Beloved veteran food blogger Deb Perelman of The Smitten Kitchen is known for her precise recipes and friendly, welcoming writing. That combination is coming to a bookstore near you tomorrow, when The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is officially released. It's a solid collection of interesting and useful recipesI turned to it for a breakfast casserole for a recent houseguest and was more than pleased at the resultsand includes lots of great general cooking knowledge that even veteran home cooks will appreciate. I caught up with Deb about her cookbook, food blogging, and recipe writing recently. Read on to learn more about how she approached writing this book.
Genie Gratto: In a crowded field of blog-inspired cookbooks, what is the unique quality you tried to capture with your book?
Deb Perelman: So, this probably sounds a little dorky, but my singular obsession when I was writing this cookbook was I wanted someone to be able to walk into a bookstore and not know me, my site, anything about food blogs or for any to even be in their landscape, but pick up my book, flip it open to any page, and find something there that they absolutely had to cook that day. There are enough cookbooks out there that you can buy because you already love the chef/restaurant/show, that you might buy just for the name on the cover. I really hoped that this would transcend that through approachable recipes with unfussy ingredients that might just become your new favorite things to cook.
GG: I really appreciated the precision of so many of your instructions. Why do you think that precision is so critical for home cooks trying to recreate your recipes?
DP: I don't think there are bad cooks, just bad recipes. I firmly believe that a well-written recipe, if followed carefully, could allow someone to totally nail it when they make roast chicken/birthday cake/cinnamon buns for the first time. Once you decide that, it's really just figuring out what needs to be in that recipe. Amazingly enough, this part has been supplied for me by readers, who over the years have asked me so many questions in comments and emailswhat if I only have salted butter? do I sift, then measure, or vice-versa? how can I be absolutely certain the roast is done? etc.that I find myself trying to answer them inside the recipe before they're asked. I don't always succeed, but I really try to write recipes that might anticipate the areas I know people struggle withand me too! I can't tell you how many times I've been working with a really sticky dough and just wanted to know if it should be that way, and wished the recipe's writer had thrown up a warning flag. We all need a little reassurance when we cook.
GG: Was it difficult to maintain a regular blogging schedule while keeping up your cookbook-writing schedule?
DP: Yes. Very. I was not perfect at it; there are week-long (and longer) lapses throughout the last couple years. And, of course, the book that I thought I'd finish in six months in fact took nearly three years. This was my least favorite part because although many people see their sites as a launchpad to other things, for me, it's central. I'd be happy to keep the site up forever, or as long as I find it as inspiring as I do now, which means I was actually bummed (and still get that way) when I am too busy to slow down long enough to show up.
GG: Your cookbook includes a really high percentage of new recipes that have never appeared on your blog. How did you decide what recipes to put in the book versus what recipes to blog about while you were working on the project?
DP: Sometimes, it was very clear to methere are things I want nownownow because they're so strongly associated with a week or two of the year that I don't even consider them other times. That's perfect site fodder. For the book, if I was torn between two versions of somethingI made two fruit buckles around the same time and was torn over which should go whereI saved the one I imagined having more longevity, more out-of-season ingredient flexibility for the book. And when I still couldn't decide, I had an email chain with my editor and agent, and they loooved playing the "blog or book?" game with me.
GG: What is your recipe-testing process? What tips do you have about recipe testing for bloggers who are trying to make sure their recipes are the best they can be?
DP: I always have the last draft of a recipe printed and pinned under a magnet on the fridge with a pen nearby that I use to jot down more details in the marginsweights/questions/adjustments. It takes me forever to cook a recipe because of this, but I don't think you can take too many notes. I think every single one of those detailswhat size dice, how much your carrot weighs (please, don't just say "2," they range enormously!), what the onions will look like when they're cooked properly (browned? limp? etc.) will help someone. Someone will always appreciate that detail.
You might think, "I think my readers know this stuff. They're not such beginners that they need this level of detail," but really, what is there to lose by making recipes useful for all levels of cooks? Why alienate someone who didn't realize they'd grabbed what's considered a large, and not a medium, carrot? My goal has always been to get that recipe to work for everyone, no matter where they shop.
GG: What three cooking tools, pans or dishes do you wish you had room for in your tiny kitchen?
DP: The idea of room is so loaded because while I'd love a toaster oven, a great big stock pot, a gargantuan roasting pan and a high-functioning broiler, the only thing stopping me from having any of it is what else I'd be willing to get rid of to make room for it. And I hate choosing.
GG: What advice do you have for home cooks who are struggling to successfully make recipes they see in cookbooks or on blogs?
DP: It may just be the recipe. When I'm in the dark about a dish or making it for the first time, I gravitate toward recipes with comments on them; I feel much better taking a risk with a new recipe when I've already read feedback from random cooks who had success with it or had success with a small adjustment. In the absence of a recipe with comments, I might start with one from Cook's Illustrated or another airtight recipe tester (such as Ina Garten). It lowers your risk and increases that chance that a) you will have a delicious dinner that night, b) you will feel like a champ.
GG: Who is the one person you would most love to cook for, and what would you cook for them if you had that opportunity?
DP: You know, I tend to not get as stuck on big things as I do recent ones. A few days ago I was speaking to a lovely woman I met from London who said she can never get good scones here and she really misses them with thick cream and jam and hot tea in the afternoon. In another life, one where I had boundless amounts of free time and it wasn't weird to do nice things for strangers, I would totally bring her a scone. I think I could do a solid on it. And if I couldn't, I would beg her for suggestions, because I think there are worse skills to have in life than to be able to make amazing scones for homesick Brits, right?
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