Good food—sourcing, preparing, and eating it—is a passion close to my heart. I firmly believe in its power to nourish, heal, and bring people together. There is something about sitting across the table—eye to eye and fork to fork—that builds community and dissolves boundaries. Food is the great equalizer, and when we cook together we discover the magic that goes into a good meal.
I recently had the pleasure of attending an intimate dinner party at the San Francisco home of Chef Joanne Weir. Weir is a fourth generation professional chef whose list of accolades include James Beard award-winning cookbook author, distinguished Chez Panisse alum, producer and host of her own PBS cooking series, restaurateur, and culinary travel diva.
The invitation was extended to a small group of Bay Area bloggers to celebrate the debut of Weir’s latest cookbook, Kitchen Gypsy: Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food. We were each gifted an advance copy of the book and asked to choose a recipe to prepare as our contribution to the feast. What a cool idea!
I cozied up in my favorite chair and began perusing the pages for inspiration. Cooking for a celebrity chef is an intimidating proposition, but I found Weir’s recipes so approachable that I quickly relaxed. Kitchen Gypsy is her eighteenth in a long line of successful cookbooks, all brimming with delicious recipes. But what sets this volume apart is Weir’s deeply personal stories about her life and love of food that span from childhood to present. Her vivid recollections connect the dots along the path of her amazing culinary journey and, in turn, connect the reader to her experience.
I confess I agonized over what to make.
I finally settled on a nostalgic favorite: her great-grandmother Lettie’s Lightning Cake with Wild Strawberry Jam.
The original handwritten recipe, which is a treasured heirloom of Weir’s, is over 140 years old. I giggled as I read the accompanying passage that introduces this family matriarch. “She was an amazing baker!”, Weir’s mother told her young daughter as they chatted about old times on the wrap-around porch of her grandparent’s New England farm. But Lettie was also very stern, and photos of her depicted a tall, burly woman who “looked like a prizefighter in drag.” Her famous Lightning Cake was named for its simplicity because, “It was so quick and easy to make, it was fast like lightning.”
I love recipes that have been handed down through the generations. You can be sure those that survive have stood the test of time. This recipe called for homemade strawberry jam, so I ran outside to the garden and picked a pint of the sweetest, ripest berries I could find. I made jam that night so it would have time to properly set and chill. I knew Lettie would have approved.
Sure enough, the cake came together quick as lightning. The fragrant aroma of vanilla filled the kitchen as it cooled on the countertop. I cut the round lengthwise and slathered the bottom half with my strawberry jam before carefully replacing the remaining layer.
To finish, I laid a heart-shaped doily on top and lightly dusted the surface with powdered sugar to create a design. As an after-thought, I snipped a pink heirloom rose from my garden for garnish. I swear I could feel Lettie smile from the great beyond.
I was giddy as I climbed the stairs of Weir’s Victorian home that evening with my cake in hand. The large room was already buzzing with guests, but she welcomed me with her characteristic warmth. Dusky sunlight filtered through the windows of the flat and illuminated a large dining table, filled with our collective dinner offerings, next to an enviable display of hand-painted platters collected from travels abroad.
Giant paella pans brimming with Arroz Con Pollo, one of Weir’s signature dishes, simmered on the stove in the nearby kitchen. The intoxicating aroma wafted through the room as her capable assistant, Inken, monitored the steaming cauldrons of yellow saffron rice, Spanish olives, and chicken.
The evening officially kicked off with a brief cooking demonstration. We crowded around to watch as Weir effortlessly whipped up a crostini topping from walnuts, fresh orange juice & zest, spearmint, anchovies, and toasted fennel seeds.
The recipe, we learn, came from a wine truck purveyor in Provence. We are enchanted by her entertaining stories and I have the sense I am hanging out with a dear friend I have known for a very long time.
She reminisces about the taste of her mother’s homemade tomato sandwiches which started her love affair with food. And the time she discovered a pickled fly in her glass of Mouton Cadet rouge from Chateau Mouton Rothschild, one of the world’s foremost wineries. Disgusted, she wrapped the offending bug in tin foil and mailed it back to said winery with a note of complaint. The bold move led to an invitation for a memorable lunch in Bordeaux with two flirtatious Frenchmen that still makes her blush.
I look around the room. We are all captivated. We laugh and toast as the awkwardness among strangers vanishes in our shared camaraderie.
When dinner is ready we fill our plates and settle around the room in casual clusters. Weir makes a point of visiting with each guest, and I am amazed at her capacity to remember all our names. Her easy smile, candor, and humor make us feel at home. She is the consummate host.
After the meal we gather in the kitchen for one last demonstration. This time the recipe is a favorite from her Mexican-themed Sausalito restaurant, Copita, for Oaxacan Chocolate Milk Shakes.
Her decidedly adult rendition is an achingly rich blend of bittersweet chocolate, cream, chipotle pepper, and spice spiked with Anejo tequila. The drink is both decadent and dangerous!
Then the moment of truth arrives. It is time for dessert. I carefully slice Lettie’s Lightning Cake as the homemade jam oozes gently from within, and am delighted when Weir tells me I’ve done her great-grandma proud.
I am humbled and honored by her praise. Sweet success!
With permission, I’m pleased to share this Kitchen Gypsy recipe for LETTIES LIGHTNING CAKE with WILD STRAWBERRY JAM.
I can’t wait to discover more of the stories and recipes in Kitchen Gypsy (available now at a bookseller near you). I will long remember this evening of celebration and the remarkable Joanne Weir who continues to inspire my journey with food.