The first episode of “Food with Mark Bittman” is here, featuring the one and only Ms. Lawson
ICYMI: Nigella Lawson is as smart and charming as you think she is. Below you’ll find we’ve excerpted some bits from my conversation with her (plus her recipe for Toasted Marshmallow and Rhubarb Cake, which takes some time but looks incredible). The interview is the first episode of my new podcast, “Food with Mark Bittman.” If you’re so inclined: Listen, subscribe, leave a review on Apple. And if you have a question about food — any question about food — ask us on 833-FOODPOD. We’ll be choosing a few to answer during each episode.
On eating during Covid:
“For the first two weeks, I didn’t want to eat a vegetable. I didn’t want to eat meat or fish either. Really, I only wanted carbs. I felt very in need of a blanket at all times. I would have a baked potato with olive oil – really good olive oil – and Maldon salt and pepper for lunch, and in the evening I’d have rice or pasta, and then afterward I’d eat chocolate. And that was about it. There were two weeks of that. Occasionally I’d eat potato chips.”
On her distaste for the term “guilty pleasures”:
In her latest book, Cook, Eat, Repeat, Lawson writes, “No one should feel guilty about what they eat, or the pleasure that they get from eating; the only thing to feel guilty about, and even then I don’t recommend it, is the failure to be grateful of that privilege.” Plus, she told me during our chat, the reason I, Mark, haven’t thought as much about how irritating the guilty pleasures question is due to the fact that it’s “a term women are asked more often than men, because women’s intake is policed more than men’s, and guilty pleasures to a women normally have the subtext ‘you should be on a diet.’” And, she says, “I think a lot of snobbery and class consciousness comes into this discussion of guilty pleasures as well, because it is often people want to deflect attention away from sometimes eating something they feel hasn’t got, you know, chic status.”
On being called a celebrity chef:
“I’m not even a cook. I’m a food writer, essentially. I cook at home … I’ve been cooking for most of my life, certainly since I was a fairly small child. So I’m experienced as a cook, but anyone who sees me on television knows I don’t have any knife skills. And there are things I don’t know. I just cook ‘cause I cook.”
Toasted Marshmallow and Rhubarb Cake
Serves: 8 to 12 slices
This is a relatively new addition to my rhubarb repertoire, but it has been heavily in rotation ever since I ﬁrst made it nearly two years ago. Anyone who has a birthday when the hothouse pink rhubarb is in season gets it (and I do even have alternatives for those dim days when it isn’t, and I’ll get to them later). It is splendidly celebratory, but not dauntingly difficult. You need a bit of elbow grease and a blowtorch; I can’t tell you how much I enjoy teasing out the snowy spikes of marshmallow-meringue and then scorching them. Actually, I positively exult in it: the very act of making this feels like a jubilant part of the celebration itself. And I thank cake consigliere Stella Parks, who, in the pages of her compendious BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, provided the hand-holding inspiration for the marshmallow frosting.
You do need to be prepared to whisk the whites until truly thick, but if you have an electric hand mixer, this does most of the work. The yolks are used to make two tender and celestially light golden sponges, and the rhubarb that goes between them provides its emphatic tang, offsetting the intense sweetness of the marshmallow frosting. Out of hothouse-rhubarb season, I favor a mixture of raspberries and red currants: 2 cups of the former and ⅔ cup of the latter. I put them into a small saucepan with 1 tablespoon each of granulated sugar, undiluted elderﬂower syrup and water, and warm them over low heat with a lid on for 3 minutes, or until the juices start to run, then give them 2 minutes with the lid off, before transferring them to a dish to cool. If you want to use just raspberries, straight from the package, uncooked, you may, and you won’t need many, but you should mash some with a fork—leaving a generous handful whole—before topping the marshmallow layer that sandwiches the cake with them. When I make the original rhubarb version, I like to bring a bowl of roasted rhubarb or rhubarb compote, however you like to think of it, to the table for people to spoon onto their cake plate, but I don’t regard it as obligatory; when I do the raspberry version, I regard extra berries on serving as non-negotiable.
While I have made the cake in its entirety the evening before when there has been no alternative, I prefer not to. The frosting certainly keeps the cake airtight, but the potential for drippage and slippage overnight is just too tense-making. I haven’t had any disasters yet, but feel it’s only fair to warn you that it is a risk. The cakes, on their own, if made in advance will become both too dry and too frangible.
It’s not for me to tell you how to do your birthday candles, should you be making this for just such a celebration, but I favor a single black candle stuck into a plain white holder. It’s hard to make birthday candles chic—and I’m not saying they should be—but this does it; besides, there is no point interfering with the sumptuous vulgarity of the cake itself.
One last—important—comment: since you will be blowtorching this cake, it is imperative that the cake stand you put it on is heatproof.
For the rhubarb layer:
14 ounces (400g) pink hothouse rhubarb (trimmed weight)
1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
For the cake:
6 large eggs, at room temperature
7 tablespoons (100g) whole milk, at room temperature
2 tablespoons (25g) cornstarch
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon (100g) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
3/4 cup (150g) superfine sugar
2/3 cup (140g) vegetable oil, plus more for greasing
For the frosting:
6 egg whites, from eggs above
1¾ cups (350g) superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar or
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Start by cooking the rhubarb. Heat the oven to 400°F. Cut the trimmed rhubarb ribs into 2-inch lengths if slender, 1-inch if chunky. Put into an ovenproof dish in which they will be able more or less to sit in a single layer—I use an 8 x 10 inch Pyrex dish—and sprinkle over the 1/2 cup (100g) of granulated sugar. Mix together with your hands, leaving the rhubarb in a single layer, as much as possible, then cover the dish with foil, sealing the edges well, and cook in the oven for approx. 30 minutes until the rhubarb is tender, but still holding its shape.
