This weekend, I got to meet Deb of Smitten Kitchen at her Houston book signing. We talked about marzipan.
I was so excited. Even though our interaction mainly consisted of the following:
Deb: “Are you Erika?”
Me: “Yup.” I watch her start to sign her name in my book, and figure it’s now or never. “I have to tell you—I made your pistachio marzipan cake for my dad’s birthday and he doesn’t usually like sweets, but he loved it.”
Deb looks up from signing my book and says, “Oh, I love that cake; I made it for my birthday years ago. Did you make the marzipan or buy it like I suggested?”
I tell her I bought it when I made the cake, but I recently made it myself and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.
“I find it’s all almond extract when I make it,” she says. “It just takes so much to make it taste like the store-bought kind. Did you find that?”
I”m kind of tongue-tied at this point and maybe omit the fact that actually no, I was a totally laze and cheapo and used vanilla extract and say, “yeah, it did have a milder flavor…”
She was SO nice and genuine. I could tell from the feet-tapping of the ladies body-guarding her and the long line behind me that she was in a bit of a time crunch, but she still took the time to devote a moment of her attention to conversation with me. What a classy lady. I was starstruck.
The book signing was supposed to consist of a short talk + Q&A + book signing, but I think she was a little under the weather, so mostly skipped the short talk. Or made it really REALLY short.
Her opening was basically this: “Everyone wants to hear an exciting life story, but my life story is this: I like to cook and I wrote a book. Now who has questions?”
She was so cute—a little hoarse, maybe a little weary and clearly excited to get back to her husband and adorable button of a child, but also clearly a little thrilled to be there (only the 34th or so stop on her book tour) and sharing her cooking knowledge with everyone. Utterly endearing.
For the next half hour or so, I learned a LOT. A lot you can learn from reading her book, but I found it infinitely more fascinating to hear it from Deb herself. Since I’m obsessed with Smitten Kitchen and her over five million viewers a month show that a lot of other people are too, I’m sharing a lot of her answers to the questions asked during the signing below. I promise there’s a recipe at the bottom of all of this, which you can totally skip to!
Here we go:
- She uses supermarket staples but splurges on cocoa and salt. She regularly uses store-brand butter, flour, etc., but her splurge items are Valrhona cocoa and flaky maldon sea salt. And grapefruits from Texas, her yearly splurge for herself that she says she guards even from her husband.
- Developing a recipe can take up to 20 tries. Her recipe development process starts with an idea—she cited rye bread English muffins as a recent idea. She then researches different recipes until she finds recipes close to what she thinks she wants. Next, she’ll write up a recipe that she thinks will work, incorporating the flavors of both, print it out and try it. In the kitchen, she’s constantly writing notes all over the recipe, essentially re-writing it. Then she’ll go back and tweak it until it’s just the way she imagined, which she said sometimes “takes only 2-4 tries. Others take 6-8 tries and some have taken 20.” 20 TRIES. CAN YOU IMAGINE?
- She doesn’t like cooking bacon. The thing she says she avoids cooking in her kitchen are smelly foods—like fish. Latkes apparently have a very stubborn fragrance, especially in an apartment with little ventilation. “And bacon,” she added. But that didn’t stop her from recommending cooking a whole rash of bacon in the oven to a woman who asked what her recommendation for a brunch for 40 people would be (apparently it minimizes the smell).
- Brunch for a crowd would be eggs, a sweet dish, bacon and yogurt. To the woman who asked the above question, Deb recommended a big eggy casserole that you can prepare the night before, like her spinach strata, a sweet dish like her cinnamon French toast that can also be popped in the oven the morning of, a bunch of bacon, some kind of bread, and perhaps yogurt with maple granola “for that aunt who’s always on a diet.”
- Her kitchen really IS tiny. She tries to do as much research as possible before in order to minimize her time in her kitchen, which is actually extremely tiny.
