There was much anticipation for the publication last month of Ruth Reichl's first novel, Delicious! — no surprise, considering that she is one of the most acclaimed food writers of our time. Her impressive resume includes serving as restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and editor-in-chief for Gourmet magazine for 10 years, as well as writing three best-selling memoirs.
Reichl told USA Today that she was eager to try her hand at fiction, "but I wasn't sure I could do it. I wanted to try to do the hardest thing I could think of to do. It was a way to get out of my depression after the closing of Gourmet."
How successful was Reichl? Well, it depends on which review you favor. Oprah.com found the book "compulsively readable ... a delectable mix of flavor, fantasy and emotional comfort food." But the Washington Post, while calling the book amiable, with its heart in the right place, described it as "a surprisingly amateurish performance for a writer as skilled and versatile as Reichl."
The New York Times devoted two reviews to the book. The weekday assessment was harsh ("feebly written and idea-free"), meting out praise only for the one recipe in the novel: "It's a food novel that never made me hungry. Except for that recipe at the end. ... I'm going to tear that page out."
In contrast, The New York Times' Sunday book review praised the characters, the brisk plot and the extensive research. This review appeared in the paper's special summer reading issue, which seems like a good call to us — we agree that this is a book to enjoy by the pool, at the beach or on a vacation plane ride.
The story focuses on young Billie Breslin, who comes to New York City to interview for a position at a prestigious food magazine, Delicious! To get the job, Billie must cook for the editor, which sends her into a full-blown panic attack. Although we are told she is an amazing cook with a perfect palate, she has a secret phobia that keeps her out of the kitchen. (The tragic origin of this phobia is one of several mysteries to be solved.) Despite her fear, Billie is able to bake her amazing gingerbread, which lands her the job. In an email to her sister, Billie notes that the editor "had to hire me if only to get the recipe."
The sibling emails are a thread through the novel, a device to show Billie's thoughts and struggles. Her online missives also provide clues that all is not rosy in Billie's past. And, spoiler alert, the fact that her sister never emails back, or texts, or calls will probably lead you to guess a key component of what ails Billy before the book's big reveal.
Snail mail also plays a role, when Billie discovers a secret room at the magazine, housing a trove of old letters written during World War II. This fictional correspondence between unhappy 12-year-old Lulu and culinary legend James Beard is the best part of the story. Through this feisty girl, thanks to Reichl's research, we get a sense of what a challenge it was to stock the kitchen pantry during the war, requiring ingenuity and even foraging. We also learn of the widespread prejudice at that time faced by Italian Americans, to the point where spaghetti was disdained as "enemy food."
As Billie tries to learn what happened to Lulu, she goes on an actual journey as well as a metaphorical one of self-discovery. Along the way, she gets a kick-ass makeover, a mensch of a boyfriend and, finally, some spiritual healing from her demons. While no one is likely to consider Delicious! great literature, it overall is a fun read.
At the end of the book Reichl shares Billie's recipe for the job-winning gingerbread. We got you the recipe, you know, so you don't have to tear the page out of your own book.
From: Ruth Reichl, Delicious!
Makes: 1 cake
Whole black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 cup sour cream
1 ½ sticks (6 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large pieces fresh ginger root (1/4 cup, tightly packed, when finely grated)
Zest from 2 to 3 oranges (1 ½ teaspoons finely grated)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 6-cup Bundt pan. Grind your peppercorns, cloves and cardamom and measure out ¼ teaspoon of each. (You can use pre-ground spices, but the cake won't taste as good.)
2. Grind your cinnamon stick and measure out 1 teaspoon. (Again, you can use ground cinnamon if you must.) Whisk the flour with the baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt in a small bowl. In another small bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolk into the sour cream. Set aside.
3. Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer until the mixture is light, fluffy, and almost white. This should take about 3 minutes.
4. Grate the ginger root — this is a lot of ginger — and the orange zest. Add them to the butter/sugar mixture. Beat the flour mixture and the egg mixture, alternating between the two, into the butter until each addition is incorporated. The batter should be as luxurious as mousse.
5. Spoon batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 40 minutes, until cake is golden and a wooden skewer comes out clean.
6. Remove to a rack and cool in the pan for 10 minutes.
½ cup bourbon
1 ½ tablespoons sugar
1. While the cake cools in its pan, simmer the bourbon and the sugar in a small pot for about 4 minutes. It should reduce to about 1/3 cup.
2. While the cake is still in the pan, brush half the bourbon mixture onto its exposed surface (the bottom of the cake) with a pastry brush. Let the syrup soak in for a few minutes, then turn the cake out onto a rack. Gently brush the remaining mixture all over the cake.
¾ cup powdered sugar, sifted or put through a strainer
5 teaspoons orange juice
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1. Once the cake is cooled, mix the sugar with the orange juice and either drizzle the glaze randomly over the cake or put it into a squeeze bottle and do a controlled drizzle.
Excerpted from DELICIOUS! by Ruth Reichl. Copyright © 2014 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.