When she started a blog six years ago, Deb Perelman was a home cook in a tiny Manhattan kitchen in search of the ultimate version of every recipe, from roast chicken to birthday cake. She could never have known that Smitten Kitchen would become the immensely popular, award-winning cooking resource it is now.
Fans of Perelman’s blog have long awaited the release of her debut book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, all about approachable, uncompromised home cooking, hitting bookshelves on October 30. Stepped-up comfort foods, pizzas from scratch, winter stews and cakes for any occasion — these are among the almost entirely new collection of dishes featured in the book, along with a few of Perelman’s favorites from her site.
We asked Perelman all about her new book, the evolution of her blog, and what makes her an “obsessive” cook in the exclusive Q&A below. Read what she had to say, then scroll down for a featured recipe from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook — and find out when you can meet the author in select Williams-Sonoma stores.
Tell us about how you started your blog. What inspired you?
I started the blog in 2006, and I certainly didn’t see it going where it has. I enjoyed cooking and was starting to amass a collection of recipes. I have a big mouth, so I wanted to tell everyone about it. I enjoyed the format of telling a story, not just posting a recipe.
How has it changed over the years?
It’s definitely changed a lot. For a while, it’s a one-sided endeavor, with me saying, “I know about this chocolate cake you have to make.” But then people started showing up and having a conversation with me, and it became way more fun. People would send emails and tell me how a recipe worked for them, and the second half of this conversation transformed my cooking.
A lot of people find managing comments to be a chore, because you have to keep everyone happy, but I saw it as a gift, a cool chance I had to hear how people were really cooking. There was not reason to pretend you liked something you didn’t. I ended up absorbing their voices over the years, so now when I’m cooking I hear their voices — like the commenter who can never get spinach. It’s made me a better cook.
Have you always cooked? How did you get into it?
I was always into cooking but definitely not much of a cook growing up. I had an itch but never did much with it. When I moved to New York we would cook here and there, but it was really when I met my husband, and we didn’t want to go out every night for dinner; I said, “I’m 26 and I don’t know how to roast a chicken or make spaghetti sauce.” I had a lot of ideas from food magazines and wanted to teach myself how to make things, how to come up with the “ultimate recipe” and share that with people.
How do you create the recipes you post? What’s your process?
Most of what I’ve shared I figure out as I’m making it. In the beginning I was testing and re-testing, but now it’s less so. I’ve figured out things that work and don’t work. I’m not trained, so I do a lot of research. If I have an idea but don’t know how to implement it, I read every recipe I can find on broccoli pasta, almost like I’m writing a term paper, then I close everything and start writing a recipe I think will work. It’s my best guess at what I want. I type it, edit it, print it, put it on the fridge and get started cooking. I write notes in the margins, and sometimes I go back to the drawing board.
You’re known for being an “obsessive” cook. What is your style?
I think the obsessive part comes from the internalized voices — like, I can’t use spinach without saying where you can get it, or whether you can use kale instead. Also, the researching. It’s not enough for me to talk about the way I make broccoli pasta, I want to talk about all of it — what it means, where it comes from. I’m interested in the origin of dishes and tend to do a lot of research and overthink things a bit.
Why did you decide to write a cookbook?
If you do anything with cooking, people say you should write a cookbook. I heard all these scary things about it: that editors didn’t want to keep your voice in there, for example. I felt like there were two ways to write a book: a food memoir, or essay book, or a straight cookbook. And I didn’t want to do either. My blog isn’t either.
I wanted a book to stay open on the counter, to have process photos. I had crazy ridiculous demands, and I got them down on paper for a book proposal thinking people would say “no way.” I think you should do things the way you want them to work or not do them. I was surprised there were people who wanted to work with me! I was concerned about the book being of value for readers; I didn’t want to print out the website. I wanted people to be reading stuff at home that they hadn’t seen before, which is why the book is 85 percent new recipes. I wanted it to stand on its own.
How is the book and extension of what you’ve done on your blog?
Most of the recipes are new, as I said, and there is more organized information. You’ll have a lot better photo quality, printed on nice paper. I was thinking about evenly balancing sections, such as breakfast ideas from simple, quick muffins to something crazy you could make for a crowd. There’s something for everything, including lots of lunch and dinner ideas. It’s mostly vegetarian, with meat dishes for special occasions — and of course, there’s a huge dessert section, with everyday cakes and birthday cakes.
Near the end of the process I was so busy trying to make everything “ta-da!” that I realized there were no sandwiches in there. I didn’t want a throw-away recipe, but I make sandwiches too! So I included my favorite grilled cheese on rye bread — baby Swiss, jammy sweet-sour red onions. Also a broccoli rabe panini and a hearty, bulky game day sandwich for my husband.
You make almost everything from scratch in a tiny New York kitchen. How do you stay motivated?
I would encourage everyone not to look at pictures of pretty kitchens. It’s bad for morale. You should look at what you’re cooking. You need to want it enough — if you’re not excited about making roast chicken for dinner tonight, maybe you need a new chicken recipe. May I suggest one from my book?
