Potluck With Amanda Hesser

A few weeks ago, I had the incredible opportunity to meet Amanda Hesser and celebrate the release of The Essential New York Times Cookbook. Amanda, who is the food editor at The New York Times and co-founder of food52.com, spent six years sifting through 150 years of recipes that had been published in the paper. She solicited favorites from readers new and old and together with Merrill Stubbs tested more than 1,000 recipes to find those suitable to be added to the new cookbook. The end result is a magnificent book filled with favorites -- the usual and unusual alike.

The celebration was held at the new Formaggio Kitchen Annex, and the theme was a potluck. Everyone attending the event was asked to bring a dish based on a New York Times recipe. I searched and searched the archive to find something to bring and eventually decided on a chocolate-pumpkin layer cake. I made and frosted the cake on Thursday night but was so unimpressed with the final result. The cake itself was moist, but the chocolate frosting just looked so dull and blah.

On Friday when I got out of work, Jeff and I went on a wild goose chase in search of fall sprinkles to adorn the cake. No such luck. We got back home, and totally depressed about the lackluster dessert I would be showing up with at Amanda's potluck, I quickly whipped up some buttercream, colored it orange, and piped around the cake and added a bit of color to the top. (Thanks to working at Flour, I can pipe in record time!) I still wasn't completely happy, but it looked a million times better!

I threw the cake in a cake carrier and ran out to meet Meghan and Alicia, who were waiting outside my building in Alicia's car. Alicia drove us to Formaggio's new annex -- through some dark parking lots to a warehouse-like building. We got inside and it was absolutely freezing, but on the plus-side, we were surrounded by olives, cheese, olive oil, salt, and other goodies that Formaggio Kitchen keeps in stock.

And as is necessary with any good potluck, there was wine! We dropped off our potluck submissions on the appropriate tables and chatted for a bit until Cathy Huyghe of Red White Boston who was one of the event hosts brought us over to meet Amanda.

The three of us chatted with Amanda for a bit, told her about our blogs, and talked about the book and about potlucks. I could not believe how incredibly down to earth she is. She has got to be one of the nicest, friendliest people I have ever met. Hours later, when the event was drawing to a close, Alicia and I purchased cookbooks and brought them over to Amanda to sign. She remembered our names!

Throughout the night, we tried several dishes that people had brought. We were given a handout with the names of all the recipes and the dates they were printed in The Times. It amazed me that an event like this could bring so many people together. I got to meet Kathy from Boston Sports Woman and Meesh and Jacki from Just Add Cheese, as well as hang out with Justin and his wife Leah and catch up with Joanne. And I must say that I was a little starstruck, having my cake on display among dishes from Jody Adams, Barbara Lynch, and Ana Sortun. And I won't even pretend to cover up that we watched like hawks as Jody set down her moussaka and Barbara the eggplant involtini.

I will also shamelessly admit that we went back to my place after the event to sip on champagne and hang out, but while we were there, I got a text from my fiance, who was out at Trina's Starlite Lounge, telling us that the chefs and Amanda had just walked in there. We bundled up, took off down the street, and went to hang out at Trina's. I've never been impressed by the food at Trina's and wouldn't think of it as somewhere to take Amanda Hesser, but I've also never had the hot dogs, and I have heard incredible things about the hot dogs. By the time we got there, they had all sat down to dinner, and we weren't about to interupt their dinner, so we sat at the bar and had some more bubbly. All in all, it was a fun-filled night.

While I bought a copy of the cookbook at the event, it was not until last week that I finally had a chance to crack open the book and begin reading it. I almost immediately wanted to kick myself for not picking up a copy of the book before I met Amanda. As soon as I began reading the acknowledgements and then the introduction, I realized how much the research she did for the cookbook and the research I did for my thesis (on the food publishing industry) crisscrossed. We read the same texts (United States of Arugula, Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America), interviewed the same people (Andrew Smith), and learned so many of the same things about the trends in food and cooking over the years (the timelines placed throughout the book show many of the same events I included in the timelines I created for my thesis).

But then I wondered what more I would have said knowing what I do now. Would I have told her I understood what she went through for six years because I spent six months doing the same thing (minus testing recipes)? No, probably not. But it is kind of fun thinking that we were likely reading the same books at the same time, discovering things about the recipes of the past simultaneously.

This has been an incredibly long post, so I just want to end by saying I really think you should pick up a copy of The Essential New York Times Cookbook. I already have a list of at least 50 recipes I want to try from it. Also, the Zuni Cafe chicken and bread salad recipe is in there... as if you needed another reason to buy the book.

"When it comes to pastry and bread doughs, remember you're the boss." - my favorite of Amanda's cooking axioms