We recently checked in with James Beard- and IACP-award-winning cookbook author and all-around baking genius Dorie Greenspan to chat about her new book, Baking Chez Moi, her approach toward cooking and food, and what it’s like to have three kitchens on two continents. (And don’t forget to try her recipe for canistrelli, a cookie native to Corsica.)
You didn’t set out to be a cookbook author. What drew you to working in the world of food?
My love of cooking and baking drew me into the world of food. When I started cooking in my own kitchen and having friends around my table, I knew that I wanted to have food in my life. Or to put it another way, I wanted to have a life of food.
What’s your philosophy for cooking and eating these days?
I don’t know that you can call ‘deliciousness’ a philosophy, but it’s what I always strive for in cooking and look for in eating. And that’s always been true. But these days, I want food – and especially anything I bake – to be uncomplicated. My preference these days is for what I call ‘elbows on the table’ food, food that promotes conversations and good times as much as it nourishes and satisfies.
Has that philosophy evolved over time?
I’ve been moving to simpler food and desserts for years now. When I was first learning to cook and bake, I wanted to be challenged by the process. I wanted to learn new techniques. And I wanted to recreate the food that I found exciting in restaurants and pâtisseries. These days I want to make food that comforts people and makes them happy.
We’ve heard that you burned down your parents’ kitchen as a kid. What on earth happened?
I was 13 years old and had never cooked a thing, when friends and I decided to make frozen French fries as a snack. We didn’t read the directions on the box and, instead, used what we thought was logic: we put a pot of oil up to boil. And then, having taken science 101, we figured that if water boiled faster when there was a lid on the pot, the same would be true of oil. We were wrong! When I lifted the lid, the flames leapt up and ignited the (newly renovated) cabinets. My parents were out for the night and returned to find me sitting on the front steps with my brothers, my friends and a lot of firefighters. It was not my finest move. It was also the last time I went into the kitchen before I got married.
You’re lucky enough to split your time between Paris and the US. What draws you to each place?
You’re right that I’m lucky enough to split my time and I consider myself really lucky that I split it among Paris, the city of my heart, New York, where I was born, and peaceful Connecticut. Connecticut is my quiet place, the place I work best in and the place that has my favorite kitchen – it’s big and sunny and I have room to bake all day … and I do. I adore New York and miss its energy, its restaurants and its food shops when I’m gone, but Paris is my ‘chosen’ city and the place that I love most. I love the rhythm of life in Paris, the way there always seems to be time to meet a friend for a drink in a café, the beauty of every corner of the city and the markets, the fabulous markets. Oh, and the cheeses. And the wines. And the merchants who know everything about what they sell. And the pastry shops, of course. There’s a pastry shop on every other block in Paris and there’s always something fabulously delicious around any corner.
Do you find that your approach to food and cooking flexes depending on where you’re living?
Not really. I’m a spontaneous cook no matter where I am. I can go to the market with a list and return with a cart filled with everything except what I set out to buy — what I see in the market determines what I’ll cook.
What are some of the essentials that we’ll always find in your pantry?
My pantry is pretty basic. I’ve always got olive oil and a variety of vinegars (balsamic, champagne, sherry and red wine) as well as white and black peppercorns, several kinds of salt (flake, fine sea and fleur de sel, are my standards) and spices, whole and ground. There’s always pure vanilla, almond and rose extracts at hand as well as lemon, orange and peppermint oils. And, just in case you were wondering, I buy butter, flour and sugar in bulk – I always have a box of 36 pounds of butter (in the freezer) and 25-pound sacks of all-purpose flour and sugar – and try never to run out of nuts and nut flour.
Are there a few kitchen items you can’t live without?
Each of my kitchens (and I’ve got three – one in NYC, one in CT and one in Paris) – is stocked, if not overstocked, with machines and tools and I consider each of them vital. Of course I’d never want to be separated from my KitchenAid stand mixer or my food processor. Nor would I want to part with my kitchen scale, my French rolling pin (the kind that doesn’t have handles), my battalion of silicone spatulas and wire whisks and my baking pans, my dozens and dozens of baking pans. Naturally, I’ve got round and square and rectangular baking pans, but I love having specialty pans like fluted tart pans with removable bottoms; madeleine pans; silicone cannelé molds; mini-muffin pans; and Bundt pans, too.
So what is it about the cuisine of France that captivates so many American home cooks?
Its goodness! French food tastes real. I think the history of French cuisine and the fact that so many dishes have roots in different regions of the country add to the appeal. The best of French food is home-cooked, and I think we American home cooks recognize the cuisine’s warmth and generosity.
What inspired you to write Baking Chez Moi?
My love of baking was my first inspiration, but I bake to share and so, when I was discovering the wonderful and mostly unknown recipes that French people bake at home — it’s a parallel universe to what you find in polished pâtisseries — I knew I wanted to share it in a book. The recipes in Baking Chez Moi are remarkably uncomplicated and unfussy; they’re simple and as much a pleasure to make as they are to serve; and they’re comforting. I loved finding and creating the recipes; I loved the stories that came with the recipes; and, because of this, I loved writing the book.
In the introduction, you describe a time when you served your friends a tall chocolate cake covered with ganache, finished with glaze and berries. When you mentioned that you had baked it yourself, you were surprised at their immediate chorus of whys. Can you talk about that a bit?
The moment was an eye-opener and the first time that I realized an important difference between how French and Americans view home baking. We Americans are ambitious home bakers – we’ll spend an entire weekend making one dessert. Not so the French – they buy their sweets at a pâtisserie. They don’t bake anything finicky or tricky or complicated or fussy. When French people bake, they bake simple desserts and they bake them for their families and the people they love as much as family. Not one of my friends would ever have baked the multi-layered creation that I served that night.
So what are your favorite recipes from the new book?
This is the toughest question you’ve asked. Some of the recipes I find myself making over and over (the best criterion I have for a favorite) are Custardy Apple Squares; Croquants; Laurent’s Slow-Roasted Spiced Pineapple; Tiger Cakes; Odile’s Orange Cake … There are more. Many more. But I’m sure you don’t want me to list the entire table of contents.