Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You Can Stop Looking...

Because I've found the world's greatest chocolate cake.

2 newlyweds
1 car
3 families
20 (or so) much-missed friends
6 cups Christmas spirit
stress and patience, to taste

Mix well and bake at 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 14 days.

The Setting: Brentwood, TN

The Soundtrack: familiar voices at various decibel levels, bear-hugs and air kisses

On the Stovetop: Shrimp and Grits; Cider-Glazed Roasted Goose with Sweet Potato, Parsnip, Chestnut, and Pancetta Stuffing; Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes with Giblet Gravy; Gramma's Green Beans; Hot Chocolate Layer Cake.

The Scenario: Sometime slightly before Thanksgiving I started doing Christmas reconnaissance.

"What are your plans for Christmas?" I asked my mom and my step-dad, hoping to sketch out a rough structure of their holiday expectations.

"Oh, we aren't even thinking about that yet," I was told. "We'll just be so glad to see you."

My dad expressed, unsarcastically, that he and my step-mom had no plans to speak of and would be open to seeing us whenever we could fit them in.

My husband's parents were the first to nail down a date and time for festivities. Christmas Vacation (an annual event during which we, my in-laws, and our unofficial-extended-local-family don costumes of characters from the beloved National Lampoon's movie, drink out of moose mugs, and recite favorite lines along with the actors as we watch the film) would occur Christmas night. As for the family Christmas dinner...did we have a time-preference?

After continually harassing my own mother to put forth her bids for our time (to little avail), my husband and I decided it made the most sense to spend Christmas Day with his family and Christmas Eve with my mom, a plan that we immediately relayed to all parties.

Both families seemed pleased. My dad and step-mom would happily receive us for coffee between breakfast and lunch on Christmas Day.

Everything was sorted out...or so we thought.

My mom agreed to take me grocery shopping on the 23rd in preparation for the feast I would prepare at her house the following day. Our cart piled high with sweet potatoes, chestnuts, and goose accoutrements, we weaved through the aisles, wafting Christmas spirit through the air.

"I hope you'll be able to come to Lisa's for lunch on Christmas Day," my mom smiled sweetly as I plopped a thick round of pancetta into the cart.

This was, of course, the first news I had heard of a family gathering at my aunt's house.

"Mom, you know I can't," I remained calm. "We're doing lunch and dinner with Jared's family on Christmas Day."

"But everyone will be so disappointed," she pouted.

"You had your chance to complain about the plan--or, hey, even tell me that there was another one," I gritted my teeth. "Now would be a little too late."

We parted ways in the Publix parking lot, and I promised I'd see her tomorrow for a day of cooking, feasting, and simply catching up before catching the 10 p.m. Christmas Eve service at her church.

The next morning I had plans to grab an early morning coffee with a good friend who was effectively in town for one day only. I called my mom on my way to the coffee shop to give her my timeline.

"Just wanted to let you know I'm grabbing coffee with Tracy, but I'll be at your place to start cooking between 11 and 12."

"Morgan, that is absolutely not OK. You promised me Today. All day. I already don't get to have you on Christmas Day, and now you're only giving me a half-day? This is not fair."

She told me she had expected me to show up at 8 a.m. I told her that assumptions are the great eroders of relationships.

As I wished Tracy happy holidays, slipped into my Sonata, and zoomed down Franklin Road fully caffeinated, my cell phone vibrated with a vengeance.

"I'll be there in five minutes, mom," I assured the voice on the end of the line.

"What are you thinking?" she demanded. "I thought you said people should be here at 3 to eat. You'll never be ready in time. You should have been here hours ago to start cooking. Hours ago!"

"Mother, I said I would be there between 11 and 12. It's 11:15. I will be there in four minutes."

"But you said you wanted to make marshmallows from scratch!"

Within minutes of arriving at my mom's, we had exchanged Danny Tanner-style hugs and apologies; located the KitchenAid mixer, necessary pots, pans, and ingredients; and were cranking out a Christmas dinner fit for a functional family.

Heaps of Irish cheddar and smoked Gouda melted effortlessly into a velvety mixture of butter, cream and stone-ground grits on the stove-top, and shrimp bathed in paprika-and-garlic-infused olive oil in the slow cooker.

The goose and stuffing were a cinch: boil the chestnuts, brown the pancetta, cube the parsnips, sweet potatoes and onions, add the veggies to the pancetta pan, peel and chop the chestnuts, add to pan, season with salt and pepper, stuff the bird, season the bird, roast the bird, reduce apple cider over med-high heat on stove-top, baste the bird with cider at 30 minute intervals.

