Disaster at a Vegan Dinner Party
You can't unbake a cake.
I have a particularly crafty friend who once told me that the phase when you’re bad at a new hobby—when you make a wonky scarf or a lopsided ceramic bowl—is often the most fun part. Something about finding joy in learning new things, in accepting the process, in laughing at yourself. I recognize that my friend is mostly right but I have decided that cooking is not this way. Cooking, both a hobby and (for many) a necessity, can be annoying for an extended period of time, while you’re getting your footing in the kitchen and trying to figure out what you like and also how to make what you like. Learning to prepare a single dish is usually quite easy but learning to cook can be an annoying slog. At least it was for me, and I even consider myself someone who “likes” cooking, even though I think liking cooking is always a complicated sort of thing. Cooking can be very frustrating and it can make you look bad when you are feeling weak. A cheesecake can really kick a woman when she’s down.
In 2011, I was living in Charlotte, NC, a recent college grad in an old but perky little home, offsetting the misery of a soul-flattening corporate job with a budding interest in food and cooking. I spent my days at work reading food blogs and healthy living blogs and using the control-tab function to switch windows to an Excel spreadsheet every time I heard a pair of feet coming towards my cubicle.
I also started going to farmers markets and cooking myself dinner every night, and I finally began dipping my toes into the world of dinner party throwing. On my own I fumbled, mostly, but it was a necessary sort of fumbling, and I was usually the one who had to deal my with burnt or mushy or oversalted consequences. I’d gotten really into yoga and in an effort to shove meaning and satisfaction into my life I’d signed up for a teacher training course, where I made some very nice adult friends who enjoyed things like meditating and salad and wine with the same gusto that I did. Once a week we’d teach each other yoga in one woman’s garage, the door open on warm summer nights, and then sometimes afterward there would be wine. Finally I invited four or five of these women over for dinner for very average reasons: I wanted them to like me and find my ability to prepare edible food impressive.
I was vegan at the time, and it was summer, so there would be veggie burgers and homemade buns and a salad that chopped together the flavors of gazpacho without blending them into mush. For dessert I’d make my favorite extravagance, a raw vegan cheesecake, which omnivores usually laugh at because it’s neither cheese-filled nor a cake, but honestly it’s quite good, a crust that tastes like a pounded-out Luna Bar and a filling rich with cashews and coconut fat and sweet with fruit. It comes out cold and refreshing and rich, not a cheesecake per se but a chilled, beautiful thing. You can make it ahead—a blessing—and slip it out of the fridge or freezer whenever you’re ready to let it sit for a few minutes.
In the five or so years that fall between this story and now I have become something of a more prepared and more organized cook, though not by much. A dinner party still means me after everyone leaves putting on Rumors and doing dishes and sweeping for an hour. There’s something pleasant about it. What I am trying to say is that the kitchen was a mess from the second I touched down from the farmers market that day, all overflowing reusable eco totes and cutting board refuse and hands wiped on pants, all highlighted by summer sun pouring in. There are certain people who are Good At Dinner Parties but I don’t consider myself one of them; I feel fraught until we’re all on our second glass of wine, and I accept that I’ve made a mess but that the food is good and everything is, in reality, fine.
So I had the cheesecake and kept it in the freezer, maybe for space reasons or maybe for heat reasons, I couldn’t tell you; I can’t remember. A few hours before the party it was rock solid, which is not a pleasant texture for a desert to be. I’d put it in the oven for some gentle warmth, I thought, to keep it off the counter and to speed up the thawing process. The salad was marinating in the fridge and the dough for the buns (which by the way would turn out to be dry but everyone complimented them anyway) was rising and I began to tidy, because tidying as a last task is always a bad idea, put it off and it never gets done. I stuffed away the eco totes, cleared the counters of organic detritus. I began patting together my veggie burgers, heating up the oil to fry them in. They were a dense black bean situation, and turned out quite nicely, stuffed with cumin and its adjacent spices and plenty of alliums. Frying always makes for a nice char on a VB. I got those done and drying, and set the oven for the buns, which had risen nicely, despite their sandy fate. Went and changed, brushed my hair, came back to open the oven, at which point I remembered there was a dessert in there whose main feature was its unbaked-ness, and I had just baked it, which honestly felt like more of a sick joke from my oven and a waste of $30 in cashews than a true disappointment. It wasn’t a smoking catastrophe or an oozing, melting mess, just a puffier, dryer, cake-ier version of the glossy cool thing it was meant to be.
There’s no way to unbake a cake. You can’t scrape the heat off of it with a sharp knife like when you burn toast. You must either throw it out or move on. You ignore your abject horror because here come your dinner guests, chipper and wine-bearing, and the realization that you’re going to eat the thing, and it might be odd, but by that point you’ll be a few bottles in and nobody will care. And they didn’t: we all dug in, with a few laughs after I told my slight horror story, and somehow it was all just fine. It was still wonderful and soft and sweet.
The awful thing about a dinner party is the self-pressure, the desire to fit into Ina’s or Martha’s or your mother’s low-heeled shoes and never-stained apron, which of course is never going to happen, I’m sorry it’s just not. I have come to expect that the parties I throw will be something of a mess and hopefully people will find that charming or at least bearable. Sometimes they have to wait for their food and get sent out for snacks, sometimes they have to deal with smoke filling an apartment, and sometimes the no-bake dessert takes a trip into the oven and we see what will happen, science-experiment style. The whole point of a dinner party is that it’s different from eating alone, it’s different from boredom, and small catastrophes are surely that. The one thing I can tell you is that raw cheesecake tastes just fine when it’s baked, denser and fluffier and, honestly, a little closer to the real thing.