The 1980s were a time of big hair, leg warmers and, yikes, parachute pants.
And culinarily, the decade was all over the map.
The most important figure in the American food world throughout the 1980s was probably Paul Prudhomme, who elevated New Orleans cooking to haute status and singlehandedly created the blackened seafood craze.
Meanwhile, it was frat boys and fern bars that were responsible for potato skins, which scooped out the healthy parts of a baked potato and left behind high-calorie toppings. The big-hair crowd was sipping wine coolers and Fuzzy Navels.
For my culinary tour of the 1980s, I wanted something better, something bigger. So I began with what may be the decade’s quintessential dish, Chicken Marbella. First popularized in “The Silver Palate Cookbook” in 1982, Chicken Marbella became one of those dishes that, for several years, was served at practically every dinner party across the nation.
The idea was revolutionary at the time. An ordinary chicken was made both salty and sweet with plenty of olives and capers and prunes and brown sugar.
When I made it, I remembered why it was so popular. The olives and capers do not fight the prunes and sugar, they join together in mutual understanding, peace and happiness. And along with a healthy dose of oregano and a healthier one of garlic, they turn an ordinary chicken into something sublime.
Next up was one of those dishes that sounded perfectly dreadful but actually turned out to be remarkably satisfying: Impossible Cheeseburger Pie.
Another staple of the 1980s potluck circuit, Impossible Cheeseburger Pie is an entree version of those impossible desserts that were popular at the time (and some that still are). Basically, you mix together a bunch of ingredients including Bisquick baking mix, bake it, and the Bisquick, eggs and milk find their way to the bottom and sides to form a crust.
The result is sort of a half-quiche, half-savory-pancake. This particular version, which was unsurprisingly created by the folks at Bisquick, also includes ground beef, onions and melted cheese. It doesn’t really resemble the cheeseburger of the title, but it wouldn’t be as popular if they called it a Beef-and-Cheese Quasi-Quiche.
For an appetizer, I turned to a dish surely found among the appetizers at every fern bar of the ‘80s, Baked Brie (fern bars themselves were sort of the ultimate expression of the decade’s sensibilities).
Baked Brie is an idea that is as simple as it is mouth-watering. Take a wheel of brie, top it with a bit of flavor (cranberry jam, for instance, or the combination of pecans and brown sugar that I used), wrap it in puff pastry, and bake it.
When you cut into the golden-brown pastry, the runny cheese oozes out, along with a bit of the sweet nuts. Just spread it on a cracker or a slice of baguette, and you have one of the best taste sensations of the decade.
But not the very best. That would have to be reserved for tiramisu.
Created in Italy in the 1960s or early 1970s, tiramisu made its way to this country in the late ‘80s and soon made its way to the dessert menu of most Italian restaurants. When it jumped to the dessert menu of non-Italian restaurants, it had truly arrived.
The secrets to making great tiramisu are to take the time to make it and to use the right ingredients. If you make the quick version or substitute cheaper ingredients you are going to end up with a gloppy mess that is quite unlike tiramisu.
The version I made was divine. It was as light as air — though air flavored with coffee and brandy — and it melted seductively on your tongue.
That is because I took the time to make a true zabaglione — a custard flavored with Marsala wine — and I folded in the ingredients with care. I flavored it with a fair amount of brandy (I’ve always thought the best tiramisu is boozy) and used real espresso, heavy cream and plenty of mascarpone cheese.
It wasn’t cheap, but it was worth it. And for the decade that gave us “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” it was absolutely fitting.
4 ounces orange juice
2 ounces peach schnapps
Mix together juice and schnapps. Serve over ice in an old fashioned glass.
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives
1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 head of garlic, peeled and finely pureed
1/4 cup dried oregano
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 chickens (2 1/2 pounds each), quartered, or 10 pounds chicken parts
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley or fresh cilantro, finely chopped
Combine the olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, capers and juice, bay leaves, garlic, oregano and salt and pepper. Add the chicken and stir to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Arrange the chicken in a single layer in 1 or 2 large, shallow baking pans and spoon the marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with the brown sugar and pour the white wine around them.
