The Marvelous Dorie Greenspan on Why French Cooking Is Still Misunderstood

The Marvelous Dorie Greenspan on Why French Cooking Is Still Misunderstood

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Lauren Masur
Oct 25, 2018
(Image credit: Christine Han)

If you traveled back in time to tell 12-year-old Dorie Greenspan that she'd one day grow up to be a revered baking expert, a five-time James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, a New York Times Magazine dessert columnist, and one of the most prolific home cooking authorities of our time, she'd probably find that really hard to believe — with good reason.

Dorie openly admits that, as a preteen, she was busy setting her parents' kitchen on fire while making late-night frozen french fries with her friends. "I assumed that if they were called fries, they needed to be fried, so I poured them into a big pot of oil on the stove and put a cover on it. I opened the lid and ... it was crazy. I didn't cook again until I got married."

It wasn't all smooth sailing from there, either. "When Michael and I got married, our first kitchen was a converted closet. We refer to the first meal I ever made as 'London Bake.' It was supposed to be a London broil, but I wanted to take everything out of the oven at the same time and baked it into shoe leather."

It would be an understatement to say that Dorie eventually got the hang of the whole cooking thing. (Her twelve cookbooks speak volumes.) Perhaps most well-known for her baking prowess and love of French cooking, Dorie insists that she's not intimidating in the kitchen — and her latest cookbook that just came out this week, Everyday Dorie: The Way I Cook, is proof of that. Filled with recipes that encourage experimentation, helpful ingredient swaps, and delightful surprises, it's her most approachable yet.

When we caught up with Dorie she had just flown back from France, where she spends much of her year (when she's not in NYC or Connecticut), and was gearing up for a busy, appearance-filled book tour. We talked about her famous World Peace Cookies, where she gets all her signature neckerchiefs, why she keeps a hairdryer in her kitchen, and, of course, what French cooking means to her.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

How much time do you spend in Paris throughout the year?

We spend between four to five months out of the year there, but it's never a solid stay. That, of course, translates to being jet lagged all year! But it's so great — it's been a part-time home for 20 years.

Did you learn how to cook in France?

I once told my mother that she has made this horrible mistake of having me in Brooklyn, when she really was meant to have had me in Paris! I taught myself to cook and to bake — to cook out of necessity and to bake out of passion — when I got married at 19, as a college student. I hadn't cooked before, so I not only needed to learn but I wanted to.

I wanted to invite friends and have people around the table and make a home. But I was always drawn to France — the language, the food, the fashion, the style, the art. By the time that I was able to spend as much time in Paris as I do, I had already published books and worked with French chefs, and had written with Pierre Hermé, the pastry chef, so I got there ready — ready to pretend to be French.

The wall in Dorie's office
(Image credit: Christine Han)

What was it like to learn about baking from Pierre Hermé?

Pierre Hermé is ... I'm making a heart in the sky with my hands, you can't see it! If you were to build a bakers family tree, Pierre would be at the top. There are so many pastry chefs that he trained, who were inspired by him, and who have gone on to be famous in their own right.

He's had a hand in your famous World Peace Cookies, right?

Yes! In 2000 Pierre was creating the desserts for a restaurant in Paris, that opened briefly then closed, called Korova. He made these chocolate "Korova Cookies" and when I wrote my book Paris Sweets, about the pastry shops in Paris, I included the recipe for them. Years later when I was just finished writing Baking from My Home to Yours, I ran into a neighbor in the elevator, Richard Gold. He said "I love those chocolate cookies. Whatever you call them, we call them World Peace Cookies because if everyone had them, there would be peace." I had no intention of including the recipe in my next book again, but with a name like World Peace Cookies it was impossible to resist.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

What do you most admire about French cooking?

There are so many great things about having the chance to live in another culture. One of them has been making friends in France, becoming part of their lives, sharing meals with them, and inviting them to our home to cook for them. French home cooking is the opposite of what we think of as "fancy French food." It's braises, family-style serving, passing a big platter around the table so people can take and share, long dinners, staying at the table after the dishes have been cleared and the meal is over because you're so happy. The evening lingers. I love that about French style. I feel like that's my style of cooking.

In your new cookbook, Everyday Dorie, you say your favorite kind of food is "elbows on the table food." Can you tell me more?

When I was first teaching myself to cook, I wanted to learn French techniques, which sounds really intimidating. Now when I think about "French food," I don't think about fancy restaurant food or beautiful knife skills or perfect sautés. I think of it as how I've come to know it. French home cooking is a very generous, simple, practical way of cooking. There's something very inviting about it. I've never been to a friend's home where they brought out a terrine decorated in aspic with flowers made of cut carrots! It's not the way people cook at home. You wouldn't look at the way that I cook and say oh, that's French food. But I do feel like it has the same spirit, of being comforting, satisfying, and inviting.

Dorie making the ricotta spoonable from her new cookbook.
(Image credit: Christine Han)

What kitchen gadgets should people have to cook like you?

