Perhaps nothing is obsessed over more than iconic television, and from 1994 to 2004, there was no show more iconic than Friends.
The quirky generational sitcom endeared its core cast of six to millions, breaking primetime TV taboos about sex, non-nuclear family structures, and erect nipples. In its decade run, Friends wasn't exactly known for pushing culinary boundaries. In fact, only Monica (a professional chef) and Joey (a human garbage disposal) regularly bring up food, but that didn't stop authors Amy Lyles Wilson and Jack Bishop from compiling Cooking with Friends, a book of recipes based on food from the NBC stalwart.
I was five years old when Friends hit the airwaves, but like so many Millennials and intrepid reporter Chris Packham, my girlfriend and I have been dutifully working through all 10 seasons since they resurfaced on Netflix on New Year's Day.
My girlfriend is a Phoebe/Rachel chimera, but I'm a total Monica. As such, when I find our dusty copy of Cooking with Friends lingering on the kitchen shelf, I decide to go all Julie & Julia on it.
In obsessive, excruciating detail, of course. Honestly, the prospect is more exciting than shark porn.
Drinks: Kirin Ichiban and Pilsner Urquell Appearance(s): S8:E5 "The One With Rachel's Date" (Kirin Ichiban) and S2:E15 "The One Where Joey Moves Out" (Pilsner Urquell)
Cooking with Friends doesn't designate any alcoholic drinks in its pages, which is boring. The only drinks featured are Central Perk recipes, many of which require a milk steamer, which I obviously don't have. Hot drinks don't pair well with the evening's selections anyway, so I go with two beers I've spied in the background of sets. Plus, drinking makes me Fun Jerry.
Beck's, Stella Artois, Miller Lite, Paulaner, Foster's, Carlsberg, Rolling Rock, Dos Equis, and Budweiser have all made appearances in Friends (this was before all brew brands were replaced with Heisler), but I choose to drink Kirin Ichiban and Pilsner Urquell, both of which can be spotted on top of Joey/Chandler/Rachel's fridge at different points in the series. I also consider Bud Ice, but I don't have a wedding dress to drink it in.
Appetizer: "Whipped Fish" on Endive Appearance(s): S1E15 "The One with the Stoned Guy"
Even though the most on-the-nose item in the book is a recipe for a breakfast item, Marcel's Banana Bread (sans meal worms, of course), we decide to prepare a dinner/dessert because there is a colossal amount of work to do in these three dishes.
Monica's salmon mousse was meant to impress Steve, a restaurateur played by Jon Lovitz who Mon is trying to impress with a home-cooked meal. Monica uses Joey as a guinea pig to test out the mousse, wherein he affectionately dubs the creamy concoction "whipped fish" and claims he's "happy [he's] just keeping it down."
Joey's assertion, though crude, isn't far off. The recipe for the mousse includes heavy cream, which I have to whip by hand since I don't have an electric mixer. It's labor-intensive and ultimately doesn't add a ton of texture to the end product, being smoothed over by the sour cream. I also pull a Monica and buy bone-in canned salmon, a mistake that my dog relishes as he chomps through the bony leftovers. Whatever, we pull enough from the skeleton to make do.
My girlfriend jailbreaks a freezer Ziploc into a makeshift pastry bag and pipes out the mixture onto endive leaves, which are like Belgian hearts of romaine, and we gobble them down. It's like fancy tuna salad, and the noshes would definitely impress Steve if he hadn't shown up to the dinner stoned and gravitated toward taco shells and cereal before Monica even got the chance to serve it.
It seems like the everyman appeal of the source material is lost in the technicality of recipes like these, though the result isn't unpleasing. Plus, the Urquell washes away the brine and salt beautifully, making the first course a marginal success.
Entrée: Monica's Meat Lasagna Appearance(s): S1E12 "The One With The Dozen Lasagnas," S1E2 "The One with the Sonogram at the End," S3E13 "The One Where Monica And Richard Are Friends," and S7E21 "The One with Rachel's Big Kiss"
Out of respect, I decide not to cook a main course that contains chicken or duck. Or Capuchin monkey, for that matter.
Lasagna is about as big of a running gag in Friends as Regina Phalange or Hugsy. At one point, Joey uses lasagna to leverage his parents' invite to Chandler and Monica's wedding, and Rachel loses Barry's wedding ring in a pasta bake early on in the series. It even makes a meme-y appearance in short-lived spin-off Joey.
The inspiration for this particular lasagna derives from the episode wherein Monica agrees to cater a party for her aunt Syl. Unfortunately, Syl doesn't make it clear that she wants vegetarian lasagna until Monica's already prepared 12 with meatballs every third layer.
At first, I'm wary of investing any time in a lasagna that doesn't contain ricotta, but, while mixing the meatballs as Cooking with Friends prescribes, I know this dish will be special. The meat is perfectly proportioned with bread crumbs and Parmesan, and the smell rising out of the pre-bake frying pan is intoxicating. We layer the casserole dish with noodles, meat, and cheese, and pop it in the oven, the entire kitchen filling with the smell of liquefying mozzarella. I repeatedly pop open the oven door and spy on the bubbling entrée like Gunther from across the coffee shop.
The end product is worthy of a spot on Alessandro's menu. The meat is perfectly cooked -- worth taking a bullet for -- and the noodles and cheese are ideal complements. My one complaint is that the level of Parmesan is a bit too sharp and dry over the top, but overall, it's hard to believe that, with a dish like this in Monica's back pocket, how could Ross be the favorite child?
Dessert: Chandler's "Could this BE Any More Fattening?" Cheesecake Appearance(s): S7E11 "The One with All the Cheesecakes"
This is one instance where Cooking with Friends is creepily prescient.
The cookbook was published in 1995, but in season 7, which aired in 2001, there is an episode wherein a cheesecake is accidentally mailed to Chandler, and he and Rachel eat the entire thing. When Mama's Little Bakery (a notorious Chicago cheesecake conglomerate) mistakenly sends another, they try to do the right thing and leave it for their neighbors but eventually cave to the cheesecake's allure.
Out of respect for this, and because we don't own a springform pan, I bake two cheesecakes. We cook them in Target-brand crusts, even though the recipe calls for a more DIY approach, because this is really an exhausting endeavor and my kitchen is the size of a Buick LeSabre. Beating the cream cheese to a whip takes roughly a half-hour because, again, no mixer. I double boil the bowl a bit to help it along before beating in the sugar, eggs, and vanilla with the same backbreaking fervor. By the time the batter is ready to pour, I feel like I've just tried to move a couch up a Manhattan staircase.
Between baking, settling, and cooking -- a cheesecake takes an inordinate amount of time to prepare -- we fudge this one a lot. Given that we went Phoebe on the recipe for this one, the cook time is inexact, and we overcook a bit. The graham cracker crust comes out smoking like Chandler in Tulsa. By the time we cut into it, it hits me how much dairy has gone into this meal -- the '90s was the Got Milk? (trademark Ross Gellar) heyday, after all -- so we heat up some frozen cherries to add to acid to the fat.
The loose take on the guidelines doesn't pay off. The body of the cake is spongy and dense. It could probably bounce. Not quite good enough to eat off the floor, unfortunately. It's charming, though, for nostalgia alone.