Having laughed through Ruth Reichl’s adventures as the food critic for the New York Times in Garlic and Sapphires and empathized with her Not Becoming My Mother and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, I looked forward to this foodie’s first book of fiction. With the taste of Italy still fresh on my palate, Reichl’s Delicious ! was the perfect combination of food, mystery, and romance – topped off with a recipe at the end of the book.
Using her experiences as editor of Gourmet magazine, including the sad demise of that publication, Reichl created a story around Billie, who quits Berkeley in her senior year to take a job as assistant to the editor of Delicious magazine in New York City, with hopes of becoming a writer. Surrounded by a crew of Reichl’s food-loving characters, including “Mr. Complainer,” the handsome regular customer at the Italian deli where Billie moonlights on weekends, Billie explores a mystery involving letters from James Beard before he became the famous chef. Reichl uses the quest, with secret passages and coded letters, and Billie’s aversion to cooking, to add purpose to the rambling adventure.
Reichl includes the recipe for Billie’s mother’s gingerbread cake at the end of the book. Like my own mother, Billie’s mother refused to reveal the secrets of her baking. Billie and her sister guess at the ingredients and the cake is the catalyst to their successful Cake Sisters bakery. The recipe works; I tried it, changing it a little “to make it my own,” as James Beard suggests.
Like a Sophie Kinsella book for food-lovers, Delicious! is a delight and the perfect digestif after my week of sumptuous Italian eating. Bon appetit!
Emilio, the handsome Italian chef, made it all look so easy, as he flipped the asparagus in the heavy sauté pan. Although we will never attain his expertise or his passion for cooking, watching his demonstrations were inspiring. When we tore off the anchovy tail cleaning those glistening creatures – looking nothing like the ones curled up in a small can under olive oil – he would smile graciously and fix our mistakes. Our little pasta curls (like tortellini) did not have the finishing snap of his, but they still tasted good.
After class, one on my fellow students brainstormed the chef’s tips, and we vowed to remember them when back in our own kitchens:
• Flour before egg when frying
• Vinegar on a sponge to wipe the edges of the plate
• Break eggs by gently tapping against each other
• Separate yolks by carefully straining through your hands
• Split asparagus before cooking
• Never microwave chocolate to melt (my mortal sin)
• Never roll out pizza dough; stretch and make dimples with fingers; less flour makes dough harder to handle but better to eat.
These are all I remember, but when the fog of Italian wine and sweets – and gelato – lifts, I’m hoping to recall more. Do you have cooking tips to add?
My friends from Chicago are planning a dinner party to reprise some of the recipes we made. I know I will smell that lemon almond cake across the ocean to my lanai.
The first familiar sight in the Naples train station was a sfoggliatelle – a sweet lemony ricotta cream inside layers of flaky dough. I hunted them down in Baltimore’s Little Italy whenever I got to town – sometimes without success. But here was my favorite Italian pastry welcoming me to Italy.
When I asked for una bottiglia d’acqua, they understood. Of course, I had to have an espresso too and the gelato was calling my name. As I listened to the Italian conversations around me, I was surprised at how much I understood. Ah, Italia – it feels like home – my grandmother’s.
After weeks of practicing phrases on Duolingo (I can now say “the woman has the fork and the garlic” or maybe it’s “the woman has the fork in the garlic,”) I am off to Positano to eat lemons and cook with friends. John Steinbeck described Positano in a 1953 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:
“Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you are gone.”
Stephanie Rosenbloom in her New York Times article – What A Great Trip and I’m Not Even There Yet – noted that preparing for the adventure can be just as satisfying as the trip itself, and it has been – from trying to remember my Italian grandmother’s phrasing as she admonished me to “mangia il pane e beve il latte” -to climbing stairs in anticipation of Positano’s many steps – a natural stairmaster to work off all that pasta I plan to eat. Not sure how much reading I will do as I sip the limonata, but I am taking with me: