Cookbook Author Dorie Greenspan Talks Life and Food with CT Examiner

(Credit: Ellen Silverman)


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There are soups that I love in winter, pancakes for the perfect Sunday brunch, pasta offers endless possibility, but nothing is more reliable than a cookie. I began baking them before my head reached the counter and if ever I’m having a stressful week, even if it’s over 100 degrees, you can find me with an apron, flour in the air, baking cookies.

It turns out, Dorie Greenspan, a James Beard award-winning and New York Times bestselling cookbook author, feels that way too.

So, we drove up to Westbrook. We were sitting in his sun porch and thinking, oh this is so nice, I feel so calm here. Let’s move. The cousin said to us that the house across the street was abandoned and we could probably buy it immediately. Kids had been living it in, but it wasn’t bad. It was on this gorgeous pond. So, we had no intentions of buying a house … but we bought the house and have been there ever since.

“Here, at home, when I’m working at my desk and things aren’t going well or I’m frustrated, I’ll think cookies! I can bake cookies. It’s comfort,” Greenspan said as we sat together nibbling on cookies at Hen & Heifer in Guilford. “The idea is that when I’m frustrated working on a project with writing, I know I can make something. That I can succeed. That I can do something from start to finish. If you love baking there is a comfort in it. It is the yoga of the kitchen.”

For over an hour on the patio beside Hen & Heifer we discussed everything from Dorie’s first career in gerontology, to new recipes she is working on for her next cookbook, to the challenges that women face in the professional kitchen, to why on earth she chose the Connecticut shoreline as her home.

CT Examiner: What brought you to cooking and baking?

Greenspan: I didn’t cook as a child. My mother didn’t cook and she was uninterested in cooking. The reason that I wanted to cook was because I imagined a life in which there were always people around the table. First of all, I was so young when I got married, I was 19. It was a completely different era than today. This is a different time, women are waiting longer for everything. I was 19, I was a college student. Michael, my husband had his first job, we didn’t have any money. It was kind of the fun of it, I’d never done this. I was so young, I’d only ever lived at home. I’d never lived on my own and now Michael and I were going to make a home. I had this kind of romantic idealized idea of what home should be. You spent time at home. You invited friends to come, and you cooked for them. You shared meals. It turns out that’s what it really was like. So, I taught myself to cook so we could have this life.

I got fired because I changed the recipe. And I got bored. In the second job, I would have had the chance to change the recipe, but I still would have had to make the same thing every day. There is a certain zen to that. When you make something over and over you come to know it in an almost beautiful way, but I didn’t know that then. I just wasn’t made for production.

CT Examiner: Was your family supportive of your change in career paths?

Greenspan: Oh yes. Michael, Michael, Michael, Michael, Michael. Wonderful Michael. I wouldn’t have done this. I would have slogged through my dissertation, gotten a job at a university. Come home and complain. Maybe he did it for survival. I’m sure I would come home every night complaining. But no, he was the one who said, “go get them tiger.”

CT Examiner: Did you ever take classes or have professional instruction in cooking or baking?

Greenspan: I did take a couple of classes. I took a cake decorating class where we made pastry bags out of parchment and filled them with Crisco. We piped Crisco to learn how to make flowers. But, it was a really different time. Whatever I was doing, I thought I was doing just for me and for Michael and our friends. I didn’t know anyone who cooked professionally. There weren’t women in the kitchen for sure. Women were just starting to be in pastry.

CT Examiner: When did you first start cooking and baking professionally?

Greenspan: I was in graduate school getting a doctorate in gerontology. My parents certainly hadn’t expected to send me to school so I could be a chef. That was not done. Until my husband said, “why don’t you get a job in a restaurant.” I was completely unqualified. I truly was. There were cooking schools that gave out degrees, I didn’t have one of those. I didn’t have any references, I had enthusiasm. I went to work at a restaurant for a friend of a friend of a friend and I got fired within a month. Then I went to work for a bakery and I worked there for a few months and quit before she could fire me.

CT Examiner: Why did you get fired from your first job?

Greenspan: I got fired because I changed the recipe. And I got bored. In the second job, I would have had the chance to change the recipe, but I still would have had to make the same thing every day. There is a certain zen to that. When you make something over and over you come to know it in an almost beautiful way, but I didn’t know that then. I just wasn’t made for production.

CT Examiner: So how do you transition from cooking just for your family to developing recipes for the world?

Greenspan: I got really lucky. All along the path I’ve been lucky. There’s always been someone who has been generous and I had a friend who introduced me to someone at Food & Wine. I didn’t know how to write a proposal for magazine stories, so I baked everything that I thought should be in the story, put it into a basket and tied it up in a little bow, and they said you got it.

