A couple of well-meaning readers have recently inquired into the foundations of my relationship with food, or, more succinctly, the origins of this thing I call Orangette
. As the following amply demonstrates, such seemingly harmless questions can be downright dangerous when combined with an afternoon of digging in the archives
, both online and off. What follows comes to you straight from a tattered, sun-bleached sketchbook that holds my teenage writing—or, at least, the snippets of it that aren’t stashed in my parents’ freezer, which I once fervently believed was the only way to secure it for the ages.
Dear reader, I humbly present to you the story of how it all began, the story of how one verbose teenager in the wilds of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, found her way to the kitchen, as told in her own words.* I wrote this essay-cum-prose-poem, fittingly titled “Kitchen,” ten years ago, when I was 17 and fresh from my first edible epiphany
. Please, handle with care.*With long-overdue thanks and apologies to Frank O’Hara, Armistead Maupin, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Flannery O’Connor, in whose works I’d been thoroughly pickling myself when “Kitchen” was born.
Fresh Ginger Cake with Caramelized Pears
From Gourmet, February 1996
¼ cup unsulfured molasses
¼ cup sour cream
½ stick unsalted butter, melted
¼ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp grated peeled fresh gingerroot
½ teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
2 medium firm-ripe pears
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 ½ teaspoons Cognac or other brandy
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Midnight, and we converge upon the kitchen: Mom
for poached pears, Burg
for rice pudding, and me for fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears
. Lately I’ve been really identifying with the kitchen, the way it’s always warm in the pantry, its shelves lined with bottles or bags labeled “Raspberry Apple Butter” or “Cranberry Beans” or “Quaker Barley,” the way there are cookbooks laying open on the butcher-block island, the way it smells good after dinner and in the afternoon when the refrigerator is cold and full. It’s been this way since Christmas with me, eagerly thumbing through the new issue of Gourmet
in search of a recipe to read about, soak in, taste without tasting. But the recipe for fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears demands immediate attention, tonight. So we go to the store after dinner and come home with a backseat full of bags: gingerroot, a dozen eggs, a bottle of molasses with a sweet-looking granny on the label, a pint of heavy cream, a tub of sour cream, and pears (firm-ripe).
We all think alike. Burg is at the stove with the double boiler, then opening the pantry for rice. Mom is at the sink, peeling pears with her new vegetable peeler, leaning over the recipe for “Pears Noir” from her California Heritage Cookbook. I am making the cake I can’t stop thinking about. Me, I want fresh ginger cake with caramelized pears at midnight with the rice pudding and the poaching pears still on the stove and the kitchen warm and the cake and caramel and pears warm and the marble tabletop cold under my elbows.
Rice pudding is fine, but it’s not for me. It is Burg’s once-a-week-or-so fun, later to be Tupperwared and tucked into the fridge for occasional spooning. The poached pears will tomorrow be coated in bittersweet chocolate and served to the guests who will sit and laugh in the dining room with my parents. But the cake is mine. Cake: I like it on my tongue, the word—not just the stuff itself—but even better in my throat, my stomach. Cake. It can only mean something good.
I never thought I would like rice pudding, anyway. Something about the dairy and the rice; they shouldn’t be together. But I’ve changed my mind. I wonder if it is my father’s rice pudding that’s done it—only three tablespoons of sugar, and amazing—or maybe my uncle’s rice. My father’s brother Arnie sends the rice from Nanuet, New York—basmati rice, straight from India, still in the little burlap sack with the handles and the big red block letters spelling out the name of a town I can’t pronounce. Arnie is fun. He calls for Burg and speaks slowly slowly and it makes me crazy if I’m in the middle of something because it seems to take hours to get him over to Burg. The word “Hello” in and of itself takes a good minute. But Arnie is fun. He looks like Burg and has a dog that’s nearly as tall as he is. So I like rice pudding because of Arnie and the rice, and after all, it is my very own father’s rice pudding, although really, I don’t think I’m biased at all.
And the poached pears; I like them too. Well, picture it: you’re lying in an overfluffed bed in the upstairs bedroom of a bed-and-breakfast in Cape Neddick, Maine, just before Christmas, and there's snow piling high on the ground outside, but it’s warm up there, under the canopy, in the bed. It’s eight o’clock. There’s a knock at the door. You roll out of bed. At your feet is a silver tray with one cup, a silver coffee pot, a cream pitcher, and a sugar bowl. You pick it up, close the door, rest the tray on your bedside table, pour yourself a cup of blacky-brown coffee, and you sink back into bed under the comforter and return to your second volume of the Tales of the City series, and it’s a good morning because on the page Mona is discovering her roots in a whorehouse in Nevada with Mother Mucca, and gynecologist Jon Fielding is wooing Michael again. And then, of course, there’s breakfast at nine. First, there will be pineapple scones, still warm from the baking sheet, and a cloth-lined tin of cinnamon muffins and apple-spice bread. Then a poached pear, buoyed by a pool of Grand Marnier crème anglaise. Then a warm plate with a small poached egg on a bed of puréed spinach, with caramelized apples and a crispy little phyllo purse filled with sausage, ricotta, and mushrooms and baked until flaky outside and melting inside. This is breakfast on this almost-Christmas of your 18th year. You sigh and decide to stay seated right where you are until tea at 4:30 (cranberry linzer tart; ready?).
So yes, I like poached pears. Because I was in Maine that Christmas, and I ate everything and then another scone an hour after breakfast because I can never get enough, it seems. Because poached pears landed squarely in the middle of the breakfast to go down in history, the breakfast that set me afire, afire with the love of the food! Aaaaah-men! And hence this midnight meeting in the kitchen, this preoccupation with cake and caramel and fragrant winter pears.
To the kitchen. This cake will be incredible—mark my word—and I will grate this ginger even if the milk that runs out from under the grater makes me feel a little queasy. It will be that good. It will be delicious, yes. In the oven, my cake makes the kitchen smell full and alive, and the pears bubble in the pan with sugar and butter and cream. Midnight, and the kitchen is clicking and burbling and whirring. Soon we all lean into the soft, brown cake cooling on the island, and we pour pears and caramel soft and all butterflow onto the cake and melt onto the floor with it on our forks and in our mouths even better than the word “cake” itself on my tongue I ever dreamed it would be. Midnight, and we melt in the kitchen and check ourselves with the candy thermometer and declare that we’ve reached the hard-ball stage, and we pour ourselves into bed.