It’s okay to look outside your kitchen for new ideas. When you’re really excited to cook something and can’t wait to go home and make it, you’re not going to care what your kitchen looks like. Find something you really want to cook and start there, and everything falls into place.
Is there one recipe everyone should try from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook?
October is my favorite month of the year, because I love fall stuff like pumpkin spice and apple cider. There’s a recipe in the last section of the book for Apple Cider Caramels, one of my favorite things I’ve made. It’s like a little square of fall — everything you love in one place.
Apple Cider Caramels
If I could pack everything I love about New York City in October— the carpet of fiery leaves on the ground from the trees I didn’t even know we had; the sky, impossibly blue; the air, drinkably crisp; the temperature finally delicious enough that it implores you to spend hours wandering around, sipping warm spiced apple cider from the greenmarkets— into one tiny square, this would be how I’d try to pull it off.
It would be impossible, of course. I mean, you can’t smell the street vendors, with roasted nuts and pretzels that, well, at least look amazing. You can’t feel the slightly irritating swish of strangers’ scarves against your arm as they hurry past you. You can’t hear the lull, the surprising hush that passes over the loudest city when the weather is unspeakably perfect.
I spent years making excuses for why I didn’t make caramels—“Bleh, too sweet!” “I’m just not a candy person!” “It’s too precise!”—but I was just avoiding it after one experience wherein I misread a recipe as 225, not 252 degrees and ended up with caramels that gummed permanently to your teeth. I had to toss the better part of a pound of chocolate into the trash. But my obsession with apple cider— and finding desserts that really taste like it, rather than invoking it in name only— finally got me over this. I’m so glad. This is my fall bliss. The apple cider is boiled and boiled and boiled until it’s a slip of its original volume, leaving only a syrupy apple impact. The syrup is then expanded into a cinnamon- scented buttery caramel with hidden crunches of salt. They’re the most intense caramels I’ve ever eaten, the kind that demand you close your eyes and consider how you’ve managed to shrink an entire weekend of leaf- peeping upstate into a paper-wrapped treat.
4 cups (945 ml) apple cider
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons flaky sea salt
8 tablespoons (115 grams or 1 stick)
unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
½ cup (110 grams) packed light brown
1/3 cup (80 ml) heavy cream
Neutral oil for the knife
Boil the apple cider in a 3- to- 4- quart saucepan over high heat until it is reduced to a dark, thick syrup, between 1/3 and ½ cup in volume. This takes about 35 to 40 minutes on my stove. Stir occasionally.
Meanwhile, get your other ingredients in order, because you won’t have time to spare once the candy is cooking. Line the bottom and sides of an 8- inch straight- sided square metal baking pan with 2 long sheets of crisscrossed parchment. Set it aside. Stir the cinnamon and flaky salt together in a small dish.
Once you are finished reducing the apple cider, remove it from the heat and stir in the butter, sugars, and heavy cream. Return the pot to medium- high heat with a candy thermometer attached to the side, and let it boil until the thermometer reads 252 (not 225, okay?) degrees, only about 5 minutes. Keep a close eye on it.
(Don’t have a candy or deep- fry thermometer? Have a bowl of very cold water ready, and cook the caramel until a tiny spoonful dropped into the water becomes firm, chewy, and able to be plied into a ball.)
Immediately remove caramel from heat, add the cinnamon- salt mixture, and give the caramel several stirs to distribute it evenly. Pour caramel into the prepared pan. Let it sit until cool and firm—about 2 hours, though it goes faster in the fridge. Once caramel is firm, use your parchment paper sling to transfer the block to a cutting board. Use a well- oiled knife, oiling it after each cut (trust me!), to cut the caramel into 1-by-1-inch squares. Wrap each one in a 4-inch square of waxed paper, twisting the sides to close. Caramels will be somewhat on the soft side at room temperature, and chewy/firm from the fridge.
Do ahead: Caramels keep, in an airtight container at room temperature, for two weeks, but really, good luck with that.
Cooking note: Apple cider (sometimes called sweet or “soft” cider), as I’m referring to it here, is different from both apple juice and the hard, or alcoholic, fermented apple cider. It’s a fresh, unfiltered (it has sediment), raw apple juice— the juice literally pressed from fresh apples. It’s unpasteurized, and must be refrigerated, because it’s perishable. In the Northeast, I usually find it at farm stands and some grocery stores. I occasionally find vacuum- sealed bottles called apple cider in the juice aisle, but none of the bottled varieties that I’ve tried has the same delicate apple flavor as the more perishable stuff sold in the refrigerator section.
Excerpted from THE SMITTEN KITCHEN COOKBOOK by Deb Perelman. Copyright © 2012 by Deb Perelman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
As part of her book tour, Perelman will give cooking demonstrations and sign copies of the book at two Williams-Sonoma stores (Please note: To have a book signed, a purchase of at least one book will be required in-store):
- New York City: Tuesday, October 30, 6 p.m. at Williams-Sonoma, Columbus Circle, 10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY; 212.581.1146
- Los Angeles: Friday, November 2, 1 p.m. at Williams-Sonoma, Beverly Hills, 339 North Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, CA; 310.274.9127.
Photo Credit of Deb Perelman: Elizabeth Bick