Dorie Greenspan has worked in the kitchens of the world's most revered chefs: Pierre Hermé in Paris, Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York, and America's own French cook, Julia Child.
She has witnessed, even assisted in, the preparation of the most exquisite patisseries on the planet, gussied and glazed to perfection by food stylists for stunning photography.
And still, when the best-selling cookbook author took time out from her most recent book tour to cook at my house, she rhapsodized over my little orange almond tart as if I had baked something off the dessert cart at Le Bec-Fin: "Just look at that tart you made!" she cooed. "You made that! It's so beautiful!"
No wonder Julia Child had her number on speed dial. (It's true. You can still see "Dorie G." on the phone that hangs in Julia Child's kitchen in the Smithsonian Institution.)
So I begin to understand why everyone wants Dorie Greenspan in their kitchen, writing their cookbooks, testing their recipes, and why she gets invited to all the best dinner parties.
While she speaks perfect French, rotates between apartments in Paris and Manhattan and a home in Connecticut, and cooks and bakes with the utmost sophistication and expertise, she is so not a snob - food or otherwise.
"I am really, truly, just a home cook," she insists. That humble, charming, sunny persona resonates from the pages of her latest offering: Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes From My Home to Yours (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a compilation of her favorite recipes gathered over the last 30 years - from French friends and neighbors, bistro owners, even from the back of a card at a cheese shop in Provence.
Each recipe is accompanied by a little story about its history: her attempt to come up with her own lentil soup after hearing Jean-Georges Vongerichten rave about his childhood staple; her favorite salad from her friend Hélène Samuel's snack bar at Paris' Le Bon Marché; a mustard tart recipe from friends who made it for her one night at their bed-and-breakfast outside Dijon, and so on.
"I would love for this book to give people a new look at French food," Greenspan, 62, says, "so they could understand: It's not fussy, it's not formal, it's not technique-driven, it's not difficult to make, it's not a weekend project. It's just delicious, homey food for every day, from a land that has treasured food."
The book is her 10th, and even though she may not be a household name with the Food Network nation, she has achieved critical success with numerous awards, including two James Beards - and a loyal following that has been building since her breakout book in 1996, the best-selling Baking With Julia, which accompanied Julia Child's public television series.
From there, she worked on two cookbooks for Hermé, king of Paris pastry chefs, and another for chef Daniel Boulud, before turning to the first major project of her own: Baking, From My Home to Yours (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), a 500-page ode to her first love, with three decades worth of her favorite things to bake, also with personal anecdotes and tips from working beside all those famous chefs.
That book inspired an online cooking following, sparked by the blog "Tuesdays with Dorie"; and a similar community, "French Fridays with Dorie," has evolved around her new book, released only this month.
"This is remarkable to me," Greenspan says. "I'm deeply touched to have all these people baking from my book, posting pictures. It's so gratifying to have people taking my recipes and making them their own."
One of the great joys of her book tour, Greenspan says, is that she has the opportunity to meet some of these online devotees. "I've followed these groups and now I get to meet them as real live people. . . . I see how young so many of them are; it's so exciting to see a younger generation in the kitchen." Many are learning to cook for the first time and they are online helping one another. "If there are problems and questions, I try to pipe in, but others answer, too. It's become a real community."
Greenspan's books do lend themselves to this kind of following, because her recipes, which at first appear long and complicated, are really mostly simple, just quite detailed - with little tips and insights, and answers to questions you didn't even know you had.
For instance, my tart dough would never have reached its proper consistency had I not had this level of instruction on adding egg yolks to the crust ingredients in the food processor: "Stir the yolk, just to break it up, and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is in, process in long pulses - about 10 seconds each - until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. Just before you reach this clump stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change - heads up." (And I heard the sound change!)
Perhaps it is because Greenspan never had formal training that she anticipates the questions of the uninitiated in the kitchen.
Just married, 19, still in college, and living in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn Heights, she bought Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbook and "cooked like mad."
