During my interview at Chez Panisse, as I sat across the table from Alice Waters in the main dining room at the restaurant, she asked me, “What do you eat at home?”
Since I’m not exactly convincing when lying, I told her.
“I eat popcorn, mostly.” And continued, “I’m a restaurant cook. I don’t have time to eat at home.”
(Although I did conveniently omit the fact that it was microwave popcorn…)
In spite of that, or because of my chutzpah, I got hired and worked at Chez Panisse for a long time. What nailed it for me and endeared me to Alice, years later, wasn’t her politics or her philosophy on cooking. It was when I told her, “I really like to drink coffee leftover from the morning, with milk in it, that’s been sitting on the counter all day.”
And she said, “Me too.”
After my Less-Than-Optimal week prior (and that’s being kind), I thought I should start afresh by doing something spiritually-cleansing, and simple, so I made the recipe for Gingersnaps from The Art of Simple Food. It’s a recipe that has lots of spices, whose aroma would hopefully purge my life (and my apartment) of last weeks bêtises.
At first glance one might think— Who needs this book?
But as I turned the pages, I realized that these are recipes for the staples that people could and should learn, and the book is a complete reference for anyone who wants some solid, well-tested basics new dishes to add to one’s repertoire. Unlike larger and bulkier reference tomes, the recipes in The Art of Simple Food are for the way many people cook today and the book is laid out with a simple design to make it very easy for anyone to follow the recipes. It would also make an excellent gift for someone new to cooking who maybe would like to tackle a Caesar Salad or homemade pizza dough but needs a clue as to where to begin.
Most of the recipes have just a few ingredients and if you’re anything like me, you’re often just looking for the basic proportions for things can improvise once you’ve gotten the knack of making it—so I appreciate having a recipe for a basic polenta torta, a stripped-down risotto recipe that lends itself to whatever variation one might choose, and recipes for sauces like spicy harissa, basil pesto (with winter-friendly variations), meaty Bolognese and homemade tartar sauce which would liven up a simple roasted dinner of fish, meat or vegetables.
As I read through the book, not only was I charmed by the simple line drawings by Patty Curtain, but by the friendly, approachable tone of the book. There was no preaching, just gentle guidance on how to coax the best flavors from what’s available, which some of the clearest, easy-to-follow instructions on techniques I’ve seen in a cookbook.
But most importantly, it bears the message the good food doesn’t need to be complicated, expensive, or hard-to-prepare.
Some of the recipes I’ve bookmarked are the crispy Fresh-Pickled Vegetables, savory Gougères, Herb-Roasted Almonds, and Sushi Rice, which I made for my Chez Panisse Tupperware party at my place in San Francisco and it was a bigger hit, for some bizarre reason, than the cold-cut tree and flaming weenies that guests were invited to roast in a hollowed out cabbage acting as a grill.
Which I don’t recommend, unless you want your house to reek of Sterno for days afterwards.
But there was certainly nothing wrong with the way my place in Paris smelled after pulling a batch of these warm ginger snaps out of my oven.
Makes 40-50 cookies
From The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution (Clarkson Potter) by Alice Waters.
These cookies get crisp when cool and are great holiday cookies. I like them coated with lots of crystals of coarse sugar, which is called Hawaiian washed sugar in the US, or cassonade here in France. (Coarse sugar is also available online.)
You can also rev-up the spices, and add ¼-½ teaspoon ground cardamom, cloves, nutmeg or allspice to suit your taste.
- 2 cups (280 g) flour
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1½ teaspoons ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 11 tablespoons (150 g) butter, salted or unsalted, at room temperature
- 2/3 cup (130 g) sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ cup (80 g) mild-flavored molasses* (sometimes called 'light' molasses)
- 1 large egg, at room temperature
- my optional step: coarse sugar crystals for coating the cookies
1. Stir together the dry ingredients.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, or by hand, beat the butter just until soft and fluffy. Add the sugar and continue to beat until smooth, stopping the mixer to scrape down any butter clinging to the sides of the bowl.
3. Stir in the vanilla, molasses and egg.
4. Mix in the dry ingredients gradually until the dough is smooth.
5. Divide the dough in two equal portions and roll each on a lightly-floured surface until each is about 2-inches (5cm) around. Don’t worry if they’re not perfect; you can neaten them up in a second.
6. Wrap each in plastic wrap then roll them lightly on the counter to smooth them out. Refrigerate, or better yet, freeze the cookie logs until firm.
7. To bake, preheat the oven to 350F (180C) and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
8. Slice cookie dough into 1/4-inch (a scant 1 cm) rounds with a sharp knife. Dip one side and press firmly in a bowl of coarse sugar if you want (you can also use granulated sugar instead), and place sugar-side up on baking sheet, evenly-spaced apart. Leave a couple of inches, about 5 cm, between cookies since they’ll spread while baking.
9. Bake for 10-14 minutes, rotating the baking sheets midway during baking, until deep-golden brown. The cookies will puff up a bit while baking, then settle down when they’re done. Bake on the lower end of the range for softer cookies, and more for snappier ones, depending on your oven.
10. Let the cookies cool two minutes, then remove them with a spatula and transfer them to a cooling rack.
Storage: The dough can be refrigerated for up to five days, or frozen for up to three months. Once baked, the cookies can be kept in an air-tight container for a couple of days but like anything made with butter, of course they’re best the day they’re baked.
*Outside the United States, molasses is often found in natural-foods stores.
For other overseas baking tips, check my post American Baking in Paris.