I knew of Alice Medrich before I really knew her name. We had a copy of Cocolat, her first cookbook, as a decoration on the coffee table. (My mother once baked religiously; I’m sure it was used, but I never saw it.) I was banned from baking after one too many kitchen disasters, but I loved the cookbook and its pictures, all delicate chocolate curls and shimmering icings.
After college, I bought a copy of Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy, and was hooked all over again. So when I saw that Alice was going to be at Book Larder for promoting her new book, Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts, I jumped at the chance to interview her.
Without further ado, the fantastic Alice Medrich.
Jessica Tupper: Would you bridge the gap between “Sinfully Easy” and “Cocolat” for recipes, and when and why?
Alice Medrich: In a way I did. There’s a dessert or two in Sinfully Easy that were in Cocolat, it’s been reorganized a little bit. Changed the mixing method to get the same results and just removed the whole glazing, because the cake doesn’t need it in the first place. This book is miles from [Cocolat] in complexity, and every book since then has gotten simpler, because at the moment that Cocolat was published, I sold that company. So I’m suddenly at home, and I realized that people don’t have the time or the skill or the ability to walk around their bakery and pick all the elements to whip together these elaborate desserts. So I started thinking at that time – and this is way back in 1990 – more like a home cook. But this is the first one where I actually step aside and change the perspective from home baker to home cook.
I know that cooks and pastry people have a different type of brain, it’s very rare to find someone who is equally good and loves and is comfortable with baking and with cooking, and you probably know if you’re more of a cook you like the spontaneity of it and the ability to taste and correct and just the sort of free creativity of it. You probably don’t like being finicky about really tiny details and measuring. and maybe doesn’t seem to you that small changes won’t make a difference and if they do then you probably don’t want to go there. And I think that’s the cook’s brain. And it also occurs to me that a lot of people are really good cooks make desserts, but they won’t feel comfortable doing it.
The original working title was “The Cook’s Dessert,” which I so totally get and my editor so totally got, but then we thought it might be too esoteric, that people wouldn’t understand it as a title.But then we moved on to Totally Doable Desserts. “Totally Doable” was knocked out because the designer said that “doable” in type didn’t look interesting, and then we started to riff on the whole ‘doable’ and decided ‘never mind ‘doable.’’ And so, anyway, that’s how the title happened, and it’s really all about the home cook.
The focus is not on baking, though there’s baking in there. There are some desserts in here that act like a composed salad. Once you’ve done them, you don’t need to know the recipes. Hopefully you’re mixing some tart and tangy with sweet and creamy, with crunchy and smooth, and there are certainly some desserts in there that give you that framework and ideas to go forward. I think anyone who does some of those desserts is just going to say, “Oh, I could do it like this or I could swap out that.” I started with ice cream, with the idea that you can do wonderful things with it; there’s a sauce section, and other things you could add to ice cream, I mean fruit and those things are pretty forgiving. I think there are well balanced, well crafted recipes for things that go well together and by the end of the book we’re meandering into baking, but again, I stripped it down.
My editor joked that this book has no pastry bags, no rolling pins, no pastry brushes, and – for some reason, this is a big thing with her – no offset spatulas. Which means that, although there are pies and tarts, it’s all press-in, you don’t even have to dirty the counter, much less worry about cracking or overworking or any of that stuff. So it’s back to crumb crusts but with some new ideas. I think the crumb crust is superb – sugar, melted butter – [and] I give two options because I know people vary in their patience, so there’s never any dough left over. You just use it. I’ve been doing that for years anyway. And as we get into cakes and stuff, I reorganized it, so things that used to be mixed in bowls are now mixed in one bowl, like the Queen of Sheba, which is classic and is in Cocolat, and certainly doesn’t need any chocolate glaze on it. I mean, you could, but why bother, it’s another step, and I think it looks more modern without it anyway. The other thing I did was most of the suggested toppings and stuff are things like yogurt, whipped cream – stuff that comes in a box. No buttercream or frosting. And I think those are better choices anyway than buttercream or frosting anyway.
So it was challenging, to me, to think in that perspective. I have a 23 year old who has a new kitchen and is a cook and is busy. So it reminded me that not everyone has a mile of counter space, a ton of equipment, or a ton of time. And a lot of those people like to eat well anyway, and I do like the idea that people aren’t buying desserts. I mean, there are fabulous places to buy desserts, but if you’re going to make a meal, it seems to me that you can make a lovely dessert rather than go to a pastry shop. Some of those cakes in [this book] take less time to mix than it does to preheat the oven.
JT:Do you have any recommendations on dessert-focused food nerds wanting to take a culinary vacation?
