If you’re a person who likes to bake, even a little, you will have made a recipe created, inspired, or improved by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Even if you’re not using one of her books. Nearly every baking or dessert cookbook I own mentions her in the authors’ acknowledgements, testimony to her influence on bakers since she began writing cookbooks in the 1980s. And it’s not just from the ever-increasing crop of new dessert book authors. The foreword to Beranbaum’s 1988 The Cake Bible was written by Maida Heatter, the undisputed dessert cookbook authority of the 1960s and 70s. In it she says, “It is seldom that I really want to make every single recipe from cover to cover in a book. I do in this book.”
The reason? Do what she tells you and the recipes will work. They’ll come out exactly as she describes, taste great, and look beautiful – with or without adornment. It’s not only a product of her food science education, but her innate artistic sense (both taste and visual), along with a lot of trial and error. In The Bread Bible, published in 2003, Rose describes making recipes over and over and putting the remains of loaves cut side down on the kitchen counter, creating a sort of Zen landscape of varying shapes.
People get nervous about baking because they think of their grandmothers, who, according to legend, didn’t use recipes and made perfect pies and cakes every time. But when they try it themselves, the results aren’t always as perfect. What their grandmothers had was the benefit of experience that most people don’t get these days, first watching and helping, then making things enough times to get the feel of them. Rose explains the basis of that intuition with instruction. She makes sure, first and foremost, that we measure ingredients precisely. By weight, not by volume for greatest accuracy – although she also gives instructions for measuring by volume for people who don’t have a kitchen scale – and how to account for the vagaries of working in variable weather. The headnotes for the recipes describe how each was created, who inspired them, who helped. There’s nearly always a story of an unexpected dessert here or there that led her down a path to making something new. They’re fun and entertaining. The recipes also contain an “understanding” section, so you can learn how they work and why. After you’ve made a few of them, the understanding becomes part of you, too.
I first met Rose when David Hagedorn, a neighbor who writes for the Washington Post food section, wrote an article on making pie crusts featuring her. It takes a few people to prepare for the setup and photo shoot, so I went to help and had great fun. We chatted some about wine – I had just started First Vine a year before – and she was the first cookbook author I thought about interviewing when I decided to start this series. I asked her for a 15-minute phone conversation, but we spoke for more than an hour. I could tell when I met her that she knew a lot about wine, but I didn’t know that she herself was also a wine writer. After our talk she sent me two of the wine articles she wrote for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, as well as a copy of her electronic wine journal that goes back to 1996. We talked about her books and what’s in the works as well as wine. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our conversation and some clarifying e-mails afterward.
We’re in chocolate season with Valentine’s Day and Easter – how do you feel about wine and chocolate together? I find I have to work very hard to make acceptable pairings and others don’t necessarily agree with me. I have to confess I don’t drink wine after the main part of dinner is over. And I don’t pair it with any desserts. It just seems like too much, because I just don’t think that wine and desserts go well together. There have only been two times when I thought they did: the first was a grilling event I was judging and the wine actually made a not-great dessert taste better. And the second was a very carefully paired dessert and red wine I had at Daniel in New York. [After our conversation, Rose told me she tried some red wine left over from lunch with a chocolate dessert as an experiment and they worked together. But she’s still not going to make a habit of drinking wine with dessert.]
So no dessert wines? Port is one wine that I like better than any food I’ve ever had. But I still don’t have it with dessert. And I love Eisweins, which I first tried on a trip to Germany. I wrote about Eisweins and other German wines for the L.A. Times, this was back when neither one was on anyone’s radar. I actually had to write a defense of that piece for my editor that was nearly as long as the article itself! He thought no one would be interested. That may be a reason I wasn’t a wine writer for too long.
Was there a first great wine experience for you? One of my great uncles worked for a wine importer, and whenever we’d eat with him there was alcohol in everything – I hated it when I was a kid! But when I was 22 or 23 my tastes began to change. I was out at dinner with him and a few others and he gave me the choice of wine. One was a Pomerol, and I can’t remember the others, but it was the Pomerol I chose. I could tell by my great uncle’s face that he had hoped I’d choose it. I’ve been joining wine clubs ever since, trying to find a wine of the same quality as that Pomerol.