The green beans were a no-brainer in the classic, country style of my grandmother: 2 cans Allen's Italian-cut green beans (well-rinsed), 3 onions (peeled and quartered), 1 pound thick-cut bacon (roughly chopped), about half-a-can of water, salt and pepper to taste. Place in a large pot over medium heat, bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for one hour or till ready to serve, but not so long that the contents of the pot break down into an indistinguishable mush.

The mashed potatoes were a Hail Mary, thrown in a last minute realization that we had no suitable starch component to play host to the gravy. Buttermilk was an ace pinch-hitter when we realized the cream was gone and our carton of milk was past its prime, and a stick of butter was a welcome addition to the team.

Jared browned giblets from the goose, coaxed every ounce of meat off the neck after a slow braise, whisked up a roux from reserved goose fat and flour, and conjured up a gravy so completely gratifying it could have been the whole meal.

And then there was the cake.

Unlike the rest of my Christmas Eve menu, which was conceived, for the most part, either during the grocery-shopping or cooking process, the Hot Chocolate Layer Cake was not my own conception.

Developed by Rebecca Rather of Rather Sweet Bakery in the Texas Hill Country, the decadent beauty was the cover picture on (and reason I purchased) the Dec 09/Jan 10 issue of Fine Cooking magazine, and I had known since November that the towering chocolate masterpiece crowned with homemade marshmallows would conclude my Christmas feast.

I also knew that with 3 1/2 hours, 7 menu items, and marshmallows to mix, set, and cut, I currently had no time to waste.

With two sous-chefs and the KitchenAid mixer in a steady whir, my chances of getting everything on the table at a reasonable time seemed fair-to-good.

I didn't have any parchment paper for lining the cake pans, but I was confident buttering and flouring would be adequate.

The batter poured like heavenly chocolate lava into the first two of the prepared pans as I beamed proudly from above. But as I began to fill the third pan, the color and consistency of the batter changed.

"Damn this Professional Series!" I ungracefully threw a fist into the air.

I had forgotten that, somehow, my mother's supposedly superior, Professional Series KitchenAid mixer lacked the thorough blending abilities of my more modest Artisan edition.

Hoping for the best, I swirled the remaining batter into submission with my spatula, scraped it into the third pan, and popped the three pans into the 350-degree oven.

I would wait, I determined, to see if the batter actually turned into cake before I wasted precious minutes on marshmallow-making.

Meanwhile, I made the frosting--if the cake imploded in the oven, I could at least call the fortified chocolate ganache a "rich chocolate mousse" and save Dessert.

Before long the batter began beckoning, sending its aromas into the atmosphere to tantalize me, and I was elated when the oven timer signaled it was time to rotate the pans.

Feeling a bit like Goldilocks, I noticed that one of the cakes was a bit too eager to rise, the batter energetically spilling over the sides, while another seemed to have done nothing at all. The third cake looked just right. I closed the oven door and crossed my fingers.

When the timer sounded 15 minutes later I found one pan of cake and two pans of chocolaty goop. A six-minute wait yielded cake number 2, but the third puddle of mud was more resistant.

Marshmallows would not be made today.

The final pan was removed from the oven not so much because it was done, but because the goose needed a warm place to roost. I set the "cake" on the counter to cool with the other two pans, but abandoned them all in favor of green beans, mashed potatoes, and cheese grits.

The meal was a hit.

Belts were loosened and seconds were scooped. I was ready to pat myself and my sous-chefs on our backs for a Christmas miracle completed, when my uncle Eric asked about a certain chocolate cake that had been promised.

"So is it actually served hot, or is it just supposed to taste like hot chocolate?" eager eaters inquired.

"Well, uh..." I ran to the kitchen in hopes of pulling a rabbit from my hat.

I removed the frosting from the freezer and whipped it into cocoa-colored peaks of perfection. I inverted one cake pan and then another, and two perfect layers of cake plopped out. The third layer was resistant.

I ran a knife along the inside edge of the pan, turned the pan upside down over waxed paper, and gave the bottom of the pan a gentle pat and then a brisk one. I heard a faint thud, and the pan cocked awkwardly to one side. I lifted the pan and uncovered my fear: the cake was in pieces, some strewn across waxed paper, some clinging steadfastly to the bottom of the pan.

Refusing to concede defeat, I spread frosting on one flawless layer and pressed the defective pieces together to form the middle layer. With another thick coating of frosting and the remaining intact layer on top, the cake looked exactly as it should. I iced the outside quickly and thickly and called my family in for dessert.

All were silent around the table as chocolate cake rapidly disappeared from plates. It was the best chocolate cake the world has ever known. And that is no hyperbole.

My mom thought the day would be a disaster when I called her that morning, and I had all but written the cake off as a failure when things looked a little shaky. We both loved being wrong.

Keep on cooking; keep on loving.

So what if your recipe gets a little messed up along the way?

You don't need homemade marshmallows to have the world's greatest chocolate cake.

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