Sal, Aaron and Big Country (given name: Jesse) were my cooking brothers in that kitchen. We discussed everything, every day, over bowls of cereal and test recipes and, eventually, ready meals. I learned how to make Sal’s dad’s salsa in that kitchen and Big Country mom’s oatmeal bread, a recipe he wrote down for me as she dictated it. This handwritten relic remains tucked away behind an archival sheet protector in my black folder of very important recipes. I remembered the salsa.
Aaron was too busy running the place to spend time teaching, his hands away from flipping pizza dough and breaking down pigs rolled fresh from the farmer. What he was very good at, however, was keeping me well fed and well read. Before that, I spent all my time buried in the recipes of pastry chef Pierre Hermé—courtesy of Hermé’s co-author Dory Greenspan—and other books on French technique and Southern recipes that were once considered passé. The volumes under my bench were by Claudia Fleming, Gina DePalma, Lindsay Scheer, Elizabeth Pruitt, and Mrs. Edna Lewis, whose picture I had taped next to my station. I was a devotee of baking and sweets, and I still had no experience of working among ordinary chefs with their own idols and heroes. Mrs Lewis was as keen a cook as I had studied at this point, but I concentrated mostly on her pies, cakes and breads. Despite her rightful position as the doyenne of American cooking, to me she mostly seemed to be the fountainhead of impeccable Southern baking.
Then I regretted it when the chefs took over the dessert menu. What sometimes seemed to emerge was a crudeness that feared the power of delicacy. (My arguments went something like this: Salt is an art. Lard isn’t the best fat for baking. Your caramel doesn’t need bacon.) This conversation about the finesse, or lack thereof, of chefs when playing with pastry was one Aaron and I had often and strongly. One day, to prove his point, he gave me Paul Bertoli’s book Cooking by Hand. This book is a beautiful way to change someone’s mind.
Bertoli, who ran the kitchen at Chez Panisse in the 1980s before making Oakland, Calif.’s Oliveto national, defined an entire generation of chefs with this book because it was about the approach, about being part of the process , for being informed from where you stand. His book was a revolution for me as I was coming into my own way of cooking. From there, I began to blur the line between sweet and savory. I figured out how to consider my tools when I found a recipe that inspired me. So it seems only fitting for my inaugural column to tell you about my version of Bertolli’s Orange Cake because it shows the story of a recipe and my development as a cook. I learned how to take an idea and make it my own, shape it into something that suited my tastes and experience. Basic. But essential.
I made the recipe once as written. Then it was shaped by my life. I decided that any cake as good as his originally was could only be better if baked in a cast iron pan. Then, after testing it again a couple of times, I decided to give it another push by cutting some of the wheat flour with something nutty, maybe even toasty, like chestnut flour. You can use cornmeal or any nut flour as this recipe calls for. I also adjusted the salt, which is always the key to a good roast, and added some other delicate touches. This is the trademark of pastry chefs of my generation. We’re brought up in both worlds, learning the rules and then adjusting to the moment and the ingredients, like chefs do. But we’ll forever be devoted to the deep comfort that only a finely tuned dessert (and cocoa-pebbled milk straight from the bowl) can evoke.