We’re keeping it short and sweet this week, folks, which is coincidentally also the way I like this drink.
A few weeks ago, Joe Wicks was the guest on Off Menu, a podcast I listen to where two comedians ask their guests what their dream meal would be, course by course. Joe was delightful because he’s known in the UK as the pandemic fitness instructor guy and all he chose to eat was burgers, fries, cheese, and alcohol, which I deeply respect and which is super realistic.
Also, he and his daughter like to make what’s known in their household as an “early gin-ton” (gin and tonic at or before 5pm). His daughter’s a toddler, so she’s just getting ton and lime, but I love the idea of an early gin-ton for starting your evening off right. Earlier the better, in the summertime.
It’s ten thousand degrees outside, every part of you is drenched in sweat, and, like a dog or a performing seal, you need a treat in order to perform whatever new task is expected of you.
You need a good treat.
Not a low-fat smoothie or a Diet Tab or God forbid a protein shake. You need something delicious with enough pow and zap to launch your dilapidated meat corpse into whatever the next activity of the day is.
Hopefully there’s air conditioning. But even if there’s not? There’s iced coffee.
I’ve been dreaming about outdoor patio lunches, about fancy white tablecloths and club sandwiches that come wrapped in paper napkins, about standing outside a taco truck shoveling carnitas drenched in hot green salsa and crisp white onions and fresh lime juice into my face at 2AM.
I’ve been fantasizing about giant fuck-off Cobb salads served with a haystack of herby, cheesy skinny fries for the table, and barbecue stands handing out waxed-paper cartons filled with towering piles of smoky, sticky brisket. And a pickle on the side.
I’ve been thinking about sitting on the hood of the car outside the Dairy Queen at dusk, eating a chocolate dipped cone and talking about nothing and watching the thunderclouds roll in. I’ve been meditating on hot dogs.
I’m deep in Summer Outdoor Food Nostalgia, is what it is. We’ll be diving deep into this fantasy-based cooking in the coming weeks. Get ready for cherry pie, and pulled pork, and breakfast burritos and maybe donuts? And limeade and chicken shawarma and really good cold sandwiches for when it’s too hot to even think about turning on a burner on the stove, much less the oven.
A summertime eatin’-stuff moodboard: drive-thrus, puddin pie, Ferris Bueller, Brad Pitt eating in every scene of Ocean’s 11, fresh cherries, Corny the Sweetcorn at the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival, who is a known associate of this blog.
But you’re not getting through any of the above without a drink. Good, cold drinks are the cornerstone of summer eating: horchata, iced coffee, lemonade, milkshakes. The ever-wonderful movie theater Coke, which is essentially syrup poured over a mountain of crushed ice. Ideal.
Sweet Tea is movie theater Coke’s mellower cousin – you can control the sweetness at the beginning, with how much honey you put in, and at the end, with how much ice you serve it with.
At its best, cooking is a magic trick. Clearly you can make something amazing with a beautiful, organic, lovingly massaged pork butt, but using fancy raw materials means everyone expects mind-blowing results. It’s so much more satisfying when you start with something unprepossessing. If you’re a magician making a tiger jump through a flaming hoop, it’s way better if you know that tiger started life as two raw, jelloid egg whites in a metal bowl.
Luckily for all of us, two egg whites and half a cup of sugar will net you almost two dozen startlingly chic little pure-white light-as-air cookies with all of the natural architectural sophistication of the majestic iceberg. You don’t even have to pipe anything.
What can I say about cupcakes: They are small cups of cake. By now everyone knows that cupcakes, like donuts, have been absolutely done to death: filled, topped, swirled, glazed, drizzled, sprinkled.
I, for one, am over it. They’re only small cakes, Darryl, they can’t be expected to carry all that extra foofaraw and still taste good. If you want to make six caramels, a streusel, and a swirled marshmallow filling, you totally should do that, but you should do it Somewhere Else.
What I want is a small buttery cake with a lively, fresh icing, about the size of the cup of very good tea. That’s it. Make Cupcakes About Cake Again 2021.
Were you ever kind of jealous of the boy in Matilda who had to eat an entire chocolate cake with his hands in front of the whole school as a punishment? I know I was.
