The "Bullish" Amanda Hesser On the NY Times Cookbook, Alice Waters and More
Amanda Hesser, formerly known as Ms. Latte, will now forever be known as the author of the astoundingly comprehensive, 932 page, no-pretty-pictures Essential New York Times Cookbook (W.W. Norton & Co.) which just landed with an enormous thud on my desk. The phenomenal book includes over 1000 recipes, trend charts and dishes through the ages—all which Hesser tested over the six years it took her to complete the book. I already have pages earmarked for future dinners.
Somewhere in there, the ambitious food writer wedged in time to give birth to twins, move to Brooklyn and start her new venture, the recipe-contest driven Food52 which is run out of Dogpatch Labs in Manhattan (while the cooking is done at her home). This weekend, Hesser will be in SF for a few events, including a authors lunch for the National Kidney Foundation (where she'll join Armistead Maupin and Yiyun Li), SF Food Wars (which is sold out, unless can win tickets on their Facebook page) and an 826 Valencia fundraiser.
Your book is amazing. You should be so proud. At six years in the making, does it already seem like a lifetime ago that you wrote it?
You know what, we were still working on the book through the summer. It was a scramble to the very end. They wanted it out this fall. I spent the past year up to 3 am every night. It was like a full family effort. Tad [Friend], my husband, had to cook dinner and take care of our kids. It was kind of a circus.
And you had your children during all this too.
I started working on the book in 2004 and they were born in 2006. I didn’t have an easy pregnancy at all, so thank god for Merrill who, when I couldn’t stand up, would bring vegetables to me and I would chop at the table. When they were babies, they would be in their bouncy seats, but not the automatic ones. When they stopped bouncing, we’d have to kick one of the bouncy seats and run back to the stove.
Between getting in all the letters when you did call out for favorite New York Times recipes and Food52, you must have a sense of where Americans are in regards to home cooking. Is it a fantasy or a reality?
I’m very bullish on cooking. I think people are cooking but cooking differently. People aren’t cooking three different dishes for dinner five days a week. But they read about food, and we’re becoming such a foodie culture. So maybe sometimes they go to Whole Foods and do takeout and maybe sometimes they cook a full dinner. Maybe they’re not cooking as regularly, but I think they’re more comfortable in the kitchen thanks to food television. I think it’s a very great development.
How have recipes changed?
If you look at the Times archives, you see more things like mastering cassoulet. Or perfecting pizza at home. Also, you see the variety of cuisines and recipes and levels of recipes has just exploded. We want heat and texture and we want it all in a recipe that’s pared down and approachable and I actually think it’s made our recipe culture much more interesting and challenging. I think writers like Mark Bittman have created things like technique without a lot of effort.
What was a recipe that didn’t make the cut?
Charlotte Russe. It’s this kind of molded gelatin meringue cream dessert. Everyone I made was was too bouncy and not that pleasant. A little bit like eating a rubber ball with orange flower water with it.
One of the best, but least expected, ones?
There are so many I’d never heard of. Huguenot Torte is this sort of meringuey cake that you kind of make it a pie plate of a baking pan and it’s got pecans and apples and it’s kind of chewy and gooey and it’s crisp around the edges and it’s sort of that sticky toffee pudding consistency. But who’s ever heard of huguenot torte?
Assuming you can still muster the energy to cook at this point, what would you make for dinner tonight from the book?
Let me think. It’s just when there are 1000 recipes, it’s like being lost in a thicket. I might make Nigella Lawson’s buttermilk-roasted chicken and Molly O’Neill’s recipe for broccoli purree with ginger.
What cooking trends do you see coming up in the next five years?
There’s a real moving away from the interest in chefs and restaurant food. The restaurant food getting attention now is down-home stuff. Stories about pizza and hamburger and all these very everyday American foods. It feels like turning inwards.
Thoughts on cooking for children?
I think I had a very unusual situation whereas I was testing this huge variety of things. I can see that all these different flavors were very exciting to my kids. But I feel like food is a good gateway to the world. I want them to be open to the world, and one way I can get them to embrace that mindset is to make food a really fun part of their life.
Three seminal, game-changing moments in our culinary history?
The invention of the blender changed soup and drink making. You could say a seminal moment was when Craig Claiborne started working at The Times in the 1950s. He made the weekly food section a must-read. Another seminal moment is when he wrote about Alice Waters in the 1980s. He was an innovative chef who had original ideas about cooking and life and it was like a metaphorical handing over of the baton. He wrote this glowing profile of her.
You have family in the Bay Area. Where are you going to eat while you’re here?
I’m really dying to go Pizzaiolo in Oakland. I love having breakfast at Blue Bottle. Honestly I haven’t been to SF in a while. I’m quite behind in new stuff. I don’t think I’m going to have that much time to go out because I’m doing a lot of events. Saturday night, a lot of Food52 members are doing a potluck. They’ve gotten together themselves and when they heard I was coming, they invited me to join. I said, Of course!