Every home and professional chef has an origin story of what made them love cooking. But despite cooking long being viewed as a “woman’s domain,” the stories and experiences of professional female cooks have long been underappreciated. It’s this reality—and the stark gender and racial inequities in the food industry—that inspired artist Lindsay Gardner to write her latest book, Why We Cook: Women on Food, Identity, and Connection ($23). The book is a collection of writing and art celebrating the literal joy of cooking, featuring the voices of over 112 women in the food industry, including Carla Hall, Priya Krishna, and Ruth Reichl. It’s all proof that the act of cooking can indeed be an empowering, life-changing thing. Among the book’s many highlights includes the below polenta cake recipe from Elizabeth Binder, a South African chef who started to experiment in the kitchen as a child. Try the recipe and check out Why We Cook, available everywhere books are sold. —Jessie Van Amburg, senior food editor
Chef Elizabeth Binder’s love of food and travel was ingrained from a very young age. Growing up amid apartheid in Durban, South Africa, she was influenced by her father, a British fisherman who loved to cook, and her maternal grandmother, who hosted weekly formal family dinners. Binder pored over cookbooks and magazines, clipping recipes for her red tartan recipe book and experimenting with whatever ingredients she could find. International sanctions meant that many ingredients were unavailable, but every few years, Granny England—as Binder called her—visited and brought with her a suitcase stuffed to the brim with homemade pasties, tinned fish, savoy cabbage, and other specialties. These much-anticipated treats were edible windows into Binder’s heritage and the world beyond.
At her family’s urging, Binder attended culinary school, and quickly afterward, at nineteen years old, she became head chef of Blue Mountain Lodge, where she cooked state dinners for President F. W. de Klerk and his successor, Nelson Mandela, during a pivotal period in South African history. Later, she traveled across the world to work in fine kitchens in England, France, and Australia. She finally landed in San Francisco, where she became the partner and executive chef of the much-loved Bar Bambino. In 2012, Elizabeth founded Hand-Crafted Catering, a boutique catering company in Napa Valley, where she specializes in rustically elegant food, sustainably sourced from local farms and her own garden.
Citrus almond polenta cake
Serves 8 or more
I am often asked for the recipe for this unforgettable cake. I first put this on the menu at Bar Bambino, where it was an instant success. It has the most amazing honey notes, which come from the combination of the citrus, almond, and polenta, and is decidedly delicious. Sticky sweet and crumbly, moist on the inside and crusty on the outside. Fabulous served for dessert (or even breakfast) alongside an espresso.
Butter, for greasing the pan
5 large eggs
2 egg yolks from large eggs
1 pound plus 4 ounces granulated sugar
1 pound almond meal
1 1/2 ounces polenta
1 teaspoon baking powder
Zest and juice of 1 orange, 1 lemon, and 1 lime (use a Microplane)
Confectioners’ sugar, for serving
Mascarpone cheese, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Grease a 9-inch springform cake tin with butter, and line the bottom with parchment paper.
2. Beat the eggs, yolks, and sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Fold in the almond meal, polenta, and baking powder. Add the citrus zest and juice to the cake batter and mix well to thoroughly combine.
3. Pour the cake batter into the cake tin and place in the center of the oven. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes before checking with a skewer. The top should have a firm crust and the inside should be moist but not wet. Cook for additional time as needed (be patient—this cake sometimes needs more time than expected). Remove from the oven and cool in the tin.
4. Dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar and serve with whipped mascarpone.
Excerpted from Why We Cook: Women on Food, Identity, and Connection by Lindsay Gardner. Copyright © 2021 by Lindsay Gardner. Art by Lindsay Gardner. Recipe © 2021 by Elizabeth Binder. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All rights reserved.
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