Sal, Aaron and Big Country (given name: Jesse) were my chef-brothers in that kitchen. We talked everything through, every day, over cereal bowls and test recipes and, eventually, finished dishes. I learned how to make Sal’s father’s salsa in that kitchen, and Big Country’s mama’s oatmeal bread, a recipe he wrote down for me as she dictated it. That handwritten relic remains tucked behind an archival sheet protector in my black binder of Very Important Recipes. I committed the salsa to memory.
Aaron was too busy running the place to really take the time to teach, his hands off turning pizza dough and breaking down hogs rolled in fresh from the farmer. What he was very good at, though, was keeping me well fed and well read. Before that, I spent all my time buried in the recipes of the pastry chef Pierre Hermé — courtesy of Hermé’s co-author, Dorie Greenspan — and other books about French technique and clutch Southern recipes once thought bygone. The tomes under my bench were by Claudia Fleming, Gina DePalma, Lindsey Shere, Elisabeth Prueitt and Ms. Edna Lewis, whose photo I had taped next to my station. I was a baking-and-pastry devotee and did not yet have the experience of working among ornery savory chefs with their own idols and heroes. Ms. Lewis was as savory a chef as I had studied at that point, but I mostly focused on her pies, cakes and breads. Despite her rightful position as a doyenne of American cookery, she mostly seemed, to my mind, the wellspring of immaculate Southern baking.
Back then, I regretted when savory chefs commandeered the dessert menu. What occasionally seemed to come out was a heavy-handedness that was scared of the power of delicacy. (My arguments went something like this: Salt is an art. Leaf lard is not the best baking fat. Your caramel does not need bacon.) This conversation about the finesse, or lack thereof, of savory chefs when playing with pastry was one Aaron and I had often and loudly. One day, to prove his point, he handed me Paul Bertolli’s “Cooking by Hand.” That book is one beautiful way to change someone’s mind.
Bertolli, who led the kitchen at Chez Panisse during the 1980s before bringing Oliveto in Oakland, Calif., into national relevance, defined a whole generation of cooks with this book, because it was about approach, about being part of the process, about informing it from where you stand. His book was a revolution for me as I was stepping into my own way of cooking. From there, I began to blur the line between sweet and savory. I figured out how to consider my tools when I found a recipe that inspired. So it feels only fitting that, for my inaugural column, I tell you about my version of Bertolli’s blood orange cake, because it shows the story of a recipe and of my development as a chef. I learned how to take an idea and make it my own, to shape it into something that feels true to my tastes and experiences. Basic. But essential.
I made the recipe once as written. Then it took shape according to my life. I figured that any cake as good as his originally was could be better only if baked in a cast-iron skillet. Then, as I tested it a time or two again, I thought to push it once more by cutting some of the wheat flour with something nutty, maybe even toasted, like chestnut flour. You can use cornmeal or any nut flour, as this recipe calls for. I also adjusted the salt, always a key to good baking, and added some other delicate touches. This is the trademark of pastry chefs of my generation. We have been brought up in both worlds, learning the rules and then adjusting to our moment and materials, as savory chefs do. But we’ll forever be devoted to the deep comfort that only a finely tuned dessert (and Cocoa Pebbles milk straight from the bowl) can evoke.