Amanda Hesser’s new The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century (W.W. Norton & Company, 932 pages, $40) explores many decades of culinary history with an eye — well, perhaps a palate — for modern tastes. She spoke with Fork in the Road about the labor and love that went into making her recently released work. Today, in Part 2 of our interview, she tells us why she ditched economics and finance for a life in the kitchen.
The book has around 1,000 recipes: Do you have any faves?
One of them is called “Forget It Meringue Torte,” which is kind of like pavlova, except that it’s done in a tube pan. You make a meringue, and you spoon it into a tube pan, and then you put it in the oven, and then you turn the oven heat off, and you leave it overnight, and that’s why you call it “forget it.” Then, you take it out in the morning, and it has this fabulous meringue crust. So it doesn’t take much time and it’s fun to make. Another one of my favorite recipes is called “Cucumbers and Cream.” It’s really simple. It’s like a sour cream and cucumber salad, which we’ve probably all made or had from a deli. And it has lemon juice or lemon zest in it, and it gives the dish a great perfume. Also, there’s this amazing latkes recipe in there from Mimi Sheraton, who was a food critic for the Times for a long time.
So what’s special about these potato pancakes?
They just have a very good technique, they come out very crisp. There’s the perfect amount of salt and, I don’t know, they’re just super-delicious. They’re not at all heavy and greasy, and they’re just kind of soft inside, kind of buttery, with crisp edges.
Was there anything you wanted to include but didn’t?
Charlotte Russe — it was just a popular molded dessert from 100 years ago, and I just couldn’t find a version I liked. And I think it could just be that we have very different tastes now. It has a lot of gelatin in it so it was kind of firm and bouncy, and I think we like softer things now, more pudding-like. I tried a couple of different versions, but I couldn’t find one that I liked. I wanted something people would enjoy now. I mean, it’s not a museum of food. I was wary even of using the word “archives.” I wanted a collection of every recipe that you’d ever need to know and every recipe you’d want to be making not only now, but for the rest of your life. I wanted it to feel alive, and approachable, and exciting. I made many more recipes than what are in the book, because I was wanting to only put in the very best stuff, and I needed to make a lot to get a sense of what was there. I tried to act, essentially, as the tour guide in the book: Why it’s great, what’s interesting about it, and what you should pay attention to.
What got you into food writing?
I studied finance and economics in college, so I was on a different path. But when I was growing up, my mom was a really good cook, and my grandmother was a really good cook, and so eating well was really a priority. Then in college, I studied in Europe and realized that I was really interested in the foods, so I came back and started to work in a kitchen and took a food-history course. Then, I went back to Europe and trained to be a cook and a baker, but I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I was working in restaurants, I was working in bakeries, I was trying to figure it out. I ended up in France and working for Anne Willan, I was cooking from the garden on her property. There was a gardener who was working on this property, and I became really interested in him, and then I thought: There is somebody I really want to write about, and it was him. So my first book is called The Cook and the Gardener. What about childhood: Did you learn anything about food as a kid?
My mom made almost everything from scratch and she cooked seasonally before it was fashionable to do so. My mom was never really a fancy cook, she just had a really good sense of great ingredients. I think the benefit was that, later on, when I pursued a career in the food industry, I knew what good food was and what it meant to eat it.
For instance, my mom makes an excellent strawberry shortcake, excellent white sandwich bread, she makes great oven-fried chicken. My grandmother, she lived on the Chesapeake Bay, and so she made a lot of great crabcakes. And when you live on the Chesapeake Bay you don’t fill up your crabcakes with a lot of bread crumbs — the locals are kind of purists about it. So you learn that a really great crabcake doesn’t have a lot of bread crumbs, because you want to be able to taste the crab.
Check out Part 1 of our interview, if you missed it.
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