Tasty Treat: Talking Shop with Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman

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Photo credit: Jacket photograph by Deb Perelman. Jacket design by Carole Devine Carson.

Just before my favorite holiday last week, I sat down with the prolific food-blogger-turned-cookbook-author Deb Perelman. The founder of the Smitten Kitchen was recently given a spot on the Forward 50 and is currently touring the U.S. to promote her new book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Wisdom from an Obsessive Home Cook. Next week, I will post more of the story about how her recipes have inspired my own culinary pursuits. But first, here is your chance to be a fly on the wall in our conversation about how she came to write and publish her delicious new book.

Etta King: I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about people in your family, or people that you have looked up to as role models.

Deb Perelman: I was very fond of my father’s mother, my grandmother—well both my grandmothers—but I was very close with her. She died when I was 13 though, but she loved to cook and she had two sisters who passed away much later than her and one of them was the great cook in the family. There are actually a lot of people on that side of the family that like to cook. The sour cream chocolate chip coffee cake on the site is from that part of the family, as is my family’s noodle kugel.

The great story about that is that my mother had it at a bridal shower, not her own, for a cousin of my dad’s and she asked for the recipe and my Aunt Bea, who is my grandmother’s sister, said “Not unless you marry Michael.” So my mom says that she married my dad for the noodle kugel recipe. She thinks this was a good choice…it’s like her desert island food. It’s like her favorite food on earth. She will tell you this within ten seconds of meeting you.

EK: Desperate times called for desperate measures it sounds like.

DP: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I guess people have gotten married for worse reasons!

EK: I have a question also about what the food culture in your family was like growing up. It’s clear that you have these family recipes, but was food more central or less central in your family life?

Deb Perelman
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Smitten Kitchen's Deb Perelman. Photo credit: Elizabeth Bick Photography

DP: I don’t think food was hugely central. I do think something interesting is that my parents got married in 1968, and my mom didn’t know how to cook. My dad knew how to cook a few things—you know like meatballs, or like, flank steak or whatever—and he had this idea that he was going to teach my mom how to cook. My mom thought that was a terrible idea…and she said no. Instead my mom turned on the T.V. one day and there was Julia Child and she was whisking eggs and blanching asparagus, and my mom was like “I want that!” And so, she bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she worked her way through it—that is sort of how my mom taught herself to cook. I call her the original Julie/Julia Project—the Judy/Julia Project.

I think the one thing is that it affected my cooking orientation a bit because I think I have a lot more very French cooking orientation than your average Jewish girl from the New Jersey suburbs. I feel like we had more beef bourguinon than brisket growing up. Not that we had fancy French food every night, but I definitely felt quite familiar with the idea of quiche, asparagus, arugula, artichokes, these were some of my favorite foods growing up, and they still are. I remember early on a reader was like, “You’ve never had tzimmes before?” And I was like “No.” I just never, I never had it. But I have a great recipe for quiche lorraine!

EK: My next question is—you talk in your book also about how commenting played a role in the development of your recipes. Can you speak a little bit more about how commenting and your community of readers have played a role in your journey leading to this point that you are publishing a book?

DP: Yeah, sure. I don’t think it has changed my taste in food a whole lot, but it has changed a lot the way I speak about it. Hearing people and how they cook and how they shop, what resonates and what people don’t want to hear, and what kind of questions they have has been a really big part of how I have come along because I have always know what I want to cook and the way I like food to be, but it’s quite different after you’ve answered—there are probably over almost 160,000 comments on the site to date—and a lot of them are questions. Like, “Why do we have to beat the eggs here?” “Why do we sift and then flour rather than flour then sift?”—I mean just a zillion questions and to come up with answers I had to learn a lot.

That really helped me with the technical aspects, of cooking…Now I realize how important it is to not say, “because it is my priority to do this, it should be your priority.” It sounds wrong to me now in a way that it didn’t early on…I think it has also taught me a lot of empathy and also a lot of understanding for how different people cook and approach shopping…and even, little tips and tweaks.

