Cookbooks

Treat Yourself Today With Melissa Clark's Instagram-Famous Campari Cake

The beloved columnist's new cookbook is full of accessible-yet-special recipes, including this revved-up pantry-friendly olive oil cake.

April  3, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food and prop stylist: Alexis Anthony.

If you’ve been a home cook, even a dabbling one, in the last 15 or so years, you know Melissa Clark. Maybe you've come across her regular writing and recipes in The New York Times, or cooked from one of her more than 40 (!) cookbooks, which range in subject from braising and weeknight cooking to the Instant Pot and bread machines.

Her latest, recently released on Mar. 10, is Dinner in French. It's a book that seems to hit, bullseye-style, Clark’s expertise: balancing the ease of weeknight recipes with somewhat more ambitious techniques and ingredients. It's the perfect home-cook's book.

She is, of course, an expert on the subject. Among Clark’s cookbook-writing partners are Daniel Boulud and David Bouley, French restaurateurs so renowned and beloved that just saying their names feels like sliding a plate of glossy chocolate truffles across the table with a subtle wink. She also wrote the Times“New Essentials of French Cooking,” which won a James Beard Award in 2018. But Dinner in French doesn’t address any of the above, or not directly, anyway. This book isn’t anchored in Clark's experience as a professional recipe writer, but in her life as a Francophile. She’s said that it’s the “nearest to her heart” of any of her books.

Clark’s love for France (and French food) is deep and devoted, borne of the childhood Augusts she and her family would spend traveling there, swapping their Brooklyn house for a stranger’s in Provence or Brittany. On these trips, her parents would lead the family on avid excursions to eat at markets and Michelin-starred restaurants in equal measure. Nearly every recipe has, as a headnote, an anecdote from those lushly colorful summers—or more recent summers, traveling there with her own family. And in fact, the working title for the book was First We Get Lost, Then We Have Lunch.

Some of the recipes, like the pissaladière, fromage fort, pain d’epices, and anchoïade, are clearly Francophone. Others are distinctly Brooklynite, their ingredients and techniques nodding to both the Flatbush neighborhood where Clark grew up and more contemporary flavors of today's New York: rye flour, oxtail, hot honey, sheet-pan dinners. Many acknowledge flavors that came to French cuisine via France's colonial history, particularly North African. Other recipes are less rooted to a place and more to a feeling.

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Top Comment:
“Lacking both Campari and grapefruit- both clearly central to the recipe- I decided to take it into the kitchen and see what I could come up with anyway. To replace the Campari I infused a couple of whole limes- including finely chopped pith- into some vodka. I used lemon and tangerine for the other citrus, grating some pith with the zest in an effort to replace the bitterness of the Campari and grapefruit. The result, while too far from the original to be called the same recipe, was a pretty good cake and I learned a few things that might be helpful. A 6 1/2" springform was just right for half the recipe. The batter rose all the way to the rim early in the baking; it didn't overflow, but it would be a good idea to put the pan on a baking sheet or something. The 10 minute prep time is extremely optimistic- maybe it could be done by someone who had made the cake a dozen times and had all of their ingredients prepped and measured in advance. But who's in a hurry? It's a pretty simple cake with few pitfalls; an inexperienced baker shouldn't have much trouble. It requires very little mixing- you could use a mixer if you want, but not much point in it.”
— Smaug
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Regardless of their origin, all of the book's recipes are enticing, welcoming, and thorough (the directions for the omelet clock its doneness between precisely 45 seconds and 75 seconds). They're also all distinctly from Melissa Clark, enthusiastically cementing her well-established love of garlic, butter, and especially anchovies (mentions of which stack up impressively in the book’s index). There are more complex recipes that demand hours (like her lamb shank cassoulet) and breezy, lighthearted ones (lavender lemonade).

But even more interesting than the recipes themselves is the meaningful personal context the book's writing lends—to its own recipes, yes, but also to Clark’s whole career. It brings to mind the French word "terroir," that describes how the conditions in which a grape is grown (the soil, the altitude, the rain or lack of it, the winding drives through the French countryside with one’s parents) shapes the flavor of the wine. As Clark writes in the book’s introduction, she’s never quite managed to be fluent in French, but her cooking, drawing on her “New York-Jewish-Francophile DNA,” is “unmistakably and playfully” so.

Clark’s Campari Olive Oil Cake falls squarely in that zone between Brooklyn and France, with nods to summery South-of-France sensibilities (bittersweet Campari, sunny citrus and olive oil, the love of an unfussy cake) and New York-y ones (recalling the city's own obsession with olive oil cakes, most famously Maialino’s). It hits the spot as is, but for a dressy touch, Clark recommends and simmering down a little extra Campari and sugar for a boozy pink syrup to drizzle over the top. We're in.

What's your favorite Melissa Clark recipe? Let us know in the comments.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Smaug
    Smaug
  • jpriddy
    jpriddy
  • MollyS
    MollyS
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Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.

4 Comments

Smaug April 4, 2020
Lacking both Campari and grapefruit- both clearly central to the recipe- I decided to take it into the kitchen and see what I could come up with anyway. To replace the Campari I infused a couple of whole limes- including finely chopped pith- into some vodka. I used lemon and tangerine for the other citrus, grating some pith with the zest in an effort to replace the bitterness of the Campari and grapefruit. The result, while too far from the original to be called the same recipe, was a pretty good cake and I learned a few things that might be helpful. A 6 1/2" springform was just right for half the recipe. The batter rose all the way to the rim early in the baking; it didn't overflow, but it would be a good idea to put the pan on a baking sheet or something. The 10 minute prep time is extremely optimistic- maybe it could be done by someone who had made the cake a dozen times and had all of their ingredients prepped and measured in advance. But who's in a hurry? It's a pretty simple cake with few pitfalls; an inexperienced baker shouldn't have much trouble. It requires very little mixing- you could use a mixer if you want, but not much point in it.
 
Smaug April 4, 2020
ps- I would dispute the description of this recipe as "pantry friendly"- none of the ingredients is uncommon, at least if you habitually keep Campari around, but in a time when flour and sugar can be difficult to obtain you would be pretty fortunate to have all of this stuff.
 
jpriddy April 12, 2020
I thought the same thing—I am sure it is a wonderful cake, but the Campari in the name stopped me right off and then looking at the list of ingredients, I thought: no. It is a pound cake and there are simpler pound cakes flavored with citrus or seeds (seed cake). You have done what most of us would do in recreating the world. Thank you!

I have James Beard's simple Huckleberry Cake recipe (half the ingredients) and actual Oregon huckleberries in my freezer.
 
MollyS May 9, 2020
Love a simple Campari and soda. Traditionally served w/ an orange wedge I believe but I like mine with lime. its a lovely, refreshing apéritif and I couldn't get through the summer patio season w/ out it!

(Campari is also an essential ingredient in a Negroni, so...)

just saying there are many uses for Campari in addition to this pretty cake if one chooses to grab a bottle...

;)