Maybe the last outdoor meal of the summer was last night. A leafy pergola, candles stuck in beer bottles, mosquitoes buzzing around. Halibut that just barely survived the drive from northern B.C. to southern Ontario, fried, with potatoes from a Mennonite farmer, perfectly spicy homemade ketchup, tangy apple cider coleslaw and some bread dotted with Caraway seeds to start. Paper plates, small glasses with different types of beer to drink. The threatening rain started to fall just when desert came out. Retreated inside, a little dazed by the sudden light, drank the strangest jam-y strawberry/rhubarb beer, the dog sleeping under the table by our feet.
Some news! I’ve started reviewing cookbooks and food literature on Bookslut (you can call me Cookbookslut, if you please!). My first column was about Filipino food and centered around Marvin Gapultos' The Adobo Road Cookbook. I had fun cooking from the book, writing about it, and I’m looking forward to putting together more of these columns in the future.
Soraya and I like to talk about cake. Last year while driving home from a long weekend roadtrip in Detroit, one of the first things I did was call to tell her about a regional cake I’d never heard of: Bumpy Cake. I knew she would be just as interested in it as I was. Bumpy Cake is fairly simple – plain chocolate baked into a rectangle, striped with vanilla buttercream lines and then coated in fudge. The buttercream lines give the cake its bumps. Ta da. I’d thought about making her a Bumpy Cake for her birthday, but somehow didn’t get around to it, although she did make me a cake for mine – a classic vanilla cake iced in chocolate. It was delicious, and even more so because there’s something about having a cake baked just for you that makes it even sweeter. But we talked about baking something more complex together, not so much for the baking part, but for the eating part. The thing is, as much as I enjoy baking, I’m very much a one-bowl kind of baker. If we were going to attempt something complex, we would have to bring someone else in.
Emily is one of the funnest people I know and definitely the most hardcore baker. She churns out deserts like it’s no big thing . Recently for a friend’s baby shower, she baked a series of deserts around the theme of children’s books – cupcakes that formed the Hungry Caterpillar, shortbread cookies with EAT ME stamped on them a la Alice in Wonderland, little Horton Hears a Who-pie pies. We had talked about baking something together for years and had somehow never gotten around to it.
A few weeks ago, despite the fact that the city was in the throes of a heat wave, I’d decided the complex cake baking moment had arrived. I emailed both Soraya and Emily and asked if they wanted to attempt making a Momofuku Milk Bar cake. They wrote back almost immediately and the game was on.
Momofuku opened a Noodle Bar in Toronto last fall. I’ve been twice, and while I can’t say I had the best ramen ever, I don’t think I know what qualifies as the best ramen ever. I enjoyed it enough, the pork buns were amazing, the beer was overpriced and on my first visit, after sampling a few dishes between two of us, we dropped $70 for a meal that lasted about 30 minutes. Was it worth it? I’m not sure, but at a certain point you’re paying for a brand, and I’m fascinated by how David Chang has branded Momofuku so well. They do the high/low thing perfectly; they are McSweeney’s level cool with Lucky Peach; they are David Simon level cool with David Chang’s role on Treme. And if you don’t care so much about the savoury stuff, you have Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar. There’s a kind of stoner genius to the Milk Bar deserts – a consistent salty/sweet crunchy/smooth dichotomy, the insistence on certain synthetic ingredients to replicate very specific flavor profiles, a good dose of nostalgia.
Toronto didn’t have a Milk Bar, which is why I figured we should make something ourselves, although the day we chose to bake our cake one coincidentally opened here in town. We took it as a good omen and proceeded with our baking date. We were going to make the Birthday Cake.