Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Easygoing Epicure

Gail Monaghan heading up a class.

by Daniel Cappello

There are countless reasons to cheer for Gail Monaghan, but this November gives us one in particular: the publication of her latest book, “Lost Desserts” (Rizzoli). Monaghan’s book is subtitled “Delicious Indulgences of the Past,” and it is just that—delicious and indulgent—but the most appealing ingredient in the hoopla surrounding “Lost Desserts” is Gail herself.

Monaghan is an attractive middle-aged woman with a gorgeous head of chestnut hair, an enviably thin figure, and a personality that can only be described as “original.” Born in Manhattan and raised in Beverly Hills, she studied Art History at Wellesley before embarking on an adventurous life lived from Cambridge to Europe to New York. She is a professional chef, having graduated in 1991 from Peter Kump (now called the Institute of Culinary Education), and the former owner of two successful design businesses (one in wholesale hand-painted needlepoint, the other a handbag venture).

Gail Monaghan.
Her culinary credits include crafting cookies for Dean & Deluca; creating and baking the scone selection for the former tea room at Felissimo, on 56th Street; heading a cookbook division for Harry N. Abrams; authoring the cookbooks “Perfect Picnics for All Seasons” and “Some Like It Hot” (Abbeville); and writing about food for such magazines as Oprah and Food and Wine.

She began to teach cooking classes out of her West Village apartment ten years ago, then moved them into her new residence, which is situated between Madison Square and Gramercy Parks. She has taught classes in Bordeaux, at Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, and in Cahors, with the Pebeyre family, of truffle fame. Her proudest accomplishments are her two daughters, Tess Monaghan and Kate Monaghan.

I first met Gail several years ago, shortly after a friend asked me very casually whether I cooked. “In theory,” I said, “I love to cook.” Well, then, I was told, I had to go to cooking class with him sometime. The problem with cooking in New York, however, is that few of us have the time to devote to it, especially when eating out (or ordering in) is such a convenient (and often cheaper) option. Gail’s class, I was assured, would change that for me, and would make me want to host dinner parties again.

“Cooking Class” can sound a bit daunting. Cooking class in New York can sound even more daunting. Knowing how focussed and fierce New Yorkers can be, I could only imagine what aspiring cooks in Gotham would be like in a formal setting. I was picturing men and women with determined faces, professional-quality chef hats, Cordon Bleu-embossed aprons, and knife sets wrapped in imported-leather satchels. Gail allayed any of my fears on first meeting her.

I rang the buzzer of her midtown apartment, rode the elevator several stories up, and was personally greeted by her when I stepped into the entrance of her expansive loft. “Oh, hi, honey,” she said, with a wide, unbending smile that didn’t move as she spoke through her teeth, “You must be Daniel.” Without stopping for breath, she went on, “And you’re late.” She said it with the familiar assurance of a mother who’s glad you made it for dinner, but who won’t let you forget that you missed saying Grace.
Clockwise from top left: A tray of ingredients; Gail preparing (2); Gail’s Mexican cole slaw.
Class with Gail is rather casual; it’s relaxed, and relaxing, and informally structured: a group of ten to twelve people gathers around Gail’s outsize kitchen island (after her divorce, she purchased the modern-design maven Murray Moss’s loft in 2004; Moss had laid out but never used the kitchen, so Gail inherited a showroom-perfect space in which to cook and teach).

Gail hands out recipe sheets for a three-course meal, runs through the preparation process, then plunges into the meal, calling on students to help chop here, dice there, sauté here, slice there. You can do as much or as little as you like. There have been classes where students are so eager to roll up their sleeves and slice carrots that they have had to vie for Gail’s attention, like class pets in the second grade (her response: “People, I mean, who knew you’d want to julienne like this?”), and classes where practically no one helps but where everyone opens a bottle of wine and socializes (her response: “People! Is anyone paying attention? Or am I standing here alooone?”).

Chicken paillards.
Gail keeps a sterling silver bell, inherited from her mother, at her side at all times. When the class gets too noisy or out of control (or if her voice is suffering from a class earlier in the week), she’ll ring the bell and bring everyone back to, say, the cassole pot.

