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How it is

I think I might have told you about my father’s friend Michael. Sometime in the early ‘90s, Burg was on his way out of the grocery store, and being something of a car buff, he stopped to check out a Citroën in the parking lot. While he stood there with his grocery bags, the owner of the car came along - or maybe the owner was in the car; these details are long gone - and he turned out to be a man named Michael. They struck up a conversation, and something must have clicked, because for years after that, they were best friends. Michael was a native New Yorker, a former cab driver-slash-writer turned small business owner, intense and inquisitive and superhumanly well read. He and my dad would meet up on the weekends to a walk around the neighborhood and talk, and then one of them would make lunch, and they would talk some more. Burg must have told him that I liked to write, because the first time we met, Michael asked to see my poems - that’s what I was into then - and he told me about Adrienne Rich and her Diving into the Wreck, which wound up being the first book of poetry that felt like it spoke directly to me, 14-year-old me, just-starting-to-figure-stuff-out me.

I just realized that the way I’m talking makes it sound as though Michael is dead. I’m happy to report that he’s not. But I guess because Burg is, I tend to write about everything around him in the past tense. I should work on that.

In any case, Michael was - and is - a very good cook, and he and his wife Becky would have us over sometimes for dinner. In retrospect, I’m sort of surprised that they included me, seeing as I was a teenage punk at that point, but they did. And in some ways, I remember their cooking more vividly than my own parents’. Michael once put a whole chicken in a roasting pan, scattered a drained can of hominy around it, dumped a can of Coca Cola on top, and parked it in the oven until the juices were dark and caramelly, and though I have an uneasy relationship with superlatives, I have no problem declaring it the best chicken I’ve ever eaten. Michael now claims not to remember how he made it - or even that he made it - and despite a number of tries, I’ve never been able to produce anything remotely like it. He could also make a platter of hard-boiled eggs with wedges of tomato and sweet onion - a sort of composed salad, dressed only with olive oil and salt - taste exceptional, like no egg, tomato, or onion since. The same goes for his boiled yucca. Boiled yucca! And Becky, for her part, made a perfect almond cake: a damp-crumbed, camel-colored loaf that, though she insisted it was easy and absolutely no big deal, I still think about all the time.

When I was in college, they moved away. They had never seemed at home in Oklahoma, and they live in France now. And of course, here I am in Seattle. I don’t see them often, but the last time I did, Brandon was with me. The four of us went to dinner at a restaurant that turned out to be terrible, but getting there, we took a nice walk. It was a long walk, and we wound up in pairs, Michael with Brandon and Becky with me. The guys were a few strides ahead, and I could tell that they were deep in conversation, and at one point, I saw Michael lean in and loop his arm through Brandon’s, grinning, cackling conspiratorially, the way he always did when he was talking to Burg. And not long after, it occurred to me that meeting Michael might be the closest Brandon ever gets to meeting my father, and vice versa.

We’ve had a lot of out-of-town visitors in the past few weeks. First came Brandon’s parents, then a friend from New York, and then, last weekend, my mom. I haven’t been doing a lot of memorable cooking - not unless you count the soup I made last Thursday, which was memorable in the sense that it was virtually indistinguishable from pond water. But one night, I wanted to make us a nice dinner, and I had a new dessert recipe that I wanted to try, a type of souffle flavored with almond paste. I went to the store to pick up the ingredients, and when I got home and started unpacking the grocery bags, I noticed that the back of the almond paste box had a recipe for an almond cake. I once asked Becky where she got her cake recipe, and though I don’t really remember what she told me, as I stood there last week with the box of Odense brand almond paste in my hand, I suddenly felt very, very sure that it came from the back of that box. So I scrapped the souffle plans and switched to cake, and that night, with Brandon’s dad and our friend Sam, we tried it. It was okay. The almond flavor tasted muted somehow, lacking in salt. I sent the leftovers home with Sam, and as further evidence of how only-okay the cake was, I should tell you that the last half of it showed up at Delancey four days later, when Sam tried to pawn it off on the cooks.

But you haven’t read this far to hear about an only-okay cake, and actually, a lot of you probably haven’t even read this far, so if you have, this is the part where I thank you. And tell you to go preheat the oven and get out a springform pan, because by now, you probably need reinforcements.

