Not Just Desserts

Gail Monaghan not only cooks and writes about savory sweets; she saves them from extinction.

It all started in 2001 with a coffee crunch cake Gail Monaghan brought to a birthday party for Lora Zarubin, food editor at House & Garden. The cake, concocted from an old Blum’s restaurant recipe, was such a hit—and the party chatter about other great "lost" desserts so inspiring—that Zarubin commissioned Monaghan to write an article for the magazine.

The article eventually resurrected six recipes, some from the writer’s childhood and some from long-shuttered renowned restaurants, like Blum’s, the Brown Derby, and Chasen’s. During her research Monaghan also stumbled upon dozens of other delicious finales, all on the verge of extinction. Friends brought even more desserts of yore to her attention.

Six years later Monaghan’s article is a book, due out this Novem­ber. Called Lost Desserts, it reintroduces and updates some 70 that have nearly disappeared from dining room tables. Each recipe is accompanied by an anec­dote or vignette. "The book is very narrative-driven," Monaghan says. "If I didn’t have something to say about a particular dessert, I didn’t include it." Things she did have to say—"My boyfriend and I would often make a late Sunday breakfast out of an entire Miss Grimble’s cheesecake" and "My mother taught me two tricks with melon: one very simple and one very elaborate"—make the book read like a collection of short stories. Mouthwatering photos by Eric Boman, however, wonderfully dispel any notions that this might be fiction.

Monaghan’s personal favorite is Fané, a blend of vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, meringue, white nougat, and shaved chocolate, which she remembers being served in 2001 while vis­iting her friend Marie Cristina, the Comtesse de Vogüé, at the châ­teau Vaux-Le-Vicomte in France. Mona­ghan fell in love with the dessert and asked for the recipe. When she was writ­ing the book, she called Marie Cris­tina to con­firm the recipe. Nei­ther the com­tesse nor her cook had any recollection of such a dessert. Still, they did enjoy the recipe Monaghan read back to them. If not for Mon­aghan, Vaux-Le-Vicomte’s Fané may have literally been lost.

Monaghan learned the fun­da­mentals of cooking by watch­ing her family prepare meals—the book is dedicated to her aunt Iva. "It wasn’t so much that Iva liked to cook but more that she loved to eat. We didn’t go out to get good food in those days. We made it at home," Monaghan says, adding that she also remembers chiffon pies baked by her Grandma Rose, as well as daintily decorated birthday cakes of genoise and coffee buttercream picked up from the local bakery of her California childhood, and Iva’s homemade ice cream.

Years later, after graduating from col­lege, marrying, moving to Manhattan, giv­ing birth to two daughters, and hon­ing her culinary skills by cooking her way through Julia Childs’s first book, Mon­a­ghan attended Peter Kump (now the Insti­tute of Culinary Education) in New York. She also became a veteran dinner-party hostess, entertaining famously and furiously on the rooftop of her West Village apartment.

Ten years ago Monaghan began giving cook­ing classes. Today the classes are a series of one-off sessions, each drawing a dozen or so people: Some are veteran chefs, others can hardly fry an egg. The vibe is less like school and more like a dinner party where you come early to help the hostess. "Being in someone’s home is special," says Monaghan. "It’s much cozier and less restrictive than being in a class­room." Now held in her Midtown Manhattan apartment (a divine space adorned with early-20th-century Venetian glass vases, fine art drawings, and a baby grand piano), the class is an informal, word-of-mouth affair, usually offered once a week. Monaghan guides her stu­dents through the recipes; then after preparing the meal with them, they all enjoy the fruits of their labor—and engaging conversation—at a seated meal.

The class I attended included a Greek salad of heirloom toma­toes, feta cheese, and dill topped with Greek yogurt and caramelized butter, followed by Spanish monkfish and clam stew over rice. For dessert we made James Beard’s Venetian Fruitcake topped with homemade Greek yogurt ice cream and orange suprêmes with cinnamon. Fruitcake fans are rare, but Monaghan easily converted the skeptics.

"Desserts remind people of a special occa­sion or a time of happiness," says Mona­ghan. "Think of Proust and the madeleine! Who doesn’t longingly remember at least one sweet from childhood?"

For information on the cooking classes, visit gailmonaghan.com or write info@gailmonaghan.com.

James Beard’s Venetian Fruitcake

Serves 8

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for the fruit
1 tbsp baking powder
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped candied fruits
1/2 cup mixed raisins and currants
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 tbsp cognac

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper; butter the paper.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cornmeal, and salt. Set aside.

3. Toss the fruit, raisins, and currants with flour to coat. Shake off excess. Set aside.

4. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the flour mixture, blending well. Fold in the candied fruits, raisins, and currants, along with the Cognac. Make sure the fruit is evenly distributed. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Lift the pan a few inches off the counter and drop it gently on the counter once or twice to settle the batter and remove any air bubbles.

5. Bake until the cake is just beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan and a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 to 50 minutes. Do not overbake. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert the cake onto your hand or a plate and quickly reinvert it onto a wire rack. The cake will keep for a week if wrapped in plastic and refrigerated. Freeze for longer storage. Let it reach room temperature before serving.