquid, in a Dutch oven or similar vessel. Pour the bean soaking liquid into a saucepan and heat to boiling. Add enough of this liquid to the bean pot to barely cover its contents, reserving any remaining liquid. Cover the pot, and put the beans in the oven. Cook at this very low heat – they should never come to a boil – until they are nicely done, about 4 to 5 hours. Check the water level periodically over the first four hours, adding the remaining bean liquid (and then plain boiling water) if needed to keep the beans covered.

Serve the beans hot, warm, or at room temperature, or use them in another dish. June likes hers plain, and she drinks the bean broth that’s left in the bowl after the beans are gone. We like to eat pinto or other brown beans with grated sharp cheddar and hot sauce. If I’m cooking cannellinis, I often use them in the Ed Fretwell Soup from A Homemade Life. And this week I used some flageolets in a Molly Stevens recipe that I’ll write about very soon.

Yield: Enough beans to make a side dish for 4 or a meal for 2 or 3


As ever

A couple of weeks ago, I got up earlier than usual, while the light was still blue, and baked a cake.

We are having a very adult fall - not adult in the sense of, I don't know, the adult film industry, but in the sense that we now have a child who is enrolled in a real school. I remember only bits and pieces of my own first year of school, but I do remember operating under the happy illusion that my parents were bonafide adults who had things figured out. Having now crossed over to the other side of that illusion, I can report that, whoa, hey, it's an illusion! June is no fool, but she's content to play along as necessary. Yesterday, in the car on the way home, she informed me, apropos of nothing, that she has no blood. When I asked what's inside her body instead, she paused and stared out the window - Moms, man! Totally clueless! - and then replied, "Pee and poop, silly." (She gets it from me.)

In any case, we are now firmly into fall. My child, who has no blood, is now a child who goes to school. I am, as ever, a person who will bake a cake before the sun is up, after the sun is down, and anywhere in between, because I like to.

This is Alison Roman's Coconut-Lemon Tea Cake, from her Short Stack mini-book Lemons. I picked up a copy of Lemons on a whim one day at Book Larder, and I immediately wanted to make everything in it, starting with a Campari/lemon/rosé drink called "Rosé All Day," or maybe "Meyer Lemon Moonshine" (which, as Roman explains, "is one of the easiest things you can do with lemons, and of course the most fun (because it will get you very drunk)."). But I went for cake.

There are a certain few cooks whose recipes I trust instinctively and always. It's not to say that I trust only those few, but theirs are the recipes that most consistently appeal to me, make me feel confident, and in the end, make me proud. The late Judy Rodgers, for instance, is one of those cooks. Another is Alison Roman. I don't know her, and she doesn't know me, but she was a senior food editor at Bon Appétit, and I first saw her name in the magazine, attached to a lot of good recipes. That raspberry-ricotta cake I wrote about last March, that was hers. She's now moved over to BuzzFeed Food, but in any case, wherever she is, she knows her way around a lemon.

This cake uses lemon in two forms: the grated zest, which you rub into sugar to infuse and perfume the batter, and the juice, which you make into a syrup to pour over the finished cake.  There's also coconut in two forms, though its flavor is more subtle: there's coconut oil in the cake itself, and coconut flakes on top, which get toasted and sticky with the lemon syrup. What you wind up with is a texture and heft a lot like pound cake, but with a heady whack of lemon and the satisfying chew of coconut. June and I ate it for breakfast, and I took another slice after lunch. My mother, who loves a lemon dessert, came over a couple of days later and stumbled upon what was left of the loaf, still moist, when she went to put away an upturned aluminum mixing bowl on the counter and found that I'd co-opted it as a cake dome. She raved about it. This one's for her.

Coconut-Lemon Tea Cake
Lemons, by Alison Roman (Short Stack Editions, Volume 13)

Three notes before we get started: I tend to have regular whole-milk yogurt on hand, not Greek yogurt, and I used what I had. I haven’t had this cake when made with Greek yogurt, but I can imagine that it could only be better. It was plenty moist and tender with regular yogurt. Also, re: the mildly fiddly step of rubbing the sugar and lemon zest together with your fingers, I know I know I know, but do it. It infuses the sugar with lemon flavor, and lemon flavor is what this cake is all about. Lastly, because coconut oil is very hard and crumbly at room temperature, I find it difficult to measure by volume. So I measure it by weight, scraping and chipping it from the jar onto the scale, and then I melt it.

