The former food editor, restaurant critic, best-selling memoirist and the last editor of Gourmet magazine shares a recipe for giant chocolate cake. She calls it the cake that cures everything.

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SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. — Ruth Reichl is in the kitchen she designed as both command center and comfort station, making a salami sandwich for her husband, Michael Singer, 75, a former CBS News producer who has been recovering from back surgery.

“He has this thing from his childhood about salami,” she said, smearing a slice of ciabatta bread with Dijon mustard.

“It’s not a Freudian issue,” he shouted from the Danish-modern kitchen table, where his head was buried in his laptop. “I just like salami.”

This, now, is life for Reichl. At 67, she is softer, less anxious and, her friends say, a happier version of the cautious workaholic who was the food editor at The Los Angeles Times, the restaurant critic at The New York Times, a best-selling memoirist and, for a decade, the editor of Gourmet, the oldest food and wine magazine in America.

She makes her husband three meals a day when she is not traveling. She writes in a little cabin set a few dozen paces behind the sleek house with glass walls that the couple built 11 years ago here on a shale plateau between the Hudson River and the Berkshires. And she cooks for just about anyone who walks in the door.

“At this point in your life,” she said, “you have to have as much fun as you can because you don’t know what’s coming down the road.”

Life-changing news while in Seattle

In 2009, while she was in Seattle promoting a Gourmet cookbook, her horse was shot out from under her. Without warning, Condé Nast closed Gourmet, after 69 years, on her watch.

(She said she still doesn’t know why, although luxury advertising was in a slump and not all readers responded favorably to articles in which writers like David Foster Wallace were given 7,500 words to explore the moral implications of killing lobsters. Her memoir about her years at Condé Nast is in the works.)

In as much time as it takes to peel a peach, she went from the top of the heap into free fall. No more Condé Nast salary, black cars at her beckoning and $30,000 budgets to shoot a Thanksgiving spread. Her carefully curated team of writers, designers and cooks, many of them close friends, were gone, off to find work elsewhere with varying degrees of success.

Reichl, who often invokes her hippie bona fides, said she always knew she was a visitor in that world. It didn’t take her long to remember that one can get by just fine without those trappings. But getting dumped at 61?

“It’s really scary when you’re old because who the hell is going to hire you?” she said.

Their son, Nick, was in college at Wesleyan University. People were scheduled to live in the couple’s New York apartment that winter. Singer was happily ensconced upstate. So a woman who calls herself relentlessly urban moved to the country, defeated. And she began to cook.

Her new book, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life,” is the baby conceived in that first painful post-Gourmet year. It is also her first solo cookbook since 1971, when she wrote “Mmmmm: A Feastiary.”

Emotional cooking journal

The book was an accident, really. She had not yet secured contracts for her memoir and “Delicious!,” her first novel. The couple worried that they might not have enough money to keep both places. And then there was the question of who she was if she wasn’t someone’s full-time employee.

“I didn’t know where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing,” she said. “If I hadn’t had cooking, I honestly don’t know what I would have done.”

That year, she kept what amounted to an emotional cooking journal, a season-by-season accounting of her recovery. It began to look like a book.

An editor helped her nudge it into a full-fledged cookbook. Reichl spent another year recreating what she had done the first year, this time during visits from the photographer Mikkel Vang, who captured her tossing leaves in the air, trudging to her writing cabin in the snow and cooking the book’s recipes.

There is congee, apricot pie and an easy version of sausage Bolognese that she cooked after the grim day that friends from Los Angeles helped her pack her office at Gourmet. She broke out of a bout of self-pity and grief by making a giant two-layer chocolate cake with whipped cream cheese in the frosting.

After decades as an editor who encouraged readers to apply elaborate cooking methods to the Thanksgiving turkey, Reichl breaks free from the tyranny of innovation and admits that simply shoving an unseasoned bird into a 450-degree oven is the best way to go.