The cake you should make is not the recipe on the back of the Odense almond paste box, but rather the recipe that follows, the one I should have made in the first place. It comes from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte, and I am certainly not the first person, nor the last, to sing its praises. It is a lot better than okay. I first heard about the recipe years ago, maybe when Adam made it, but I remembered it only after putting the Odense cake in the oven. The truth is, it bears a resemblance to the Odense recipe - the basic ingredients (butter, flour, baking soda, and almond paste) are used in the exact same quantities - but Hesser’s recipe uses a proper amount of salt, and some sour cream, and almond extract. What you get is a big, sturdy cake with enormous flavor and fragrance. I don’t know what’s going on in there, but the texture is incredible: so tender and tightly woven that it slices with no crumbs, but also pleasingly chewy. Its only flaw is that it caves in the middle as it cools, but that’s just how it is. It’s still fine to look at. Of course, it’s not exactly like Becky’s cake; hers baked in a loaf pan, for one thing, and I don’t remember it caving. But making it made me think of her, and of Michael, and it made me get out Diving into the Wreck (which doesn’t speak to me now the way it did when I was 14, but that’s probably for the best), and it made me want to write this down for you, which also means writing it down for me.

P.S. Annnnnd now that I wrote all this, I went back in my archives and found that I did indeed write about Michael and Becky years ago, more than six years ago, with a different almond cake recipe that I had since completely forgotten about. Going to go curl up and die now. Goodnight. (But I do think today’s almond cake is better, and it uses more standard ingredients, which is nice.)

Almond Cake
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte, and from her mother-in-law, Elizabeth

It would be tough to improve upon this cake, but next time, I might cut the almond extract back to ½ teaspoon, rather than 1 teaspoon. I love almond extract, but sometimes it leaves an aftertaste.

2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1 tsp. baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
1 ½ cups sugar
1 (7-ounce) tube almond paste, cut into small pieces
4 egg yolks, at room temperature
1 tsp. pure almond extract
Powdered sugar, for serving (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter (or spray with cooking spray) the sides and bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. The line the sides and bottom with parchment paper, and butter (or spray) the paper. In a small bowl, mix together sour cream and baking soda. In another bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the almond paste a few pieces at a time, and beat on medium speed for 8 minutes. (Yes, this seems like a long time, but do it. The mixture will get gorgeously fluffy.) Beat in the egg yolks one at a time, and mix until incorporated. (If it looks curdled, don’t worry.) Beat in the almond extract and the sour cream mixture. Reduce mixer speed to low, and gradually add the flour mixture, beating just until combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold the batter a couple of times to make sure there’s no unincorporated flour lurking around.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and spread it evenly with the rubber spatula. Bake for about 1 hour: the cake is done when you press the top and it returns to its shape, and also when it shrinks from the sides of the pan. Transfer to a cooling rack, and cool the cake in its pan.

When ready to serve, sift powdered sugar over the top, if you like.

Yield: about 10 servings


Have your way

Quick! It’s almost Thursday, but if you act fast, you can still have a Week to Remember:

Step 1: On your day off, clean the apartment you just moved out of. Don’t forget to grab that last load of laundry from the dryer, the way I almost did. And when you sweep the basement, be sure to accidentally dump the entire contents of the dust pan into the bag of clean laundry from the dryer, the way Brandon did.

Step 2: Go back to your new home. Feel both triumphant and defeated. Take a shower. Apply a bathrobe. Drink two glasses of cheap prosecco with Campari and a squeeze of orange. Now: try to make it to the dinner table without falling down. Not because of the prosecco, but because you put Pledge on the dining room table the other day, and when you did, there was apparently a substantial amount of fallout, leaving the floor with the traction properties of black ice. Feel your way along the wall until you reach the bedroom. Sleep.

Step 3: Unpack boxes. While you do so, have an idea: you can remove those cobwebs from the ceiling by Swiffering it! Begin immediately. Stop after three minutes, put away the Swiffer, get a chair to stand on, and begin removing cottony Swiffer bits from your ceiling. Unpack more boxes.

Step 4: Repeat the unpacking boxes part of Step 3. Continue for two days - or more, as needed.

Step 5: Avoid unpacking, Swiffering, Pledging, or doing anything else you are supposed to be doing. Stare into the middle distance. Steam an artichoke and eat it with an unconscionable amount of mayonnaise. Come to around three in the afternoon, and notice that life has provided you with a large north-facing window and yet another cloudy Seattle afternoon - in other words, your favorite situation for picture-taking. Get out some radishes, and have your way with them.

And when you’ve gotten that out of your system, make Molly Stevens’s butter-glazed radishes for dinner. And roast a chicken to go with it, if you have one. (I didn’t, but I would have, if I did.) And there’s your Week to Remember, especially if you skip Steps 1 through 4.

