Sunday, January 13, 2008

Instead of shoes, I bought kitchenware

When some people get their first jobs out of college, and it feels like they are making a whole lot of money, sometimes they buy extravagant things. One of my best friends bought a $400 pair of shoes. In reality, though starting salaries for college graduates are often more than what many people earn, a 22-year-old in Chicago at an entry-level job perhaps shouldn't be focusing on designer shoes.

But who am I to judge? I did the same thing, only instead of shoes, I bought kitchenware.

Picture it: Chicago, February 1998. Valentine's Day was approaching. I had met a young fellow in 1996, not long before he graduated from college. Though he seemed reluctant to be pinned down into any sort of "relationship," as many men of that age are, I had a sneaking feeling that, eventually, he was going to be around for the long haul. This fellow did become my husband -- in freaking 2005 -- so I was right, even if it did take several eons to get him under the huppa. But in February 1998, our relationship was anything but stable. We gave the phrase, "on again, off again" new meaning and poignancy.

My being a woman who loves to cook, and his being a man who loves to eat, I figured that some home-baked goodness would make him slap his forehead and proclaim, "Of course! I need this female around me!" I was just beginning to build my repertoire of favorite dishes and baked goods; I had spent my childhood watching and learning from Mom and Dad, but was just starting to translate those lessons into my own teeny tiny kitchen in Wrigleyville. Though heavy on desire and medium-weight in experience, I was very light on culinary equipment. I found a recipe that looked tasty -- a chocolate chip cake -- and headed to a gourmet kitchenware store.

The recipe called for egg whites whipped to stiff peaks. Even though I owned a hand mixer, I decided that this step had to be performed manually, in a copper bowl, so the whites could cling to the bowl and rise up the side as I incorporated air with each cardio-like whip of my right arm. An aspiring gourmand could do no less. The recipe also stated that the cake should be baked in a bundt pan, another piece of cookware I did not own. Not only did I not have the money for such purchases, but also I didn't have the space in my apartment to store non-essential cooking supplies such as copper bowls and, oh, dinner plates. Undeterred, I spent about $100 of my pathetic, desperate salary on the tools I needed. My storage solutions involved a nail in the wall next to the kitchen for the copper bowl, which, once hung, I attempted to pass off as "art." I have no idea what I did with the bundt pan; I probably kept it in the coat closet, next to the hot water heater and my luggage. (The microwave was located across the room, between my computer and the forced-air heating unit, so Lord knows where a bundt cake pan would find itself.) Financial and spatial resources be damned; I did it all happily because I was going to make a man fall in love with me based on a cake. It would all be worth it.

My aforementioned wee kitchen, which, I'm not kidding, didn't even have a drawer, was the site of my pre-meditated chocolate seduction. I do believe I injured my rotator cuff whipping the egg whites. Who cares, the result was delicious: a moist and crumbly cake that ambled down the path to Angel Food Cake-ville. Being of the semi-sweet variety, the chocolate laced throughout offered just the right levels of sweetness and bitterness. Though it took seven more years for the object of my cake plan to propose to me, I like to think that this dessert had something to do with it. At the very least, I can confirm the confection was memorable: I just asked Husband if he recalled the time I made him a chocolate chip cake and he replied with a wide-eyed, enthusiastic grin, "Absolutely I do, that was delicious! I don't remember what it was, or the circumstances around it, but I remember it was fucking great." And I quote.

Worth the effort, I would say, and worth whatever bill I skipped that month so I could own a copper bowl and cultivate a husband.


Adapted from a recipe that originally appeared in either The Chicago Tribune or The New York Times, which are the two newspapers to which I subscribed in 1998.

For the cake:

4 large egg whites

1/4 t. cream of tartar

1 1/2 c. sugar

2 1/2 c. flour

2 t. baking powder

1 1/2 t. baking soda

1 t. salt

1 1/2 c. buttermilk

1/4 c. vegetable oil

1 T. vanilla extract

1/2 c. semi-sweet mini chocolate chips, or finely-chopped chocolate chunks from a bar of your very favorite semi-sweet chocolate (I prefer the latter, as the irregular shards of chocolate make for a more surprising and interesting texture)

For the chocolate drizzle:

1/3 c. semi-sweet mini chocolate chips, or tiny chunks from your favorite semi-sweet chocolate bar (see above)

3 T. milk (I use whole, but you could probably get away with 2% -- or heavy whipping cream)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 12-cup bundt pan. With the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar. Increase speed to medium-high; beat until soft peaks form, about 3 minutes. Gradually add 1/2 cup of the sugar, beating until stiff but not dry, about 4-5 minutes. If you are a masochist, or you are really trying to impress someone who is watching you prepare this cake, feel free to whip out your copper bowl and whisk away. But I'd advocate for the motorized option over that painful method any day of the week. That way, you can enjoy a glass of wine while the KitchenAid does all the work. If you don't own both an electric mixer and a hand-held mixer, transfer the egg whites to a bowl and clean your mixer prior to the next step.

Combine the remaining 1 cup of sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl. Rather than sifting, I stir these dry ingredients with a small whisk to mix them and demolish any lurking lumps. Using a hand mixer, beat buttermilk, oil, vanilla and 1 tablespoon of the whipped egg whites into the flour mixture on medium-high speed. Mix in the chocolate bits with a spatula, then fold in the remaining egg whites in three batches. You don't have to incorporate the eggs whites completely; it's OK -- even desirable -- to leave a few ribbons of whites streaming throughout the batter. Scrape batter into the prepared pan; smooth the top.

Bake the cake until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Do not over bake! You will be rewarded with a light and fluffy texture, almost like an angel food cake. Let cool in pan on wire rack for 10 minutes. Invert onto rack; cool completely.

For the topping, melt 1/3 cup chocolate chips and milk together in small saucepan over low heat, stirring often. Have extra milk on hand; sometimes it takes a little more than 3 tablespoons to bring the melted chocolate to a nice, pourable consistency. Drizzle the topping over the cooled cake. The topping is not meant to cloak the entire cake, just provide a little extra goodness on top.

Yields 16 servings. Just enough for a hungry husband-to-be.

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