by Deb Perelman
It’s hard to believe that anyone would want to spend much time in a tiny six-foot-by-seven-foot kitchen, but Deb Perelman does, with impressive results. Her cookbook, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Wisdom from an Obsessive Home Cook, is a testament to how much she loves to cook, even in a tiny space.
Deb Perelman is the writer and photographer of the much-loved blog, smittenkitchen.com, in which she writes witty essays about life, family, and even cleaning her closet while almost incidentally presenting the reader with amazing and bold recipes.
Perelman isn’t a trained chef — she’s a wife and a mom who loves to cook. She describes herself as picky and determined (which is where the title’s “obsessive” sprang from), and found these traits came together to make her want to cook a lot, even though her kitchen is smaller than some closets. She’s one of those people who can’t settle for pretty good but must study, analyze and experiment until the dish is as wonderful as she’d imagined it could be. This passion for getting food right helped turn her hobby into a full-time career.
For those of us who can’t be trusted to bring the laptop into the kitchen, Deb’s no-nonsense style of writing and many of her fantastic recipes have finally been published in hard copy. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook contains over 100 recipes, a few tried and true from the blog, but most of them new. Of course the book wouldn’t be complete without her characteristic photography, which is strikingly beautiful in its simplicity.
While many of her recipes seem involved, it’s really just her fine attention to detail in documenting exactly how to recreate the dish. Her Butterscotch Banana Tarte Tatin looks beautiful, and you can practically smell her descriptions: “the aroma of bubbling butterscotch climbs the walls” in her Butterscotch Banana Tarte Tatin. She claims to have been a failure when it came to the art of the Tatin. “My track record with tartes Tatin is terrible, especially those made with pesky apples that always want to burn before they cook through.” But this rendition cooks perfectly with precise timing and descriptions of colour changes and textures at every stage.
Perelman believes recipes don’t have to fit into any particular box — only into that tiny New York Kitchen. They don’t need to be restricted to thirty-minute meals, or low in fat or calories, or any other particular thing. She asks only that they be delicious, accessible, and worth whatever time and effort the cook took to make them. These are the recipes she shares with us.
Perelman’s love of good, accessible food has shaped her culinary prowess. In the main she uses basic grocery store ingredients so everyone can achieve the same results. “I don’t assume you have fancy imported olive oil or thirty-dollar aged balsamic in your pantry, and I won’t suggest you use either unless I am convinced it adds something essential to the recipe.” But she clearly makes the most of economical purchases. She understands the distinction between healthy everyday food and rich, special-occasion food, and she celebrates them both.
That Perelman cooks for sheer joy is clearly apparent. You feel her creative process start with bringing home her ingredients and attempting to stock them in her ridiculously tiny space. She develops or adapts recipes, cooks them, photographs them, writes every detail about them, and only then is the dish complete. These are recipes that have sprung from her life and adapt to life well.
The Sweet Potato Blintzes with Farmer’s Cheese recipe was created by combining two of her son’s favourite foods, blintzes and sweet potato. But it’s also ideally suited for entertaining over the holidays. They can be made ahead — though she suggests freezing prepared blintzes before browning “so they always taste fresh and crisp when they are served.” She serves them with a no-fuss Cranberry Syrup, which is absolutely worth the small effort expended. And as a bonus, leftover syrup can be turned into festive cocktails with vodka and soda that burst with flavour and cheer.
The author credits her mother for the boldness and can-do attitude that enabled her to make a wedding cake in such a tiny space. She also believes that the success of her recipes stems from having answered so many questions and comments from her dedicated readers over the past six years. It taught her to ask the important questions of herself and made sure she got it right every time. This book is truly her gift to all those fans who helped shape the Smitten Kitchen.