"I just took to it," she says. "I just loved it, the process of it, working with ingredients, being able to feed people that I really loved." And then, after a life-altering trip to Paris ("I fell in love!") and a perfect strawberry tartlet, she discovered baking: "It became a passion. I baked right through Maida Heatter. I was just baking constantly."
Finally, her husband suggested she quit her job and give up her pursuit of a doctorate in gerontology: "You should get a job baking," he said. "You love it so much."
And she did; but she was fired after one month.
"I never got fast," she says. "I hated making the same thing every day, so I changed a recipe. That was it."
Someone suggested food writing. Because she didn't know how to write a proposal, she baked a tray of chocolate truffles and linzer hearts, wrapped them up in ribbons and bows, and sent them over to Food and Wine. The editors commissioned the article on homemade treats that very afternoon. That was 1983, and more assignments followed.
"It was a very interesting time in New York," she said. "There were these four amazing French chefs - Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque, Gilbert Le Coze at Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Lafayette, and Gray Kunz at Lespinasse - and they were all starting out in the city together. . . . It was the beginning of what I think of as the food revolution: getting away from heavy sauces, using vegetable purees and juices and vinaigrettes."
Le Coze was doing things with monkfish and skate, fish that everyone else was throwing away, she says, and Kunz brought in Asian ingredients that he would use with a traditional dish that changed everything.
By that time, Greenspan had given birth to her only son, Joshua, and learned "kitchen French" from her son's French au pair. So not only could she converse with these chefs, she could also translate their recipes and test them with American ingredients. "I feel so stupid saying I was lucky," she said. "But I was. I was lucky enough to work with all of these chefs and I got a front-row seat."
The more famous the chef, the more kind, generous, supportive, and encouraging she found the chef to be. And it is that same tone that she adopts in her recipes and in her manner in the kitchen.
A natural teacher, she instructs as she goes: "You want to keep stirring this, quickly," she says as she stirs the ingredients for one of her specialties, gougères, these impossibly light little cheese puffs that we are making in my kitchen. "Once you see this crust form on the bottom," she moves the dough with the spoon, so I can see, "keep stirring, so it doesn't burn, for another minute or two, until it gets smooth. . . . It is difficult," she says. "But we must sacrifice for our art."
"These are forgiving," she says, when the shape of my gougères doesn't look quite as perfect as hers. "They will puff up in the oven." And so they do.
And as we move on to the chicken in a pot, Greenspan seems to take pleasure in every step of the way, peeling and chopping the carrots and sweet potatoes. She even peels the celery. "Our au pair peeled celery and it was such a wonderful result. No stringy parts. Now it's second nature. I don't even think about it."
I'm peeling the shallots and separating the garlic cloves, then we're browning the vegetables, then the chicken. Finally, we're rolling the dough for the pastry that will seal the pot, and thus, seal in all its commingling ingredients and flavors.
And, when it is all finally ready to go in the oven, I learn the real secret to Dorie Greenspan's culinary genius:
She talks to the food.
"Don't puff up too much now," she warns, as she slides the pot sealed with dough into the oven.
And then, like a mother not wanting to sound too harsh, "And have fun in there."
Makes 36 gougères
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup water
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated cheese, such as Gruyere or cheddar
1. Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat to 425 degrees. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper.
2. Bring the milk, water, butter, and salt to a rapid boil in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan over high heat. Add the flour all at once, lower the heat to medium-low, and immediately start stirring energetically with a wooden spoon or heavy whisk. The dough will come together and a light crust will form on the bottom of the pan. Keep stirring, with vigor, for another minute or two to dry the dough. The dough should now be very smooth.
3. Turn the dough into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or into a bowl that you can use for mixing with a hand mixer or a wooden spoon and elbow grease. Let the dough sit for a minute, then add the eggs one by one and beat, beat, beat until the dough is thick and shiny. Make sure each egg is completely incorporated before you add the next, and don't be concerned if the dough separates - by the time the last egg goes in, the dough will come together again. Beat in the grated cheese. Once the dough is made, it should be spooned out immediately.
