With a towering cookbook collection and new additions added regularly, it was clear...I'd need twelve lifetimes to work through those books. An idea began to take shape. What if...we combined the elements of a book club...and a potluck? What if...each person cooked out of the same book so we could compare notes--rejoicing in the winners and mulling over the duds, collectively?
And that's what we did. Back in 2006 we spent a few months working out the kinks. We tackled a few of the latest and greatest chef cookbooks, only to determine...they weren't so great. "I don't get it. Everyone's talking about this book!" An industry veteran cooed in my ear, "That's marketing, darling."
Eventually, we settled on tried and true and modern day classics. Julia Child, Lydia Bastianich, Rick Bayless, Julie Sahni, Thomas Keller, etc. One Christmas, we took over a culinary school kitchen for a baking marathon.
For two years, we gathered around the table. We explored cookbooks, and stretched our culinary skills. Seasoned pros joined the ranks and provided valuable insight when a recipe went awry or needed improvement.
On an average day, we'd try 10-14 dishes from a book. Sampling a variety of dishes side by side, a picture takes shape. Beyond the text, you begin to understand the author's culinary point of view--a penchant for sour notes, or earthy flavors. Elements of their writing style come into focus. "What if I can't get fresh epazote? Are substitutions recommended? Where? In the recipe, headnotes, or introduction?" It's a deeper look that extends well beyond my one-recipe-at-a-time approach.
It was an incredibly valuable experience. But in the end, it became difficult to sustain. And things wound down a couple years later.
:: :: ::
In the intervening years, I experienced some dramatic life changes. When things finally slowed down, I started asking myself some tough questions. What's working? What not working? And what am I missing?
In the process of reevaluating that big LIFE picture, I realized how much I missed our cookbook group. The original members are spread around the world, but maybe others would be interested. I sent out a few feelers.
Within a few weeks, we had our first gathering. We extended the table twice, and then realized all the food would not fit. Buffered with two other tables, it was an incredible feast! Raising a glass among new friends, old friends, and others I'd only met that day, it was incredibly fulfilling.
Our first gathering we tackled:
Essential Classics of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
- Chickpea Soup with Rice
- Cucumber and Orange Salad
- Scallop Sauce with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Hot Pepper over Pasta
- Braised Carrots with Parmesan
- Baked Escarole Torta
- Baked Polenta with Bolognese Meat Sauce
- Pork Stewed with Porcini Mushrooms and Juniper
- Olive Oil Cake & Vin Santo
- Homemade Limoncello
Do you know about Macy's Culinary Council? It's an all star line up of celebrity chefs including Rick Bayless, Wolfgang Puck, Ming Tsai, Cat Cora, Emeril Lagasse, and more. The goal? To bring cooking back home. In Macy's stores across the country, Culinary Council chefs provide cooking demonstrations and share essential tips. (Check the events page for dates near you.)
Last week, home town Culinary Council member, Chef Tom Douglas, took the helm at Macy's kitchen. With thirteen restaurants under his banner ("soon to be fourteen"), a radio show, the launch of a new cookbook, and appearances across the country, it was fun to see Tom in action.
Macy's flagship store, downtown Seattle
Hot off the press! Tom Douglas' Dahlia Bakery Cookbook. Tom was quick to note the recipes have been tested...and retested by three pastry chefs and two home cooks.
As the crowd swelled to over 100 attendees, I was grateful for prime seating.
Cameraman, ready for action!
Chef Tom Douglas paused for a photo, then quipped, "I have a face for radio."
The Macy's kitchen is an island in the middle of their retail floor.
And my seat was dangerously close to the Le Creuset display!
Grilled Cheese with Caramelized Broccoli Rabe and Fontina
Surprise! I didn't know Dahlia Bakery sold sandwiches. My loss. Of the three recipes we sampled, this was my favorite. The trick here is to caramelize the broccoli rabe and "use a fatty cheese." Tom was quick to add, "That recipe is so good, it actually made the cover [of the book]."
While conversation hovered on the book, Tom took a question from the audience.
"Baking is too precise. I don't measure correctly and then things don't come out right."
Tom's response lingered with me for days:
Learning to bake: "It's worth the effort. I suggest you make one recipe three times. The first time you may make a mistake. The second time, you figure out where you went wrong. The third time...you got it figured out." Repetition is the key.
The next recipe was Tom's contribution in the Macy's Thanksgiving and Holiday Cookbook.
Coffee-Bean Turkey with Sweet Onion Gravy
"Seattle is famous for its coffee. And that inspired me to stuff the turkey cavity with whole roasted coffee beans. Turns out the add a nice toasty-smokey aroma that seasons the bird from within. I leave them in even after the turkey is done. If a few slip out at the table while I'm carving, it's a good conversation starter."
Chef tip: Instead of roasting one big turkey, roast two smaller turkeys. (I'm a fan of this method too.)
Chef tip 2: When buying a knife, make sure you can get your hands on it, and hopefully on a cutting board. Be sure you get a knife that fits your hand. Tom's hands are large and with the wrong knife, his knuckles hit the board.
Herschell Taghap, Tom's social media guru, passing out samples.
Pear Tarts with Dreamy Caramel SauceAnother recipe from the Dahlia Bakery Cookbook. "I've been making this tart for 25 years." Here Tom's illustrating how to make caramel.
Chef tip: Use a high-sided pan for caramel. When you add cream to the caramelized sugar, it bubbles up ferociously.
Chef tip 2: Chef recommends All Clad stainless in, stainless out pans. Why? They hold up to the abuse in a professional kitchen. In his kitchen, the average All Clad pan lasts 10-15 years. For the home cook? They'll last forever.
Passing out the Pear Tarts. This portion size would be perfect for parties, no?
As I was walking out the door, look who I spotted! Meet Stacy Fortner, Pastry Chef at Dahlia Bakery. Dear Santa, please bring me a copy of this book!