What it’s like to be a cookbook writer

Kai Ryssdal and Bridget Bodnar Apr 3, 2018
Jessica Battilana's Cheater’s Tortilla Española. Courtesy of Ed Anderson

What it’s like to be a cookbook writer

Kai Ryssdal and Bridget Bodnar Apr 3, 2018
Jessica Battilana's Cheater’s Tortilla Española. Courtesy of Ed Anderson

We’ve seen all kinds of cookbooks out there, but what’s the process of actually writing one? Jessica Battilana is a professional cookbook author and a recipe developer based in San Francisco whose latest book is “Repertoire: All the Recipes You Need.” She talks about the cookbook writing industry in an interview with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: I don’t want to give away any secrets here, but just now before this little bit that will play on the air, I asked you as I asked everybody how you want to be identified, and you said San Francisco-based food writer and recipe developer. What is that job, recipe developer?

Jessica Battilana: It’s a pretty good gig. So I’ve basically spent my entire professional career working in the food industry in various capacities. But what I like to do the most and what I think I do best is develop recipes. So basically that entails cooking a dish that I sort of imagine over and over again until I think it tastes perfect.

Ryssdal: OK, that’s either amazingly glamorous with you in a great sunlit kitchen and all kinds of handcrafted Italian machines and everything or it’s drudgery.

Battilana: It’s both. Sometimes it’s amazing and things work on the first or second try, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it takes 10 or 15 tries to get a recipe the way you want it. And then I end up foisting leftovers on my UPS man, my kids’ teachers, my neighbors. And it makes you seem like a real jerk when you say to them, like, “Oh, here, take this, it’s not right.”

Ryssdal: Yeah, here are my rejects.

Battilana: [laughs] My rejects.

Ryssdal: On a day when you are deep into recipe development, you get out of bed, you have a cup of coffee and then what do you do? What does that day look like?

Battilana: If I’m lucky, I go to the grocery store just once. But often it’s a couple trips to the grocery store or trips to a few different stores to get a few different things. And then I get home, and I turn on the radio, and I’ll start to cook something. I’ll have, like, fish soup at 10 in the morning, and then, you know, dessert at lunchtime, and maybe dessert again in the afternoon if it didn’t work out the first time.

Ryssdal: Do you do one by one or do you have a lot of recipes going at the same time?

Battilana: I usually do one at a time so that I don’t get mixed up, and I want to take notes for how long things are taking to cook in the pan or all of that. And so I have to kind of be paying some amount of attention. And I think if I get too much going on, the chance of me screwing something up goes up.

Ryssdal: You and me both. This is going to sound like a silly question, but how aware do you have to be of what’s happening in the food world? I mean, I imagine you read blogs, you talk to chefs and you do all that stuff to stay “on trend” is the phrase, right?

Battilana: That is the phrase. I think actually “Repertoire” is in some ways not a very trendy book. Of course, I know what’s going on the world. I know that there’s like a lot of matcha being added to things where matcha doesn’t belong.

Ryssdal: What is matcha?

Battilana: The Japanese green tea powder. Now you find that croissants and …

Ryssdal: Really, why would you do that?

Battilana: Oh yeah [laughs]. So I know that stuff is going on, but I thought about when I was doing this book, like, I want my kids to be able to cook these recipes in 20 years and still have them be as rock solid as they are now.

Ryssdal: You’ve done, obviously, cookbooks with others before and you’ve written for others before. What it’s like being the main person on this book? Is that a different experience for you?

Ryssdal: Yeah, it’s an entirely different experience. I sort of consider the co-authoring experience to be like method acting almost. And for me, my first book was writing in the voice of a 45-year-old Vietnamese man who came to San Francisco when he was 12 years old. And so that’s a challenge. It’s almost more of a listening enterprise as much as it is a writing enterprise. For this one, I mean, it is hugely satisfying being able to tell sort of my own stories behind these recipes that I’ve loved for so long.

Ryssdal: There’s some cussing’ in here, too, I will say, by the way.

Battilana: I know. They wanted to take it out but …

Ryssdal: Really?

Battilana: [laughs] I think they were, like, “Well, what if people want to make it with their kids?” I’m like, “Well, then they definitely understand why you need to swear from time to time.”

Ryssdal: Also, don’t read that part to your kids, I’m just saying.

Battilana: Yeah, I know.

Ryssdal: Jessica Battilana, the book is called “Repertoire,” and this is one of those I’m going to do full disclosure — I’m taking the copy home.

Battilana: All right. I can’t wait to hear what you cook.

Check out two recipes from “Repertoire: All the Recipes You Need”  below.

Cheater’s Tortilla Española

Tortilla española has a lot to recommend it. The Spanish savory cake is made with basic ingredients (including my desert-island duo, eggs and potatoes), it can be served warm or cold and it’s a nice vehicle for a generous slather of aoli.

Most recipes for tortillas suggest that you flip it midway through cooking—indeed, traditionalists will tell you that this step is part of what makes a tortilla a tortilla. But I’ve always found that step to be sort of high stakes and messy (as in, I’ve flipped one right onto the burner of the stove; the smell of charred egg haunting me for days), and the resulting tortilla is no better than the one I make using a different method.

