In a city of 8 million, it’s hard to feel like you’re ever doing something unique or remarkable. But I do think I was the only person in NYC carrying a cast-iron skillet home in my bike bag at 1 am on Sunday night.
I’d just been at Tamara’s, where we had been revisiting the already legendary Fourth of July Fried ChickenFest. Yes, it was only two weeks ago, but already people were getting another hankering for the good ‘n’ greasy stuff, which had apparently been absolutely life-changing, or “a revelation,” as lazy food writers say.
I’d been out of town, dragging my bad NYC energy to the West Coast, and the only taste of fried chicken I got on the 4th was a totally garbled, raucous group voicemail of people shouting about chicken and how I was “a fucking fag for leaving town.” (That’s “fucking fag” in the third-grade, I-call-you-names-and-pull-your-hair-because-I-love-you sense, and my heart was warmed to hear it.)
What is it about this chicken that made people go berserk and call me up to whoop in ecstasy? Simple: it’s fried in lard and butter … which is then extra-flavored with chunks of country ham. (This might work as well as my “Live Poultry Fresh Killed” thong to weed out unsuitable dinner companions.) And prior to frying, the chicken pieces are brined, then soaked overnight in buttermilk. I wish we could say we invented this over-the-top approach, but it’s all from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and James Peacock.
So when Tamara said she’d host, I was more than a little excited to take on the chicken prep. I can’t honestly say whether I miscounted the number of guests, or whether I had a miscommunication with the man at the petting zoo/poultry store, but somehow I wound up with five whole chickens for six people. I slapped all that meat in brine, and started to daydream about the spatter of hot fat.
But my plans were derailed, as I wound up at Tamara’s the next day in not the best condition for eating. I can get a little carried away sometimes, see–a family motto is “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing”–and I was so gripped with enthusiasm for The Return of the Chicken that I embarked on an additional project Sunday afternoon.
While the chickies were marinating, I started baking my birthday cake, which has been “my birthday cake” since I was 3–and in fact, my earliest memory is helping my mother make this three-layer genoise with cherries, with a praline-almond buttercream. When I was 3, I think I just helped pit the cherries; as I got older I learned the trickier bits, of which there are many, many, many.
Genoise (aka Genovese) is an Italian-style cake that gets all its lift from eggs–which you’ve got to beat the bejesus out of with a bunch of sugar, then sift in the merest whisper of flour, and oh-so-delicately fold in a tiny bit of melted butter that has to be just the right temperature.
If you jack up any one of these factors, you upset this delicate, peevish flower of a cake, causing it to sulk and not rise at all, or, even worse, to rise and look absolutely gorgeous yet contain a hideous secret.
The latter has happened only once, but that was enough to make me very skittish. It was my 16th birthday, which, for all the numerologists in the house, was 16 years ago. My mother and I had baked the cake in preparation for a late-afternoon family get-together, and while we were waiting for the layers to cool, I took a walk down the road. In the ditch I encountered a trio of awful boys from high school–one pain-in-the-ass ringleader, plus two other guys who were probably perfectly nice but are forever tainted by their association with the other.
Their car had broken down, and for some reason they came to my house to deal with the problem. Which led to their being invited for dinner (not by me–who knows how it happened), where they were relatively well behaved until the dessert course. The cake was served forth, all flecked with golden praline almonds and studded with big black cherries, then cut into delicate slices. We all sat back to enjoy, and the moment of anticipation was torn asunder by the ringleader grabbing his throat and squawking, “What’s in this cake–mozzarella cheese?!”
Lo, the secret black heart of a good genoise gone bad had been revealed: all of that delicately drizzled melted butter had somehow settled out and congealed at the bottom of each cake layer, creating a bizarre rubbery substance that could barely be dented with a fork. I was deeply aggrieved, but it at least made the boys leave rather quickly after the plates were cleared.
So, fast forward to my second Sweet Sixteen, if you will, this portentously muggy Sunday on which I was feeling my age–still a little brain-damaged well after my Thursday actual-birthday outing to the KC and the Rover. After rounding up all the ingredients (cherries were oddly hard to come by–a sign?), I set to steady work, candying almonds and separating whites and yolks. Fortunately I now have a standing mixer, so beating the eggs is no longer the trial it was back in the bad old days in low-tech New Mexico.
Everything was going along fine until I melted the butter, and then cooled it too quickly–the liquid separated from the butterfat and looked like alien ooze. I whisked it back into shape, but it was with a sinking heart that I folded it into the batter. (Why didn’t I just melt another quarter-cup of butter? I have no idea–but I know this is why I’ll never be a real baker.)
I slid the pans into the oven (I admit, another not-so-perfectionist move: they were two springform pans of different sizes) and sat back to fan myself in the heavy, hot air. Half an hour later I pulled the cakes out, and I allowed myself a brief flush of hope–they looked beautifully golden, with little crescents of cherry halves breaking the surface.
When the cakes cooled, I tested them, gingerly sliding the toothpick down until I felt it hit something resistant–but a little bouncy. Definitely not just the bottom of the cake pan. As I’d feared, that infernal layer of rubber had formed, dashing all my day’s efforts.
There was a lot of gnashing of teeth and swearing (“Fuckity-fuck-fuck!” for those craving dialogue), but Aaron and Peter had a more positive outlook: Couldn’t we just eat around the rubbery layer?
Aw, sure. So we sat down and picked out the cherries, and scraped off the half-inch of actual cake, and it was all exceptionally tasty. I ate a few spoonfuls of frosting for good measure, then loaded up my bike with the chicken and my cast-iron skillet and toddled down to Tamara’s.
And so it was I arrived at the Great Chicken Fest Redux with no appetite for the 40 pieces of fried goodness that we had to prepare and eat. Luckily I love cold fried chicken almost as much as hot–because lordy, I’ve got enough to last me until my next birthday.