James Beard Award-winning author Dorie Greenspan was at the Harvard Book Store on November 19, 2014, to promote her latest cookbook, Baking Chez Moi: Recipes from My Paris Home to Your Home Anywhere. While in the greater Boston area, she took the time to stop by the Test Kitchen for a tour and a Q&A session.
Dorie Greenspan’s approach to baking—to life—is unpretentious. She of the pixie cut, wearer of many scarves, moves with the air and grace of someone who isn’t quite aware of how big a deal she is. And why shouldn’t this be her demeanor? After all, she is not by birthright some glamorous Parisian socialite but rather a Brooklyn kid, born and raised there before Brooklyn turned into Brooklyn. As she regales the crowd of doting admirers who’ve gathered at the Test Kitchen to drink in her wisdom, Greenspan cracks wise about her culinary upbringing.
“I feel like I’ve spent my entire life making up for my mother’s poor judgement.”
Greenspan says that her latest book, Baking Chez Moi: Recipes from My Paris Home to Your Home Anywhere, is meant to function as something of a companion piece to the one that came before it, Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours. These are tomes espousing the prudence of comfort food, the kind of food Greenspan refers to, affectionately, as “elbows-on-the-table food.”
“You know, it’s the kind of food you put down, and then people end up spending a lot of time at the table because they’re nibbling and they’re picking, there’s conversation going on. That’s my favorite dinner scenario, that kind of generous, homey food.”
Though Greenspan splits time between Connecticut, New York, and Paris, the city of lights is where she seems most at home—and most inspired. And despite having lived there for more than a decade, Greenspan still talks about Paris in a manner one might expect from an overstimulated tourist. The place is one of constant culinary and confectionary discovery.
“When I started collecting the recipes [for Baking Chez Moi], I felt as though I’d discovered a parallel universe to what I had thought of as French baking,” she says. “What most of us know as French pastry is that it’s polished, it’s perfect, it’s pristine—what other words can I think of that begin with a “P”—from the pâtisserie.” She pauses, and the crowd pays chuckling credence to her witticism.
Greenspan is an unabashed pilferer of recipes. She wants to know what real people are eating in their real lives, and she has a knack of getting the information she wants.
“In working on this book I was able to get behind the kitchen door, and get recipes from friends and wonderful strangers—strangers were easier to get recipes from than friends—for the kind of things they would make on a Tuesday night when it was just family and when company wasn’t coming.”
She speaks next of Laurent, a hairdresser whose chair is adjacent to the chair of Greenspan’s hairdresser Isabelle. “Isabelle is great for restaurant recommendations, but she doesn’t cook. Laurent cooks every weekend.”
Greenspan was after Laurent’s recipe for slow-roasted, spiced pineapple (a dessert she recommends for Thanksgiving, mind you, as it’s a light alternative to the feast’s more traditional—and heavy—options). Reading the story that goes along with the recipe in Baking Chez Moi, one gets the sense that Laurent is the archetype of the cavalier Parisian, letting life come to him as it does, on his own terms. Imprecise finger measurements, and “use whatever you have in the cupboard” were the only instructions he offered Greenspan while sharing his recipe. She made it work in the end, and it only took her three trips to the salon to wrestle it away from Laurent.
Becoming French is a near impossible feat. The nonchalance, the composure, the joie de vivre—these are innate for the French. And while Greenspan identifies with so much of it now, she is fiercely self-aware that had she been born French, she’d likely not appreciate the place as much as she does. To go to Paris was to reveal a version of herself she didn’t know existed previously.
“I discovered a million things I felt I was missing in my life. The French accent. I had to buy a book on how to tie a scarf,” she says through a smile. “Had I been born French I wouldn’t have really learned to bake. Baking as we do it, at home, is not French at all. The French will make something very simple, very uncomplicated. Anything fussy, they’ll go to the pastry shop.”
Tell a French person you bake for fun, and they’ll look at you as though you’ve got three eyes. Greenspan figured this out when once she was asked by a Parisian friend what her hobby is.
“Gee, I don’t know—baking,” she replied. The response? “Baking is not a hobby, it’s a profession.” France, according to Greenspan, is void of the do-it-yourself approach to baking that exists in America.
Greenspan is not knocking the habit of going to the patisserie. In fact, it’s as if she derives a bit of glee from the knowledge that she is, at least in Paris, a bit of a trailblazer.
Cookbooks can be dry and procedural, offering little more than measurements and oven temperatures. Dorie Greenspan does not write those kind of cookbooks. Her’s are rife with personal anecdotes and intimate portraits of her friends. And it becomes abundantly clear while reading one of her books that it’s those friends, and not the recipes, that are most important to Greenspan.
“You’ll meet them—I write about all of my friends in the book. Fortunately, some of them don’t speak English. Because there’s the birthday cake from Bernard that he thought his neighbor invented, but then I Googled it.”