4. Using about 1 tablespoon of dough for each gougère, drop the dough from a spoon onto the lined baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches of puff space between the mounds.
Slide the baking sheets into the oven and immediately turn the oven temperature down to 375 degrees. Bake for 12 minutes, then rotate the pans from front to back and top to bottom. Continue baking until the gougères are golden, firm, and yes, puffed, an additional 12 to 15 minutes or so. Serve warm, or transfer the pans to racks to cool.
Note: Although you must spoon out the puffs as soon as the dough is made, the little puffs can be frozen and then baked straight from the freezer.
Per gougere: 68 calories, 3 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 0.3 gram sugar, 5 grams fat, 42 milligrams cholesterol, 73 milligrams sodium, 0.1 gram dietary fiber.
Chicken in the Pot: The Garlic and Lemon Version
Makes 5 servings
1/2 preserved lemon (see note)
1 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and each cut into 8 same-sized pieces (white potatoes may be substituted)
16 small white or yellow onions or shallots
8 carrots, trimmed, peeled, and quartered
4 celery stalks, trimmed, peeled, and quartered
4 garlic heads, cloves separated but not peeled
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
3 thyme sprigs
3 parsley sprigs
2 rosemary sprigs
1 chicken, about 4 pounds, whole or cut into 8 pieces, at room temperature
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup hot water
1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
2. Using a paring knife, slice the peel from the preserved lemon and cut it into small squares; discard the pulp. Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan, drop in the peel, and cook for 1 minute; drain and set aside.
3. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the vegetables and garlic, season with salt and pepper, and saute until the vegetables are brown on all sides (If necessary, do this in 2 batches.) Spoon the vegetables into a 41/2- to 5-quart Dutch oven or other pot with a lid and stir in the herbs and the preserved lemon.
4. Return the skillet to the heat, add another tablespoon of oil, and brown the chicken on all sides, seasoning it with salt and pepper as it cooks. Tuck the chicken into the casserole, surrounding it with the vegetables. Mix together the broth, wine, and the remaining olive oil and pour over the chicken and vegetables.
5. Put 11/2 cups flour in a medium bowl and add enough hot water to make a malleable dough. Dust a work surface with a little flour, turn out the dough, and, working with your hands, roll the dough into a sausage. Place the dough on the rim of the pot - if it breaks, just piece it together - and press the lid onto the dough to seal the pot.
Slide the pot into the oven and bake for 55 minutes.
6. Now you have a choice - you can break the seal in the kitchen or do it at the table, where it's bound to make a mess, but where everyone will have the pleasure of sharing that first fragrant whiff as you lift the lid with a flourish. Whether at the table or in the kitchen, the best tool to break the seal is the least attractive - a screwdriver. Use the point of the screwdriver as a lever to separate the lid from the dough.
Depending on whether your chicken was whole or cut up, you might have to do some in-the-kitchen carving, but in the end, you want to make sure the vegetables and the delicious broth are on the table with the chicken.
Note: Prepare preserved lemons by cutting deep slits in lemons and burying them in salt and their own juices for at least three weeks.
Per serving: 486 calories, 45 grams protein, 63 grams carbohydrates, 34grams sugar, 6 grams fat, 127 milligrams cholesterol, 311 milligrams sodium, 10 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 6 servings
For the oranges:
4 navel or other meaty oranges
For the Almond Cream:
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup almond flour
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 large egg
2 teaspoons dark rum or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 9- to 9 1/2-inch tart shell, made with Sweet Tart Dough, partially baked and cooled
Confectioners' sugar for dusting, or about 1/4 cup apple jelly and 1/2 teaspoon water, for glazing
1. To prepare the oranges: Using a sharp knife (I use a chef's knife), cut a thin slice off the top and bottom of each orange so it can stand upright. Working from top to bottom and following the curve of the fruit, use the knife to remove the peel in wide bands, cutting down to the fruit. You want to expose the juicy fruit, so take the thinnest little bit of fruit away with each strip of peel. Carefully run the knife down the connective membranes to release the orange segments one by one. Place the segments between a triple layer of paper towels and let them dry for at least 1 hour, or for several hours, or even overnight. If you have the chance and the towels seem saturated, change them.
