Al Sicherman kept his important documents, including will and health care directive, in the crisper drawer of his refrigerator.
It was classic Sicherman. Practical (he wasn’t using the vegetable drawer anyway because, as he often noted, he didn’t like vegetables). Pragmatic (“When you die, sooner or later, somebody always cleans out the fridge” was his rationale, after having a hard time finding his father’s will years earlier). Funny (yes, indeed, he was funny).
He was all that and more.
Sicherman — oh, can we dispense with newspaper formality and refer to him as Al, as readers did? — died Sunday at age 75.
Al was a longtime writer for Taste, 26 years as a reporter before he retired and another nine as a freelancer for the Star Tribune.
He fell into his job like so many food writers did at the time, simply by chance.
In his case, the electrical-engineer-turned-journalist made the leap from copy editor to food writer when a colleague became ill. A two-week stint turned into three when he found he enjoyed the work. The rest is history.
Al debuted on March 26, 1981, with his twist on the movie title “Splendor in the Grass.” In his hands it became “Fat City Diner: Splendor in the Grease,” which wallowed in all things caloric.
“We seem to be a nation on a diet,” were his first words — and as readers would learn in the ensuing years, he was not a fan of diets. Then Al marched off to the kitchen, with a menu that took his premise to the extremes. He turned to this format for years, with a litany of recipes that might not be seriously intended for consumption in one sitting. The recipes were simply a prop for this masterful storyteller.
For his first story, he wove a tale of warm rolls with butter, hard-cooked eggs with mayo, scallops in cream sauce gratinée, duck with orange sauce, fettuccine Alfredo and finished with a torte soufflé au chocolat with whipped cream.
At a time when food writing tended to be strait-laced, Al shattered the template.
He went on to devise recipes for at-home State Fair foods (corn dogs, deep-fried cheese curds, mini-doughnuts), and an all-Spam dinner, for the anniversary of Allied troops landing on the Normandy coast.
“It is also fitting ... that we recognize that those soldiers were bringing to the yearning millions of Western Europe not only the breath of freedom but also incidentally American chocolate bars, chewing gum and, perhaps least consciously, Spam,” he wrote in a column that included a dessert made from that very product, manufactured by Hormel in Austin, Minn. (a mincemeat kind of bar cookie with cranberry sauce, raisins and orange marmalade).
His food articles and recipes were later collected in “Caramel Knowledge,” which he initially published on his own, but was later republished by Harper & Row. (Though out of print, the book can be found at amazon.com, along with his later “Uncle Al’s Geezer Salad,” a collection of his humor columns.)
In 1988, he landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal because of his book. Later he would tell the Christian Science Monitor, “I’m more read than cooked. More people read my recipes than prepare them but all my recipes are decent, and some of them are wonderful. The directions are carefully written.”
Indeed they were. And often long. He brought the precision of an engineer to food writing, and even to his careful proofreading of the Taste pages.
Before the section went to press, he could be found hunched over the proofs, pen tucked behind his ear, examining recipes ingredient-by-ingredient to assure both accuracy and clarity. No matter how many editors had read the same copy, Al could always find something to improve. (Always. Sometimes he drove his editor crazy.)
He spent decades writing the Tidbits column in Taste, where his alter ego Mr. Tidbit took aim at the craziness of new products, from artificial sweeteners to oat bran to Pokemon Mac & Cheese.
Long before the recent trend of science-based explanations for recipes, Al wrote a series of cooking lessons that explained the how and why of culinary techniques. The recipes he included tended to be some kind of sweet (he’d grown to love French pastries during visits to Paris).
Al created a weekly column on his favorite foods, Just Desserts, the source of many calories fed to the newsroom post-photography in a disturbing scene of feeding frenzy. (“Make desserts, not war!” he wrote in an autograph for one of his books.) But he was specific in what was a suitable sweet: “Banana is not a dessert in my book. Even sweet quickbreads, such as banana bread, are (if you ask me) snacks. At best.”
