You’ve heard of one-pot meals, but have you heard of one-cake desserts? That’s not a thing, but it should be. Here’s the idea: instead of an elaborate cake that you have to frost or decorate or slice in half, a one-cake dessert is one where a batter goes into a cake pan, the pan goes into the oven, and whatever comes out an hour later is what you serve for dessert (sprinkled, perhaps, with powdered sugar). In my years of dinner party-throwing, I’ve been a big champion of one-cake desserts: Al Di La’s pear and chocolate cake, for example. Or my favorite dinner party dessert of all time: Amanda Hesser’s almond cake. Now a new cake comes along to join the pantheon; this raspberry ricotta cake from last month’s Bon Appetit.
Nothing sets me off like sanctimoniousness; that holier-than-thou, self-righteous, sermon-on-the-mount style of food writing. Often the sentiments are well-intentioned but everything is done so humorlessly, it’s hard for the average person to connect. And so it goes with vegetables. The general take, these days, seems to be that we should eat less dead bodies and more living green stuff. OK, I can get on board with that, though often the images associated with this new way of life are plates of kale and quinoa and other foods that start with a hard “K” sound. Can’t vegetables be sexy? Decadent? The kind of special dinner you might ask for on your birthday? Well, let’s not get carried away, but here’s a dinner that’s not at all good for you but is good for you in the broader sense because it’s got no dead bodies in it, just vegetables. Actually just one vegetable then lots of butter, flour, whole milk, cheese, and bread crumbs. There’s not a sanctimonious thing about it.
Scared you, didn’t I? Well I didn’t mean to. It’s funny how many people read my last post and assumed I was ending my blog. That’s not what I said! I just said that my blog was no longer my primary source of income; in many ways, it’s a liberating state of affairs. It means that if I post on here (as I’m doing now) it’s because I have something I’m really eager to share with the world, not just something to fill up space on the internet (like that time I told you that my cake stand is really a punch bowl; though, weirdly, that post really caught on). In any case: chicken under a brick. Have you tried it? If not, why not? I bet I can guess: you’re afraid. I was afraid too. Then, this past Tuesday, I tried it and–I mean this seriously–I don’t think I’ll ever make chicken any other way again.
Laurie Anderson has a song–more of a performance piece–called “Only An Expert Can Deal with a Problem.” It’s a dark, satirical look at the way Americans defer so willingly to experts; whether it’s the talking heads on Fox News, hyper-judgmental celebrities on Fashion Police, or mental health gurus like Dr. Phil. And nowhere is this more evident, really, than the way Americans cook from cookbooks. I know because I’m an American and for the larger bulk of my cooking life, I was such a slave to whatever recipe I was following; if I didn’t have precisely 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda left in the canister, I’d throw everything away. Julia Child wouldn’t approve; on her show, once, I heard her say, “Anyone who doesn’t finish a recipe because they don’t have all the ingredients will never be a cook.” It took me a long time to get there but now I cook much more loosely, much more confidently, and cookbooks function less as sacred texts and more like casual idea-generators. Which is how this terrific dinner came about.
When I went to college at Emory 3,000 years ago, there used to be a spot in Emory Village called Cedar Tree that sold “pitzas.” It was basically a piece of toasted pita bread topped with pizza-like toppings and the surprising thing was that it was really, really good. A dinner at Cedar Tree was always a treat and when I listen to the Indigo Girls–who, incidentally or maybe not so incidentally went to Emory–their song “Cedar Tree” always makes me think about how good a piece of toasted pita bread with pizza-like toppings can be. Yet, weirdly I’d never attempted it at home until I hit upon a technique that makes so much sense for transforming plain-old-pita bread into something that resembles a pizza crust.
Let us all acknowledge the truth about roast chicken: it’s not about the chicken, it’s about the vegetables. That truth dawned on me long ago when I used to line a roasting pan with red potatoes sliced in half, all surrounding a well-seasoned chicken; the rendered chicken fat would coat the potatoes, they’d get all crispy, and when it was time to eat, the actual roast chicken was an afterthought. It only got better when I discovered Thomas Keller’s roast chicken: in with the potatoes went leeks, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, turnips, and suddenly next to that pretty little bird would be vegetables as beautiful as the crown jewels. Now imagine turning those salty, schmaltzy vegetables into soup, a soup that takes about 5 minutes.
It’s one thing to ask a friend for a recipe, it’s another thing to pilfer their signature dish. For the past few years, my friend Diana has dazzled dinner guests with her take on Suzanne Goin’s Slow-Roasted Salmon with Cucumber Yogurt; a recipe that you won’t find in any of Goin’s cookbooks but, rather weirdly, on the Hollywood Bowl website. It’s such a winning dinner party dish because you get to serve fish to any number of people without having to stress; the slow-cooking in the oven guarantees a moist interior and also ensures that all of the fillets will be done at the same time. Top it with a yogurt sauce amped up with toasted cumin seeds and preserved lemons (more on those in a moment) and you’ve got a dish so good, it’s worth stealing from a friend (sorry Diana).
On New Year’s Eve, I cooked for some friends and realized that dessert needed to be on the lighter end of things, because who wants to go out to New Year’s parties feeling all weighed down with chocolate and butter, etc. etc.? That’s how I came up with Pavlova, something that I’d only really made once before (actually twice) but never served to guests because it always seemed so delicate and ephemeral and kind of risky. But a risky dessert on New Year’s Eve is a good way to kick off the new year: taking chances, living on the edge, whipping egg whites. So I got to work.