The one and only thing Victoria Beckham and I have in common is that the first weeks of fall launch a thrilling event for both of us: fashion season for V-Becks and food season for me. Not that I don’t eat well year-round, but the hallmark of the next three months is endless grazing, crowned with gatherings of friends who are ready to toast, to nosh, to dig in. We’ve also crashed headlong into cold and flu season, and at least in my family, there’s a mind-numbing roster of birthdays to fête, too.
I’m from the South, so for each of these occasions I’ll need to bring a dish. In the coming weeks, I’ll make upward of 3,647 craggily casseroles, frosted cakes and pots of whatnot for boozed-up friends, snifflers and sneezers, and endless family. Expressly for this sort of convergence, I keep a handful of signature recipes up my sleeve that I can whip up on the fly.
Have trademark recipes for many occasions
I often look to other cooks for inspiration, but I always tweak things as I go. It’s narcissistic, I know, but that way no one can ever duplicate the dish without me. (Except for you, dear reader. The gems with an asterisk have recipes listed below.) I keep one of these recipes tucked away for each manner of occasion: a dynamite potluck casserole (vegetable bread pudding is my go-to), a candle-worthy layer cake*, a fragrant and soothing soup, an ooey-gooey cookie and a pitcher cocktail to gift in a fat Mason jar*.
Everyone needs at least one recipe under their belt, no matter their cooking prowess, and a trademark dish should hit these high notes:
1. A dish for which you don’t mind becoming known. (Meaning that you’ll have to make it again and again.)
2. Something comforting, wholly satisfying and decadent.
3. Food that is relative to your own skills in the kitchen.
4. A use for affordable ingredients, most of which you can easily keep stocked.
5. A choice that travels well and can be made ahead. (Here, have this soggy Pavlova that I made for you yesterday!)
My mother makes Swedish meatballs to die for, my husband always brings a vat of perfect, lime-spiked guacamole to a party, my sister is famous for her baked macaroni riddled with fresh goat cheese, and my friend Celeste keeps a bowl of unapologetically rich cookie dough* in the fridge for all manner of seasonal emergencies. Each specialty inspires whispers when the cook walks through the door: “I hope she brought that (insert dish name here) this time …”
Bourbon Apple Cider
This cocktail is equally lauded at a party or a sick friend’s abode. Maybe a smaller batch is in order for the sick friend, but then again, maybe not.
2 quarts apple cider
6 cinnamon sticks
6 star anise
4-inch piece of ginger, unpeeled and thinly sliced
3 or 4 wide swaths of orange peel, removed with a vegetable peeler
A small palmful each crushed cardamom pods, whole cloves and whole allspice
1½ cups bourbon
Put all ingredients except for bourbon into a large pot and bring just to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes. Uncover, set aside off the heat to let cool until just warm, and then strain through a fine sieve, discarding the solids. Add bourbon (use 1 cup instead if you’re a recovering teetotaler) to a 2-quart Mason jar and top off with the spiced cider. Drink up the smidge that doesn’t fit, and then close the jar with a tight-fitting lid and chill until ready to serve, preferably over ice.
Buttermilk Blueberry Layer Cake
This is the quintessential birthday cake. Years ago, I started with the vanilla birthday cake recipe from New York City’s Magnolia Bakery and I’ve since turned it into a fruit-pocked buttermilk number. The blueberries are killer, but omit them if it suits you. If you use frozen ones, the cake will take slightly longer to bake.
1 pound (2 cups) unsalted butter, softened, divided, plus more for the pans
1¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pans and blueberries
2 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract, divided
1½ cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries
2 pounds plus 1½ cups confectioners’ sugar, divided
½ cup whole milk
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter three 9-inch round cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper and then butter again and coat with flour, tapping out any excess; set aside.
2. In a large bowl, beat 1 cup butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth. Add granulated sugar and beat again until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon vanilla and eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. In a large bowl, whisk together flours and ¾ teaspoon salt and then add to butter mixture in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk, until well combined. In a medium bowl, toss blueberries with 1 tablespoon flour and then gently fold into batter.
3. Transfer batter equally to prepared pans, spread out evenly and bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Set aside to let cool.
4. In a large bowl, beat remaining 1 cup butter with about half of the confectioners’ sugar, whole milk and remaining 1 tablespoon vanilla and ¼ teaspoon salt with an electric mixer on medium speed until well combined. Continue to beat, gradually adding remaining confectioners’ sugar, until very fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes more.
5. Once cakes are completely cool, loosen edges, remove from pans and discard parchment paper. Stack cakes on a large plate, frosting in between each layer, and then around the top and sides to cover completely. (If you like, trim the cake tops before frosting, and stack them upside down to ensure a more even, level cake.)
Chocolate Chip Cookies
As her jumping-off point, Celeste uses a recipe adapted from one by the pastry great Jacque Torres. In 2008, in The New York Times, David Leite called it “the consummate chocolate chip cookie.” I couldn’t agree more. Find the recipe here.
Buttermilk Blueberry Layer Cake. Credit: Liz Pearson