Oregano, who knew?

I never gave oregano much thought. I might dump some dried oregano in a pasta sauce if I had some around. If not, I’d rely on my trusty and dusty Italian Seasoning, the mysterious and ubiquitous blend of oregano, thyme and who knows what else is in there. Oregano did its Italian flavoring thing, but never really made an impression on me or my mouth.

About a month ago, I made Martha Stewart’s Escarole and Meatball Soup for a Sunday night dinner. Since I was determined to make the soup just like Martha, I bought both three ingredients I had never used before: escarole, dried currants and fresh oregano.

The soup came out pretty good, though next time I will go to the extra effort of making my own chicken broth since the canned broth I used was too salty. The best part of the soup was getting two eye-opening new green ingredients into my refrigerator: escarole and fresh oregano.

I’m continuing to experiment with winter leafy greens like escarole, kale and mustard greens, but I’m already loyal to fresh oregano. After using the fresh oregano in the soup and then in a stew, I wanted to use up the rest of the oregano before it dired out. Last night, reminded of an episode of Daisy Cooks where she used fresh oregano on a whole chicken, I made Mark Bittman’s Puerto Rican Style Pork. I coated the pork join with a paste of onion, garlic, fresh oregano, salt, pepper and vinegar over night and then I roasted it.

I expected that the pork would taste Italian, since I had only associated oregano with Italian cooking. I also thought that the pungent spice paste would burn during the long roasting time, leaving the bitterness of burned garlic.

I was wrong. The moist meat had a smoky, but not charred taste. The oregano – fresh and pulled from its Italian seasoning sisters -- contributed an herbal, summer-y edge that somehow penetrated deep into the meat.

I under-cooked the meat though. I was so worried about drying out the outside that the inside near the bone was too pink to eat. R* and I and our guest still had fun hacking into the roast with a cleaver like the recipe said to do.

New Year's Eve with Shirley'sTunnel-of-Fudge

Lots of recipes are stuck in my head -- my great-grandmother's oatmeal breakfast and lemon cake, both served with coffee perking away on the counter, or this odd concoction ofmicrowaved chicken breast, sour cream and canned water chestnuts that I learned to make with my mom that, back when microwaing was a novelty.

Then there's the kind of recipe that's stuck in my head for no good reason. Some people have songs that run through their heads over and over. I'm that way with recipes. And like people who sing the song to get it out of their heads, I cook it out.

After reading about Shirley's Tunnel-of-Fudge in The New York Times Magazine, the cake kept repeating in my mind and I realized baking it was the only way to knock it out. I don't think I ever through it would be my dream chocolate cake since there was no true chocolate in it, just cocoa powder, and I've never really liked fudge, but I was fascinated with the idea of it: fudgy in the middle and cake-y on the outside. Using the bundt pan always feels fun too, homey and pretty with some reference to the '60s. Iconic and just a little bit ironic and, best of all, no frosting required.

I started making Shirley's cake before our New Year's Eve steak dinner. Our guest arrived and distracted me with champagne. Then, I realized we were out of eggs. I had to send R* to the deli for more. I needed the broiler for the steaks, so I realized I couldn't have the tunnel baked and cooled in time for 2005. No matter since we already had an apple pie from Cousin John's. On our way out to see the fireworks, I pushed the top of the cake down as the recipe instructs, to remove any air pockets between the fudge and the bottom of the cake. Weird and it didn't feel like I was doing much.

We made it back home by 1:30 or so. I popped the cooled cake out of the bundt pan and went to bed. It came out all in one piece, but it looked pale for a chocolate cake and some walnuts poked through the dry crust like fossils. I wasn't excited to taste the cake, more I was excited to slice inside my experiment and see if the fudge really formed.

Well, with four cups of sugar, of course the fudge formed. It was our Count Chocoula-style breakfast for a sleepy New Year's Day. Interesting to learn about how all that sugar worked in the oven, but not delicious. We ate about a third of it and I threw the rest away the next weekend, though I was sad to get rid of so many good walnuts. I wonder why The Times would reprint this recipe and I wonder if the tunnel will become part of our New Year's tradition.

I'm back on my search for the perfect, easy, moist chocolate cake.