Burning Down the House: The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Perelman, Deb. The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Back in the dark days of winter, I had a soapbox moment about the tendency of cookbooks to feature abundant photos of their gorgeous authors and, worse, to be overly serious. In response, Carol Spurling, BookPeople owner and former Co-op Outreach and Education Coordinator, recommended The Smitten Kitchen, for author Deb Perelman’s sense of humor as well as for the food.

Over the last couple of months, J.K., age 14, has made seven recipes from The Smitten Kitchen. It’s become her current favorite cookbook, and we’re all enjoying the results. In this month’s column we’ll hit some instant-replay highlights. J.K. generously made almost everything gluten-free on my behalf, and made occasional other substitutions as necessary.

  Crowd favorite: Jacob’s Blintzes

Crowd favorite: Jacob’s Blintzes

Deb Perelman describes her approach to cooking as “picky as all hell. And also, a little obsessive.” As she explains, she keeps testing and retesting recipes, questioning the necessity of each step and ingredient and implement, all from her tiny kitchen in New York City, so that the resulting recipe will be as effective as possible. As is evident from the wild popularity of Perelman’s smittenkitchen.com blog, her method works.

The first recipe J.K. made was Gooey Cinnamon Squares. While she really liked the results, this was the only recipe that prompted a few complaints. “It was kind of annoying because you had to do two recipes and combine them. First you had to make the cookie base, which used flour, eggs, milk, and sugar, and then you had to make the topping, which also used flour, eggs, milk, and sugar. Also, the fuse of the mixer blew while I was trying to mix, so I had to use a fork to beat 20 tablespoons of frozen butter.”

The next recipe, Cinnamon Toast French Toast, was a big hit with our breakfast guests. J.K. described this recipe as “pretty easy if you make it ahead of time and then bake it. I think this recipe is really good because you can make it all at once instead of over and over (like you would do with regular French toast).”

She used gluten-free bread for some of the recipes, and the two gluten-free eaters ate every last piece. Our guest, Kim, commented that “if you think of it like cinnamon toast, it’s delicious. If you think about it like French toast, it’s too hard.”

Kim’s partner, Elizabeth, found it “delicious because the soft parts are very soft and the crunchy parts are very crunchy. It’s a dual experience. I had to have two pieces to come to my full conclusion.”

Looking on, Ollie, our bearded dragon, nodded in appreciative assent. “That’s exactly how it is for me with crickets!” she exclaimed. To have this dual experience yourself, you can view the French toast recipe on Deb Perelman’s blog: smittenkitchen.com/blog/2012/04/cinnamon-toast-french-toast-cookbook-preview/.

Next up, J.K. made Seared Halibut and Gazpacho Salsa with Tomato Vinaigrette. She substituted frozen cod, which came from the Fish Folks, for the halibut; balsamic vinegar for the sherry vinegar; and a red onion for the sweet (Vidalia) onion, because that’s what we had. Also, in talking about this fish dish, J.K. used “plate” as a verb. We all really liked it, and Fred commented that it was like cioppino (Italian fish stew).

Even without guests for breakfast the following weekend, J.K. made the huevos rancheros recipe, Baked Ranchero Eggs with Blistered Jack Cheese and Lime Crema. This was a treat, better than in a restaurant, and J.K. said it was “actually pretty easy to make.” She made the sauce and crema ahead of time and commented that “the only thing you can’t do ahead is cook the eggs because they’ll be over-cooked.”

Later J.K. made Leek Fritters with Garlic and Lemon, similar to potato latkes but healthier and with scallions, and a gluten-free lemon cake with lemon glaze (substituting lemon for the called-for grapefruit). The cake was so good I wanted to cry. The crowning achievement of J.K.’s foray with The Smitten Kitchen was Jacob’s Blintzes: sweet potato blintzes with orange-flavored cranberry syrup and farmer’s cheese.

The Co-op doesn’t sell farmer’s cheese, and though we realized later she could have substituted ricotta, J.K. chose to make farmer’s cheese by boiling and straining whole milk through cheesecloth. For the record, this took longer than expected. Also, I hesitated to buy the cheesecloth because I know it’s a gateway activity to other food endeavors such as making fermented food—sure enough, that’s what we’re now thinking of tackling next.

Fred commented that he couldn’t “believe how good this is.” J.K. said that Deb Perelman is “kind of like a genius, because she thinks of cool stuff.” Over in the corner, Ollie was writing on her blog: “Today was awful, and I’m going to tell you all about it. First I woke up early, by accident. Now I’m starving over here while you guys stuff your faces.”

Then she ran across the table. She’d been smitten by the sight of a bug crawling on the windowsill.