Reading Ruth Reichl’s account as editor of Gourmet magazine made me happy and hungry. With her usual flair, Reichl sails through her ten years at the prestigious food magazine, describing food so delicious you can almost smell and taste it.
Following the arc from learning the ropes, wondering if the job is too challenging, to the inevitable highs of success with a staff as enthusiastic as she is about bringing culinary delights to the masses, Reichl talks about her staff as collaborators and friends in a delightful journey to experiment and explore food. Of course, the arc ultimately turns down during the recession with budget cuts and gleaning of staff, eventually causing the demise of the revered magazine of seventy years in the Conde Nast warehouse. With 48 hours notice, she and her staff lost their jobs.
Throughout her story, Reichl is witty and charming, with flashes of down to earth philosophy as she manages her fairy tale career with family obligations. I laughed along with her when she described some of the publishing quirks in the foodie business, and would have been glad to have been counted as one of her friends. People she did not like, however, (she brooked no enemies) were given short shrift; sometimes you could almost see her making a face behind their backs.
I’ve read several of her books – my favorite is Garlic and Sapphires – and each has its own flavor, but Save Me the Plums may have been a catharsis, helping her transition from a whirlwind life of luxury into forced early retirement and a return to the normal life. Reichl always makes me laugh but this book offered a story of relatable issues any career mom would identify. Although my career had nothing to do with food, I could relate as she learned to be a leader, overseeing a staff for the first time as she came into her own, creating programs lauded and appreciated. The sudden ending was fretful but we all survive and often thrive.
Since the end of Gourmet magazine in 2009, Reichl has kept busy cooking in her upstate New York kitchen, and writing books: her first fiction book – Delicious!, a cookbook – My Kitchen Year, and a tribute to her mother in Not Becoming My Mother. Her writing pops up in assorted publications, and in a recent article for Real Simple magazine her tart humor described the perfect kitchen. “Forget all the appliances you think you need. Just turn your kitchen into a space you love…I do have a dishwasher, but the truth is I wish I didn’t…” As always, she offers real suggestions with a dollop of wry humor.
Reichl included several Gourmet recipes in Save Me the Plums, but I only copied and tried one – the one with chocolate, of course. Ruth says it tastes best with Scharffen Berger chocolate but I couldn’t find any; trust me, it’s still great with any good grade chocolate (just stay away from Dutch processed). The cake is a YAFI (You Asked for It) from one of Gourmet’s issues – easy to make and tastes amazing.
I wish I had thought to take a picture but we scarfed it up pretty quickly. Besides, in a recent interview Reichl says she does not like the current practice of eaters taking pictures of the food. “You distance yourself from the food as soon as you take a picture – better to experience it and enjoy it.”
I’m sure she would be happy if you would try making it too – here’s the recipe:
Jeweled Chocolate Cake
- 3 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate
- 1/2 cup cocoa powder, plus more for dusting pan but not Dutch process
- 6 tablespoons butter
- 1/3 cup neutral vegetable oil
- 2/3 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter a deep 9 inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust it with cocoa powder.
Melt the chocolate with the cocoa, butter, oil, and water over low heat, stirring until smooth. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sugar.
Cool completely, then whisk in the eggs, one at a time.
Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk into the chocolate mixture. Shake the buttermilk well, measure, and stir that in.
Pour the batter into the pan and bake on the middle shelf for 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out, peel the parchment from the bottom and allow to cool completely.
- 1/2 cup slivered blanched almonds
- 1/4 cup blanched hazelnuts (I substituted chopped pecans)
- 1/4 cup water
- 3/4 cup sugar
Toast the nuts in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes. Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Boil without stirring until it begins to darken, swirling until mixture turns a deep gold. Happens fast – so stay with it or it will burn.
Remove from heat and stir in nuts. Pour onto baking sheet lined with parchment, spreading evenly. Allow to cool completely. Then, break into pieces and put into a plastic bag, smashing with a rolling pin (or bottom of a heavy glass) until you have crushed pieces to sprinkle over the frosting.
- Mix 2 tablespoons of sugar into a cup of mascarpone.
- Spread on the cooled cake and heap praline bits on top.