- She’s bothered by cooking. It wasn’t hard to see why she’s become so successful when she talked about why she cooks. “I’m a little bothered by cooking, if that makes any sense,” she said. She went on to clarify that sometimes what inspires her is eating a dish at a restaurant, for example, and not having it taste quite the way she wanted it. So she’ll go into her kitchen and fiddle until she has something that fits the bill of her imagination.
- She hadn’t planned on photographing The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. She thought Knopf would get her a photographer to photograph her book, but they wanted her to do it. In retrospect, she admitted that was definitely the right way to go. “I would’ve been like, ‘oh, that’s not quite how I would have done it,’ and I just would have been a total nightmare to some poor photographer,” she said in her oh-so-cute Deb way. Knopf wanted the book to look like Smitten Kitchen and of course, it totally does, thanks to Deb’s hand.
- She wants you to make HER roast chicken. The reason why Deb blogs is because after testing a recipe so many times in search of perfection, she can’t help but share it with readers. She wants you to use HER roast chicken recipe because she’s done the testing to get it right—why use anything else?
This last point made me look at her blog in a whole different light. Of course, part of the reason I go back to Smitten Kitchen again and again is because everything I’ve ever made from the blog has been delicious. But since I always read recipes with modifications in mind, following a recipe exactly is always a little hard.
So now, it feels even more blasphemous to take one of her recipes and alter it. But I have good reason. And here are three reasons why you could/should/might alter it too:
a) You have a large container of yogurt flirting aggressively with its expiration date that your boyfriend thoughtfully bought for you and that you didn’t eat because you suddenly decided you were on a non-yogurt kick and then went travelling for Thanksgiving.
b) You are health conscious and willing to sacrifice a small percentage of the hard-won Smitten Kitchen taste perfection in the name of slightly better health.
c) You hate sour cream.
Look at that. Do you think that’s lacking in taste? Even modified, Smitten Kitchen always pulls through.
This cake is the total kahuna for using up Greek yogurt. I looked at many recipes for “Greek yogurt coffeecake,” but other recipes I found used 1 cup at most. Here, I swapped in a whopping two cups of yogurt for the sour cream.
I’ve made this cake both ways, full fat and modified with Greek yogurt. The original way is incredibly tender and tight-crumbed with a crunchy, sugary lid. This version is a tiny bit chewier, but it still has enough sugar, chocolate chips and fat to clear the taste bar. If the “chewy” part totally grosses you out, try using full-fat or 2% fat Greek yogurt instead of 0% (what I used).
I have a feeling using 6 tablespoons of butter in this instead swapping out 2 for oil (shown below) would also yield slightly more desirable results, but I’m no Deb–I only tested this once, and I was 98% satisfied. Just curious about that fat swap…
Adjust the chocolate chip/cinnamon sugar ratios to your taste. If you’re going for a healthier version, you can definitely cut down on the chocolate chips and sugar without sacrificing a lot of taste.
Greek Yogurt Coffee Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs separated
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups Greek yogurt (see notes)
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups white whole wheat powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon table salt
Filling and Topping
1 to 1 1/2 cups semi- or bittersweet chocolate chips or coarsely chopped chocolate bars
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-x-13-inch baking pan. If not nonstick coated, cover the bottom with a rectangle of parchment paper. Set pan aside.
In a large bowl, cream butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar. Beat in oil, egg yolks and vanilla. Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together into a separate bowl. Alternately mix in Greek yogurt and then dry ingredients into butter mixture until both are used up and the batter is smooth and very thick. In a medium bowl, beat eggs whites until stiff, then fold into batter.
In a small dish, whisk together sugar and cinnamon for filling and topping.
Spread half the cake batter in the bottom of prepared pan. Sprinkle with half of cinnamon-sugar mixture and 1 cup of chocolate chips. Dollop remaining cake batter over filling in spoonfuls. Use a rubber or offset spatula to gently spread it over the filling and smooth the top. Sprinkle batter with remaining cinnamon-sugar and remaining chocolate chips. With the palm of your hand, ever-so-gently press the chocolate chips a bit into the batter. No need to submerge them, you just want to make sure they adhere bit.
Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, rotating halfway through, until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.