2. To make the Almond Cream: Put the butter and sugar in a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth and satiny. Add the almond flour and process until well blended. Add the all-purpose flour and cornstarch, and process, then add the egg. Process for about 15 seconds more, or until the almond cream is homogenous. Add the rum or vanilla and process just to blend. (If you prefer, you can make the cream in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or in a bowl with a rubber spatula. In either case, add the ingredients in the same order.) You can use the almond cream immediately or scrape it into a container and refrigerate it until firm, about 2 hours. It's better if you can allow the cream to chill, but it's not imperative. (The cream can be refrigerated, tightly covered, for up to 3 days.)
3. When you're ready to bake, center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or parchment paper and put the tart shell on it.
4. Stir the almond cream, then turn it into the crust, smoothing the top. Arrange the orange slices in a decorative pattern over the top. Don't cover every bit of cream - it will bubble and rise as it bakes, and it's nice to leave space for it to come up around the fruit.
5. Bake the tart for 50 or 60 minutes, or until the cream has risen and turned golden brown. If you slip a knife into the cream, it should come out clean. Transfer the tart to a cooling rack and cool to room temperature.
6. Right before serving, dust the tart with confectioners' sugar. Or, if you prefer, prepare a glaze by bringing the apple jelly and water to a boil (you can do this in a microwave oven or saucepan). Brush the glaze over the surface of the tart.
7. Remove the sides of the pan, slide the tart off the bottom of the pan (if you can't do this easily, don't bother with this step), and slice.
Per serving: 504 calories, 38 grams fat, 83 milligrams cholesterol, 50 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 198 milligrams sodium, 1 gram fiber
Sweet Tart Dough (Pate Sablée)
Makes one 9- to 91/2-inch tart shell (6 servings)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
9 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk
1. Put the flour, confectioners' sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse a couple of times to combine. Scatter the pieces of butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is cut in coarsely - you'll have some pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and some the size of peas, and that's just fine. Stir the egg yolk, just to break it up, and add a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. When the egg is in, process in long pulses - about 10 seconds each - until the dough, which will look granular soon after the egg is added, forms clumps and curds. Just before you reach this clumpy stage, the sound of the machine working the dough will change - heads up.
2. Turn the dough out onto a work surface and very lightly knead it just to incorporate any dry ingredients that might have escaped mixing. (The dough can now be refrigerated for up to 5 days.)
3. When you are ready to make the tart shell, butter a 9- to-91/2-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. (Butter the pan even if it's nonstick.)
4. Press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the tart pan. You probably won't use all the dough, but it's nice to make a thickish crust so you can really enjoy the texture. Press the crust in so the pieces cling to one another and knit together when baked, but don't use a lot of force - working lightly will preserve the crust's shortbreadish texture. Prick the crust all over and freeze for at least 30 minutes, preferably longer, before baking.
5. Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a piece of aluminum foil and press the foil snugly against the crust. If the crust is frozen, you can bake it as is; if not, fill it with dried beans or rice (which you can reuse for crusts but won't be able to cook after this).
6. Partially bake the crust for 25 minutes, then carefully remove the foil (and weights). If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. Return the tart to the oven and bake for 3 to 5 more minutes, or until lightly golden. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and allow the crust to cool before you fill it.
Per serving: 323 calories, 19 grams fat, 83 milligrams cholesterol, 33 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 198 milligrams sodium, 1 gram fiber
Contact food editor Maureen Fitzgerald at 215-854-5744 or firstname.lastname@example.org.