2. Remove the foil, and leave the dish of rhubarb out on the countertop, watching it glow ever more pink as it cools. Turn the oven down to 325°F. Line the bottoms of two 8-inch cake pans with parchment paper, and lightly grease the sides.
3. Separate the eggs, dropping the whites into a large mixing bowl or bowl of a freestanding mixer (whichever bowl you’re using should be thoroughly washed and grease-free) and the yolks into another. Cover the bowl of whites with food wrap, and put to one side while you mix and bake the cake.
4. Finely grate the zest of the lemon and add to the bowl of yolks. Measure out the milk, juice the lemon, and add 2 tablespoons of juice to the milk, and leave to stand for a moment. Mix together the cornstarch, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and set this aside for now, too.
5. Add the 3/4 cup (150g) of superfine sugar and the oil to the yolks and whisk on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, by which time the mixture will be rich, gleaming and billowy. Actually, it looks rather like a glorious mayonnaise.
6. Still whisking, but slightly more slowly now, gently pour and scrape in the now curdled milk and, once it’s in, carry on whisking until combined; the mixture looks like custard at this stage. Finally, whisking more gently now, gradually spoon in the dry ingredients. Once in, use a spatula to scrape down the sides, and fold everything gently together, before dividing the airy mixture between the prepared pans.
7. Bake for 20–25 minutes, by which time the cakes will have risen up extravagantly, the tops a golden brown; they will feel soft and puffy to the touch, but a cake tester should come out clean. Remove to a wire rack and let the cakes cool in their tins for 15 minutes—sinking a little as they do so—before very carefully turning out. You’ll need to loosen the edges with a small offset spatula first. These are tender sponges, so don’t rush or be rough. Once unmolded, gently pull back and remove the lining papers straightaway.
8. When the cakes are completely, completely cold—which will take about an hour—you can get on with the frosting. But first, tear off four strips of parchment paper, scrunch them, then unscrunch them and lay them flat to make the outline of a square on top of a cake stand. (This is to stop you covering the cake stand with sticky marshmallow frosting later. It may sound a faff, but I wouldn’t advise you to leave out this step.) Put one of the cakes on it, top-side down, the paper strips under the edges. Also, now’s the time to lift the rhubarb pieces out of their syrup in the dish and on to a plate.
9. So, to the frosting: get out a tall saucepan that you can sit your big bowl o’ whites on (without the bottom of the bowl touching the water) and heat a little water in it until just about to come to a simmer. Mix the 1¾ cups (350g) of superfine sugar, the salt, and the cream of tartar (or lemon juice) together and add to the egg whites. Then sit the mixing bowl on top of the pan, so it’s gently warmed by the barely simmering water underneath and, just using a balloon whisk (thoroughly washed and grease-free, again), keep whisking for 3 minutes, to dissolve the sugar. I couldn’t say this is hard to do, but you can really feel it in your forearm. I’m always grateful when my 3-minute timer goes off.
10. Once the sugar has dissolved and you have a smooth opaque mixture that’s warm to the touch, remove the bowl from the saucepan. Whisk at high speed for 5 minutes in a freestanding mixer, or for 6–7 minutes if using an electric hand mixer, by which time the whites will be very, very thick and ludicrously voluminous. Whisk in 1 teaspoon of the vanilla extract, and when it’s incorporated, whisk in the remaining teaspoon, then give a good fold by hand to make sure every bit is mixed in.
11. Dollop a generous amount of marshmallow frosting on to the waiting cake, and smooth right to the edges, so that you have a layer about ½-inch thick: this should use about a quarter of the frosting. Cover this with the rhubarb, though leave about ¼-inch perimeter around the edge; I go slowly here, using a couple of soup spoons to ferry the rhubarb to the cake. And you might want to tilt the rhubarb plate away from you slightly as you transfer the slices, to make sure you leave any pooling liquid behind.
12. Top with the second cake, right way up, and use just under half the frosting left in the bowl to cover the top, going just beyond the edges. Then carefully spread the rest of the frosting thickly around the sides — leaving a tiny bit in the mixing bowl — until the whole cake is completely covered. Now for the really fun part: dip your fingers in the bit of frosting left in the bowl and then dab the top and sides of the cake, lightly pulling up and teasing out spikes of marshmallow frosting; I feel like an ’80s hairdresser doing this. Bear in mind that sometimes, as you do the sides, you will pull bits of the frosting off, leaving a hole, but don’t panic, just pat it back on. Gently pull out the strips of paper from beneath the cake and discard, then seal the bottom of the cake with any remaining frosting should you need to. Then, slightly dampen a piece of paper towel with cold water, and rub off any stray bits of frosting or sugar smear from the plate.
13. Take the cake somewhere you can kindle fire safely. Light a blowtorch and, holding it fairly near the cake and with not too timorous a flame, toast the top and the sides of the frosting.
14. I find this cake easiest to slice if left to stand for a couple of hours before serving. And you need to slice generously, as with all layer cakes.
— Recipe from Cook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes, and Stories by Nigella Lawson. Copyright 2021 Nigella Lawson. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.