1 ½ cups (210 grams) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 ¼ cup (250 grams) sugar, divided
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
¾ cup (210 grams) whole-milk Greek yogurt (see note above)
½ cup (80 grams) coconut oil, melted
2 large eggs
½ cup (35 grams) unsweetened coconut flakes
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a (9”x5”-ish) loaf pan lightly with cooking spray or butter, and line it with parchment paper. Grease that too, while you're at it. (Though trying to grease paper with butter can be an infuriating, wrinkle-filled endeavor, so I won't blame you if you skip it.)

In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, and kosher salt.

In a large bowl, rub 1 cup of the sugar with the lemon zest until the sugar is fragrant and yellow and smells, well, like you just rubbed a lemon in there. Whisk in the yogurt, coconut oil, and eggs. Add the flour mixture, and stir just to blend.

Scrape the batter into your prepared pan, and smooth the top. Sprinkle coconut flakes over the surface, and bake until the top of the cake is golden brown, the edges pull away from the side of the pan, and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 to 55 minutes. (I found that the coconut flakes were browning before the cake was done, so I tented the cake loosely with foil after about 45 minutes.)

While the cake bakes, combine the lemon juice and remaining ¼ cup of sugar in a small saucepan, and bring it to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, just until the sugar has dissolved. Turn off the heat, and keep the mixture warm. When the cake is done, brush the top with the syrup; then return the cake to the oven and bake for 5 minutes more to re-crisp the coconut. Remove the cake from the oven, and cool completely before serving.

Yield: 1 standard-size loaf cake


September 6

I've never been to Chez Panisse, the restaurant itself, the part with the nightly prix fixe menu. But I first went to the Cafe at Chez Panisse the summer that I was twenty, working at Whole Foods in Mill Valley, California, and living nearby at my aunt's Tina's house. I went with my cousin Katie, who was also at Tina's that summer, and her saintly then-boyfriend Rob, an un-date-y third-wheel kind of date. We made a reservation, got (too) dressed up, and ordered the Menu du Jour, a three-course meal for the current steal of $30 - though it must have been $25 then, at most. We threw down.

I remember the first course with a clarity that surprises me. It was Little Gem lettuces, which I'd never heard of before, dressed in Green Goddess dressing, which I'd also never heard of before, with slivers of cucumber, beet, and avocado. It was understated, careful, perfectly spare, but not precious. Sixteen years later, we serve a Green Goddess salad at Delancey every spring because of that night at the Cafe at Chez Panisse, and because of that salad. The second course was a pasta, and then tiny profiteroles, both of which were quietly terrific, though I remember neither as vividly as the salad. In any case, what I remember most clearly was the way we felt afterward. We felt like we'd accomplished something. We'd crossed a threshold. We'd taken ourselves to Chez Panisse! The Cafe, anyway! We'd paid for it ourselves! We'd eaten Alice Waters' food! We'd had experiences.

I've been back a few times, and it's always felt like that. Brandon and I went for lunch at the Cafe the first time I took him to California to meet my family there. We had pizza with nettles on it, the first time either of us had eaten them. Chez Panisse was on our minds when we drafted the first sample menus for Delancey. It was also on our minds we started to reach out to the farmers and ranchers who supply us with most of the fruit, vegetables, and meat we use at Delancey. We wanted to feed our customers food that we could be proud of.

It's become a cliche, this farm-to-table ideal, a benevolent cliche. In this country, access to good food is a complicated, unequal thing: how nice that some of us can afford to feed our families fresh, organic food, while the rest of the country scrapes by on cheap, GMO crops! I feel as cynical about it as the next guy. But I will never forget a morning at the farmers' market three years ago, when I was out of my mind with the insomnia and anxiety that I would soon understand as postpartum depression, when Wynne of Jerzy Boyz, who grows our apples and pears and dries oregano for our tomato sauce, put her arm around me and let me cry all over her coat. And I cannot say how happy it makes me that June is on a first-name basis with Eiko and George of Skagit River Ranch, who raise the pigs for Delancey's sausage - we break down, season, and grind 100 pounds of their pork every two weeks - and the cows for Essex's burgers. It feels right. It feels right to support people who are doing good work, and to be supported by them in return. I learned that - or a lot of that, at least - from the influence of Alice Waters and the restaurant she started on a hope and a whim almost 45 years ago.

