Cooking is Freedom, Cooking is Love

I enjoyed this piece “Cooking is Freedom” in the New York Times Opinionator yesterday.

I especially related to the Home Economics/Shop part. Though by the time I was in junior high school the gender pigeon-holing had stopped (girls and boys took both classes), I recall how horrible Home Ec was. In my school, it was taught by a very unpleasant, stern woman who brought not a speck of joy to culinary study. Instead, we were taught how to make a proper food budget for the home and learned a most heinous recipe—though one that, at the time, I thought was pretty neat and promptly re-created at home for my parents. It was called a “Candlestick Salad” and it consisted of the upper half of a banana placed inside the hole of a canned pineapple ring. The pineapple ring sat on a piece of iceberg lettuce. A maraschino cherry and a peanut topped the point of the banana. Enough said.

Despite how bad the salad was, what resonates from the New York Times piece is how much love I still put into making it for my parents. ”By cooking, we transform the mundane into something sacred. And then we share it with others. Food is the most shareable currency we have,” the Times piece says. This was surely an example of turning the mundane into sacred. I was so incredibly thrilled to finally get the chance to prepare a “dish” for them. My mom took me shopping for the ingredients, which I kept “top secret.” I put it together myself alone in the kitchen after dinner, and made them wait in the living room until I ceremoniously called them in to reveal my creation. They oohed and ahhhed appropriately and I basked in the praise. (I can only imagine what they said about it later in bed that night.)

Since then, I’ve made many a meal for those I love – some complex, but more of them not. In my 20s, when I was madly in love with a musician who didn’t eat any carbs, I’d go across the street to my New York city East Village Associated grocery store (yuck) and routinely buy a pack of ground turkey, an onion, a green pepper and garlic and sauté it in a big pan with lots of hot sauce. I personally found the meal to be rather dismal, but he loved it and so I made it—over and over.

Later, newly married, at the start of every fall I’d make my mom’s chili for my husband. I’d been making the same chili since college, but he was new to it and enchanted. He never failed to break out in a low-grade sweat across his forehead when he finished it, which he always proudly pointed out to me--a sort of sweet, mannish kind of flattery. But it’s the chocolate birthday cake I remember as the best example of love-inspired cooking (note: not the cake pictured here).

I hadn’t nailed down a recipe when I’d stumbled into the N.Y. Cake & Baking Distributor on 22nd street just a week before. A huge space for professional bakers selling cake and chocolate supplies, I went wild there buying various “necessities” for the cake. Well, I knew it was going to be chocolate, so I figured what’s the waste in buying a pound of unprocessed, unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder, and bars of bittersweet Valrona chocolate. Easy peasy. And a 9X2” round cake pan. Then I saw a box of these tiny red sugar hearts and next to them, an even smaller version of the same hearts. Hearts and mini-me hearts. I bought both.

Back home, I trawled through recipes online (epicurious,, typing in the words “chocolate cake.” Big mistake. With thousands of recipes to choose from, I quickly got overwhelmed. I’d find a recipe that was almost right, but that didn’t require, say, the cocoa powder. And though I wanted to do a filling, I hadn’t considered the logistics of making a layer cake—which basically requires at least two cake pans or enough time and patience ( I have the former but not the latter) to bake two cakes using only one pan. And then there was the frosting.

What I ended up doing was operating in my usual “make-it-up-as-we-go-along” style—which while typically fine for throwing together a last-minute marinara sauce isn’t necessarily a good modus operandi for baking, where precision (or lack thereof I should say) can literally flatten your cake dead in its bake.

But, alas, I found a recipe online for a nice-sounding flourless chocolate cake that seemed do-able. Then I went to The Joy of Cooking and saw a Chocolate Raspberry layer cake that caught my eye. I thought that I could possibly bake one cake, and then carefully cut it into halves in order to create layers. But when the cake came out of the oven slightly cracked on top and looking dangerously fragile, I knew that my amateur hand could not make a clean, sharp swipe of the knife through the cake and come out with two respectable, evenly divided layers. But I SO wanted that raspberry cream filling.