In the course of her instruction, Gail blazes through the kitchen with her easygoing style, shouting things out, flambéing, cutting through bone and meat, and, as we all look forward to, losing her train of thought in long narratives about food and her memories of meals past. She is friends with some of the greatest chefs of the world, and will sometimes impart their cooking secrets on us. She invites questions, and isn’t shy about giving her opinion about the way to prepare foods.

Her recipes are elaborate but manageable, and not terribly difficult to recreate at home (I have been saved on many entertaining occasions by whipping up a fancy dessert, like Fané, and serving it with champagne, to my guests’ awe). Meals are often inspired by her frequent travels across the globe; the stories behind the meals—like her lunch at a “garden folly” in Tangiers, or dinner at her friend the Comtesse de Vogüé’s château, Vaux-Le-Vicomte—are alone worth the class fee. To be sure, Gail is a gourmand, but there is nothing fussy about her. She’s haute cuisine without the haughtiness, fancy but not fastidious. If things don’t turn out perfectly, she rolls with the punches; when life hands her lemons, she makes lemon soufflé.
Judi Caron helps Gail prepare a recipe known as Elena’s Rice.
Renee Panicco, Wendy Brasunas, Gail Monaghan (instructing), Justin Vogt, Judi Caron, and Daniel Cappello.
The culmination of our efforts is the familial mealtime, when the salad and entrée and sides are fully prepared and suitably garnished. We clear the island of cutting boards and measuring cups and set the table. More wine is poured, and we enjoy the fruits of our labor. At alternating classes, William Rhodes, Wine Director and Head Sommelier for the Carlyle Hotel, will take over for a wine presentation. He discusses reds and whites, and the pairings he has selected for that meal in particular.

Over dinner, Gail dims the lights and joins in the various conversations that have struck up over the course of the evening. Departures recently described the vibe as “less like school and more like a dinner party where you come early to help the hostess.”

This is very true, but Gail’s class is also more than just a dinner party—it has been likened by many of her students to a kind of modern-day salon. It is a gathering of some of the most assorted New Yorkers (part Social Register, part Downtown Art Scene, and everyone in between), and the conversation is always animated, intriguing, and not simply who’s-doing-what, but rather what-everyone-thinks—about politics, film, books, art, travel, and, yes, food. (The salon feel is enhanced by the setting, an open loft filled with an impressive contemporary-art collection featuring the likes of Richard Artschwager, Andy Warhol, Steve diBenedetto, and Carroll Dunham, and rare pieces like a one-of-seven “Deco” baby grand Steinway, from the 1939 World’s Fair.)
Mexican cole slaw, tomato-and-mango salsa, and Elena’s Rice with cheese and green chilies.
The food is a draw, but for those of us who cook with her, Gail is the pièce de résistance: a glowing figure who brings together some of the most interesting people in a comfortable, casually elegant environment.

With Gail, you never know where a good meal—or a good conversation—will lead. “Lost Desserts” is proof of such. A few years ago, Gail found herself baking a Coffee Crunch Cake, inspired by a recipe from Blum’s restaurant, for Lora Zarubin’s birthday dinner.

Zarubin, an editor at House & Garden, along with most of the guests, loved the cake, and soon everyone was talking about “lost” desserts from fabled Los Angeles institutions like Blum’s. By the end of the party, Zarubin had commissioned Gail to write a story about “Lost Desserts,” based on Gail’s recollections from her California childhood.

Click to order Lost Desserts.
After deciding to expand the article into a book, Gail polled friends and their friends and set out on a journey to collect “family recipes, anecdotes, and culinary secrets.” That heirloom material is gathered in the mouth-watering collection published by Rizzoli this month. “Lost Desserts” is quintessential Gail; it’s as much a narrative work as it is a cookbook. Gail’s knack for storytelling translates freely in her collection, which is wonderfully illustrated by the fashion photographer Eric Boman.