Have you found one? Well, I suspect there was more going on in my head at that dinner, so not exactly. But there were definitely memorable ones. I attended a Château Margaux dinner at the Four Seasons that was really something. I wrote about that for the L.A. Times, too. They served us a 1961 Margaux that was out of this world, although the dinner and the rest of the wines were amazing. Also, I had a Screaming Eagle at the Four Seasons that was so good I kept the cork. And there were a few wines I tasted on the Germany trip that were excellent. Oh, and Château d’Yquem, too – although everyone probably says that, right?
It does get mentioned now and then! Have you done other wine traveling? Yes, including a great trip to Champagne. It’s a fun story – I asked the wine maker at Dom Perignon if I could have some of the yeast he used in the champagne to make bread with. He looked at me like I’d asked him to reveal state secrets! It’s not like I was going to turn around and sell the yeast to someone else. I still wonder what that bread would taste like. I was going to call it Pain Perignon!
Well, the yeast used for dosage in making champagne adds yeasty flavor. The champagne stays in contact with the yeast in the bottle for a long time. So who knows what flavor it might give the bread. I’ll see if I can get some when I visit the producer I buy from, assuming I can smuggle it back on the plane. That’s interesting. For the most part you don’t want to taste the yeast in bread, but you do in champagne. So if you can get some for me, I’ll definitely try it!
What do you like to drink at home? My husband Elliot prefers reds, Pinots and Zins, so we have them often. We really like Wild Horse Cheval Sauvage. I take notes on nearly every wine I try, and when I like it I buy cases of it. Recently I tried some 2013 Carmenere from Anakena and it was great – and cheap too. I have to get more of that. We also like some Malbecs, Crozes-Hermitages, and Joseph Swan’s Russian River Pinot.
I made a few cakes from your Rose’s Heavenly Cakes and The Baking Bible and everything was great. As an opera fan, I love that you dedicate desserts to your favorite opera singers! What’s in the works for you now? I’m working on Rose’s Baking Basics, which is going to be a comprehensive book with 500+ step-by-step photographs. I want everyone to see how things look at all stages of baking instead of just describing them. I’m really excited about it, because my editor agreed to put all measurements in grams first, then volume, and nothing in ounces. Weighing in grams is so much more accurate, since most digital scales only go down to ¼ ounce, if that.
I always weigh out ingredients for baking if the weights are in the instructions. But I have to admit there’s something satisfying about dipping the measuring cup into sugar, and I miss doing it. That’s probably because it brings back memories of playing in the sandbox! Actually, granulated sugar is one thing that measures pretty accurately by volume.
What’s the timeline for the new book? The basic baking book’s not going to be out until 2018. When I finished The Baking Bible it was too long to include a wedding cake chapter. So I’ll be doing a wedding cake book that will come out in 2022. Meanwhile, I’m also working on an ice cream book – which I had some trepidation about writing.
Why trepidation? Well, it’s not baking, and that’s what I’m known for. But ice cream is one of my favorite desserts, so I thought, why not?
I imagine, knowing your other books, that it will contain a lot of useful information. Your experience with custards and frostings was probably a great base for it. Can you give us a hint of something we’ll be learning? That’s why I’m excited to do the book, beyond the great flavors. I’ve discovered the best ways to make frozen ice creams totally creamy. But you’ll have to wait until fall of 2019 or spring of 2020!
That’s probably the best teaser you could give! Thanks so much for spending all this time talking with me. This was a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve spent this much time on the phone with someone I wasn’t related to in a while!
Since her reputation is for baking, people are sometimes surprised to learn that Rose has two cookbooks with plenty of non-dessert foods in them. I bought a copy of Rose’s Melting Pot – A Cooking Tour of America’s Ethnic Celebrations when it came out in the early 1990s. Not long after moving to the DC area, I got invited to a dinner and asked what I could bring. The hosts suggested Kasha Varnishkes, which is cooked buckwheat kernels with noodles or pasta. It was something I’d never had or made. But I remembered seeing the recipe in Rose’s book so I thought I’d give it a try. It was really good. In fact, I’ve never had Kasha Varnishkes that good since.
