You might have noticed that we kinda like Smitten Kitchen here on butter poached. I have a feeling that many of you also like the site and its friendly, talented author, Deb Perelman. So maybe you, too, were a little excited this fall when the blog made its hardcover debut in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. I, for one, had a big ole heart drawn around November 13, the date Deb came to Washington to sign books at the National Press Club’s book fair.
I scurried to the fair as soon as I could leave work. I’m glad I didn’t waste any time, because shortly after I arrived, Deb had a single-file line of fans curled around the perimeter of the room. We were all anxious to get the book, which surely would be filled with dozens of perfect recipes, but we also wanted our moment to banter with the woman who has shared with us so much of herself and her craft. Even as I’m writing this, I’m struggling with whether to call her “Deb” or “Ms. Perelman.” When I wrote about Marion Cunningham, I defaulted to “Ms. Cunningham” without a second’s thought. It feels odd to write “Ms. Perelman.” It’s not that she hasn’t earned my respect (quite the opposite), but she has put herself out there in such an approachable, honest way, that it feels forced to call her by a formal title. Truthfully, I refer to her as “Smitten,” so maybe I’ll just stick with that.
I was not at all surprised to find that Smitten kept up a steady, cheery patter with every fan. In our 30-second exchange, she and I spoke about the fact that I was getting a book signed for my best friend. “Oh, do you cook together?” “No,” I said, and then explained that Jessica lives in Brooklyn and I live in D.C., but we love Smitten’s blog and talk about food all of the time. I was so happy to have met Smitten and I could not wait to dig into that book. (Ed later asked me if I told her Jessica and I blog together. Of course I didn’t—I’m a huge chicken. Next time…maybe.)
Something about the book didn’t totally pull me in, though. Maybe it was all of the salads and vegetables or maybe it was the fact that I had just gotten engaged and was a leeetle distracted, but nothing jumped off the page. A couple of friends had a similar reaction. My friend Tayloe was left with an initial impression that the recipes were more fussy than those on the blog. My friend Rachel, after getting both Ina’s Foolproof and Smitten’s book in the mail on the same day, seemed much more excited about Foolproof. She found that fewer things in Smitten’s book were calling to her. She dabbled with some desserts and found that she liked the Marbled Pumpkin Gingersnap Tart, but it wasn’t life changing.
I tried out the all-butter pie crust (never got a taste of it because I gave the pie away), but then I shelved the book during the craziness of the holidays. Shortly after Christmas, my friend Jennifer (who’d received the book as a gift) wrote me a genius email. Subject line: “Cookbook overdrive.” First line: “We need to have a play date where we each come with something cooked from the smitten kitchen cookbook.” That proposal grew into a dinner party for which she and I cooked three courses exclusively from the book and Ed and our friend Katie helped us enjoy it all. Jennifer covered the appetizer and dessert courses and I handled the main. Katie added some hot toddies as a cocktail hour treat.
In short, I am so glad that I had a reason to focus on the book and plan a meal out of it. Trying so many recipes really gave me a good feel for the book and now I view it as an equally reliable and engaging resource as the blog. This reaction—hesitation before cooking, followed by joy and satisfaction after cooking—seems to be common. In this year’s Food52 Piglet bracket-style cookbook competition (a must-read if you’re a cookbook/food writing junkie), the first round judge criticized Smitten for her dark photos and unappealing layout, but once the judge cooked from the book, she had to hand the round to Smitten. Similarly, the Tipsy Baker wasn’t very excited about the book and has found a few duds, but has also found many keepers. If this book is on your shelf, but you’ve been reluctant to crack it open, I encourage you to give it a try. Also, I’d love to know if any of you have had any Smitten Kitchen Cookbook successes or failures.
Below is a list of what we made and some notes about each. (If you’re doing the math, Jennifer made six dishes and I made three. She texted me the day of the party to say that she had six sticks of butter softening on her counter. Her unrestrained ambition is a benefit to us all.)
Cheddar Swirl Breakfast Buns, made as miniature buns: How are savory breakfast buns not on every menu and at every party (swap the cinnamon, sugar, and butter in a cinnamon roll for cheddar, thyme, and onion and you’ll get a sense of these)? The little rolls were a huge hit. Jennifer replaced the dill called for in the book with thyme and I’m really glad she did. She also used 8 ounces of cheddar instead of the 6 ounces in the recipe, mainly because a block of cheese is 8 ounces and when is more cheddar ever a bad thing? These are best the day they are made and should be served warm.
Blue Cheese and Black Pepper Gougères: These are surprisingly well-balanced. I was worried they would be too blue-cheesy (I like blue only in moderation), but the punch from the cheese is kept in check by the eggy dough and cracked black pepper. Jennifer said these freeze well, but they will make your house smell like blue cheese until you bake something else (in her case, the popcorn for the cookies described below).
Rosemary Gruyère and Sea Salt Crisps: Jennifer called these grown-up Cheez-Its, and that is dead-on. They are highly addictive, just like their distant cheddar cousins in the red box, but the gruyère and herb makes them more sophisticated. Jennifer’s key piece of advice for this recipe was to do your best to resist eating all of the raw dough; it’s insanely good. She said the dough freezes well.
Kale Salad with Cherries and Pecans: You know how I feel about this kale salad. Total win.
Balsamic and Beer-Braised Short Ribs with Parsnip Purée: These were amazingly tender and delicious. I chose the option of braising them the night before and letting them sit for a day in their glorious juices. Shortly before serving, I roasted the ribmeat (many ribs lost their bones during the braising and resting periods, but it didn’t matter) to warm them through and get them crispy on the edges. I let the braising liquid reduce to a dangerously flavorful level and spooned it over the ribs and parsnip puree. Even after reducing for a good long while, the sauce was still pretty loose, which meant it ran over the plate in an unattractive way, but it was so tasty that no one cared. The parsnips were fine, nothing special, but the sweetness paired very well with the ribs.
Buttered Popcorn Cookies: Our panel was a little mixed on these. Most appreciated the savory-sweet combination, but they weren’t our favorite dessert of the trio. They looked the most fun, though.
Gooey Cinnamon Squares: After a couple of bites of these treats, someone commented that they taste kind of like coffee cake. We all agreed and Jennifer said she liked them even more after she thought of them as coffee cakes instead of snickerdoodles. The squares are soft, not “gooey,” but that’s not a bad thing. They would make a great dessert for a brunch. They keep very well and might even taste better the second day. Jennifer said she will add more cinnamon to the top next time (I liked it the way it was).
Brownie Roll-Out Cookies: I loved the flavor of these—they were rich and chocolatey. Jennifer recommends rolling them out thicker than she did, and she noted that the recipe makes a ton of dough (enough for 65 cookies). I am a believer that the best desserts are chocolate, so I was really happy to have these. I liked that they were not too heavy or complicated, which meant that I could enjoy a small stack even after our huge meal.