Deb Perelman on Cooking with Kids, Writing Cookbooks, and the Future of Smitten Kitchen

Between touring our new space and participating in a tasting of ceviche, the beloved blogger and cookbook author sat down to talk with test kitchen staffers.

Published Nov. 12, 2017.

If you’ve searched for a recipe on the Internet over the last decade, you’ve likely landed on Smitten Kitchen. Deb Perelman started her wildly popular food blog in 2006, when she began chronicling her cooking adventures from her diminutive New York City apartment kitchen.

Eleven years, hundreds of original recipes, and two cookbooks later, Perelman is still blogging from her apartment, which she now shares with her husband and two children. She recently stopped by the test kitchen while in Boston on her book tour for her second book, Smitten Kitchen Every Day. Between taking a tour of our new space and partaking in tastings of in-development recipes for ceviche and flan, Perelman shared her thoughts on her inspirations, designing recipes for real life, and more.

On Waiting Five Years to Write a Second Cookbook

I really wanted to have time to refill the well. I needed to go out and travel and walk around and then have some new experiences to pull from [before writing my next book].

It’s an overwhelming experience to write a book. I said I was never going to write another cookbook and I meant it at the time. And I really stuck with it, but what was happening was I kept finding myself having these ideas that would be good for a cookbook one day. And I would just jot them down and then I would close that document because I’m not writing another cookbook. And then I finally admitted a couple of years later that I had maybe, 150 ideas and they were starting to bother me that I hadn’t worked on them yet. And [my editor and agent] were like, “You have 150 ideas and you haven’t written another book yet?!”

On the Baking Trend She Wants to Start

Party cakes. I feel like everybody makes birthday cake at the last minute. I used to think I would start planning my kids’ birthday cakes and start testing out frosting a week out. But [in reality] it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and you are trying to finish that cake and you are tired and you love your family but you are tired. You don’t want to go through recipe auditions when you’re making birthday cake so I did this series of one-bowl, really quick, simple-ingredient layer cakes. I also want to sell this idea of the mini sheet cake. Quite often, when it’s somebody’s birthday and they’re not, say, seven years old, a mini sheet cake is fine. It’s just a single layer cake with a giant swoosh of frosting and lots of sprinkles and it’s just happy.

On Designing Recipes for Real Life

I like to talk about what cooking is like when life gets busier. For people who love to cook, it doesn’t mean that you come home on a Monday, hungry and tired after a long day, and you leap for joy at the idea of tackling a two-page recipe. Real life is not necessarily friendly to cooking, even if you like to do it. So I wanted to take all of these ideas I have and put them through the lens of “Do I feel like making these at dinnertime when my kids are about to have a hangry meltdown?”

Real life is not necessarily friendly to cooking, even if you like to do it.

On Writing For a Blog Versus Writing For a Cookbook

When I want to write something for my blog, it doesn’t take me long to get into that space and figure out what I want to say. Theoretically, a book, designed with longer headnotes, a picture, and a recipe, should be the same muscle, but I want to make sure the story isn’t too timely. “Yesterday, we did this. . .” doesn’t really work well in a book.

I think a lot about the idea of a book having longer legs and how it must be something you’d want to read in a couple years. Another difference is with the blog, I make it, I feel good about it, and I put in online. With the book, I make it, I feel good about it, and then a year and a half goes by before it gets published.

Also, cookbooks are art books. Writing is like throwing paint on a mural. “I’m going to say this, I’m going to say that!” But then trying to get it to fit in a frame is the hard work. You have less space in a book than you do on a blog. A tweet is much harder to write for most people than a paragraph.

On How Publishing Online Has Changed

These days, you’re expected to be a food personality. You may have been a cook your whole life, but now you need to know how to cook on-camera. It’s a strange thing because it’s not the same skill set, so it’s kind of weird that we expect them to be in the same person. Fortunately, I like it. I like being on camera sometimes, and I like meeting people. But it’s not an all-blog world anymore. I like the format because you can do what you want when you want but you definitely have to be a lot more places at once.

On Why Metrics Are Only Half the Story

If you go by metrics, you would only ever make recipes for chocolate-peanut butter cake. Which sounds great, but if I told you I had an all-peanut-butter cake website, you’d say, “How cool. But I can’t go there, I’m trying to make dinner.” Even though a salad will never be as popular as cake, I think it’s that balance that makes a website or a cookbook interesting. I like to see a little bit of everything. Maybe there are people who could look at cake all day, but I want to look at salad so I can look at cake too.

