Photo by jules:stonesoup/FlickrCC
When my two friends, M and J, both professional cooks, invited me over for a simple salad and pasta dinner made from ingredients they "had to use up," I stupidly offered to bring dessert. Then I scrambled to find something foolproof yet worthy enough for their refined palates, something that would keep me on their list should they ever need to clean out their fridge again.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't like baking.
The whole chemical process that occurs when you put flour, butter, sugar, and eggs in the oven does not fill me with wonder. It fills me with dread. You can't just follow a simple recipe for dough. You have to take into account various things like: what if the heat in your oven is slightly off? What if your baking dish is heavier than the one you used last time? What if it's humid outside? What if you're on a mountain? I prefer dishes where I can poke in while it's in the oven, taste, readjust seasoning, and salvage it as I go—and that will still be good whether or not I'm at 10,000 feet. If you do that with a cake, you'll end up with a mouthful of hot batter.
Potential menus were lying around the apartment, all of them drool-worthy.
Baked goods were out, as was anything in the custard realm; vague memories of frantically tempering eggs with hot milk during culinary school gave me heart palpitations. I'd tried to make a rice pudding with caramel, brown butter, and crème fraiche the day before, operating under the assumption that "nothing can go wrong when you put a combination of wonderful things into a bowl," but I ended up with a slightly burned, overcooked, goopy mess.
Then I spied an almost-stale loaf of challah bread by my toaster. "A-cha!" I said aloud, in my best Yiddish Mel Brooks accent. Challah bread pudding!
I scoured my cookbooks and the Internet for a sufficiently straightforward recipe (no adjusting for high altitude, thank you very much), invited my sister over for moral support, and made the pudding: I soaked cubed pieces of bread with chocolate chips in a sweet custard of eggs, sugar, and milk, and after 30 minutes, off into the oven it went. While it was baking, I made a bananas-Foster-esque sauce of cinnamon and rum to pour over the top, and I removed the pudding from the oven when it was puffed up and set in the center. Then I stuck it in a Tupperware, got on the subway, and prayed.
M and J's apartment clearly belongs to professional cooks: Food and Wine in the bathroom, food-related coffee table books and cookbooks lining the shelves, squeeze bottles in the kitchen, open containers of salt for easy pinching, quart containers upon quart containers of baking chocolate for a recipe J had been trying out, and, of course, the full array of chef's tools, including an ice cream maker and pasta machine.
J went to the CIA (no, not that one—the Culinary Institute of America), has helped run some of the best kitchens in the country, and will be taking over a restaurant as executive chef in a few weeks. Potential menus were lying around the apartment, all of them drool-worthy. M is feisty, has burns and cuts running up and down her arms, has whizzed up the ranks of every kitchen where she's ever worked, and, at five feet three inches, has seriously terrified her fellow line cooks - tough grown men with muscles and tattoos. While I went to culinary school and worked in a professional kitchen, I'm nowhere near these two.
J has been making his own bread using Jim Lahey's "no-knead bread" recipe, and right when I arrived he was taking out a loaf. I surreptitiously shoved my Tupperware in the fridge and gazed, adoringly, at the perfect loaf of homemade bread, a small wisp of steam spiraling off the top.
We sat around the table munching crostini topped with perfect quenelles of whipped ricotta and a single, exquisite watercress leaf (ah! dinner with professional cooks!) as J and M puttered in and out of the kitchen. When it was time to eat, J pan-roasted Brussels sprouts, which he tossed with arugula, croutons, capers, and lemon segments, seasoning generously with a pepper grinder (oh! what a wrist turn!). M cooked what she called "porky pasta," essentially pasta all'amatriciana (in tomato sauce with small cubes of guanciale). I sighed, imagining the day when I'd "have to use up" these ingredients in my fridge, thinking forlornly of the jar of mustard and carton of yogurt back home. J sliced open his loaf of bread and we demolished it. The meal was simple, but perfectly cooked, and perfectly seasoned.
Then came the moment of truth.
M had made a rich French vanilla ice cream to accompany the bread pudding, which J plopped on top of my dessert. I held my breath. Everyone picked up a spoon and took a bite.
J licked his spoon and shrugged. "You can't go wrong with this kind of dessert," he said, calmly making his way through the plate. "You put a lot of delicious ingredients into a dish, cook it, and it'll taste good."
I was relieved and pleased, and said not a word about my rice pudding.