His work went beyond the pages of Taste. In the Sunday magazine, he wrote that Ernest Hemingway would be stepping in to fill his column space, with the text then appearing in the novelist’s voice, along with a recipe for “Old Man and the Seafood.” A review of a cookbook for children had him writing in the rhymes of Dr. Seuss.
Al branched out to add a weekly humor column to his duties, which brought him additional fans and added a new persona, Uncle Al, to the mix.
Many readers know him from the heartbreaking story he wrote of the death of his 18-year-old son Joe, who died after taking LSD. “Hug your kids,” he reminded us then, and twice yearly in the Tidbits column, on Joe’s birthday and the anniversary of his death. Al met with thousands of students over the years, where he would read that essay on grief and loss.
But Al was more than his newspaper stories.
In 1980, long before becoming mayor of Minneapolis and then CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, R.T. Rybak was a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune with Al. When one of their colleagues didn’t have a place to go at Easter, Rybak invited a group, including Al, to his mother’s house for the holiday.
The tradition continued through this past spring; each year they colored eggs as well as feasted on the meal. “You can imagine the jokes of this Jewish kid from Milwaukee coloring the Easter eggs,” Rybak said recently with a laugh.
Rybak went on vacation to Mexico with Al and colleagues. “Traveling with Al was like going to a place twice, once through your eyes and the other through Al’s otherworldly eyes.”
On a trip to Oaxaca, the group walked around the marketplace, visiting craft stores, buying the usual trinkets, when they saw Al coming around the corner. He was carrying a gunnysack of chocolate to make mole.
Al would occasionally offer his cooking services for a charity’s silent auction. On one occasion, a couple bid on a meal without knowing anything about the fellow who would be preparing it. Rybak was there to witness the scene.
“They walked into his house, which was really cluttered with all sorts of stuff, and there was this guy turning out the most bizarre meal. They were just stunned. That was what happens when normalcy parachuted into Al’s world,” said Rybak.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who marched to his own drummer more than Al. He simply did not get the junior-high conformist gene. He knew exactly who he was and didn’t seem bothered at all if that was the norm or not.”
Al was generous, inquisitive and wildly creative (see the all-Spam dinner). At age 61, he took up the piano, after dropping it in the first grade when he disagreed with demands on which fingers to use on the keys. He spent a year mastering Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2, before moving on to other pieces by the composer.
“He had perfect pitch for music,” said Catherine Watson, his former wife, soul mate and retired travel editor at the Star Tribune. “It’s that mathematical correlation. It also gave him a perfect ear for language.”
He took lessons in Arabic, starting them before the Sept. 11 attacks. “He did it as the Middle East conflict escalated,” said Watson. “As a Jew, he wanted to do his part to make peace. That was Al in a nutshell.”
For a niece’s wedding, Al baked 10 cakes, with five flavors among them. He made the cake and frostings here, then drove them to Kansas City, Kan., where the wedding was to be held in a park. He frosted the cakes at the hotel, put them in his truck and delivered them to the reception.
Al loved puzzles and devised ways to present $50 in single bills to nieces and nephews at Christmas. One year it was a headband with a spray of dollars. Another time he made clear bars of soap and embedded the bills. He used the dollars to create folded “shirts,” using dimes for buttons, made wallets out of the money, and created hollow ornaments stuffed with the gift.
One of the last things he did at home was to pick black raspberries from his backyard and make jam from them. There are still jars waiting on his kitchen table to give away.
Oh, Al. We will miss you.
His legacy will live on at the dinner table of thousands.
A memorial service open to the public will be scheduled in the fall.
Note: “This is my favorite brownie recipe,” wrote Al Sicherman on April 19, 2007, on the occasion of his retirement. “I make it almost nonstop. I always top the brownies with chocolate ganache (see recipe) — half of it poured on and the other half chilled, whipped and pooted out into rosettes. Between the brownies, which are very chocolaty, and the ganache, this is one intensely chocolate experience.”