JENNIFER GAGEL is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recipes courtesy of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook: Recipes and Wisdom from an
Obsessive Home Cook (Deb Perelman, Appetite by Random House 2012, $35)
Yield: 16 Blintzes
1 ½ cups (355 mL) milk (I use whole milk, but other fat levels work, so use what you have)
6 large eggs
1 ½ cups (190 grams) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon (1 mL) salt
1 tablespoon (15 mL) melted butter or neutral oil, for brushing the pan and cooking blintzes
About 4 medium sweet potatoes
2 cups (455 grams or 16 ounces) farmer’s cheese
2 large egg yolks
¼ cup (50 grams) sugar
½ teaspoon (2 mL) ground cinnamon
Few fresh gratings of nutmeg
Pinch of salt
2 cups (225 grams) fresh or frozen cranberries
¼ cup (60 ml) orange juice
½ cup (100 grams) sugar
Sour cream for serving
Make wrapper batter: In a blender, combine all the wrapper ingredients except butter or oil. (Alternatively, combine them in a bowl with an immersion blender.) Pour the batter into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for an hour or up to two days.
Prepare sweet potato: Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C). Bake the sweet potatoes on a tray for about 40 minutes, until soft. Let them cool in their skins. Once they’re cool, peel the sweet potatoes, then mash them or run them through a potato ricer.
Cook wrappers: Preheat a medium skillet or crepe pan over medium-high heat. Once it’s heated, brush the pan lightly with melted butter or oil. Pour ¼ cup batter into the skillet, swirling it until it evenly coats the bottom, and cook, undisturbed, until the bottom is golden and the top is set, about 2 minutes. No need to flip them. Transfer the wrapper into a paper-towel-covered plate, cooked side down. Continue with remaining batter.
Prepare filling: Once sweet potato puree is cool, stir in the farmer’s cheese, egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.
Make blintzes: Preheat your oven to 200°F (100°C). Put an ever-so-slightly heaped ¼ cup of filling in the center of each wrapper, and fold the opposite sides of wrapper over filling until they barely touch. Pull the end of the crepe nearest to you up over the filling, and roll the rest of the way, to completely enclose filling, forming elongated, egg-roll-shaped packets. Repeat with remaining blintzes and filling. Reheat your crepe skillet — or a larger one if you want to cook more blintzes at one time — over medium heat and add more butter or oil to coat the pan. Place a few blintzes, seam side down, in skillet, and cook them until they are golden brown and crisp, for about 5 minutes on each side. Transfer them to a baking sheet and keep them warm in the oven until they are ready to serve.
Make syrup: In a saucepan, over medium heat, simmer the cranberries, orange juice, and sugar together until the berries burst, about 7 to 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 5 minutes more. Strain the syrup into a bowl.
Serve blintzes warm with a drizzle of cranberry syrup and/or a dollop of sour cream.
Yield: serves 6 to 8
All-purpose flour, for work surface
1 sheet frozen puff-pastry dough, thawed in the refrigerator for 1 day
3 tablespoons (42 grams) unsalted butter
½ cup (95 grams) packed dark-brown sugar
½ teaspoon (2 mL) sea salt flakes
5 large ripe bananas (preferably without speckles), peeled, halved lengthwise
1 teaspoon (5 mL) vanilla extract
1 tbsp (15 mL) bourbon or Scotch (optional)
Vanilla ice cream, for serving
1 For this recipe, you’ll need a 9-inch skillet heavy enough so you fear dropping it on your toes. Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C). Roll out your puff pastry on a floured surface to a 9-inch circle, and trim if necessary. Transfer the pastry to the fridge until needed.
2 Melt the butter in the 9-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Stir in the sugar and salt. Cook, swirling the skillet occasionally, until the mixture turns medium amber, about 3 minutes.
3 Arrange the bananas in the skillet, overlapping them slightly. Cook, without stirring, for 3 minutes. Drizzle the vanilla and the alcohol of your choice (if using) over the bananas, and cook them until most of the liquor has evaporated and the liquid has thickened, about 1 ½ minutes. Remove the bananas from heat.
4 Place the pastry round on top of the bananas, and transfer it to the oven. Bake until the pastry is golden brown and puffed, about 25 minutes. Remove the tarte from the oven, and carefully invert the tart onto a serving plate. Don’t even think about serving this without vanilla ice cream.