If you go by metrics, you would only ever make recipes for chocolate-peanut butter cake. . . I like to see a little bit of everything. Maybe there are people who could look at cake all day, but I want to look at salad so I can look at cake too.

On Her Inspirations

I look at everything. America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated. [Ed’s note: I promise we didn’t put her up to that.] It’s the gold standard of what a home cook’s recipe should be. But rather than focusing on a few things, I will pretty much pick up anything: Saveur, Bon Appétit. I read a newspaper’s food section, I love scrolling through Instagram. There are some cookbooks coming out that I’m really excited for this fall, like Alison Roman’s book, Dining In. And then pretty much anything Ina Garten does to me is like gold.

A lot of times a cookbook for me is about escaping a little bit, so when there’s a really cool cookbook about another part of the world or some pocket of culture that I wouldn’t otherwise know about, those are the ones that are really fun to read. I love hearing about the different ways that people might cook onions, the different techniques they might use. So I really look at everything. I just want it all. I like to take it all in and then push it all away and then say, “What do I want to make today?”

On Setting Rules for Herself

My only rule is I don’t want to make myself miserable. So I won’t make myself do something if I can get away with it. My goal is longevity. I want to keep doing this, so I don’t want to get fried on doing everything at once. I also say no to a lot of things, so I can do it as a pace that feels more natural for me, even if there’s not a promise that that opportunity is going to come back. So it’s a luxury and a risk.

On Where the Excitement Lies for Her

A lot of my cooking comes from selfish cravings. It’s me. I want it, I want to eat this. And I want to get it right. And when I get it, I feel like doing a victory lap. I feel triumphant. I feel so excited. And that’s not the worst thing to chase in the kitchen, that idea of pulling it off. Or when you don’t feel like cooking and you’re insanely tired and you cook something anyway and it ends up being insanely delicious and you’re so glad you did it. I want to chase that. I also want to write a recipe in a way that other people can do it. I kind of hold my breath until I get the first review on a recipe from somebody who made it. I want to know that it works for everybody else and that they also felt some of the “I did this.”

And then, I just love having people over. I love the idea of having dinner parties that aren’t fancy.

A lot of my cooking comes from selfish cravings. It’s me. I want it, I want to eat this. And I want to get it right. And when I get it, I feel like doing a victory lap.

On Cooking with Kids

I am overwhelmed at the level that kids cook these days. I have an eight year old and a two year old, so we’re working at very different levels. The two year old is definitely interested but I don’t know that we’ve worked out a safety strategy for her quite yet. My son is much more interested. He can follow a recipe. He wants to know how to write a recipe.

I always have this guilt like, “Should I cook with my kids every day?” Because I don’t. And it finally hit me that that’s okay. This is my job, and do you bring your kids to the office and wonder why you’re not getting much work done? When I’m developing recipes and I really need to think and cook, my kids don’t cook with me. But for cooking on the weekends, making muffins or pancakes, they are a help. And my son can definitely follow along—and he wants to.

For the cooking to eat and not cooking to work on a recipe, they’re getting more interested. Does everything take twice as long? Yes. But I remember all the things I cooked with my parents, so it feels exciting that they’re interested. I also think kids are more likely to try things when they’ve had a hand in making it. My son had never had lamb chops, and I was adding herbs [to them] and he was grinding the salt [on them], and he devoured them. And I think that seeing the process, and participating in it, made them seem less weird to him.

On Her Go-To Weeknight Family Meal When She Doesn’t Feel Like Cooking

There is this week or two at the beginning of the school year where I am so wiped out by the new school routine that I just cannot. I cannot. And so I don’t. My husband is Ukrainian so we always have frozen varenyky. I’ll do a salad or a fresh vegetable but I’ll also have some frozen tortellini. We’ll add some store-bought barbecue sauce to some chicken cutlets. I don’t try to  make myself do what is never going to happen. We’ll do scrambled eggs and toast. I once got my family into avocado toast for dinner, but it only lasted a day. It was a pretty good day though.

On the Future of Smitten Kitchen

There are already a couple other ideas that are nagging at me. I love the idea of these “help yourself” meals where there are a bunch of components, these meals that are something between a family meal and a dinner party meal. But I’m not writing another book [smiles].

To keep up with Smitten Kitchen, check out Deb's Twitter and Instagram

Want to read more about other food friends who have visited us in the test kitchen? Check out these articles about other visitors: 

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