You know that often mis-quoted saying: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” (Misquote: The proof is in the pudding.)
Well, in the case of the new “Epicurious Cookbook,” the proof is also in the making of said pudding – or Miniature Gougeres, Red Wine-Braised Duck Legs, Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad, Bourbon Chicken Liver Pate and Cranberry White Chocolate Biscotti.
The above were all dishes I made during a recent one-week cooking binge, a binge inspired by one success after the other using recipes from what is fast becoming my go-to cookbook. No mean feat since I have a library of more than 1,000 volumes dedicated to things culinary collected during my more than 30 years as a food writer and broadcaster.
So I knew I’d likely meet a kindred soul when I arrived at the downtown Toronto offices of Random House, publisher of “The Epicurious Cookbook,” to interview its author Tanya Steel. (You can listen to our conversation here.)
Blonde, tall, slim and charming, Steel was at the end of a gruelling day of media appearances. Still, she was up for chatting with me about what is obviously a shared passion: food.
She’s been in the biz for about 20 years with stints as editor at several magazines: Food & Wine, Mademoiselle and Bon Appetit. She was born in the U.K. and came to New York with her family at the age of seven. She still lives in that city with her husband and identical 14-year-old twin sons.
For the past seven years, she’s been editor-in-chief of the grande dame of online food sites: epicurious.com. It has a huge database culled from magazines Gourmet and Bon Appetit along with recipes from chefs and home cooks around the world. Now 17 years old, it was the first site I consulted for recipes and is still my favourite.
The main reason: Its terrific system of reader-rated recipes using the symbolic four forks.
Steel explains how a recipe earns the maximum four-fork rating: “They’re a visual indication of recipes that have stood the test of time. They’re highly-rated, have been made successfully millions of times and are easy to make.”
With a huge stash of four-fork recipes as a resource, choosing the best of the best for a cookbook was no mean feat. Says Steel with a smile: “That’s when the horse-trading began.”
She and a team of editors started with 2,000 recipes; the cookbook has 250-plus. “We began by deciding on themes and categories. It was onerous and exhausting.”
They agreed to divide the book into four seasons, then organized recipes into sections like breakfast, starters, main course and dessert. “We considered reviews from users around the world as well as dishes we make all the time.”
Important to the team were the comments and tips that accompany each recipe. Steel defines a great recipe – one good enough to be included – as having these qualities: “Simplicity, good ingredients and not having overly-done, frou-frou stuff that’s just there to make it seem esoteric.”
They tried to go global with their choices and, she adds, to choose “new takes on classics, dishes you can make using ingredients from the supermarket or farmers’ market that are healthy, seasonal and local.”
Epicurious tracks the most popular 10 foods among users every month. Steel cites chicken, salmon and quinoa as regulars. More surprising is banana bread. There’s a recipe for that made with chocolate and walnuts in her book. (Note to self: Make this soon.)
Cooking for her family, Steel opts for meatless meals three or four times a week for health reasons and loves the cuisines of India, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Asked for favourites from the book, she names Warm Tofu with Spicy Garlic Sauce, curries in general and the Vietnamese Vegetable Summer Rolls.
She notes that studies show a resurgence in home cooking. Food TV and travel partly explain this but she feels there are economic reasons. “People realize it’s cheaper to cook at home than to order in or go to a restaurant.”
Steel is happy to be part of a populist approach to cooking. “The more you cook and the greater confidence you get, the easier life is.”
Amen say I when she adds: “Cooking is the most basic skill we all need to survive and that’s why it’s so important that kids learn how to cook. People need to learn by doing – it’s the only way.”
Check the beginning of this post for recipes I’ve tried from “The Epicurious Cookbook.” Here’s one of them that is now a staple in my repertoire. Enjoy!
Miniature Gougeres (Gruyere Cheese Puffs)
These are fantastic cocktail snacks served as is. You can also fill them with soft goat cheese lightened up with a little cream and laced with herbs – or any filling of your choice. I didn’t bother with the dill seeds – feel free to omit them or to substitute another garnish.
1 tbsp dill seeds
1 1/2 cups coarsely grated Gruyère cheese
Cream Puff Pastry:
1 cup water
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 to 5 large eggs
For Cream Puff Pastry, in heavy saucepan, bring water to a boil with butter and salt over high heat; reduce heat to medium. Add flour all at once and beat with a wooden spoon until mixture pulls away from sides of saucepan.
Transfer mixture to bowl. With electric mixer on high speed, beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Batter should be stiff enough to just hold soft peaks and fall softly from a spoon. If batter is too stiff, in a small bowl, beat remaining egg lightly and add to batter, a little at a time, beating on high speed, until batter is of desired consistency.
Preheat oven to 375F. Lightly grease two baking sheets or line with parchment paper.
In a small heavy skillet, dry-roast dill seeds over medium heat, shaking until fragrant and slightly darker, being careful not to burn them, 3 or 4 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and cool. With a mortar and pestle or in an electric coffee/spice grinder, grind until coarse.
Stir Gruyère and 1 teaspoon ground seeds into Cream Puff Pastry mixture and arrange level tablespoons about 1 inch apart on baking sheets. Sprinkle tops with remaining ground seeds and bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching positions of sheets halfway through baking, 30 minutes, or until puffed, golden and crisp.
Gougères keep, chilled in sealable plastic bags, 2 days or frozen 1 week. Reheat, uncovered, in a preheated 350F oven about 10 minutes. Serve warm.
Makes about 40 gougères.