I used to take every chocolate option at the sundae bar – ice cream, sauce, M&Ms, even chocolate sprinkles. Chocolate sprinkles: what sadist thought those up? You’re just gonna make these things brown and pretend it’s chocolate? Are you kidding me?
Making Stuff Brown and Pretending it’s Chocolate: The Story of All Chocolate Cake Everywhere. You can’t stop me now, I’m already up on my soapbox.
The dominant cultural narrative is that chocolate cake is the best, the richest, the most decadent. Restaurants are selling huge slabs of Seven-Layer Death By Chocolate Devil’s Food Indulgence cake, with ganache filling the approximate taste and texture of brown shoe polish. I have seen grown adults take dry little square nubs of brownie from the spread in the breakroom, just to feel something during an all-day meeting, even if that “something” is disappointment. (It was me, I took the Sadness Brownie.) Red velvet cake was a trend: that only happens in a culture deeply divorced from what actual chocolate should taste like.*
Think about the chocolate cakes that you like best. Answers on the board, please, Family Feud style:
Flourless chocolate cake
Chocolate lava cake
Some kind of cream cheese brownie situation?
Flourless chocolate cake is just a mousse on steroids, and I’m not mad at that, but it doesn’t count. My grandad makes a chocolate whiskey gateau that’s essentially a large creamy slab of alcoholic truffle filling, with ladies’ fingers stuck on the outside for modesty’s sake. Is it perfect? Yes. Is it cake? Uhhhh…
Chocolate lava cakes – or fondant cakes as they’re called here – only work because you get the tender comfort of cake wrapped around the gooey richness of a chocolate fudge sauce. They’re hot, they’re tasty, and they’re disqualified: you can’t defend chocolate cake when your favorite kind is 70% sauce.
Cream cheese brownies are amazing, but 1. Brownies aren’t cake and 2. They’re good because of the contrast (we’ll be coming back to that).
It makes sense! The essence of chocolate, which is rich, luxurious intensity, is diluted by the essence of cake, which is light, tender delicacy. This relationship is just doomed to fail. These two love each other too hard and their child… sucks. There’s a reason the best brownie recipe in the world only calls for ¼ cup of flour.
But why were we promised a perfect chocolate cake that just doesn’t exist? Where does that leave us? Where is the rich, dark, soil-damp chocolate cake of our Augustus Gloop dreams?
Well. Are we having fun yet? This week I feel, more than usual, like a bug smashed on the windshield of world events.
Usually the cure for stress is to take a bath or read a book on the couch. But sometimes all you want to do is whip your phone at the wall like a dodgeball, which is when you have to get up and take a walk.
Kierkegaard says there’s no bad mood a long walk can’t cure, and I also say this. Some weeks, though, you can’t go anywhere. Some weeks you get bee-booped by the government on your COVID app and you have to self-isolate for 14 days (I’m fine, we’re fine, everything’s fine.)
So you find yourself wearing an apron over a nightgown over a hoodie over a different nightgown and thinking, “Yeah! This is what people wear! Let’s make some brioche.”
Sometimes you freak yourself out, and you don’t even know you’re doing it. You’re going along, doing all the right things, going for walks and doing yoga and eating vegetables and it’s all fine, and then you go into a crowded corner store (that WASN’T crowded when you went in but then like 8 people showed up out of nowhere and the owner guy isn’t wearing a mask and oh God) and your whole equilibrium is fucked.
Other times, there’s a violent insurrection/coup attempt in the city where your sister lives and works and which is also the seat of your government. Cool.
There is a particular cake I turn to when everything is fucked, when your plans aren’t going according to plan. When you need both a pick-me-up and a sit-me-down. Meet coffee walnut cake.
There’s a phenomenon in British weather that I like to call “the swirly”, where a storm will come in over the Atlantic, hang out for a few days, shimmy over to France, bounce off of Norway, and come back for round two a couple days later.
I now get why small talk about the weather is a thing here. In Chicago, as unpleasant as it might get, at least you can look at Colorado and brace yourself for tomorrow. And it’s not gonna then rebound off of Pittsburgh and come back as its own sequel.
This week’s dunk in the metaphorical weather toilet MIGHT just bring us snow tomorrow, but today it’s just this:
That’s why my work-from-home setup looks like this:
This is the best hot chocolate I know how to make. Believe me when I tell you you don’t need a trendy hot chocolate bomb or a flashy pre-made mix.