I’d already chosen a basic chocolate ganache icing recipe from an old French cookbook. Why, I reasoned, couldn’t I just add raspberries to it—and turn the chocolate frosting into a chocolate raspberry frosting? I pureed fresh raspberries in the food processor and added them to my cream concoction, whipping the combination into a frothy, billowing pink mixture that nearly tripled in amount. It tasted like a tangy, slightly sweet raspberry yogurt. Then I folded in the melted semisweet chocolate and butter. Now it was rich, chocolately, and subtlety raspberry-infused. I’d pulled off the combination of a frosting and a filling recipe.

My cake, though, was still looking like it could give way at any moment after hours of refrigeration, but I went forward with gusto and got ready to frost. If you think frosting a cake is a no-brainer, I’m here to tell you it can make you feel like an uncoordinated preschooler wielding a crayon in art class. I tried a knife, a spoon, a spatula. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get those effortless looking tufts of icing to work that cake. I basically smeared it on the best I could, trying to cover any naked spots, then refrigerated. Coincidentally, I spoke to an ex-boyfriend (who’s a reputable New York City chef) that day and told him about my cake-baking adventure and the icing debacle. He asked with a bemused tone how much icing I’d put on the cake. Huh? All of it. Duh.

The trick he told me was to first apply a very thin layer, then refrigerate, then apply more. Once the icing gets cooler and sets, it’s easier to keep adding on artfully. Oh well. My cake looked homemade—so what? When it finally was fully refrigerated, I was able to do some damage control; he was right, it was much easier to control the strokes when the icing was cooler. There were no naked spots showing and the icing was more or less even, if not engaging to look at. But I made up for it with the final touches. Along the cake’s perimeter, I placed single raspberries, about a half inch apart. Then, with what I like to think of as the spontaneous panache of Jackson Pollack throwing paint onto a canvas, I scattered my miniature, and more miniature red hearts all over the top. I then reigned myself in, and placed some red hearts along the side, evenly spaced in line with the raspberries on top.

On his birthday, we had a four o’ clock ultrasound appointment at the hospital; the first one where we’d really be able to get a better look at what was inside of me now that I was almost 12 weeks pregnant with my first child. I’d had to drink a liter of water an hour before the test, so by the time I went in to the examining room, I was ready to wet myself. My husband was late. The woman doing the ultrasound was so nice; “Do you want to give him a call before we get started?” Did I ever. I stepped outside into the hallway and got his voicemail on his cell phone. Suffice to say my message contained words like “where” “f*ck” “trouble” and “hurry.”

I went back into the room smiling beatifically. “Must be stuck on the subway.” The nice lady said we could give it a few more minutes. We did and then my bladder just couldn’t take it anymore. “We’d better get started before I pee my pants” I told her. She slid the wand over my belly and up popped an amazingly vivid image of a fetus, its head significantly larger than its little curled up body (normal at this stage). He raised an arm and I saw a hand—his left one—and counted five fingers. Thank you God for those five!

“He’s a busy, busy baby” she said. “Is that alright?” I asked. “Oh, yes, just fine,” she replied thankfully. Then there was a sudden movement on the screen and I couldn’t make sense of what was what. “He just flipped over!” she said. Now he was face down. I caught a glimpse of two legs. My eyes were welling up with tears because I was so happy and because my husband was missing this. Then there was a pound on the door, and he walked in.

The sonographer showed him what was going on. We watched the heart beat, and he (I know, I know, we kept using the masculine pronoun) raised his little arm again. Maybe a hello to Daddy? “He has chubby little cheeks,” she told us. “Must be from his dad,” I said. We stared and stared and stared until finally, I had to beg off to the bathroom. My bladder, as she pointed out on the screen, was now larger than my entire uterus, filled as it was with a liter of water for nearly two hours.

On our way out, we couldn’t stop looking at the seven pictures she’d printed for us: one of the baby face-down, one of his little hands, a good shot of his facial profile, where we could just make out the trace of a chin, a nose, eye sockets. We celebrated over dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant, holding off on the dessert. When we got home, my husband took the dog out, and I quickly snatched the cake from the frig and lit it with pink candles (to match the red hearts, and as an apology to the baby for continually referring to it as a “he.”)

When my husband came back, the lights were out and the chocolate cake was glowing on the center of the table. He looked as happy as if, well, as if I’d given him his firstborn.

The chocolate cake was delicious and homemade looking – it truly was a labor of love.

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