The air was thick with ash and smoke as more than 100 wildfires burned through areas close to Portland this past September.
It felt apocalyptic, and I was thrilled to have the distraction of a gig, catering a small reception for two women that had recently gotten married.
I drove up up up into the North Hills and pulled into the empty carport. I grabbed two bags of food from my trunk and rang the bell. A handsome man with coiffed hair, a snug tank top, and tailored trousers met me at the door. He was on the phone but waved me forward.
“Are you the caterer? Come on in.”
My first thought was that the women had rented an Airbnb for the night. It’s a fairly common occurrence these days for people wanting to throw a private party but not wanting to host it in their own home. Also, there was no way a real person lived full-time in a house this immaculate.
I imagined the ladies were paying a pretty penny for the rental too because it was a beautiful, well-appointed house with large, open rooms, a refrigerator you could land a plane in, and dueling ovens; a Wolf oven with an induction cooktop and a Gaggenau wall oven. I set my bags down on the floor of the spotless kitchen and stared out the bank of windows leading to the wrap-around deck. On a clear day, that was a million-dollar view. But on this day, it was just a wall of pewter-colored ash cloud.
I returned to my car for the rest of my equipment, when I saw the “please remove your shoes” sign next to the front door and the handsome man only a few feet away looking very disappointed.
“Oh, wow, I’m sorry. I didn’t see that before. Let me just grab the last things from my car, and I’ll take my shoes right off.”
I hate to cook in no-shoe houses. It’s dangerous, in fact. Socks can be slippery on wet floors and offer no protection from hot, heavy, or sharp things falling on your feet. Granted, I’ve never dropped a flaming 30-pound knife while cooking, but I probably would if I wasn’t properly protected.
Rules are rules though, and handsomeman looked unwavering.
Now, I don’t have a lot of socks with holes in them. I used to when I was younger, sure, but then you learn that you’re not ever going to darn the damn things (even if Francis’ mom always did) and it’s just easier to buy cheap socks in bulk and toss them when holes appear. Yes, I suppose that’s wasteful because there are millions of suffering people with cold toes and no socks at all and here I am tossing mine because of a little hole, but that’s how I am. Judge me if you must.
No holes, that’s my motto, which is why I was startled to discover an impressive gap in the bottom of my right sock. Luckily, it was in a place I could hide. It wasn’t like my crimson-lacquered toes were poking out of my black socks, calling attention to themselves with every step I took. I would have to adopt that Japanese Geisha slide-walk for this fancy dinner service. When we spoke on the phone, the brides didn’t want the meal to seem too formal, so they didn’t hire a server. It would just be me and my holey sock against nine guests expecting the best.
Handsomeman was back on the phone, so my secret stayed my own.
I glided back into the kitchen and started to organize my prep area.
The meal would start with two appetizers: rosemary baguette crostini with a carrot and white bean puree, fresh thyme and a balsamic reduction drizzled on top and a vegan potato, fennel, and spinach samosa with a slightly spicy mango chutney. They would then sit to an arugula salad waiting for them, with grilled figs, goat cheese, and a red pepper vinaigrette. The meal would continue with a plated serving of seared harissa seasoned rockfish atop a carrot puree with a sprinkling of cubed, gingered beets. They would have platters of haricots verts with miso lime sauce and Mediterranean-spiced roasted root vegetables with a minty yogurt sauce to pass at the table. The dinner would conclude with my famous flourless chocolate cake topped with vanilla cream and fresh berries. It was a meal with a lot of bold flavors that welcomed fall while utilizing the end of the summer harvest.
Handsomeman returned to the kitchen.
“You can see we don’t cook much. We’re vegans and mostly use the kitchen to reheat restaurant food. We use the ovens occasionally to cook our favorite frozen vegan pizzas.”
What I wanted to reply was, ‘Oh my god, I thought this was a rental! You live here? It’s like a showroom! Why in the world would someone who doesn’t cook own a kitchen with two ovens and a double-wide fridge??’
What I actually said was, “You have a lovely home. I’m honored to have the opportunity to cook in such a beautiful kitchen,” which was also true.
He seemed pleased with that and left to take another phone call.
I was thinking about vegans who eat fish and eggs as I unpacked my serving platters. I lined them up on the massive marble continent that was the kitchen island, taking note of where I would plate the more acidic items on the menu so as not to stain the stone. I thought I might ask for a protective towel to lay on the marble when handsomeman reappeared from the stairs.
“Do you like music, Alison?”
“Oh sure, sir. Sounds great.”
“What kind of music do you like?”
I went blank. Seriously, I could think of no music I’d ever enjoyed a day in my life. Nothing.
“I’m easy. I like everything. Just play what you usually do.”
He wasn’t having that though.
“No, honestly, tell me what you listen to.” He was in the kitchen now and looked at me up and down, up and down. Maybe my bright burgundy hair topped by the pork pie hat intrigued him. “You like punk music?” He said it with emphasis, like a challenge.
Now my stomach was clenching.
He was trying to impress me I think, by being up for anything that I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to listen to music, I just wanted to cook, but he wouldn’t let it go.
“Sure. Or…” searching… searching my mind for something that made sense, “… like… alternative music?”
In retrospect, my tangled brain was trying to come up with something playful like 80’s alt-pop silliness that everyone loves deep at heart. I was thinking, “Come on, Eileen” or “Don’t You Want Me?” or “Mickey.” But I couldn’t find those song names, and I just gave him what he wanted, which was for me to be the alt-girl listening to alt music in his very not alt world.
