Luisa Weiss is the creator of the wildly popular blog The Wednesday Chef. Her latest book, Classic German Baking, explores the flavors and traditions of her adopted home country. We asked her 11 questions about her food heroes, favorite cookbooks, and food words that get under her skin.
What is your earliest food memory?
My earliest food memory is sitting in a high chair in my mother’s kitchen in Berlin while she makes me a bowl of yogurt. It’s spring or summer, a Sunday, and the windows are open. Through them I can hear the bells of the nearby church ringing. The yogurt is thin and sour, the way all yogurt used to be, and my mother is using her box grater to grate a bit of dark chocolate into the bowl for me. The dark chocolate comes in a big hunk and she keeps it wrapped in wax paper in the kitchen cabinet with green plastic doors.
What’s the first dish you learned to cook by yourself?
A simple tomato sauce made with onions and carrots for pasta that my father, who I grew up with, made very regularly. The sauce is a matter of some discussion in our family: he insists he learned it from my Roman grandmother, his mother-in-law. But my mother, her daughter, insists it’s not possible, because my grandmother barely ever cooked. In any case, it’s very easy and delicious and has become a family favorite for my husband and son, too. It’s the first thing I cook when I’m in a new place, or if I’m feeling out of sorts, or if I don’t know what else to make. It always makes me feel like I’m home.
Who were your early cooking influences?
My very earliest was my parents’ friend Joanie, an amazing baker and cook who took care of me while they were at work. Joanie taught me how to bake as a young child and to this day, there’s no table I’d rather be at than her cozy one, making Springerle cookies or having a bowl of soup. Later, my Sicilian uncle Pietro and his mother Antonietta were huge influences, spending hours shopping for produce and preparing it for our family lunches and dinners every single day on our summer holidays. Later still, when I first lived on my own, it was Laurie Colwin and her Home Cooking books which helped me find my way in the kitchen.
Whose work do you admire now?
Fuchsia Dunlop for illuminating Chinese food and culture with beautiful, mouthwatering writing.
Diana Henry for her endless curiosity about food and her incessant drive to develop recipes that have their finger on the pulse.
Yotam Ottolenghi for changing the way we eat today and for bringing vibrant vegetarian cooking fully into the mainstream.
Catherine Newman for combining writing on food and motherhood and family life that manages to combine profound insight and dry wit in the most appealing way.
Nigel Slater, for shining light onto the smallest daily rituals (grocery shopping, boiling a pot of rice) with elegance and grace.
What do you eat when you’re alone?
I don’t have one dedicated single-girl meal anymore. Sometimes it’s a really big bowl of salad with interesting things thrown in (sourdough croutons! grated Parmesan!) plus a punchy vinaigrette, sometimes it’s a plate of fried rice and leftover vegetables, sometimes (sigh) it’s a cheese sandwich and a pickle, wolfed down at the counter top. But the most reliable is my evergreen, a simple plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce. It never fails to satisfy.
What’s your favorite food city or place (and why)?
New York City! Nowhere else I’ve ever been has encompassed so many different kinds of cuisines, different levels of dining (hole-in-the-wall to china-and-linen fine dining), and held so much discovery and excitement in the culinary realm for me. It’s where I had the most expensive but also eye-opening meal of my life – an omakase sushi meal that was really paradigm-changing – and it’s where I discovered what authentic Thai food is supposed to taste like, and it’s where my favorite cheap Chinese dumplings doused in black vinegar are to be found. It feels like every street corner in New York holds an opportunity to eat well and also understand something profound about a different culture.
Where do you write?
At the desk in my office, which doubles as our guest room. After six years of working from home, I wish I had an outside office to go to, which would include a change of scenery and atmosphere, and fewer domestic distractions. But the upside is that it’s easy and convenient, I can just walk into the kitchen to make my own lunch, and I can spend an awful lot of time working in my exercise clothes as opposed to showering and getting dressed. (On second thought, that might be less of an upside than I think.)
What food terms or buzzwords do you wish would go away?
“Clean eating” and its implications of morality and goodness drives me nuts. I understand the urge to eat healthfully and I think it’s great to make plant-focused eating “cool” again, but the rigidity and obsession that has become part of this trend is worrying. I wish people were able to live a more balanced diet, in which not every bite that goes into their mouths is valued as either “clean” or “dirty”, but rather on the sensible, delicious and well-balanced scale.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop taught me just how easy it is to make authentic Chinese food at home. But beyond that, it’s also just a beautifully written book with really simple, approachable recipes for very good food.
Curry Easy Vegetarian (released in US as Vegetarian India) by Madhur Jaffrey is my favorite Indian cookbook. It’s beautifully produced, but also crammed with easy, yet “off-the-beaten-path” recipes that are good for weeknight meals as well as dinner parties.
Canning for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff. Krissoff is a master at unearthing or developing interesting recipes for everything from slow cooker meals to vegetarian food, and her canning book is no exception. It’s friendly and approachable and the recipes are really good because she just has a great sense of flavor.
Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater is the most unassuming little volume, but actually it’s an amazing handbook for injecting a life and excitement into the thousands of “unremarkable” meals you’ll make in your lifetime. He can make a bowl of white rice seem like a feast.
What do you hope cooks learn from your current book?
Besides the fact that working with yeasted dough need not be scary and that making your own Strudel is easier to make than you think (and of course a whole bunch of other really delicious recipes)? I hope readers learn that German food culture is not just about sausage and potatoes; that German (and Austrian) baking is the foundation of many of the most beloved baked goods in the Western world; and that German baking traditions are among the coziest and most meaningful around.
Writing: pleasure or torture?
When it’s going well, pleasure. When it’s not…well…
End of meal: Dessert or cheese?
It used to be dessert! Then I spent two years baking cakes for this book and now all I want is a pickle for dessert. (Or maybe that’s my pregnancy talking?)
When cooking: Cups or Scales?
Both – I’m an equal opportunity baker.
Signed copies of Classic German Baking by Luisa Weiss are available now.