In 1990 when I was hosting an NBC show called “House Party” we had a young chef from a famous New York restaurant come to 30 Rock and prepare one of his favorite recipes on TV. It was so clever and unbelievably delicious that when he invited my wife Kathy and me to his restaurant for her birthday, we jumped at the offer.
The restaurant was the legendary Le Cirque, and that young man was Daniel Boulud, who is today regarded as one of the greatest chefs in the world. We met him when he was just getting started on his meteoric journey. It’s the same feeling of satisfaction one might have if they’d bought Amazon stock at $8.
Because it was a family landmark, Kathy’s birthday, Mr. Boulud personally prepared a menu for us. Had Instagram been invented in 1990, I would have shocked the room and taken pictures of the five courses. There were cheeses and caviar and things were sautéed, flambéed and poached to perfection. Adorable petite portions meant we’d have room for a show-stopping filet served with a sauce I’m planning on having every day in heaven.
After a bottle of champagne and a bottle of chardonnay, Daniel sent over the ultimate desert; a jaw-dropping three-foot high spun-sugar and chocolate rabbit cake. It was official: In perhaps the coolest dining room in the Big Apple, a lot of those jaded New Yorkers looking our way wondered, “Who is that guy and why does his wife get the big bunny birthday cake?”
It was to celebrate Kathy’s birthday, but also the fact that after the birth of our second child, Mary, it was the first time Kathy had left the apartment without the baby, and both of our kids were at that moment in the care of an expensive (but reliable – we were assured) babysitter. So Kathy was edgy.
When it was time to present her with a gift I apologized and told her I’d been really busy at work and didn’t have time to go shopping in Midtown Manhattan where I worked, and I handed her a card. Inside was a personal check written out to her for $75. The memo line said, “Happy Birthday, Kathy!” Clearly this was a joke amount; a spouse’s birthday should be closer to $100.
I thought it was hilarious…until she started crying.
You know that flop sweat you get when you realize you’ve made a terrible miscalculation? I was having some of that – big time. I quickly told Kathy I had one more thing for her and she stopped streaking her mascara long enough to open a little red box wrapped in white ribbon. Inside was an exact replica of the sapphire and diamond earrings she loved on Princess Diana. I’d called her friend Buzzy in the Diamond District and he’d made them especially for Kathy. (She didn’t know I got a really good price – until she just read this). Suddenly, she was crying again, but these were the good kind of tears.
And on that happy note, we concluded the greatest gastronomic event of our lives.
Greatest meal, yes – but it wasn’t the happiest meal. That happens every year in mid-October when Kathy browns a four-pound chuck roast and puts it in a Dutch oven with dry Lipton onion soup and a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup – it’s the same pot roast recipe my mom made for me for every one of my birthdays. As soon as I walk through the door and smell that pot roast, I’m suddenly transported back to a simpler time, before life got complicated and our family scattered across the map. Kathy will make that for me next week on my birthday, along with a German chocolate cake because she knows my mom made me that combination and it reminds me of my childhood and my family.
Back then in Kansas, I thought German chocolate sounded so exotic and it wasn’t until we started writing this cookbook that I discovered it’s not from Germany at all; the baker who invented dark-baking chocolate was an American named Samuel German. For over 50 years, I’d assumed my favorite cake was from Germany. Nope.
We all have foods that trigger the nostalgia department in our brains, some have profound reasons, others don't have a cosmic connection. But that’s what “The Happy Cookbook” is all about. Over 100 recipes of foods that make us feel good on the inside.
The smell of my mom’s pot roast and the taste of a German chocolate cake do it for me. In looking at photos from my childhood, I discovered something I did not know…that on my father’s birthdays, I have photographs that show in front of him, every year, was a slice of German chocolate cake.
I guess I am a son who wanted to be just like his dad, and his cake became my cake.
Maybe that’s why I still love it so much. Or maybe it’s the way my mom baked it.
Just know while I have had that cake over 50 times, I just discovered this year, that National German Chocolate Cake Day, is celebrated on June 11, which is my mother and father’s anniversary.
What a coincidence…or is it?
Adapted from “The Happy Cookbook” by Steve Doocy and Kathy Doocy. Used with permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.