‘Exceptional apple cake’ and other ingredients of a non-redundant food-blogger cookbook

The cookbook. (smittenkitchen.com)
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If you live in New York City, you have lots of reasons not to cook, and, as Deb Perelman points outs, “Five-for-a-dollar dumplings are just one of them.”

The kitchens are small and cockroach-prone. The groceries are overpriced and must be lugged home on foot. Recipes require more bowls than they should—bowls which, in the absence of a dishwasher, will have to be washed by hand.

Delivery, on the other hand, will come straight to the door. And down the street, around the corner, just a few blocks away, the more-than-serviceable Thai place, the place with the perfect kale salad, the joint that may just make the best burger in the city will not only cook up a dinner that would take the average home cook hours of sweaty, curse-inducing labor to turn out but will wash the dishes and take out the trash, too.

It didn’t entirely make sense, under these circumstances, for Perelman to have launched Smitten Kitchen, the now-popular cooking blog that’s as likely as not to be secret behind the chocolate swirl buns that show up at ladies-only brunch, that comes up in fully half of conversations among my friends about cooking, that inspired one associate of mine to suggest this past summer that we cook a feast using only recipes we could find there, that regularly tops all kinds of lists of best food blogs. Because when you can get five dumplings for a dollar, why bother cooking at all?

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The tagline on the cover of Perelman’s recently published The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook calls her “an obsessive home cook,” and it’s that obsessiveness that calls her back to her own tiny kitchen, no matter how easy it is to eat out.

“I think that, no matter how easy it is to get food you like delivered quickly, there's still that thing that you crave that nobody does well,” she said, when I talked to her recently about the book. “ You just want things done the way you want them.”

That obsessiveness is also why she waited years longer than her food-blogging peers to produce her first cookbook.

Perelman began blogging in 2006. By 2007, the Los Angeles Times was calling Smitten Kitchen a top food blog, and Martha Stewart had honored it as “a very cute website.” That was also the first year that a notable number of known-commodity food bloggers published books: Chocolate & Zucchini’s Clotilde Dusoulier, Amateur Gourmet’s Adam Roberts, 101 Cookbook’s Heidi Swanson all came out with cookbooks that year.

Just two years later, in 2009, when Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond, a food blogger who was profiled by the New Yorker and whom Reese Witherspoon will play in the movie version of her life, published her first cookbook, blog-based cookbooks were no longer a weird experiment, but a surefire bet for publishers.

It wasn’t until that year that Perelman decided to write a cookbook, figuring at the time that it wouldn't be ready until 2012. The book finally came out at the end of October.

By this time, many of Perelman’s blogger cohort were releasing their second cookbooks, and defending the enterprise from foodies who wondered whether the whole food-blog thing wasn't already over.

Perelman ended up writing one of the last debut cookbooks of the generation of food bloggers who had started blogging when it was still a sort of strange thing to do.

There’s a reason this model works: these books have a built-in audience, and, since recipes and stories can be repurposed from blog posts, a big chunk of work has already been done. Instead of following that template, though, Perelman decided to tweak it.

In The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, the recipe for maple bacon biscuits begins with a story of disappointment. Perelman whipped them up for the first time after the biscuits she was eating at a local coffee shop did not fulfill her pastry desires. The idea for a butternut squash salad came from the same sort of experience, she told me—a restaurant dish that just wasn’t quite right. Her chicken noodle soup, too.

“It’s hardly the most honorable of inspirations—being convinced that everyone else is doing it wrong, that I alone can do things well,” she writes in the book. “But it did produce a fine biscuit.”

It’s an editorial impulse—to adjust and improve—and she applies it not just to restaurant food but to kitchenware, her own recipes, and her book. She knew that most earlier blog-to-cookbook projects had included a lot of recipes from the blog. That wasn’t what she wanted in a cookbook.

"I wanted to stand on its own," she said.

In practice, that means more than three-quarters of the recipes in the book are new recipes, never published on her website. The reader she pictured is the one who would come upon the book in a store and think, “I don't know who this person is; I don't know food blogs; I don't care about food blogs.”

When she wrote the book, she imagined that person would flip to just two pages in the book, and those two pages would determine whether or not they would buy her book.

“I can't even tell you how many times I had that conversation with myself,” she said. “I didn't want what I consider throw-away recipes.”

Simple recipes for staples like compound butter that come up easily with the most basic Google search were not allowed. She allows that the apple cake in the book is simple, but she feels “so strongly that it's an exceptional apple cake” that she promised that it is a better apple cake than any I’ve ever tasted.

It might not be the most extraordinary of inspirations—the idea that no one else was getting blogger cookbooks quite right—but it did produce a successful book. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook has spent three weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List and is currently the twelfth most popular book on all of Amazon.