She drives around the Hudson Valley in the Lexus she got to keep as part of her Condé Nast severance package, which also included enough money to knock down the note on the house. The car has 100,000 miles on it. Reichl, who has a deeply entrenched thrift gene, intends to add another 100,000. “She’d buy a three-legged card table if she could get a deal,” Singer said.

She regularly kibitzes with other writers and food people who make the Hudson Valley home. “That wandering-around-and-picking-stuff-up kind of cooking, I really hadn’t been able to do that since I left Berkeley,” she said.

And she spends a lot of time engaged with the couple’s cats, two Russian blues she got from a shelter named Cielo and ZaZa, who look exactly like what would arrive if you called central casting and ordered up cats for Ruth Reichl.

Like her good friend Alice Waters, baker Dorie Greenspan and Paula Wolfert, the cook with Alzheimer’s disease whose work is being turned into a cookbook thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, Reichl is a revered icon among younger cooks.

“I am of a group that just learned by cooking,” she said. “You did it and you got better as you got older because you learned by doing, not by going to the CIA” — the Culinary Institute of America.

That means she still messes up dishes, and her knife skills are ridiculously bad. “It’s like if you teach yourself to swim and you do it the wrong way,” she said. “I don’t swim right either, but I swim.”

But here in her U-shaped kitchen in the country late in the afternoon, neither the future nor the past seems to matter much. Singer walks by and hugs her around the waist. The cats sneak onto the counter. Pâté made from the livers of local pastured chickens is set out next to cold salmon roe that will be folded into butter-soaked buckwheat blinis she is cooking on a pan that is nearly black from use.

A collection of writers and friends sit at her counter, drinking wine and watching her cook. Behind them, tall windows frame the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains.

“I realize,” Reichl said, “I gave myself the view.”


Makes 20 to 25 servings

In her new book, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life,” Ruth Reichl calls this the cake that cures everything. The recipe produces a large stacked rectangular layer cake with whipped cream cheese in the frosting to add lightness and stability. The cake is very tender, based on a technique she first started using when she was a cook at the Swallow, a restaurant collective in Berkeley, Calif.

11/8unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process), plus more for dusting the pans

¾ cup whole milk

1½ teaspoons vanilla

3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda


1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1½ cups dark-brown sugar

1½ cups sugar

6 eggs

5 ounces unsweetened chocolate

¾ cups (1½ sticks) unsalted butter

1 cup whipped cream cheese

1 teaspoon vanilla

2½ cups powdered sugar

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter two large rectangular baking pans (13 by 9 by 2 inches) and line them with waxed or parchment paper. Butter the paper and dust the pans with cocoa (you could use flour, but cocoa adds color and flavor).

2. Measure the cocoa powder into a bowl, and whisk in 1½ cups of boiling water until it is smooth, dark and so glossy it reminds you of chocolate pudding. Whisk in the milk and vanilla. In another bowl, whisk the flour with the baking soda and ¾ teaspoon salt.

3. Put the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer and beat in the sugars until it is light, fluffy and the color of coffee with cream (about five minutes). One at a time, add the eggs, beating for about 20 seconds after each before adding the next. On low speed, beat in the flour mixture in three batches and the cocoa mixture in two, alternating flour-cocoa-flour-cocoa-flour.

4. Pour half the batter into each pan and smooth the tops. Bake in the middle of the oven until a tester comes out clean, 25 to 35 minutes. Let the pans rest on cooling racks for two minutes, then turn the cakes onto racks to cool completely before frosting.

5. Make the frosting: Chop the chocolate and melt it in a double boiler. Let it cool so that you can comfortably put your finger in it. While it’s cooling, mix the butter with the whipped cream cheese. Add the chocolate, the vanilla and a dash of salt, and mix in the powdered sugar until it looks like frosting, at least five minutes. Assemble the cake, spreading about a third of the frosting on one of the cooled layers, then putting the second layer on top and frosting the assembled cake.

— Adapted from “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life,” by Ruth Reichl