The red wine chocolate cake from the book, and there is a version of it on the site, came from a commenter telling me—I have this chocolate buttermilk cake, it’s a loaf cake called the “Every Day Chocolate Cake” —and she said she was making it one night, and she didn’t have any buttermilk, but she had red wine. And she used that instead. She was telling me that she wasn’t into the flavor at all, but I was like, “It doesn’t matter, I’m making this.” And it’s one of my favorite ways to make a grown-up chocolate cake.

EK: Exactly, ‘cuz if someone makes a cake with wine in it, you have to try it.

DP: Yeah, I had to try it. She said it had this cinnamony thing that she wasn’t into, and I’m like, “Oh! I should add cinnamon to it, that would be a really fun way to bridge those two flavors, and it’s just, it’s wonderful. I love this cake, and I turned it into a grown-up birthday cake in the book…of course you can use butter milk, but it really turns into a red velvet cake of a natural order.”

EK: Given that your blog is so wildly successful, why a cookbook? And what is different about cookbooks than the experience you have as a food blogger?

DP: I completely agree. I felt absolutely no need to write a cookbook for years. The thing is, and I don’t mean to say this to suggest that the bar is really low, but it tends to happen—and I hear this from a lot of food bloggers—that if you have been blogging for six months and even have a remotely popular site, at some point somebody approaches you and says “You should write a cook book.” My feeling is that’s a terrible reason to write a cookbook because, because it’s just too soon! You know, I always felt too green, and I also was not unhappy enough with the blog format that I felt the need to do anything else. I earn a living doing the blog, and I love it. I love the fact that I can have conversations with readers. I love the fact that I can post as many photos as I deem necessary. I don’t have to keep page counts in mind. I don’t have to make sure that the meat section is balanced and in line with something else. I know I just told you all the reasons I would never write a cookbook, and then I did it anyway…

And what changed was that, actually when I got pregnant in early 2009, I feel like my philosophy, my outlook started shifting a little bit. I was like “I want my son to know what his mom did.” I wanted him to have a—I felt like he wasn’t going to be able to hold a website in his hand—and so that was really the first time I started considering the idea that maybe writing a book as well would not necessarily be a harmful thing to do.

EK: What makes a cookbook “good?” Were there certain things that you thought, “I know I want to do this” or “I know I don’t want to do that?”

DP: Yes. Well, good is relative. But I knew in my head that it was not that simple for me. I had this huge list of demands…a list of what I thought the ideal smitten kitchen cookbook would be, and I put all of these things in my proposal because I thought it was important to get it down. And in a way I was almost assuming that no one would want it, and I would have an excuse to not have to write it.

Most cookbooks are just a sentence or two intro to each recipe. It’s sort of an afterthought, or maybe, like, “I like this kind of steak,” you know? But I wanted it to be like the site in that it had longer intros that had a story. I think it’s important that it is something that gives you a lot more about the recipe and sort of develops a story. It makes it more interesting, and you can explain, not just “I think you should do this this way,” but the why, and why not another way. I think it’s extremely helpful. Plus, I think a recipe is great, you know, to just talk about cooking. But, I think they really fit into a life in a very certain way, usually. Meals are associated with times and places, so it’s nice to talk about that too.

I wanted to be able to have a lot of these process photos…because I think they are a really important part of the narrative. I think it’s not just about pretty pictures, it’s about showing people. It’s one thing to say “mincing onions.” It’s really great to show what minced onions look like. It’s really helpful to show what a cake looks like when it comes out of the oven. Or warn people that the dough is sticky and soft, but this is what it would look like rolled up on a counter. I wanted to include as many of those as we could fit.

I also had this sort of ridiculous idea—I had heard of this lay-flat binding. And I know how annoying it is when you have a book in the kitchen, and it closes on you in the middle of the recipe. I wanted the book to stay open. I had all of these ridiculous demands and amazingly that did not scare people off, so I had to write the cookbook!

The last thing I should mention…is that I also wanted the book to be of value for readers, so the recipes in the book are 85% new. And I kept up the site the whole time, pretty much until I got the book out two weeks ago. It was hard, but I didn’t want the people who had been enthusiastic about the site to have to miss out because I decided to go find another audience.

That’s all for now folks! Please check back next week for another food-related post and some words of wisdom from Deb for foodies and cook-a-phobes alike!

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