• 2/3 c. (10 2/3 tbsp.) butter, plus extra for pan
• 1 c. chopped pecans
• 2 (12-oz.) bags semisweet chocolate chips, divided
• 1 c. minus 2 tbsp. sugar
• 4 eggs
• 2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 1 c. plus 2 tbsp. flour
• 1 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. salt
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9- by 13-inch pan.
Toast the pecans in a heavy frying pan over low-medium heat, about 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they become fragrant and begin to color. Set aside.
In a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and 1 bag (2 cups) of the chocolate chips, stirring constantly.
Pour the chocolate-butter mixture into the large bowl of an electric mixer. Beat in the sugar, then the eggs (2 at a time), and the vanilla. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, and briefly beat into the batter. Stir in the pecans and the remaining bag (2 cups) of chips. Pour batter into pan. Bake about 30 to 35 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center until it comes out clean. Remove from oven and place pan on wire rack to cool. Top with Chocolate Ganache (see recipe).
Makes enough to glaze and make rosettes for 1 pan of brownies.
Note: “This is wonderful stuff,” wrote Sicherman. “Save the recipe even if you don’t want it for brownies. When warm, it’s a wonderful glaze; chilled and whipped it’s terrific cake frosting — and excellent truffles. If you’re using it for brownies and you don’t have a pastry bag to make rosettes, make only half of this recipe and just pour it over the brownies.”
• 1 1/2 c. heavy cream
• 4 tbsp. (1/2 stick) butter
• 1 (12-oz.) bag semisweet chocolate chips
Combine the cream and butter in a saucepan over medium heat and bring just to the boil, stirring occasionally to melt the butter.
Pour into the small bowl of an electric mixer. Stir in the chocolate chips, stirring until they are largely melted. Beat on low speed until the mixture is smooth and uniform. Pour about half of the ganache over the pan of brownies. Cool completely, then cut and refrigerate.
Chill the rest of the ganache in the mixer bowl with the beaters 30 minutes or more, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is cool and resembles thick cream.
Whip the chilled ganache until it is as stiff as whipped cream and pipe rosettes onto the chilled brownies. Wow. (You might have some left over; you’ll figure out what to do with it.)
Makes 20 to 24.
Note: This recipe for a variation on the Hostess Cupcake must be prepared in advance. “I was thinking the other day, while eating a Twinkie, about the recent Hostess advertising campaign that featured the slogan ‘Freshness never tasted so good,’ ” wrote Al Sicherman on Jan. 31, 1982. “Lest I give the wrong impression, I should point out immediately that I like Hostess Cupcakes, Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and the rest. I eat a lot of them. But, I reflected, I’ve never thought of them as fresh. I’ve thought of them as great-tasting, wonderful junk. If you really wanted a fresh Twinkie, I’ve said to myself almost every time I heard that ‘freshness never tasted so good’ commercial, you’d have to make it yourself. So I decided to try to do just that. You can’t make Twinkies, of course, or Ding Dongs, Ho Hos or Hostess Cupcakes, because those are product names owned by ITT Continental Baking Co., Rye, N.Y. But you could make something rather like them, say Binkies, Bing Bongs, Bo Bos and Bostess Bupcakes.” Find out more of Sicherman’s variations on these favorite snacks in his book “Caramel Knowledge,” which is out of print, but available on amazon.com.
• 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
• 1 c. milk, divided
• 1 c. brown sugar
• 2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk, divided
• 1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, plus extra for cupcake tins
• 1 c. granulated sugar
• 1/4 c. water
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
• 2 c. sifted cake flour
• 1 tsp. baking soda
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• Raspberry jelly, optional
• 2 tsp. powdered sugar
• 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
• 1 1/2 c. heavy cream
• 2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
• 1 tbsp. butter
• 1/4 c. hot water
• 1/8 tsp. salt
• 1 3/4 to 2 c. powdered sugar, divided
• 1 tsp. vanilla extract
For decorative icing:
• 2 to 3 tsp. milk
• 3/4 c. powdered sugar
To prepare cupcakes: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Liberally butter 24 cupcake tins.
