‘Focus on the things you’re craving’ and other tips from Smitten Kitchen’s Deb Perelman

Author and blogger Deb Perelman comes to Santa Cruz on Monday to promote her newest cookbook, "Smitten Kitchen Keepers."
(Via Penguin Random House)

Deb Perelman is a self-taught home cook who, over the past 17 years, has earned millions of devotees for her unfussy and triumphant recipes through her blog, Smitten Kitchen. On Monday, she talks to fans at the Hotel Paradox, brought to town by Bookshop Santa Cruz.

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A Q&A with cooking blogger and author Deb Perelman

There are two women in my life who taught me to cook: my mother and Deb Perelman. My mom, a chef, gave me a love of cooking, a strong foundation in technique and my first cookbooks. But it was Perelman and her wildly popular blog, Smitten Kitchen, that I turned to again and again for tried and true recipes when a craving struck.

Now, many of the recipes in my family recipe book are printed out from her website or taken from her first two cookbooks. I make Perelman’s everyday meatballs every year for my husband’s birthday and on many weeknights in between. Her perfect blueberry muffins are, indeed, peerless, as is her cinnamon-sugar topped pumpkin bread. Whenever a friend has a baby, I gift them Perelman’s lasagne Bolognese — and always double it so my family can enjoy this laborious, yet wonderful, recipe, too.

In Perelman’s latest cookbook, “Smitten Kitchen Keepers,” she leans into the charming, persnickety perfectionism that has allowed millions of readers to dive head-first into a recipe she’s workshopped for years and get it right the first time with a collection of 100 recipes “for your forever files.” Not only are the recipes alluring, in typical Perelman fashion she has done away with anything that might get between you and the delicious thing she has promised you — whether it’s too many bowls, waiting for butter to soften on the counter or anything else deemed too fussy. In her lemon cake, for example, rather than zest and juice lemons separately, she simply asks you to throw the whole in the food processor. Trust me, it works.

Perelman is a self-taught home cook who, over the past 17 years, has earned millions of devotees for her straightforward and triumphant recipes, always preluded with an earnest and thorough introduction that makes the reader feel as though Perelman is next to us in the kitchen, nudging us toward greatness. She lives in New York City with her husband and two young children, whose tastes often serve as an inspiration. Perelman’s first two cookbooks, “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook’’ and “Smitten Kitchen Every Day,” topped the New York Times bestseller list. She has also been a contributor to the New York Times, Bon Appetit magazine and other national publications.

This winter, Perelman is on a book tour that spans three months and 30 cities. She comes to Santa Cruz on Monday, and I will have the honor of sharing the stage with her at Hotel Paradox in Santa Cruz in front of a sold-out audience.

After 17 years — and now three best-selling cookbooks — Perelman says she has a better sense of what’s worth it, what’s not and what she and her readers hate. “I was honestly terrified to write this book because you’re literally begging for every Amazon review to be like, ‘One star—this was not a keeper for me,’” she says with a laugh. “Why couldn’t I write a book called ‘Good Recipes’? But no, I have to be sure that this is the last recipe you’re ever going to use.”

Here, she shares valuable insight gained from running one of the most successful food blogs ever, and what, to her, makes a recipe a “keeper.”

Deb Perelman has more than 1 million followers on Instagram, where she shares recipes from her blog, Smitten Kitchen.
(Via Instagram)

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: One of the things I love about your blog is that I think most of the recipes are “keepers.” How did you decide what qualified as a “keeper” for the book?

Perelman: Thank you. I do not agree. (Laughs.) A lot of my recipes on the blog have a “keeperness” in them, but I was able to write this book now because I’ve been doing this for so long and I have so much more perspective on what a “keeper” is. Now, I’m at a point where I feel like I can take everything I’ve learned about how to make cooking easier, about what people are willing to do, about what I eat and what I like, how I can buy these ingredients and how easy they are to get. It’s so many pieces, and it’s not just about the outcome of the recipe — it’s taking all these pieces together to come up with a recipe that’s excellent, but also enjoyable to make.

Often in cooking we just talk about the outcome. Is this the very best pound cake you’ve ever eaten on this earth? Maybe it is, but it took a bunch of annoying ingredients, you’ve got five dirty bowls on your counter, so who cares? You’re never going to make it again because you hated the process. What if you actually liked making it, felt that it was completely worth the effort and was the last recipe you wanted to make?

Lookout: Is there an underrated recipe in “Smitten Kitchen Keepers” that you think readers should seek out to make?

Perelman: I haven’t seen too many people on Instagram make the snow pea salad with pecorino and walnuts since the book came out in November. It might just be that snow peas aren’t in season yet, but I promise I made it every single time with out-of-season snow peas from a grocery store that came in a plastic-wrapped container and were very sad and soft. There is a trick in the book for crisping them, which is just soaking them in ice water, but it makes a huge difference with snow peas.

Also, the devil’s food cake is the easiest birthday cake on this earth. I know I said that in my last book, but this one’s easier — one bowl, hand-whisk and pour into a 9-by-13-inch pan. It’s really fast because it’s very thin. Then you divide that into thirds, stack them and that’s your layer cake. It makes this wee rectangle cake that is perfect for fitting in the bottom of a Sephora shopping bag, which is a perfect way to take it to where you’re going.

Lookout: What was the “Mount Everest” recipe — the one that you struggled with the longest, but eventually came out triumphant?

Perelman: Definitely the pound cake. That’s the one that I’ve been working on for years because I thought, we really like pound cake, but do we love it? It came out of probably saying to my editor that I would never do a pound cake recipe because they’re so boring. If I was to do a pound cake recipe, it would have to be towering with a sugar crust, have a tang of sour cream and the right level of salt and … then I thought, why am I not making this recipe? I realized that I had a philosophy for what I wanted it to be.

Lookout: What advice do you have for the person who loves to cook, but often feels like they’re too busy to cook?

Perelman: There’s stuff inside the kitchen and outside the kitchen that keeps us from cooking. I mean, let’s just say for a random example, you have children who don’t like your food. You have not only the hurdle of cooking and feeding them, but to make something that they’re probably not even going to like. Or there’s the expense of groceries or the hassle of the burners that aren’t working well on your stove.

I think that as much as possible, laser focus on something that you’re craving, something that you cannot order from takeout. That’s where you’re going to find your energy to cook. If you come from cravings, from something that you want, miss or can’t have as often as you wish you could, I think it’s a lot easier to deal with the burdens involved in cooking.

Lookout: Are there any big takeaways you’ve learned about cooking since you became a mom and all of a sudden had multiple tastes to cook for?

Perelman: Again, that laser focus on the things you’re craving. It’s really hard, but I want you to fight for the things that you like to eat and find a way to get them in your life, because heating chicken nuggets every day, if you hate doing it, is not going to bring you joy. It’s not going to keep you in the kitchen. Real life exists, and not just for kids. If you want to get back to the place where you love cooking, it really helps to focus on the stuff that excites you. And it never hurts to have a bowl of buttered noodles on the table.

Deb Perelman comes to Hotel Paradox on Monday courtesy of Bookshop Santa Cruz. More info at bookshopsantacruz.com. Note: This event is sold out.