Boman’s photographs of Gail’s desserts are stunning complements to her narratives; they are visual caesuras that stop you dead in your tracks. Has Charlotte Russe ever looked so good? As Gail describes in the history of the dessert, the sweet cake hails from Second Empire France, and one can only imagine the stylish palaces the dessert has called home. But has it ever been so stylized, or appeared so effortless and chic?

The richly golden ladyfingers are picture-perfect, if slightly flawed (a flake missing here, a more sizeable chunk missing there), and therefore real. The creamy yellow custard oozing from the inner core of the cake pops against an aesthetic wave of mixed blues—the bleu-de-Nîmes-colored wall, the fleur-de-lis blue paint on the serving plate’s edge, the bright and muted violets from the flowers adorning the cake. Even the white-linen napkin—crinkled just so!—takes on a bluish tint. Did Tsar Alexander have it this good?

In other photos, we are reminded of Dutch Golden Age still lifes (i.e., Carmelized Rice Pudding with Ginger), or of what Henry VIII’s sweet-tooth indulgences might have looked like (i.e., Pruneaux au Pichet). Whatever fantasy or formality they evoke for readers, Boman’s photographs are timeless in their simplicity, and in their beauty.

“Lost Desserts” brings back many confections that were once extinct, and saves others from the brink. It has also been an inspiration for new desserts, like Coffiesta Sundae. For one of her cooking classes, Gail saved the coffee crunch from a Blum’s Coffee Crunch Cake and fashioned simple, if extremely rich, sundaes from it. The recipe isn’t shared in the book, but Gail has offered to share it here, below.
Coffiesta Sundae.
Serves 8
I have taught this frequently in my cooking classes and many people say it is their favorite dessert of all time—definitely a case of the whole being much better than the sum of its parts, though, admittedly, the parts are pretty good.

You will have extra crunch (it keeps virtually forever in an airtight container) and possibly extra fudge sauce, which also keeps a long time in the refrigerator, or frozen.
Hot fudge sauce (recipe below)
Coffee Crunch (recipe below)
2 pints best quality coffee ice cream
Freshly whipped sweetened heavy cream

Gail Monaghan drizzles homemade fudge sauce over homemade ice cream.
Hot fudge sauce
Makes about 2 ½ cups, enough for approximately 8-12 sundaes
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
1 ½ cups heavy cream
½ cup light corn syrup
½ cup unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon malt or cider vinegar

1. In a large heavy saucepan, stir together the cocoa, sugar, and ½ cup of the cream until smooth.

2. Stir in the rest of the cream followed by the corn syrup and chopped chocolate. Insert a candy thermometer. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook without stirring until it reaches 236 degrees.

3. Off the heat, stir in the vanilla extract, salt, and vinegar. Serve the sauce lukewarm.
Note: Store the sauce in the refrigerator in a covered jar. To reheat, remove the lid and microwave briefly or heat the jar in a saucepan filled with enough boiling water to come halfway up its sides.
Clockwise from top left: Sundaes in the making; Gail Monaghan tops off Coffiesta Sundae with homemade whipped cream; Coffiesta Sundae (2).
Coffee crunch
1 ½ cups sugar
¼ cup strong coffee
¼ cup light corn syrup
1 generous tablespoon baking soda, sifted

1. Stir the first 3 ingredients together in a saucepan at least 5 inches deep.

2. Cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Then stop stirring and place a candy thermometer into pan. Cook until the thermometer registers 260 degrees. At this point stir frequently to avoid scorching and keep it from becoming too foamy.

3. At 295 degrees, immediately remove from heat and stir in the sifted soda. Stir well and vigorously but QUICKLY.

4. Immediately pour into a 10x10 (or a bit larger) pan. The point is to try to do this quickly enough so that the mixture rises in the cooling pan, NOT in the pot in which it was made. DO NOT MOVE UNTIL COOL.

5. When completely cool, unmold by inverting the pan onto a piece of foil placed on the counter. Knock the pan on the counter a few times and then break up the crunch with a rolling pin.

Assemble sundaes by scooping out the ice cream into bowls and topping with hot fudge sauce and coffee crunch.

For more information about Gail Monaghan and her cooking class, visit www.gailmonaghan.com.

Photographs by Mimi Ritzen and Daniel Cappello
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