Put 4 ounces chocolate, 1/2 cup milk, brown sugar and 1 egg yolk into a small saucepan over very low heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until it has thickened. If it begins to boil, get it off the heat — it has cooked enough. Set mixture aside to cool.
In the bowl of an electric mixer on medium speed, beat 1 stick butter until it has softened. Sift in granulated sugar gradually, continuing to beat, until the butter-sugar mixture is light and creamy.
Separate the 2 whole eggs, putting the whites into a small mixing bowl. Beat the yolks, 1 at a time, into the butter-sugar mixture. In a cup, combine 1/4 cup water, the remaining 1/2 cup milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Resift the sifted cake flour with the baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add to the butter mixture in thirds, alternating with thirds of the milk mixture. Beat the batter after each addition until it is smooth. Stir in the chocolate mixture and mix until well blended.
Clean the beaters thoroughly. In a medium bowl, with an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat egg whites until they are stiff but still glossy. Stir a spatulaful of the whites into the chocolate batter to lighten it. Then lightly fold in the remaining whites, incorporating them well but gently.
Fill prepared cupcake tins just a little more than half full. Bake between 12 and 15 minutes, turning the tins once for even baking, and remove them, when a toothpick tests absolutely clean. If in doubt, give them an extra minute. They’ll tear if they’re not fully done. Remove from oven and allow them to cool in the pans for 5 minutes. Run a knife around each cupcake, invert the tins and stand cupcakes right-side-up on a wire rack to cool.
When cupcakes are cool, use a sharp knife to slice off a bit of the top — a sliver about the size of a 25-cent piece. (Some cooks would take off the whole top, but this will show later, and is most un-Hostess-like). Save the slivers; we’ll be using them.
Using a teaspoon, carefully scoop out a nice chunk of the inside of each cupcake, but leave plenty of bottom and sides intact — both for strength and because it makes the cupcake taste good. This stuff is good enough, in fact, that you should save the scooped-out parts. (Put some in a bowl with milk or cream sometime. Great.)
Let the scooped-out cupcakes cool completely. If you like, you can depart from the standard Bostess Bupcake by putting a dab of raspberry jelly into each of the Bupcake cavities before you fill them with whipped cream. It’s not authentic, but it’s delicious.
To prepare filling: In a medium bowl, stir 2 teaspoons powdered sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla in the heavy cream. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat until mixture is very stiff. With a spoon or spatula, press the cream into the cooled cupcakes and more or less level off the tops.
Reposition a removed sliver of cupcake top back onto each Bupcake. (Without it, the cream would make the frosting hard to spread.)
Put the cupcakes into the refrigerator while you prepare the frosting.
To prepare frosting: In a small saucepan over very low heat, melt 2 ounces chocolate and 1 tablespoon butter together. Add 1/4 cup hot water and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Sift in about half (1 cup) of the powdered sugar, stirring. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla and then, while stirring, sift in as much of the rest of the powdered sugar as is needed to make a reasonably thick frosting.
Frost the cupcakes rapidly, before the frosting hardens. Return them to the refrigerator while you make the decorative icing.
To prepare decorative icing: You can, of course, buy the icing for the decoration in little plastic tubes at the grocery store, but it’s not any work to make it yourself. In a medium bowl, stir 2 to 3 teaspoons milk into 3/4 cup powdered sugar. Transfer the icing into a pastry bag fitted with a tiny tip, or cut the corner off a small plastic bag and fill the bag with icing.
You can make the decoration any way you want it, of course, or you could even skip it. The Hostess Cupcake is decorated with a line of loops. Here a wavy line is used, just in case Hostess has a trademark on the line of loops.
They must be kept refrigerated and are best if allowed to warm up for a half an hour or so before serving.