All of this to say that I was beside myself with glee when, about three weeks ago, I was asked to interview Alice Waters and write a profile of her for the National Endowment of the Humanities, to accompany the announcement that she has been chosen as one of this year's National Humanities Medalists. We spoke by phone a couple of Fridays ago - I now have a soft-spoken voicemail from her on my phone: "Hello, Molly. It's Alice." (!) - and I still feel electrified by it. I'd read a lot about Alice Waters. You have too, I'm sure. None of it had read prepared me for how gracious she was. We had some phone glitches that meant I had to call her six times, dying a little more with each attempt, and then she had to call me a few more times, before we got a proper connection. But her patience never flagged. And under her quiet grace, she is radical. That's the word I keep coming back to: radical. She made me want to pump my fist through the phone. She goes for it. Talking about school lunch reform, she said,

All the ways we’re addressing the serious issues of the day are band-aids for something that needs to be addressed systemically. We keep talking about poverty and equality, but we don’t address it in the place where we can impact every child, in the public schools. We’re not making sure every child has access to a real lunch, for free. They can do it in India! They can do it in Brazil! We can do it here. What you’re hearing is my shock. Brilliant people I know are not able to see the truth: whether we're dealing with the problems in our prison system or anything else, it begins with the care of the child in school right at the beginning. We need to invest in the teachers and schools and the farmers that can feed them.

But what really stuck with me was a point in the conversation when she was telling me about the beginning of Chez Panisse, about her search for the kind of eating experience she'd had in France, the experience of eating what's in season, the food that tastes best at a given moment, and sharing it with family and friends. She wasn't thinking about who would come to Chez Panisse; she knew only that she wanted a community restaurant, and that her friends in the counterculture of 1960s and '70s Berkeley would help support it. "If it wasn't vital to me, I would have done something else," she said.

I read somewhere a while ago - maybe on Chocolate & Zucchini, back when Clotilde was writing her very first book - this piece of advice: "Write what you want to read." It's pithy, and it sounds obvious, but it meant something to me, and it still does. I think it applies to everything, not just writing. It's why Brandon had the idea to open Delancey: because he wanted to eat really great pizza in Seattle, and he wanted it badly enough to learn how to make it himself. I've witnessed it over and over among friends in the food industry and other creative fields: the projects that catch fire, the projects that really go somewhere, come out of a genuine desire to do something that you want to see done.

I've seen her criticized, Alice Waters, for her idealism and her privilege. But the story of how she got to where she is could belong to a lot of us, in ways large and small, and it does. "We didn't make money in the beginning," she said. "We lost money. But then it got better. Making money comes from doing something right."


I changed my mind

Two Mondays ago, the night before the moving truck was due to arrive at my mother's new (Seattle!) house with everything she owns, Brandon suggested making a celebratory dinner. My mother, it was agreed, would choose the menu. After a moment's hesitation, she requested steak and Caesar salad. We headed out for groceries.

I'm not going to go into great depth about the steak. I don't know. I feel bored just thinking about writing it. You know how to cook steak. Right? You don't need me. If you don't know how, or if you want to try another method, I can tell you that we use Renee Erickson's instructions (for indoor cooking, not grilling) on page 195-196 of her dreamy A Boat, a Whale & A Walrus, though we test for doneness by temperature (135°F for medium-rare; all hail the extremely not-cheap but worth-it Thermapen!), rather than by time. Thus concludes my discussion of the steak. Let's talk romaine.

Nobody talks about romaine. I too used to dismiss it, in as much as one might bother to formulate dismissive feelings toward a type of lettuce. But a few years ago, I changed my mind. Of the lettuces available at an ordinary grocery store, I now almost always choose it. It's not fancy, but it is consistently good, with its mild but unmistakable flavor and that juicy, resilient, water-chestnut crunch. I am not bored by romaine. I usually slice it cross-wise from tip to stem for salads, but sometimes I halve it lengthwise and roast it instead - thank you, Yolanda Edwards! - and sometimes, especially in the case of a Caesar, I just whack off the stem end, dress the leaves, and serve them whole, and we eat them with our fingers.

A couple of months ago, on a quick work trip to California, I was asked to make dressing for a Caesar salad, and I realized with a start that I didn’t know how. It’s not that I consider this a particularly glaring omission in the experience of being alive; there are a lot of things more important, starting with access to affordable housing and clean drinking water and the right to vote and believe me, I could go on, could I ever, but there I was in California, and it was dinnertime. I was at my cousin Katie’s house. Her husband Andre was grilling burgers, and Katie was getting their son ready for bed. My assignment was Caesar salad. Katie is a confident, no-recipes-needed kind of cook, and by the way she mentioned it, I knew she could make a Caesar dressing without much thought. So I did the part that I knew how to do, prepping the greens and putting them in a bowl, while I waited for Katie to finish the job.