“Alexa! Play alternative music,” and his little Amazon voice-commanded wireless slave leaped loudly into “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“Oh god,” is what I thought but did not say.
What I said was, “Oh wow you have Alexa! And she’s played us some Nirvana! Excellent. Thank you,” and turned back to my prep. Handsomeman was satisfied with himself and headed back upstairs.
I honestly don’t care about music when I cook. I mean, maybe when I’m leisurely making dinner for Francis and myself, it’s nice to listen to something soothing. I like to listen to The Beatles if I’m making breakfast and something fun if I’m just cooking for pleasure, but I mostly listen to podcasts when I’m cooking all day long. I need my head on my shoulders when I’m catering, and music can be distracting. It’s like a glass of wine. Some people can’t even think of cooking without one. Not me, though. All I need is the food to keep me entertained.
Alexa prefers 90’s alt music, so she hit me with some Pearl Jam next. Then some Stone Temple Pilots. Then Green Day and I laughed. It was the least alternative grouping of alternative music I’d ever heard.
And that’s when she stormed down the stairs.
“WHAT. IS. THIS?!?!”
It was Mrs. Handsomeman in head-to-toe Lululemon and she was pissed.
“ALEXA, PLAY COLDPLAY!!!”
I started to explain that it was a setup and that I didn’t really want to listen to this music, but I couldn’t think of anything better to suggest, and her husband clearly wanted to impress me with his alternative flexibility and a million other things. It was pointless though, and I just kept quiet. She looked me up and down, up and down, squinting.
“That music is much too hard,” she scolded and then spun on her heel and headed back upstairs.
Coldplay. Gotta remember Coldplay is always the right answer to the music question. It’s so white and easy. Handsome Chris Martin, making middle-aged women feel excited and safe at the same time. Note to self; Coldplay.
All was forgiven or at least forgotten within the hour as guests arrived and the party got going. I learned that Mrs. Handsomeman was one of the bride’s cousins and had not been at their small wedding at City Hall. After hors d’oeuvres, one of the brides surprised the other with an impromptu recreation of their wedding ceremony. Standing behind the kitchen island, I had a front-row seat to the stunning and simple service. Alt girl got a little choked up even. Then they played “Let’s Go Crazy” and danced wildly, as though they’d just discovered their bodies could move.
Prince! That’s what I should have told Alexa to play! I have so much to learn.
The group finally sat for the meal which they devoured joyously. They had transformed, like my customers often do, from strangers into my unexpected, randomly found-through-web searches, clientfamily. I would probably never see them again, but we would always have this night with these laughs, those tears, and this food. It really is an honor to share some of the biggest nights in the lives of strangers.
I was bringing the last of the empty plates to the kitchen when handsomeman came to help.
“Alison! That was extraordinary! I’ve never tasted anything like that! Those potatoes! The green beans! And that fish! You know you can cook when even the kids clean their plates!”
I was riding high on the success of the meal, a little giddy from low blood sugar, and smiling wider than normal.
“I was worried about them because I know a lot of kids are sensitive about beets. I’m thrilled they liked it.”
He replied, “Oh they love beets! I didn’t even know that’s what they were. I thought they were raisins! We can’t thank you enough. This was a magical night!” And he leaned in to hug me.
He thought my carefully cubed gingered beets were raisins.
And though my devil chef brain was tempted to judge my handsome fish-eating-vegan-frozen-pizza-loving patron, I just let it slide. As long as he enjoyed his meal, he can call my beets whatever he likes.
I guess I’ve become a soft-alt girl in my old age. I wonder what Alexa would play for me now?
So here is my recipe for flourless chocolate cake. I can officially say I’ve made this cake more than any other dessert I make and every single time I get raves. It’s based on the Cook’s Illustrated flourless chocolate cake, with a few alterations.
Enjoy it with your family and friends—even if they’re strangers!
And please, have a safe and jubilant holiday season.
Flourless Chocolate Cake
- 8 cold eggs
- ½ pound 60% bittersweet chocolate, cut into chunks
- ½ pound semisweet chocolate, cut into chunks
- ½ pound unsalted butter, cut into chunks
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put a large kettle of water on to boil.
- Line an 8-inch springform pan with parchment and grease the sides. Cover the bottom of the pan with foil and set in a large roasting pan.
- In a medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs with a hand mixer until they’ve doubled in volume, about 5 minutes. I’ve found a hand mixer works better than a kitchen aid mixer, but if that’s all you have, use the whip attachment and beat on high speed until the eggs have doubled.
- Heat a few inches of water in a pot to a gentle simmer. Set a large stainless bowl over the pot to create a double boiler. Melt the chocolate and the butter together in the bowl, stirring occasionally and making sure the water in the pot never comes to a boil. Stir in the sugar and the vanilla as the chocolate melts slowly.
- Remove the bowl from the heat and gently fold in a third of the foamy eggs. When the color of the mixture seems consistent and not streaked with eggs or chocolate, fold in the second third of eggs. Repeat until blended and streak-free.
- Pour into prepared springform pan set in roasting pan and place on a rack in the oven. Pour the boiling water into the roasting pan to create a water bath halfway up the outside of the springform pan.
- Bake for 30 minutes. The cake will seem loose, but that’s ok. It’ll set up, I promise.
- Carefully, take the springform pan out of the water bath and let cool at room temperature. Then set in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours, or preferably overnight.
- Gently slide a warm knife around the inner edge of the springform pan to release the cake. Open the sides of the pan and gently flip into a parchment covered plate. Peel the parchment bottom off and then flip it back over onto your serving platter. Decorate with berries, whipped cream, and/ or powdered sugar.