Among the many, many tidbits of maternal advice I have managed to defy for most of my life is the maxim: Entertaining guests is not the time to try out a new dish.
My mother, like many ambitious housewives of her time, always viewed entertaining as a high-risk activity, akin maybe to making your Broadway debut as a tap-dancer or undertaking childbirth unmedicated. If quiche became the new lasagne in the 1970s, it was because
1. It’s an absolutely failsafe culinary procedure (especially if you start with frozen pie crust) and
2. You can make it hours and hours in advance, so in the unlikely event that you actually find a way to mess it up, you still have time to make three or four attempts before the guests come.
My mother would never have dreamed of serving meatloaf to dinner guests. Everyone in those days understood meatloaf to be Family-Only. Which means, incidentally, that very few people ever grew up being exposed to any meatloaf other than their own Ancestral Meatloaf, and therefore we were all oblivious to the endless potential for culinary creativity meatloaf offers. If your mom used a pork/beef mixture, that’s what you think meatloaf is made of. If she seasoned it with dried onion soup mix, you expect it to have that exact flavor. If she overkneaded and what you always got was a dried out little Meat Brick, on the other hand, you may have turned against it forever, which in my view would be almost tragic. In any case, by the time you’re a grown-up and encounter non-Ancestral Meatloaf, because your roommate or your partner decides to make you theirs, or you order it in a restaurant, your knee-jerk reaction on tasting it is almost always: That’s just wrong!
That was the theory behind the Meatloaf Dinner Party I gave a few years ago, which turned into one of my early radio stories. I found that I often got into heated arguments with people about my own Ancestral Meatloaf–which had originally come from instructions on the Quaker Oatmeal box, though it had evolved somewhat–in which I was liable to become shockingly insistent. It was so obvious to me that oatmeal was the perfect binding method for soaking up egg and keeping the texture light and the loaf moist, I just couldn’t understand how anyone could think of using anything else. And for flavor, you just couldn’t beat the practice of laying a few strips of bacon across the top to bathe your loaf in just a touch of smokey, piggy goodness. Right? But then there would be the other person, getting all worked up about adding a can of Cream of Mushroom soup. I began to wonder: is meatloaf primarily a culinary experience, or an emotional one? If I invited a bunch of people over and everyone brought the meatloaf they love, would anyone actually be able to convert anyone else at the table to their own opinion?
I won’t reveal the answer. If you want to know, go click on the story and listen. I’ll just say that I myself remain very exclusively attached to my own Ancestral Meatloaf–but that, as with everything I cook, it’s always open to variations and improvisations.
Do I have to explain why, then, when someone left a bunch of tube-cake pans out in the staff lounge where I work, with a sign that said, FREE TO A GOOD HOME, what immediately popped into my mind was a vision of a gorgeous Meatloaf Bundt Cake? It might help you to know that the oatmeal meatloaf recipe was actually a rather late development in my childhood, and that the very first meatloaf I can remember eating was the one in Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls. It was called Meatloaf a la Mode, and was cleverly made in a pie pan so you could cut it into pie-shaped wedges and top each of them with a scoop of mashed potatoes, to look like ice cream. Is that witty, or what? Does anyone believe that plating doesn’t make a difference to Boys and Girls and their developing palates and imaginations, because I’m going to speculate that meatloaf might never have impressed me as having the potential to dazzle if all I’d ever encountered was meatloaf that always thought inside the loaf pan.
I might also mention that the reason what didn’t pop into my head when I looked at those cake pans was cake was that I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic baker, and in fact when I got them home and thought about how cheap and tinny they looked, I began to have second thoughts about whether they actually were cake pans, or might instead be for something not intended for baking, for instance, Jell-O. But by that point I was already imagining filling in the inner crater of my Meatloaf Bundt Cake with a mountain of mashed potatoes, and I had already invited guests.
There were only two catastrophes I could foresee standing between me and my creation. One was that the meat would get stuck to the pan as it cooked and prevent my being able to invert it onto a plate. But I recalled that when we’d made terrines and pates in culinary school, we’d often lined the pans with bacon before filling them. Coating the entire tube pan with traditional bacon strips seemed excessively bacony even to me, so I went to my favorite European-style grocery store and asked them to slice me some of their extra-wide Danish bacon as thin as they possibly could. What they gave me was thin as tissue–half-transparent and so delicate that it came apart if I didn’t handle it gently enough–but it seemed like just the thing to cover all the surface area without overdoing the bacon element.
The other danger, I figured, was having no idea how long to cook it. The tube was actually quite thin, so it seemed logical that the loaf would cook more quickly than one big fat brick, even if the quantity of meat was roughly the same.
By this time our guests were certainly on their way and there were other things to be attended to like clean plates and napkins, so I set the oven for 35 minutes and said a quick prayer to Betty Crocker. What really helps with hostess anxiety, though, is that little teeny pre-guest glass of Hostess Wine.
Oh, Diary, the Meatloaf Bundt Cake was a smashing success! It slipped right out of the tube pan onto the serving plate with that delicate Danish bacon clinging to its slopes in lacey panels. The potatoes filled the center, rising up in a delcious buttery, creamy cloud. I served it with a beet salad whose recipe described it as “gutsy,” Because that’s how you have to be sometimes, when guests are coming over, and the person you most hope not to bore is yourself.