When I make a tortilla, I cook it until it’s set on the bottom, then pop it under the broiler to brown and set the top. No flipping required. It may not be traditional, but you won’t care about tradition if your tortilla ends up on the floor, right? My nouveau technique requires you to use a pan that can go from stovetop to broiler.

Leftover tortilla wedges make a great sandwich filling.

Makes one 9-inch tortilla

1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 small yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced

10 eggs

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Flaky salt, such as Maldon, for serving

Ailoi (page 35) or Fancy Mayonnaise (page 62), for serving

With a mandoline or sharp knife, slice the potatoes into 1/4-inch-thick coins. Heat the olive oil in a 9-inch cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. Add the potatoes and onion and stir gently, then push down beneath the oil (the pan will be a bit crowded at first, but as the onions cook, the volume will decrease). Reduce the heat so the oil is bubbling gently and cook until the potatoes and onions are tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. Drain into a colander set over a heatproof bowl and reserve the oil.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs until well mixed. Season generously with salt and pepper and gently stir in the potato-onion mixture. In the same frying pan you used to cook the potatoes and onions, heat 1 tablespoon of the reserved oil over medium heat. Arrange an oven rack about 3 inches from the broiler and preheat the broiler.

Pour the egg-potato mixture into the frying pan, reduce the heat to medium low, and cook until the edges of the tortilla are set and the underside is golden brown (peek to ensure the bottom isn’t browning too quickly), about 5 minutes, periodically running a rubber spatula around the inner edges of the pan to prevent the eggs from sticking; the top will still be runny.

Transfer the pan to the oven and broil until the top is puffed, golden brown, and set, about 3 minutes. Remove from the oven and run the spatula around the inner edges of the pan to loosen the tortilla. Invert a large plate over the pan and, in one motion, flip the pan over so the tortilla is on the plate. Let cool slightly, then sprinkle with flaky salt and serve with aioli or Fancy Mayonnaise.

Fancy Mayonnaise

If I’ve not yet convinced you to make your own aioli or if you’re too pressed for time to do it, there’s no shame in gussying up some store-bought mayonnaise. I was raised in the church of Hellmann’s (called Best Foods out west), so that’s what I prefer. I enhance it with a squeeze of lemon juice and garlic paste (garlic pounded with a pinch of salt) to taste. You can add chopped herbs if you like, or some pesto or a spoonful of harissa (page 82).

Twice-Baked Magic Soufflés

Soufflés have acquired a reputation as temperamental and difficult, but they were once part of the repertoire of every home cook; Julia Child included sixteen pages of soufflé techniques and recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In reality, if you can whip an egg white you can make a soufflé, and they are far less fragile than you might think.

The challenge lies not in technique but in timing, because once a soufflé is pulled from a hot oven, it begins to deflate. One easy work-around is to bake the soufflés twice, a trick I learned from Anne Willan at La Varenne; it liberates the cook from the high-stakes moment of pulling a soufflé from the oven and serving it before it deflates.

The individual soufflés are baked once, turned out of the ramekins into a baking dish, coated with cream sauce and cheese, then baked—up to twenty-four hours later!—a second time. They puff up again, as forgiving as can be. Magic!

Makes 6 souffles

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

½ cup finely chopped leeks

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 ½ cups whole milk, warmed

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch of ground nutmeg

1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 cup heavy cream

5 eggs, separated

Preheat the oven to 425°F and generously grease six 8-ounce ramekins. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the leeks and cook, stirring, until soft but not brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat in the same saucepan that you used for the leeks. When the butter stops foaming, whisk in the flour and cook, whisking, for 1 minute. Whisk in the milk and cook, whisking, until the mixture boils and thickens. Stir in the salt, nutmeg, 1 1/4 cups of the cheese, and the leeks. Transfer a third of the mixture to a bowl, whisk in the cream, and set aside. Whisk the egg yolks into the remaining two-thirds, then transfer the mixture to a large bowl.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer), beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they hold stiff peaks. Stir a third of the whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it, then fold in the remaining two-thirds until no streaks of white remain. Divide the mixture among the greased ramekins, smooth the tops, then run the tip of your finger around the inner edge of each ramekin (this will help the soufflé rise higher and straighter). Arrange the ramekins in a baking dish and pour enough hot water into the baking dish to come half an inch up the side of the ramekins.

Transfer to the oven and bake until puffed, deep golden brown, and set within, about 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, remove the ramekins from the water bath, and let the soufflés cool (they will deflate).

Run a knife around the inner edge of each ramekin, then turn the soufflés out into a gratin dish and pour the reserved cream mixture over and around the soufflés. Top each with some of the reserved Parmigiano. At this point, the soufflés can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to 24 hours (I’m telling you, this recipe is magic).

When you’re ready to bake the soufflés a second time, preheat the oven to 425°F. Bake until the soufflés are puffed and browned (they will puff as much as—if not more than—the first time they were baked), about 10 to 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

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