Charlotte Druckman is a food journalist and co-creator of Food52’s tournament of cookbooks, The Piglet. In her new cookbook, Stir, Sizzle, Bake, Charlotte channels the passion many of us feel for a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. She’s created loads of inventive sweet and savory recipes that will convince even cast iron skeptics to season their pans (and yes, she’ll show you how) and give baking in them a go. I baked her Sticky Buns in a pan that belonged to my grandparents, and I can honestly say I think I’ve finally found a recipe that does my beloved heirloom justice. We asked Charlotte 11 questions and learned about her dad’s scrambled eggs, her all-time favorite cookbook, and her culinary influences, past and present. —LH
What is your earliest food memory?
It’s a BAD one–traumatizing, in fact, and one of my earliest memories period. Whenever I had an upset stomach, one of the dishes I was given throughout my childhood was poached egg on toast. I hated it, not even because I associated it with being sick. I have a very strong memory, as though it was almost a moment of aw
akening and beginning to remember anything at all or be cognizant of being alive, of having an oozing spoonful of yellow goo and wobbly white rubber being jammed into my mouth. I can still see it clearly. I cringed then, in my high chair, where I was sitting in my parents’ kitchen. I cringe now. I must have been 2 years old.
What’s the first dish you learned to cook by yourself?
Ironically, after that last, SCRAMBLED EGGS with cheese. My father doesn’t do much cooking, he has always left that to my mom, in part because of chauvinism and in part because she’s an excellent cook. But once in a while, he’d make us scrambled eggs with cheese for breakfast. He also makes killer scrambled eggs and onions (trick is to get the onions very well caramelized–mahogany–and use a ton of butter). So I wanted to learn how to scramble eggs myself so I could make them for him (because he successfully transmitted the chauvinism? Sorry. Love you, Dad.) I asked the Bahamian man named Randolph Stirrup, who worked for my grandfather and cooked for him occasionally, to teach me while I was staying with my grandparents one weekend. Then I came home and surprised my dad.
Who were your early cooking influences?
My mom, first and foremost, and through her, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, Maida Heatter, Sheila Lukins & Julee Rosso, Marcella Hazan, Ina Garten, Judy Rodgers
My dad didn’t cook as much, but I’d still count him as an influence, and the host of relatives he spoke for or about.
Whose work do you admire now?
Dorie Greenspan–no one writes better recipes for baking or otherwise; Diana Henry, Madhur Jaffrey, Nancy Silverton, Amanda Hesser, Ruth Reichl, Edna Lewis, Melissa Clark, Sabrina Ghayour, Laurie Colwin, Melissa Hamilton & Christopher Hirsheimer, Jody Williams, Liz Prueitt, Caitlin Freeman, Viana La Place, Diana Kennedy, Ruta Kahate… I could keep going, and I predict they’d all be women.
What do you eat when you’re alone?
Baked goods (cookies most of all, probably); leftovers from recipe testing; stuff on toast; roasted-til-quite-browned broccoli
What’s your favorite food city or place?
Where do you write?
At my desk in my living room, which doubles as a dining table–sometimes with music on, other times in silence.
What food terms or buzzwords do you wish would go away?
I try not to dwell on these things and instead to look at words I use too much, because I go through phases with them. I’ll never be okay with “yummy,” though.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
Before I list them, a note to say that this is not a fixed set of titles–my favorites tend to change regularly, especially the newer releases that might be inspiring me right now. (editor’s note: I feel this.)
- The Arcadia Seasonal Mural and Cookbook, by Anne Rosenzweig. This really is my favorite cookbook of all time, ever, and I don’t see that changing. It’s a tiny book, out-of-print now, sadly, comprised of four menus–one for each season–and there isn’t a single clunker of a dish to choose from. The recipes are from chef Anne Rosenzweig’s Manhattan restaurant Arcadia, which closed in 1998. It was a special place, ahead of its time in a lot of ways, in terms of predicting the shift in fine dining from stuffy to casual and the focus on local, seasonal produce. The walls of the dining room were decorated with artist Paul Davis’s mural depicting the four seasons; it’s reprinted on the pages of the cookbook that fold out like an accordion.
- Simple Italian Food from My Two Villages, by Mario Batali. This was one of the first cookbooks I bought for myself when I started living on my own, as an adult, after graduating from college. It’s where I learned to make risotto and properly cook pasta. In college, I had a tendency to improvise when I cooked, making things up on the fly with varying degrees of success. Batali’s book taught me the value of following recipes and made me realize that as much as, before, I’d loved reading cookbooks; I could also love their functionality.
- Made in India, by Meera Sodha. It makes me want to cook, and that’s probably the number-one thing I look for from a cookbook. The fact of its being a book about Indian food renders that effect even more impressive, as far as I’m concerned, because that cuisine tends to intimidate people; the less-familiar ingredients and heavy reliance on working with spices can put American home cooks off. Sodha makes those flavors and techniques accessible by presenting them in a way we might associate with her compatriots like Nigella Lawson or Nigel Slater–there’s a modern freshness and simplicity.
- Truly Mexican by Roberto Santibanez This might not be the obvious choice for someone who’s interested in learning how to make Mexican food at home. I know we have masters like Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless to rely on for that, and I have done and continue to do. But, for whatever reason, THIS was the book that got me started; as soon as I began leafing through its pages, I felt encouraged to toast chiles and take on more of the prep work I hadn’t been motivated to do in the past. The recipes are thorough, clear, and yield more than reliable results; I couldn’t believe I’d produced so many things I’d never attempted before that tasted so good. IT MADE ME A BETTER COOK! No joke. I’m not saying you should ditch Kennedy of Bayless–you can learn a lot about Mexican cuisine from them; they’re wonderful, indispensable resources. I’m saying you should COOK from Santibanez. It’s a new classic.
- Unplugged Kitchen by Viana La Place This woman does so much with very few seasonal ingredients, and always in some slightly unexpected way that’s inspiring and, again, makes you want to get in your kitchen immediately and start playing. California-born and -based, she specializes in Italian cuisine with what we would probably deem a Chez Panisse point of view, which is to say, she was doing that Cali-style “regional Italian” thing before it was labeled as such. (And if course, that ingredient-forward approach is originally Italian!) You might decide to follow her recipe to a T, but I find this book, in particular, sparks ideas for my own creations. I like to challenge myself to keep it all as simple and streamlined as La Place does, with the local produce that’s in season here, in NY.
What do you hope cooks learn from your current book?
I hope they learn how to care for and bake in cast-iron skillets and see how doable that is. At the same time, I hope it eases them into baking in general, and then, from there, gives them the confidence to get more creative as bakers, to mess around with spices and flours. Most of all, though, I hope it brings them joy–specifically, that the fun I had in my kitchen, learning as I went and cooking, is contagious and gets passed along. Even if someone picks it up and doesn’t feel like baking, per se, or decides to use an aluminum cake pan (why?) instead of a skillet, just that idea that the book incited them to make something, for the fun of it, would be the best gift I could give anyone.
Writing: pleasure or torture? Pleasure
End of the meal: Dessert or cheese? Dessert
When cooking: Cups or Scales? Scales, for baking; otherwise, a dash here or a handful there…
Charlotte’s latest book, Stir, Sizzle, Bake is available now.