Then, there have just been moments. I had a job as a stringer for a magazine in Vancouver that lasted one issue. But, for that one issue I got to write about Josh Kroner who now has an empire of restaurants around the world, but then had just opened his first restaurant in New York. So, I met him and we loved working together and I worked in his kitchen working with him to write recipes for three months. That was like going to school. I had an article published in Elle magazine and I ended up working at Elle for two or three years. I always say this: I was lucky. And I worked really hard like so many people do. I said yes to things that terrified me — something everyone should do. I didn’t have a plan, I just tumbled along and 30 years later it’s a career. I look back at it — that makes it sound like I’m stopping and I’m not — but I look back at it, and think I’m lucky. It wasn’t a time for women to be in the kitchen, but there were many women writing about food at the time. I was lucky because there were fewer people who were interested, not lucky because there were fewer outlets.

(Credit: Ellen Silverman)

CT Examiner: What was the hardest part of learning to cook?

Greenspan: Failure! Complete failure. I didn’t know anything. So, we had gotten these cute little pottery, ceramic bowls. I didn’t know that you’re not supposed to put them on top of the gas range. It went smash, and peas everywhere! The first meal I cooked was London Broil. I thought, I’m a magician. I turned London Broil into a hockey puck. It was all to learn, but I so wanted to. Once I started cooking, there was kind of no stopping me. There were no limits to what I would do. I’d spend an entire weekend in the kitchen making a salmon, mushroom pastry thing that I had seen in the Sunday New York Times … I just wanted to learn everything.

CT Examiner: Where do you get the inspiration for each recipe?

Greenspan: Everywhere. Just walking around. It’s anything. You just never know. Maybe I’ll just be looking at this cookie and think oh, this shape. That would be a pretty shape for a tartlet. Or you see an ingredient and think, oh could I use that with… And travel of course! I’m so lucky I get to travel and see new ingredients. When we were in Paris just a couple weeks ago we went to a new pastry shop and when you just look at the pastries they are typically French, but the pastry chef is from Korea. What this chef does is make typically French with Korean flavors. The quiche had tuna and kimchi and it was a great combination. It was delicious. I made my own version of it and I’m still tweaking it, but the first try was pretty good. You just don’t know.

CT Examiner: So, you just always have to have a notepad or a camera with you?

Greenspan: Well, I talk to myself. Which is not good. The other day my husband said, “you know you really should just put your phone on the kitchen counter and keep it on while you’re working.” Because I’ll say things like ‘oh, maybe I should put that in at 375 and I mean to write it down, but I don’t.

Usually if I know I’m working on a recipe I know I’m going to want to perfect and publish, I do it in a notebook. Pencil and paper.

(Credit: Ellen Silverman)

CT Examiner: How many times do you make a recipe before it is ready to publish?

Greenspan: It depends. If something is like perfect the first time out, I still make it again. You just have to make sure. And then for years now I’ve been working with Mary Dodd in Madison and she’s been my recipe tester. When I’ve got it, this is just what I want, I write the whole thing out the way I would in the book and I send it to Mary and she tests it. She is testing if she understands the instructions, the timing, she checks if the batter was thick if I said it should be. I wish I could go out with each book and be in the kitchen and say, “no, you forgot to flour that pan,” or whatever. But I work really hard to try to avoid those things.

CT Examiner: A lot of time people find recipes to be inaccessible. If your cookbooks are for everyone, how do you break down that barrier?

Greenspan: That’s such a great question. When you say, who do you cook for. For me it was a really interesting experience writing Everyday Dorie. When I finished the book, I realized that this was my Connecticut book, this was my “Big Y” book. We were living almost full time in Westbrook. I timed it the other day and it’s 25 minutes from my house to Big Y, so I’m an hour from a quart of milk. I’ve always tried to make my recipes accessible. I’ve always tried to make things simple and understandable. But in Everyday Dorie, I not only tried to. I had to. I was stocking my refrigerator from the supermarket. I was making last minute changes and figuring out what to pull from the fridge.

CT Examiner: How many of the little things that cookbooks often recommend you do — like sifting flour or using room temperature butter — actually make a difference?

Greenspan: Well, I’m not a trained pastry chef and I’m not baking for a large scale. There are some things I won’t do, like my recipe tester Mary always says, “why do you use butter and flour when you could use baker’s spray?” And there are some things that baker’s spray is better for. But I don’t sift unless I have to. I sift cocoa and confectioner’s sugar because they often have lumps. I want room temperature butter and when I can’t get it – I’m not very good with the microwave – so I’ll bash it with a rolling pin or I’ll cut it into little pieces and mash it between my fingers. I think it’s important to know what’s right. I think it’s important to follow recipes. I think it’s important to be careful. It’s also nice to be careful in the kitchen. It’s nice to work the way you’re supposed to. There are acceptable short cuts and I tell people about them and I do them myself.

