The other day when I was in line at Chipotle I overheard the woman ahead of me grilling the girl behind the counter about the presence of cilantro in their fresh salsas. (If you’re shocked I was at Chipotle, don’t be. Their fresh tomato salsa is the best deal in town: $2.50 for two little cups plus a big bag of chips—the perfect award show snack.) After the customer was told all the salsas contained cilantro she asked if she could just have some plain, chopped tomatoes. I couldn’t believe this woman was asking for special dispensation at a fast-food restaurant, never mind the 10 people waiting to order behind her. The crazy thing? The counter girl said, “Sure!” And someone scurried off to the kitchen to fetch cilantro-free tomatoes.
I immediately remembered the time my mother, grandmother, sister and I pulled up to a McDonald’s Drive-Thru window (don’t ask) and my mother shouted our order into the microphone, “Three Cokes, one chocolate shake and four cheeseburgers, please.” And Nana barked over her, “Make mine medium-rare.” Um, lady, McDonald’s hamburgers come cooked one way, gray.
How did we get here? Sure we remember Burger King’s “Have it your way” so I guess we all assume “special orders don’t upset” anyone. It’s like what Sally said in When Harry Met Sally, “I just want it the way I want it.” And I couldn’t agree more.
I’m often accused of being high-maintenance, but in my defense, I think I do a pretty good job of maintaining my maintenance myself. I don’t really expect anyone else to take my ‘stuff’ into consideration. The one exception is garlic. Most everyone I know knows I don’t eat it. In fact I hate it and the smell makes me as sick as the taste. Just last week I went out with a group for Greek food and knew I was going to get a little ribbing about my anti-garlic policy. So my tactic was to announce at the table that I was going to order a main dish just for myself, without garlic, and didn’t want any grief for it. Now, I probably didn’t need to be so aggressive but I felt an offensive coming on and you know what they say about the best defense. But I must have offended Zeus because, although my main course was garlic-free, the spread I put on my pita triangle had enough to make up for it. Oh, it was terrible. Raw garlic is the worst and I felt awful all night, which actually proved to me that there is no negotiation when it comes to my non-garlic life.
But since I “want it the way I want it,” I fully appreciate those who have their own food-preferences. Recently, when I made desserts for a friend’s birthday dinner, (the same one for whom I made the cream cheese brownies) I proposed several options to the birthday girl, assuming she (who proclaimed the sweets were more for the guests than for her) wouldn’t care and would defer to me. Nope. After she shot down pineapple upside-down cake, but liked the idea of a cheesecake, she mentioned wanting something chocolate-y too. I thought of a recent recipe I’d seen for a cheesecake with caramelized oranges but then remembered that one of the guests, who was also the host, doesn’t like the combination of two flavors in her desserts. This issue also ruled out another idea, the always-a-hit Barefoot Contessa orange chocolate chunk bundt cake. But none of this irritated me because I would have done similar orchestrating had it been my own birthday dinner.
This bespoke food attitude is a pretty deluxe dilemma. Whenever I need a reality check I remember Little House on the Prairie. When you stop and think about what life must have been like living in that lean-to during a Minnesota winter, no indoor plumbing, (I can’t even go there) cooking dinner on a spit in the fireplace, I can’t imagine little Laura complained that whatever Pa shot that day would have benefited from another pinch of Herbes de Provence. But we don’t need to go to the 19th century to gain a little perspective.
For many current citizens of the earth food is fuel, preparing it to taste is an unimaginable luxury. Then again, you can only live the life you have and if you indeed have enough food in your fridge you might as well “have it your way.”
So after much research and discussion we settled on a maple apple upside-down cake. I’d been waiting to try this recipe when I saw it in Food and Wine back in November and decided my resistance to apples is kind of small minded. Sure, they aren’t as exciting as raspberries or peaches (or pineapples, in my opinion) but they don’t offend in any way. This cake is like a celebration of caramel apples. The depth of flavor brought to the party by the maple syrup prevents the cake from being too cloying and the apples stay just firm enough on top of the lovely, buttery cake. I have new respect for this once forbidden fruit. Although, for my birthday I’ll still make my yellow cake with chocolate frosting, because I “want it the way I want it.”
Make Everyone Happy Maple-Apple Upside-Down Cake
From Food & Wine, November 2010
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1 cup pure maple syrup
3 Granny Smith apples—peeled, cored and cut into eighths
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 1/3 cups sugar
Crème fraîche or vanilla ice cream, for serving
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter and flour a 10-inch round cake pan. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, bring the maple syrup to a boil over high heat, then simmer over low heat until very thick and reduced to 3/4 cup, about 20 minutes.
Pour the thickened syrup into the cake pan. Arrange the apples in the pan in 2 concentric circles, overlapping them slightly.
In a bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a glass measuring cup, whisk the eggs with the buttermilk and vanilla. Set aside.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter and sugar at medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Beat in the dry and wet ingredients in 3 alternating batches until the batter is smooth; scrape down the side of the bowl.
Scrape the batter over the apples and spread it in an even layer.
Bake the cake for 1 1/2 hours, until golden on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool on a rack for 45 minutes.
Place a plate on top of the cake and invert the cake onto the plate; tap lightly to release the cake. Remove the pan. Let the cake cool slightly, then cut into wedges and serve with crème fraîche, Greek yogurt or vanilla ice cream.
Yield: 12 slices