One of the ingredients is dried porcini mushrooms, something I had never used before and couldn’t easily find here in DC. (I hadn’t yet discovered Litteri’s or the Italian Store in Arlington). My parents had bought some in New York and sent them to me. I was amazed by the depth of flavor they gave the Kasha Varnishkes. Nowadays you’ll find them in a lot of recipes, but in 1993 they were a revelation. And typical of Rose’s way of finding things to enhance the flavor of food she makes.
Rose very kindly gave me permission to reprint her Kasha Varnishkes recipe, with the proviso that I include the weights along with the measurements. Her recipe calls for goose fat or unsalted butter. I couldn’t find goose fat and since it was for Passover and I didn’t want to use butter, I used chicken fat instead and it was delicious. (Actually, Rose reminded me that the noodles would have been verboten for Passover too – so apparently my hosts weren’t that strict! Still, you can keep it kosher by not using butter.) But goose and duck fat are easier to find now, and the dish is also delicious with butter for non-kosher occasions. I’ve found coarsely ground kasha at Yes and Whole Foods, and everything else is easily available. If you want to use vegetable broth instead of chicken, I recommend Kitchen Basics unsalted vegetable broth.
Kasha Varnishkes is usually a side dish, even though I could happily eat just that for dinner. So you’ll probably have a protein with it, which is just fine from a wine point of view. The mushrooms cry out for something earthy. I’m recommending Cave la Romaine Puyméras 2010 ($15). It’s a Côtes du Rhône Villages wine from a village at the base of Mont Ventoux. Smooth and earthy, with just a little wildness in there. It’s also great with lamb or roast chicken, even salmon.
Just remember, no wine with your dessert if you’re making this dish!
Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish
From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Rose’s Melting Pot, reprinted with the author’s permission
14 grams/ 0.5 ounce — dried porcini mushrooms, well rinsed
160 grams/ 5.6 ounces/ 1 cup — coarsely-ground kasha
1 large egg (57 grams/ 2 ounces, weighed in the shell)
71 grams/ 2.5 ounces/ 1/4 cup — goose fat OR 56 grams/ 2 ounces/ 4 tablespoons — unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped (255 grams/ 9 ounces)
1 teaspoon sugar (4 grams)
454 grams/ 1 pound/ 5 cups — fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon minced garlic (3 grams)
6.7 grams/ 1 teaspoon — salt, or to taste
3 grams/ 1-1/2 teaspoons — freshly-ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
390 grams/ 13.75 ounces/ 1-3/4 cups — low-salt chicken broth, preferably College Inn
128 grams/ 4.5 ounces/ 2 cups — bowtie noodles (farfalle)
14 grams/ 0.5 ounce/ 1 tablespoon — goose fat or unsalted butter
Soak the dried porcini mushrooms in about ½ cup of warm water for 10 minutes until softened. (The soaking water may later be added to make up part of the chicken broth). When soft, drain, cut them into small pieces and set aside.
With a fork, stir together the kasha and the egg. Set it aside to dry for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally with a fork.
In an 11-inch or larger skillet (at least 11 inches, preferably broiler-proof), with a tight-fitting lid, melt the ¼ cup of goose fat or butter. Add the onions, sprinkle with the sugar, and fry, stirring often, until deep golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and garlic, cover and cook for about 5 minutes or until the mushrooms give up their liquid. Then continue cooking uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the liquid evaporates and the mushrooms are lightly browned, about 7 minutes.
Add the kasha mixture, salt, pepper and oregano and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Stir in the broth and porcini mushrooms, cover tightly, and simmer 20 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, cook the bowties according to the package directions. Drain, and stir in the 1 tablespoon of goose fat or butter. (The recipe may be prepared up to this point 6 hours in advance of serving.)
If the skillet is not broiler-proof, turn the kasha mixture into a broiler pan or baking pan. Add salt to taste. Broil several inches from the heat, stirring occasionally for even browning and to prevent scorching, 7 to 10 minutes. Mix in the bowties and broil for about 3 minutes more, just to crisp the top edges of the bowties slightly. Serve hot.