Top | The Culinate Interview
(article, Ellen Kanner)
p(blue). Deb Perelman’s New York kitchen is small, but her culinary obsession is large. It's not enough for her to bake a batch of muffins; they must be muffins to die for, golden, fragrant, fruity, and — to use her word — plush.
p(blue). And the muffins must be shared. The Smitten Kitchen blogger gives you her recipe, takes a photo you want to bite into, and writes such a charmer of a blog post about it, it’s almost as good as being in her tiny kitchen with her, baking and eating those muffins, drinking tea and having fun. No wonder her readers are smitten.
p(blue). Perelman’s a blogger with staying power. She began blogging way back in 2003 and launched Smitten Kitchen in 2006. Since then, she’s racked up numerous Bloggies Awards, including Best Food Weblog; Babble named her Top Food Mom Blog for two years in a row. Finally, late last year Perelman published The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, which quickly became a New York Times bestseller.
[%image deb float=right width=300]
You’re such a warm, chatty writer; you come across as the reader’s best friend. How has it been to connect in person with your readers on your author tour? Is there a difference between the Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen and Deb Perelman, the real woman?
I don’t think so. Only some people think I’m very, very domestic. You should see my apartment right now. This place is a mess. I don’t vacuum. Aside from that, personality-wise . . . oh, my God, I don’t have the energy to have two versions of myself. It sounds like it would be exhausting and not very enjoyable, so it’s just me.
Many have tried to make the leap from blog to book. Not many have done it as well as you. What was involved in making the transition?
A lot of resistance. I was actually very opposed to writing a book, opposed to it for many years. I really enjoy the Web and having a website. I didn’t feel like anything was missing by not seeing my name on a printed page. The transition was quite slow. It happened a little bit when I got pregnant. I had this need to have something my child could hold onto. It took me a good five years to get there. I’m glad I waited so long.
Say you cook dinner for your friends tonight, you make chicken, they love it. They say you should open a restaurant, you should write a cookbook. With all due respect, I think you should disagree. Just because you make a few dishes well — wait. You will find your opportunities have double and tripled, you will better able to say,"I’m not going rush this." You will write a better book.
You have called yourself obsessive. At what point does a recipe feel complete to you?
I’m a worrywart by nature. It’s done when there’s nothing that worries me anymore. Even if I decide something’s not a big deal, somebody else is going to ask me about it. I’m going to hear about the smallest degree of inconsistency about 40 times in the comments. It seems worth it to iron out the kinks before I post it. I want to feel good about it.
It doesn’t matter to me if food’s just good; it’s got to be great. I want it to be amazing. The site was how I built these ideas out — I’m not just going to tell you a noodle-soup recipe, I'm going to tell you about the ultimate one. It’s all about the pickiness of someone who likes to cook and someone who does the weird things I do.
Little things. I’m most fascinated by things you can do to ordinary ingredients, that makes something easier, tastier, something that strikes me as better than what I expected from a dish. Like the chicken-noodle soup a couple of months ago — I found if I cooked the vegetables until they were a little more brown, the stock became a beautiful bronze color in under an hour. Amazing chicken-noodle soup in under an hour! It doesn’t have to be an all-day thing.
There’s a recipe in the book — rosemary Gruyère crisps — they’re sweet little crackers, I always liked them. This weekend, I made them again and cooked them for a few minutes longer, and they were golden at the edges and oh, my God, they tasted twice as good without changing the effort or the cost or the ingredients.
You create wonderful recipes in your famously tiny kitchen. So what does your dream kitchen look like?
My kitchen and I are at a peace with each other. I would love to design my own one day, but it doesn’t bother me. This is my normal. It’s great to have a designer kitchen, but whether or not you cook should have very little to do with that. You shouldn’t feel limited by your space.
You are a triple threat.
Who am I threatening?
I mean you’re a great cook, but also a great photographer and a great writer. Which aspect of creating a Smitten Kitchen post do you most enjoy?
I think about all of it; it’s the whole picture. But the thing I’m looking for is, I always imagine that yellow phone cord from the 1970s, a long cord so you could get all the way across the kitchen. It’s like my mom’s on the phone telling you how to make something: "You make it this way and add the tomatoes here."
That way of describing recipes is so much more useful. That’s the language I’m going for when I write a recipe, not some austere removed recipe-writer voice. The phone-cord thing — it’s not that much work to go for it, it’s the way most of us speak.
After you’ve worked out the flavor, next often is the texture department — is the cake plush, is the cookie crisp, is the roast broiled on the outside and caramelized, is it just uniform or do you get a sense of the heat, of the fire it was cooked with?
I keep thinking about this tart I had over the weekend, a French apple tart, square puff pastry and fruit on top and broiled with a little butter and sugar, and maybe a little corner was slightly burned. I can’t get it out of my head. It had been cooked in an oven but it looked and tasted like it had been cooked over a fireplace, and it was incredible to me.
Do you ever want to say, "The hell with the blog, the hell with making dinner, let’s order pizza?"
We had pizza last night from a block away. We went out for brunch last weekend.
It’s not a very big apartment, we live in New York City — there isn’t a good reason to cook every night, and what’s nice is, I get to save my cooking energies for the things I really want to make and the things I crave.
When you go out, what are you looking for in a restaurant experience? Aside from pizza?
I was very curious to go to this pizza place because they’re serving lasagna. They make it with the traditional bolognese, not with the nasty ricotta, but the traditional béchamel. I spent a year perfecting this recipe; very few people make it.
When I go out, I want not everyday stuff, something I’m excited about. I don’t mean foam and cubes of mayonnaise, but something I hadn’t considered, like a cool, crisp side dish. I want vegetables. I have vegetables at home — kale, Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, celery and carrots — but what I love when I go out are 10-vegetable salads, with a whole range of ingredients, something more complicated or interesting. I like the way it keeps my mind expanding.
OK, I was going to ask what keeps food blogging fresh for you after all this time, but I think you’ve just answered me. You’re still really passionate about it. Or obsessed, to use your word.
I started blogging in 2003 — a decade of this, it’s insane! I’m not out of ideas yet. I’m not even close, which is great. I’ve been on this book tour for two weeks and it’s been hard to find my energy to cook. But if I wake up and oh, no, I don’t want to cook, I don’t. I try not to make it miserable. When the energy kicks in to cook new stuff, I will.
What of your food obsessiveness or kitchen passion would you like to pass to your son, Jacob?
To crack eggs on the inside of the bowl, not the outside. We’re working on that right now.
I hope he feels you don’t have to be an obsessive cook and cook everything in the world, and you don’t have to cook without a recipe or with a set of fancy ingredients. I want him to feel, "My God, I want soup for dinner," and be able to walk in the kitchen and make soup. It’s freeing to make the food you want to eat.
I have a lot of hope, and not because he’s my kid. So many people on my book tour are so young. Seventeen-year-olds are having dinner parties in high school, college kids are making not just ramen but bolognese on their hotplates. So many people half my age are cooking foods I never made until I was well into my 20s; they have this cooking energy I wish I had known when I was their age. Something has shifted, and it’s wonderful.
p(bio). Florida-based writer Ellen Kanner is the author of a new book, Feeding the Hungry Ghost. She keeps a website and a blog and contributes regularly to the Huffington Post and to Culinate.