CT Examiner: A lot of people do not own all the equipment most bakers or chefs do. What do you recommend to these individuals?

Greenspan: Particularly in baking I think. Most of the recipes that were developed, were developed before standing mixers. If you want to make brioche, it would be so much nicer with a mixer. After I got my first restaurant job, the one from which I was fired, I took a series of baking classes and we did everything by hand. And you learn, doing it by hand you learn so much more, what it really should look like and how it changes phase by phase. It makes you better at the craft.

CT Examiner: What are some things that you can’t short cut?

You should make sure that your oven is completely preheated and you should put an oven thermometer in it to make sure. So many of the problems that people have in baking. They are not properly calibrated, they think they’re at 350, but they’re really at 300. Use the right size pan. When you’re mixing butter and sugar, for cakes you want to mix because you want some of that air, for cookies you don’t. Really with baking, if you have a good recipe it is so much easier than cooking. You just follow the recipe. Do what you’re told. People hurry things, some things take time and you need to give them the time. There aren’t all that many fatal mistakes you can make. I think it’s really important to measure out your ingredients and have them in front of you. Pretend you’re on a cooking show. Then you know you have all the ingredients and you just have to add them in the proper order. Yes, there are dos and don’ts. But, the most important thing is just to get in the kitchen and cook and bake. Practice.

(Credit: Ellen Silverman)

CT Examiner: How has the internet and social media changed your cooking and career?

Greenspan: The other day I was talking to someone and they asked, “did you see that on Instagram?” and I hadn’t seen it, but I should have. If I was truly organized I would look at Instagram and I would say these are all the cookie people and these are all the cake people. But I love Instagram.

Because I started so long ago, I started pre-internet. I can remember how the day I was sitting in my office in New York and I was looking at the screen and somebody had made a cake from one of my recipes and posted it. I had never seen anybody make one of my cakes. I started to cry. I called my husband and said, “Look, this is my cake.”

In the old days, your book went out and sometimes you’d go on book tour and meet somebody who’d say, “Oh, I loved your mocha brownies or your sugar cookies were great,” but to actually see, it was astounding. What’s really helpful to see a recipe when it’s made and not perfect. It’s so helpful to know what people did and what they had difficulty with. Having a website has helped with that as well. They will write in and ask, “I want to make your yogurt cake but it doesn’t say if I can use Greek yogurt or not.” Oh, nice to know how you think. It’s also made a community which is so wonderful.

When Baking From My Home to Yours came out in 2006, a woman in Pittsburgh named Laurie Woodward wrote to me and said, “I want to bake everything in your book and I want to do it with two friends. Are you okay with that? We want to put it on our blog.” I said, “Sure that’s great.” That group became Tuesdays with Dorie, and they baked every recipe in that book and there were 300 of them. So, every Tuesday they would bake and they would post what they baked and at some point, there were hundreds of Tuesday with Dorie members. It was crazy and I had no idea this was possible. It’s still going, now on 12 years, and people have been bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, babies have been born, I’ve met people when I go on book tour. It’s remarkable. There was a group started French Fridays with Dorie and now it’s Cook the Book Fridays and they’re doing Everyday Dorie. It all grew organically. This is the best, best, best, best, best part of the internet. It’s a generous, helpful, warm community.

Well, I won’t cook tripe. Somebody else can do that. For years when I was learning how to cook I wouldn’t cook anything that I couldn’t hold in my hands. The first time I cooked a turkey or roast, it was like, whoa. Maybe it’s the baker in me. I cook small.

CT Examiner: Is there anything you don’t like to cook or bake?

Greenspan: Well, I won’t cook tripe. Somebody else can do that. For years when I was learning how to cook I wouldn’t cook anything that I couldn’t hold in my hands. The first time I cooked a turkey or roast, it was like, whoa. Maybe it’s the baker in me. I cook small.

CT Examiner: For you, is the joy in cooking and baking more about the process or the eating?

Greenspan: It’s both. I’m a good eater. I hear from a lot of people that say they want to bake, but they don’t want to gain weight. The idea that they’re linked is so sad. It doesn’t have to be. I always say to people you should practice bake and release. Baking is made for sharing. Take a reasonable portion and share the rest. But, I enjoy eating with people. I enjoy cooking for people. But, if I’m alone I’ll cook for myself too. I think that comes from finding pleasure in both the process and the eating.

