A lesson on baking, and living well, with cookbook author Dorie Greenspan.
By Amy Traverso
Oct 24 2019
Dorie Greenspan at home in Connecticut. “I often say the only thing I collect is recipes,” she says, ”but somehow my husband and I became the keepers of many chickens and roosters”—including these feathered friends from Texas, Connecticut, and Paris, France.Photo Credit : Mark Weinberg; styling by Maggie Ruggiero (food) & Caroline Woodward (props)
Who wouldn’t want to be Dorie Greenspan? The headline version of her life reads like a Nancy Meyers movie script: the time-dividing between Paris, Connecticut, and New York; the critical acclaim (her cookbooks have won awards from all the culinary greats, including multiple James Beard nods); the magic touch with cream puffs and tarts. Then there’s the passionate fan base that’s built “Tuesdays with Dorie” Instagram feeds and blogs devoted to her recipes. In person, she’s warm and humble, and her recipes have the voice of an understanding friend who has made all the mistakes in baking (and probably in life, too) and isn’t afraid to share them.
Even Dorie Greenspan probably wants to be Dorie Greenspan.
But on this day, at the coastal Connecticut home where she does most of her writing and recipe testing, she’s juggling multiple deadlines (“I’ve never missed one—I’m too nervous”), fretting over having her picture taken, and working on a flan recipe for The New York Times. She has just come off one trip and will soon be heading out on another. She’s become famous for showing up at just about every conference, sitting through every session and making herself available to every newcomer asking for advice on how to get exactly where she is today.
That’s a tough question for her to answer, in part because the publishing world has changed so drastically and in part because her own start was so unconventional. Back in 1979, she was one thesis short of a doctorate in gerontology when her son, Joshua, was born. “I wanted to work. I needed to work. And I couldn’t face going back to the work I’d been doing,” Dorie recalls. “My husband, Michael, said, ‘Why don’t you bake?’” Up to that point, baking had been just a passionate hobby. “But as soon as he said it, I thought yes.”
She landed at a restaurant in Manhattan but was soon fired for “creative insubordination,” as she puts it. “My job was to make 100 of their signature chocolate cakes and I got bored, so I substituted pecans, Armagnac, and prunes for the almonds, whiskey, and raisins. With any recipe, I’d always think, Oh, wouldn’t the cake be better if we frosted it, or if we added blueberries…. And when you’re doing production, you can’t do that.”
After a stint at Sarabeth’s—then an upstart bakery and now a New York institution—that only confirmed that she was too restless for commercial baking, she met an editor at Food & Wine who invited her to submit ideas. “I didn’t know how to write a proposal,” Dorie recalls. “I baked all the things that I thought would make a good article and put them in a basket with all the recipes. A few hours later, the editor called and said, ‘Can you do this for the Christmas issue?’
“I was unqualified for everything in the beginning,” Dorie says. “But I came to baking because I loved it. I wanted to work in it, to create things. It gave me the courage to put myself in positions where I wasn’t comfortable but where I would get comfortable.”
She began publishing more broadly and wrote a few small cookbooks. Then, in 1994, she was asked to write Baking with Julia, a companion cookbook to Julia Child’s final PBS series. This is when Dorie’s career reached critical mass—and when she heard something that still inspires her to this day.
“When I was working with Julia Child, we were out one afternoon together, and out of nowhere she said, ‘We’re so lucky because we work in food and we’ll never stop learning,’” Dorie says. “I think about that all the time. I still get so excited about stuff. I still love new recipes, learning new techniques, new ingredients. Thinking about new ways to write something. It’s an extraordinary field. It’s an ongoing flow of new possibility.”
Now, 20-odd years later, she is running between the kitchen and the desk that sits just beyond the counters, with a 14th book in the works (Baking with Dorie, dueout in 2021) and more deadlines to meet. Beyond the desk, past the dining room table, windows overlook a dam where geese are wading at the lip of the falls. Dorie watches them for a minute. “I’m a city girl, but….” She pauses. Since Michael retired, they’ve come to consider Connecticut their primary home. And that has shaped her cooking, particularly her most recent book, Everyday Dorie.
“It’s about an hour to the Big Y [supermarket] and back here,” she says. “If I’ve forgotten something, that’s a commitment. So I open the pantry and fridge and see what I can use. Maybe I can add this or replace that. Living here has made me a more practical cook, and maybe even a nimbler one.”
The same holds true in her baking life. She’s learned that when the holidays come around, it pays to be organized and flexible. “I’m not superhuman,” she says. “I bake ahead. I love that cookie dough can be rolled out or rolled into balls and put in the freezer. It tastes fresher when it’s baked as close to serving time as possible. And I’m not someone who will decorate a lot of things. I love cookies with jam because they decorate themselves in the way they’re constructed. And I love how molasses-ginger cookies smell like the holidays.”
The following recipes (four sweet, one savory) include her favorite seasonal treats. “The only reason to write a cookbook is to share something that you love,” she says. “And I want home cooks to have the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you make something and it’s right … and the pleasure of being able to share it.”