I couldn't live without a Dutch oven, which I use on the stovetop and also in the oven. I wouldn't want to live without a big stockpot with a lot of room to boil things, and a really good skillet. As a baker, I'm tied to my KitchenAid Stand Mixer. When I had a kitchen in Paris that was the size of a postage stamp, I still had a stand mixer and a food processor that I use to make pastry dough. It's the best way to make pie or tart dough because you want to keep the dough cold at all times and because the food processor works so fast, it's a foolproof method.

I also keep a hairdryer close by! Whenever I make cheesecake, when I go to un-mold it, the best thing to do is to hit the sides of the baking pan with the heat from a hairdryer. This you need! It's just enough heat to soften that one little thin film of cake and butter against the pan. It's great for frosted chocolate cakes that you store in the fridge. When you take it out, blast it with the hairdryer and it'll get a beautiful, glossy top. It's also good for if we ever start Jell-O molding again!

What are some of your must-have ingredients?

I think of my refrigerator door as my treasure trove. I love grainy mustard and Dijon mustard because they really add pop to things. Mustard is in so many recipes in my new cookbook. When we entertain I'll serve sparkling wine and savory cheese puffs (called gougères) that I've added mustard and walnuts to. It's also in my tomato tart and my pork roast, so I always make sure to have mustard on hand.

I also think that miso and gochujang are great ingredients to have around. I know sardines are controversial, but I happen to love them, especially in pasta with fennel and pine nuts. Whenever I am cooking I say, Oh, I can add this bit of surprise to something!

(Image credit: Christine Han)

Do you have a favorite quick weeknight meal to make?

A dish that I make a lot is chicken Milanese with salad. It's actually a chicken cutlet that's breaded and then sautéed so it has a great crispy outside but tender inside. To me, that's a perfect weeknight meal because it's delicious and quick to make. You can even bread the chicken cutlets in the morning, go off to work, then cook them at night. That's a weeknight meal for me, but also something I'd be happy to serve for dinner party night. I also love to make salmon burgers. They come together in minutes and you put them in the fridge to set. I'll serve them with a platter of sliced tomatoes, onion, avocado, a mix of lettuces, mayonnaise, Sriracha — it's like a colorful, mini weekday party.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

You have three kitchens between Paris, Connecticut, and New York. Which one do you like cooking in the most?

They're all pretty different! My Connecticut kitchen is a house so it's bigger and gives me room to be messy. I particularly love it for baking because I have space to put cookies out on cooling racks. I can cool pies outside, which was my romantic notion as a kid!

My NYC kitchen is a typical galley kitchen. I can stand in the middle of it and put my arms out and just about touch both walls. It's very efficient and has beautiful light, which is important for me. Since I've worked in it for so many years, it feels most like home to me.

And my Paris kitchen is tiny! Someone came over last week and said This is the perfect kitchen for two. Well, we were eight for dinner that night! It leads out to a balcony which has a beautiful view. We all get used to our spaces. That's the most important part of a kitchen, for the cook to be comfortable in it. I've cooked in a lot of kitchens and not all of them have been beautifully equipped, or laid-out, or architecturally strategic. But you know what? Dinner has always been good!

Where in the world is your most favorite supermarket?

In Connecticut, every cashier at the Big Y loves me because I am there every day. No matter what checkout line I am in, they know me and say See you tomorrow! In NYC I go to Whole Foods, and in Paris, I shop at outdoor markets and small shops because it's easy and wonderful.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

Who makes your signature neckerchiefs?

I have a very big collection of scarves, and I buy them everywhere! My current favorite comes from a supermarket in Shanghai. I buy hankies and turn them into scarves — if I get one knot out of it, I'm okay! I have gorgeous scarves from Hermes, but I also have bandanas that I bought on the street. It's not a question of one particular place, it's more like an obsession! Where other people might bring back silver or pottery from trips, I collect scarves. It's a mix of high/low. If I love the colors, sold.

Are your friends intimidated to cook for you?

Not at all! I am not an intimidating cook! At the end of the day my food is really simple. What I hope I can do in my work is to encourage people to get into the kitchen, enjoy being there, and to take pleasure in every step of cooking. It's rare that we ever get to make something with our hands from start to finish, and cooking gives us that.

In my recipes, I often have a little paragraph at the end about "playing around" with ideas on how to change a recipe. I'm like an evangelist — I want everyone in the kitchen. That's why I write. If I've done my job right, then people aren't afraid to cook for me or everyone else.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

What would you want to be if you weren't a professional cookbook author?

I feel so lucky to be doing this, but as a kid, I wanted to be a ballerina. Not a chance! Maybe I'd like to be a teacher, but I kind of hope that's what I'm doing now.

What's next for you?

I am busy! Off to my book tour in 11 cities. I'm looking forward to travel, travel, travel. And then some family time. This year I am going to Australia and New Zealand with my little family (there are four of us now: my husband, Michael, my son, Joshua, and his new wife, Linling!) I'm also thinking about another cookbook. I'll keep you posted.

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