Bake, basting frequently with the pan juices, until the thigh pieces yield clear yellow (rather than pink) juice when pricked with a fork, 50 minutes to 1 hour.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken, prunes, olives and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of the pan juices and sprinkle generously with the parsley or cilantro. Pass the remaining pan juices in a sauceboat.
Impossible Cheeseburger Pie
1 tablespoon oil
1 pound ground beef
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup Bisquick baking mix
1 large tomato, sliced
1 cup shredded cheddar or American cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9- or 10-inch pie plate. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add oil. Add the beef, onion, salt and pepper and saute until beef is brown; drain. Spread in prepared pie plate.
In a medium bowl or blender, beat milk, baking mix and eggs until smooth. Pour on top of beef mixture in pie plate. Bake 25 minutes. Top with tomatoes, sprinkle with cheese. Bake until knife inserted in center comes out clean, 5 to 8 minutes. Cool before serving.
Serves six to eight.
1/2 cup pecan halves
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 package (1 piece) frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 (8-ounce) round of brie
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons heavy cream
In a small bowl, combine pecans and sugar, using your fingers to thoroughly mix; set aside. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat; set aside.
Lightly dust work surface with flour. Cut the piece of puff pastry in half and place on the work surface, one piece directly on top of the other. Using a rolling pin, adhere the 2 pieces of puff pastry together. Continue rolling puff pastry until it is very thin, slightly less than 1/8 inch thick.
Place the brie in the center of the puff pastry. Top the brie with the pecan mixture, spreading to within 1/2 inch of the edge of the cheese.Fold puff pastry up and over brie to enclose. Use knife or scissors to trim excess pastry, reserving scraps. Transfer brie to prepared baking sheet.
In a small bowl, combine egg yolk and cream to make an egg wash. Cut reserved scraps of puff pastry to make decorative shapes. Using a pastry brush, gently brush the decorative shapes with the egg wash, and adhere to the wrapped brie. Brush the wrapped brie evenly with the egg wash. Refrigerate at least 3 hours and up to overnight.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake brie until golden brown and puffed, about 30 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake until dark golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes more. Serve with baguette, crackers or fruit.
Serves six to eight.
6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup Marsala wine (or port or sherry)
3/4 cup heavy cream
32 ounces (four 8-ounce containers) mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups espresso or strong coffee, at room temperature
1/2 cup brandy or cognac
30 to 32 crisp Italian ladyfingers (savoiardi)
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
Bittersweet chocolate, for shaving
Line an 8-inch-square baking dish with plastic wrap, leaving a 3-inch overhang on all sides. Fill a large bowl with ice water.
Make the zabaglione (custard): Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a double boiler or a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water (do not let the bowl touch the water) until the sugar dissolves. Whisk in the Marsala. Slowly whisk in the cream and cook, whisking constantly, until the custard has thickened, about 10 minutes (a thermometer inserted into the mixture should register 170 degrees).
Remove the bowl from the saucepan and set in the bowl of ice water; whisk until the custard is cool, about 1 minute. Put the mascarpone in a large bowl, Fold the custard into the mascarpone with a rubber spatula until almost combined, then whisk until just smooth (do not overmix or the custard will be grainy).
Combine the espresso and brandy in a shallow bowl. One at a time, dip the ladyfingers into the espresso mixture until soaked but not soggy, and arrange them in a single layer in the baking dish (you may have to break some in half to complete the layer). Spread 1/3 of the mascarpone custard over the ladyfingers. Repeat with a second layer of espresso-dipped ladyfingers, arranging them in the opposite direction. Top with another 1/3 of the custard. Repeat with the remaining ladyfingers, alternating directions. Spread the remaining custard on top and dust with cocoa powder. Cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.
Invert a plate on top of the tiramisu, then flip the tiramisu with the plate. Remove the baking dish and plastic wrap. Invert a serving plate on top of the tiramisu and flip again so it is cocoa-side up. Remove the remaining plastic wrap. Shave curls of chocolate on top with a vegetable peeler.