As I expected, she had an easy way with Caesar dressing. She assembled it in a half-pint Mason jar, entirely by eye: the juice of a lemon, maybe a couple tablespoons of mayonnaise, maybe a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, maybe a quarter cup of olive oil, a little vinegar, and black pepper, shaken to mix. We tossed it that night with torn-up kale and some farro that she had cooked earlier and stashed in the fridge. (Katie is full of good ideas like that - fleshing out salads with a handful of toasty cooked grains in lieu of croutons, putting a seven-minute egg on top, etc.) But when I came home, I was faced with that regrettable cosmic phenomenon familiar to all cooks, the phenomenon that makes the same dish taste better when someone else makes it than it does when you make it yourself. I decided to forge my own way.

I took down The Zuni Café Cookbook, my own personal Southern Oracle of cooking, and asked Judy Rodgers, RIP, to teach me. What follows is her recipe. It's not much more complicated than Katie's, except the chopping of garlic and anchovies, which I guess is a little complicated. Instead of mayonnaise, it uses egg, which is more traditional but just as easy. Judy Rodgers's version is what we made for my mother that Monday night, and we all pawed at the salad bowl. But if you're turned off by using a raw egg, or if you'd just rather use mayonnaise, I'm also including a second recipe, a tweak on Katie's recipe, a version that Brandon and I have worked up over the past couple of weeks. I happen to like both, and much to my surprise, the mayonnaise-based version has even made a salad-eater out of June, an avowed lettuce-dismisser. We've been on a Caesar bender, and I see no reason to stop.

P.S. Re: the Southern Oracle, here we go again...
P.P.S. A particularly great This American Life: "The Problem We All Live With."
P.P.P.S. Interesting - and, in my experience, accurate.

Zuni Café Caesar Dressing
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook, by Judy Rodgers

Rodgers calls for salt-packed anchovies, but I use Scalia brand oil-packed, which I steal from Delancey. They’re not cheap, but they keep in the fridge for a long, long time, and they have wonderful flavor. Before using, I rinse them well and dry them on paper towels. And about the quantity of kosher salt: a three-finger pinch is the amount you pick up when you pinch with your thumb, index finger, and middle finger.

Oh, and a tip for applying thick dressings, and for applying any dressing to whole leaves of romaine: keep a box of powder-free latex gloves in your kitchen. Spoon some dressing into the bowl of lettuce, slide on a pair of gloves, and use your hands to gently rub the dressing onto each leaf. You could also do it without gloves, if you don't mind smelling garlicky for a bit.

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2/3 cup mild-tasting olive oil
About 1 ½ tablespoons minced and mashed anchovy fillets (from about 6 to 9 fillets)
About 2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 large cold eggs
About ½ ounce (15 grams) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt

For serving:
Romaine or other greens of your choice
Croutons or cooked farro, optional
Freshly ground black pepper

In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, anchovies, and garlic. Add the eggs, the cheese, and lots of black pepper. Whisk to emulsify. Add the lemon juice, and whisk again, just to emulsify. Taste, first by itself and then on a leaf of lettuce, and adjust the seasonings to taste. I add a three-finger pinch of kosher salt, if not a little more than that.

Spoon as desired onto romaine or other greens, and fold and toss carefully to coat. Add croutons or cooked farro, if you want, and more grated cheese. Serve with a final dusting of cheese on top and some freshly ground black pepper.

Yield: about 1 ½ cups of dressing


A Caesar Dressing Sans Raw Egg

Unless I’m going to make my own mayonnaise, which I don’t do in most everyday instances, I use Best Foods (which is also sold as Hellmann’s).

½ cup (105 grams) Best Foods / Hellmann’s mayonnaise
2 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 to 5 oil-packed anchovy fillets (see note in top recipe), minced and mashed to a paste
2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
Three-finger pinch of kosher salt

For serving:
Romaine or other greens of your choice
Croutons or cooked farro, optional
Freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl. Whisk to blend well.

Spoon as desired onto romaine or other greens, and fold and toss carefully to coat. Add croutons or cooked farro, if you want, and more grated cheese. Serve with a final dusting of cheese on top and some freshly ground black pepper.

Yield: about 3/4 cup of dressing