When I lived in North Cambridge in the early 90s, we lost our electricity with depressing regularity during the summer. Suddenly we would be plunged into inky darkness and, with the silencing of fans and air conditioners, radios and TVs, the neighborhood would become eerily quiet, except for one sound. My neighbor had a battery-operated cassette player and, apparently, only one cassette: Madonna’s songs from the soundtrack to the movie Dick Tracy. He played it relentlessly, and the tunes wound their way between the houses and down the street until finally even he couldn’t take it any more.

Sometimes, in an effort to take our minds off the heat, the darkness, and our neighbor’s taste in music, my housemate and I would engage in long, rambling discussions about nothing in particular. One topic we lighted upon was: if forced to choose between the following foods, which would it be?

Round One: tomatoes or chocolate? Round Two: Bread or cake?

My roommate surprised me by picking chocolate and cake. I had no idea he was so impractical! To be honest, though, my own choices, tomatoes and bread, weren’t based purely on practicality or nutritional value — they were based on love. I can’t imagine a world without tomatoes. I’m glad I didn’t live in Europe BT (before tomatoes).

Come to think of it, pre-Columbian South America was probably no picnic either, but at least they had tomatoes and chocolate.

Here are two recipes that make the most of bread and tomatoes and chocolate and cake. Panzanella is a bread and tomato salad, and I’ve also created a vegan recipe for chocolate cherry cake.

Panzanella with Lemon-Chive Vinaigrette
Serves four as a side dish, two as a main dish

Most classic recipes for Panzanella call for red wine vinegar, but I wanted to create one with a little bit different flavor profile. I used sourdough bread, lemon juice instead of red wine vinegar, and mustard to turn the dressing into a vinaigrette.

I’m not a huge lover of sourdough, so the next time I made it I stuck with regular French bread, but if you really like sourdough, by all means try it in this recipe. The flavor really comes through.

If you have the chance to use tomatoes of different colors, the salad will be absolutely beautiful. Put the bread cubes out the night before (or at least early in the morning) so that they can get stale before it’s time to make the salad, and be sure to use a good, strong loaf of French, Italian, or Pullman bread. If you don’t start with sturdy bread you will end up with mush. Trying to “flash dry” the bread by baking it in the oven or even leaving it in the oven (with just the pilot going) to dry overnight can over-dry it, and when you add the liquid it will just turn to paste. My method is to cut the bread into cubes, put it in a paper bag to keep critters out (cats and whoever else shows an interest), and let it sit out on the counter overnight. That usually does the trick.

You can make the tomato salad part of the dish right before serving it, or early in the morning on the day you plan to serve it. Store it in the fridge if you make it several hours before serving, but don’t add the bread cubes (step three) until 30 minutes before serving. Be sure to give the tomatoes time to come to room temp before serving.

Ingredients:
3 cups fresh whole tomatoes, chopped
3/4 teaspoon salt (or more if you prefer, but wait until serving to decide)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
pinch sugar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon grainy mustard (optional)
8 – 10 leaves of basil, shredded (rolled into a ball and cut with a knife)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 and 1/2 cups cubed stale French or Italian bread (1″ cubes are good)

  1. Chop enough tomatoes to make 3 cups. Pour the chopped tomatoes and their juices into a bowl. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the salt and pepper. Add the pinch of sugar and toss. Wait five minutes.
  2. Pour the olive oil and lemon juice into a jar. Add the mustard if you like. Shake the jar and then pour the oil-lemon juice mix over the tomatoes. Add the shredded basil and chopped chives. Toss until everything is evenly distributed. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve it, but let it come to room temperature before serving.
  3. About 30 minutes before serving add the bread. Toss thoroughly.
  4. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve at room temperature.

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Vegan Chocolate Cherry Cake
Serves nine modest-portion-type people or six piggywigs.
Takes about five minutes to make and 25 minutes to bake.

This cake is based very, very loosely on a chocolate “salad dressing cake” from Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book, which I read obsessively as a kid. (The book was very subversive for its day.) This cakes goes by other names as well — wacky cake, crazy cake, etc. — but it’s always very good. One day it occurred to me that, due to the lack of eggs or dairy products, it’s also completely vegan.

I created a cherry version by substituting cherry juice for water and almond extract for vanilla (almonds and cherries are botanically related and taste great together), and adding whole cherries to the batter. I can’t always afford fresh cherries, so I sometimes use cherries from a jar or from the freezer.

If you use frozen cherries, a little bit of the cake around the cherry will still be “molten” like the fancy cakes offered in restaurants. It makes the cake slightly tricky to cut, but it’s worth it. Also, the longer you are able to restrain yourself and let the cake cool, the easier it will be to cut.

Serve slightly warm with whipped cream for best effect.

Sift together:
1 and 1/2 cups white flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup sugar

Mix these wet ingredients:
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup cherry juice
2 tsp. almond extract

Later add:
2 Tbsp. Raspberry vinegar

Then add:
About 10 cherries

For the whipped cream:
1/2 pint heavy cream
1 Tablespoon powdered or granulated sugar
1 Tablespoon Kirsch (cherry liquor) – optional

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Mix the dry ingredients together in a 9×9 baking pan. Put all the wet ingredients into a liquid measuring cup and add them to the dry ingredients. Stir until the batter is uniformly smooth. (Some dry ingredients hide out in the corners of the pan so be sure to dig down to incorporate those.)
  3. When the batter is thoroughly mixed add the vinegar. Incorporate the vinegar thoroughly and then put about 10 cherries spaced evenly throughout the pan.
  4. Bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes. The cake may crack a bit on the top. Put a toothpick in the center to check if it’s done. If the toothpick comes out dry or almost dry, take the cake out of the oven.
  5. Chill the beaters and bowl that you’ll be using to make the whipped cream in your refrigerator. Add the ingredients and beat until the cream holds soft peaks.