This radish recipe comes from the book All About Braising, which I love. I’ve written about it at least a couple of times, if not a few. I’ve had this particular recipe bookmarked since the first time I flipped through the book, years ago now. Until I saw it, I had never thought to eat radishes cooked - and to be honest, I couldn’t really imagine it, since they feel so right in their raw state, so peppery and crisp. But Molly Stevens has never led me astray, and I don’t see how the union of butter and radishes could ever be bad, so when the first spring radishes started cropping up at the market, I decided it was time to give it a try.

As braises go, this one is very quick. You’re not dealing with short ribs or brisket here. The radishes spend almost as much time soaking in a bowl of water beforehand - to loosen any trapped dirt - as they do cooking. They get only a brief simmer in butter and stock, and then you reduce the liquid to a glaze that coats them. You can use any kind or color of radish you want, but if you use red ones, there’s a nice side effect: they give some of their color to the cooking liquid, which goes rosy, and they themselves wind up the color of cotton candy. Very handsome, dignified cotton candy.

At first bite, I wasn’t entirely sold. The flavor of cooked radishes doesn’t announce itself with trumpets and cannons. It’s sweet, almost, and very delicate. It’s quiet. It sort of reminded me of a Sunday lunch I had to go to once with my parents, as a kid. We were at the home of some family friends, and they made blanquette de veau. It was supposed to be very chic and fancy, but I’d never eaten anything like it, and to me, it looked and tasted approximately like paste. I remember leaning on my mother’s shoulder, whispering in her ear, moaning about the “old-people food.” Of course, that’s not fair - to the veal or the radishes. But the first impressions were similar. It’s not that cooked radishes are old-people food, but on first taste, you could mistake them for bland. But! If you hang out a little longer, if you taste a second one and a third, you’ll find a lot of flavor there, low and earthy and resonant. It’ll surprise you. The butter is there, too, giving them some heft, and then there’s the texture, creamy and dense, like well-cooked cauliflower. Does that sound off-putting? I like well-cooked cauliflower. Maybe think in the direction of a potato instead? A particularly light, smooth-textured potato? Only more interesting, because it’s a radish. A butter-glazed radish. Happy spring, finally.

Butter-Glazed Radishes
Adapted from All About Braising, by Molly Stevens

I think these radishes would make an ideal side dish for roasted chicken, but you could serve them with almost anything: fish, pork, probably even a fried egg.

1 lb. small radishes (2 to 2 ½ dozen)
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1/3 cup chicken stock, or water
Large pinch of sugar
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Trim the roots from the radishes, and pare off the greens, leaving ¼ to ½ inch of the stems. (This is mostly for looks, and for the slight flavor the stems bring, but if you want, you can completely trim away the greens.) Soak the radishes in cold water for about 15 minutes to loosen any dirt trapped in the stems. Drain and scrub the radishes. If any are more than 1 inch in diameter, halve them.

Put the radishes in a medium (10-inch) skillet. The skillet should hold them in a single layer. Add the butter, stock or water, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer over medium heat; then cover, reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until the radishes are tender, 18 to 25 minutes. You should be able to easily pierce them with a small knife.

Remove the lid, shake the pan to roll the radishes around, and continue to simmer until the liquid reduces to a glaze and coats the radishes, another 5 to 10 minutes. (You may need to increase the heat under the pan.) Taste for seasoning. Serve warm.

Yield: 4 servings


It's still at it

I had a recipe post all ready to go for today, and then I woke up this morning and realized that there was something more pressing to say. That book proposal that I was working on a couple of months ago, it did its job. Because of it, I get to write a second book(!!). I’m so excited about it that my eye started twitching uncontrollably this morning, and several hours later, it’s still at it. I can hardly see straight. When a Paul Simon song came on the radio over lunch, my eye actually twitched in time to the music. This is how excitement feels: like my face is falling apart.

Yes, the official announcement came today, in Publishers Weekly, and now that I can, I had to rush over here to tell you. The book is tentatively titled Delancey, and like my first book, it’s more a story than a cookbook. It’s about a marriage, in a sense: about a man and a woman and the restaurant that they, however uncomfortably, gave birth to. It’s about what we do for the people we love. It’s about growing up. And most of all, it’s about a small business that we made with our own hands, on our own terms, and the community that came with it, a life that I had no idea would be ours.

The manuscript is due next March, and then, if all goes according to plan, it’ll be published in the spring of 2013. That date sounds so impossibly far away that somebody could almost make a sci-fi movie about it. But I hope it comes quickly.

Until then, I think we’re finished with big announcements and big changes around here. (YES!) Let’s get back to normal life. I’ll see you soon with that recipe.