AM: A friend of mine has this wonderful spot right between Rome & Florence. And she does cooking there, and she has her own olive trees, and she’s a food writer, formerly from Santa Barbara, and her husband’s an artist. They’ve been there a long time, she speaks Italian really well and she knows everybody and she takes you around to all the local artisans and she hosts cooking classes and everybody eats together. I’ve only dropped in on it once and I’ve stayed there and it seems like a really fun spot. It’s called Poggio Etrusco.
Culinary staycations… I think going to a city and staying there, most any city, and staying in a rented apartment so you can drag food home. When my friends would go to France, I used to urge them to rent so they could taste all those cheeses without paying $200 for the cheese tray in a restaurant, because the street is so filled with food of every kind, and so you get to taste the bits of cheeses and you don’t even have to cook – as one of my friends said, you just come home and unwrap.
I went with a friend on a culinary tour of Mexico. And it was great because she had all the food stuff figured out – it was a combination of a little bit fancy and mostly not fancy, but she’d sort of figured out ‘where and what’ and that was great.
I’d like to do Morocco.
JT: So on this post, you reminded me of the ingenuity of using the potato ricer, which can get ignored in favor of cheesecloth for latkes. (My husband and roommate have wrecked many cheesecloths, so I am totally going to be using this.) Is there anything else along this level of multitasking that you’ve recently rediscovered in the kitchen?
AM: If I have, I probably won’t recognize it because it’s so second nature to me in a way. I had a dad who was an engineer, so there was always this sort of mentality about figuring things out and that there were lots of ways to do a thing; if one thing works, some other thing probably works better. I do have a pet peeve – I always meant to send that potato squeezing thing to cook’s magazine.
I don’t get those pitchers that are meant to skim the fat. You’ve got a pot of stock that’s this big and you’re going to use one of those little pitchers? I’m sorry, that’s nuts. I can skim the huge fat off of a huge stock pot with probably three paper towels or less, torn into strips and just sort of surface ladle the top. You can take off as much of it as you want, and there’s none of this pouring and upsetting the stuff. So I don’t understand why people do that.
JT: Because they were trained that way.
AM: Yes, yes. Which reminds me, now that you’ve opened up this pot, I still don’t understand why culinary schools are still teaching people to poach eggs with vinegar. It tastes terrible, feels terrible, and why would you want to firm up the thing that firms up first anyway, which is going to firm up anyway? I don’t get it.
JT: I did not know about that.
AM: And it tastes different and feels different in your mouth. It’s not nice. And they’re still teaching it that way.
JT: That’s weird. And especially given the obsession of things like sous vide cooking.
AM: The other thing about a poached egg is that the food52 did a little piece on the obsessive compulsive poached egg, and I think it has to do with putting the egg first in some kind of deep slotted spoon so it gets rid of the thinner egg white before you poach, but to me a poached egg is something you can do with your eyes closed in two seconds while you’re doing eight other things. If you’re going to fuss around and handle each egg, like, three times, I mean, I get that it’s an interesting thing intellectually, but at my house a poached egg is one of the first things that [my kid] learned to cook.
So why do we want to do all this when we can get all the ragged edges off when we get them out of the pan – without vinegar. Do you see my egg poaching post? It’s in there.
JT: I wonder where that started?
AM: I don’t know, but I talked to somebody who was soon to be a culinary grad, and she said they’re still teaching that.
JT: I feel like we need to go to culinary schools and find out.
AM: I don’t know, but you should do that little inquiry. The other thing that I’m abhorring is the way people are taught to melt chocolate. A double boiler? I’m sorry. The double boiler can burn chocolate just as quickly as many other methods and because people think it is safe, they more often overcook chocolate rather than not. I mean, open water bath, bowl, in pan.
JT: What would you suggest now for getting your feet wet for baking books? I often get the question ‘do you know any good basic baking cookbooks’ but I’ve noticed that I’m just as happy to jump from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook to El Bulli 2002-2003.
AM: I don’t know, let me think. People love Rose Levy Beranbaum’s book. I have to admit, I haven’t looked at this book because it came out right when I was finishing mine and I just didn’t want to look at it, but I think Emily Luccheti’s book, The Fearless Baker. I should look at that book. I was guessing it would be a very good intro, but I’m not sure what it has. Yet.
JT: What dessert are you craving today?
AM: I’m very much looking forward to trying some things at Neil Robertson’s Crumble and Flake.
JT: I think everyone’s craving that right now. I know I am.
AM: I’m also looking forward to everyone’s desserts tonight. I know Jeanne Sauvage is making something gluten free, and I’m sure it will all be fabulous.
See the book review here