CT Examiner: Do you get a lot of comments about your weight as a baker?

Greenspan: I do. A lot. I worked with Julia Child and she ate everything and she was trim. She was a big woman, but she was trim. She always said everything in moderation, even moderation. There was a study years ago showing the difference in portion size in France and America. French portions were 1/3 the size of American portions. I know that makes a big difference. There are some things that I’m out of control, like don’t put ice cream in front of me. If you put ice cream in front of me, a spoonful I’ll eat it, a pint I’ll eat it. I eat to finish ice cream. It’s hard.

It’s particularly hard for certain people. If it is really a problem, I don’t want you to bake. But it’s hard to believe that a cookie a day can’t do anything but make you happier. But not the whole batch. That’s why I say bake and release. There is always a neighbor, the person who delivers the mail. You’ll be the most popular person on the block.

CT Examiner: Is there something you are most proud of in your work?

Greenspan: I think, what an interesting question. I’m happy, pleased. I’m proud that I’ve done the work. This isn’t work I grew up thinking I would do. I’m most proud that people use the recipes and enjoy them and share them with other people — like the Tuesdays with Dorie group, that’s amazing. But proud is not a word I use. I’m proud of my son, but proud is not a word in my vocabulary. I would say I’m so happy that I’ve been lucky enough to do this work. I love the work. It’s a gift to be able to do this work.

CT Examiner: How do you manage living and working in three different places?

Greenspan: It’s funny because if somebody says to me, “three homes,” I think nope! Three kitchens. That’s the way I think of anything. We are in France for four to five months of the year, New York sometimes and here in Westbrook, Connecticut. It’s lovely and I am so so lucky. But I am such a disorganized mess that I’ll get somewhere and think to myself, “where is the vanilla? Where is it I thought I had it.”

CT Examiner: I understand France and New York, but why Westbrook?

Greenspan: We have been in Westbrook truly a long time. We bought the house in 1982 which was the year of a historic flood. And we had lived in New York. We were city people. We were used to murder, mayhem, but not flooding. We were brand new. We had just bought the house. We had the kid with us, the French au pair. Everything in the house was just as new to us as my new car is to me now and it’s raining and raining and the water is getting higher and higher and watching it and then the electricity goes out and we thought, this is so romantic. This is what country living is like. We go to sleep, and it’s only when we wake up and the electricity is still out that we realize this is no longer cool. I go into the car to listen to the radio and realize that this is serious, people have died. That was our introduction to Westbrook.

But that wasn’t your question, was it? How did we get here. Well, we were living in New York and my husband Michael had a cousin who lived in Westbrook. We had seen him at some family event and he said, “You always say you’re going to come visit and you never do.” And so, we said this time we are coming. So, we drove up to Westbrook. We were sitting in his sun porch and thinking, oh this is so nice, I feel so calm here. Let’s move. The cousin said to us that the house across the street was abandoned and we could probably buy it immediately. Kids had been living it in, but it wasn’t bad. It was on this gorgeous pond. So, we had no intentions of buying a house … but we bought the house and have been there ever since.

CT Examiner: With homes and friends all over the world, do you ever mail baked goods?

Greenspan: I used to and I sometimes still do at the holidays. My tip: popcorn. I’m thinking of popcorn to keep things from breaking. You wrap just a few cookies all the same size together, you never put soft and hard cookies together. Don’t put spice cookies with other cookies — they’ll be all spice by the time they get there. And then, popcorn inside.

Dorie Greenspan (Credit: Ellen Silverman)

CT Examiner: So, you said you were working on a new book now, what’s this one about?

Greenspan: It’s also about baking. Around my French Table (it is hard to believe it came out in 2010) and Everyday Dorie , were two ‘soup to dessert books,’ but this will be all baking again. It’s going to be an ‘everything baking book.’ I’m going to do some amount of savory baking. Quiches and I just did a jelly roll, without the jelly.

CT Examiner: So, just a roll?

Greenspan: Oh no, it was filled with cream cheese and smoked salmon and dill and it was delicious. It was really pretty for brunch. It looked swirly and nice with a salad and a glass of wine.

CT Examiner: Is there anything that you would want people in this area to know?

Greenspan: I think this is just a great area to live. Things I love about Connecticut: I love the Farmer’s Markets in the summer. I love special places like Hen & Heifer and Fromage in Old Saybrook. Having Melissa and Matt at Bufalina. James at Oyster Club in Mystic, and Stone Acres Farm that they’re developing. There aren’t as many resources, but when you find them it’s like finding treasurers around the road. There is a community of farmers, bakers, chefs, producers who are really trying to do and are doing really good work. You feel a sense of community starting.