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Author Dorie Greenspan on Pastries, Writing, and Women in the Industry

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Dorie Greenspan has had quite the career. The six-time James Beard and IACP award winner has worked with some of the biggest names in food -- Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, pastry chef Pierre Herme, and Julia Child, to name a few. While she's widely explored the world of fine French food, her most recent title, Baking Chez Moi: Recipes From My Paris Home to Your Home Anywhere, is all about simple French baked goods anyone (including you) can make at home.

In part one of our two-part Q&A, Greenspan discusses her love of all things French, pastries, how she got her start in writing about food, and women in the culinary industry.

Clean Plate Charlie: Let's start from the beginning. What are you hoping to achieve with this book?

Greenspan: As I was working on collecting recipes, creating this book, it was a surprise to me: This wasn't exactly the book I started out to write. I'm hoping that this will surprise readers and home bakers as well. I call it the parallel universe of what we think of French pastry: the beautiful, pristine, somewhat elaborate confections we find in pastry shops. This is really about French home baking. They're not recipes you find very often, and I couldn't have gotten them if I didn't live part-time in France. Many of them come from friends, and I've created many of them. If you're invited to a French friend's home for the first time, you'll get something from a pastry shop... for years until finally you're considered one of the family or you do what I did: I said, "Hey, just give me what you make on a Tuesday night. You can't possibly be going to Pierre Herme and buying this for your family." And that's when I discovered these really simple homey desserts that French people bake at home, just for their families, just for their closest friends.

How different is this from the book you were intending to write?

I was going to write a book about fancy French pastry. I found myself working with chefs, and as they were working on these beautiful creations, I was thinking, Gee, that loaf cake in the corner looks good. I really love simple sweets. As I was working on more complicated ones, while longing for the simple ones, I thought, time to make a turn-around.

Fortunately, I wasn't that far [into the book]. But it's interesting, I've worked with, and love working with, pastry chefs. I've worked with them for years, and I used to love spending an entire weekend working on one dessert. I still do occasionally. It was always satisfying -- I always learned something from it -- but I find that these days, that's not even what I want to eat. I want something satisfying, something comforting. I want something that's fun to make and great to share. I don't care as much about the oohs and aahs; I've become more elbows on the table. I feel that way about my food, and I feel that way about my desserts now. Simple and enjoyable: I want all of the food and the desserts I make to encourage people to linger at the table and talk. And that's not really what fancy French pastry does.

What inspired you to start working on pastries?

Two things: I got married as a college student, and I had never cooked or baked before. So one day, I didn't cook, and the next day it was my job. My husband had his first job; I was still in college, we had no money, so I had to cook. I learned to cook and bake from cookbooks and discovered that I loved it. It was really as I was learning that I was spending the weekend making everything from scratch, baking. I made puff pastry from scratch. I made croissants from scratch, all to learn. And it was really exciting. But when I went to Paris for the first time, on the very first day, I had a little strawberry tartlet, and that's over 40 years ago. I remember it being a revelation; it was as though I had tasted butter for the first time and strawberries for the first time, vanilla for the first time. The flavors were just so full; it was so much what they were. So vanilla, so butter, so strawberry. That became my flavor standard; I kept going back to that memory of that tartlet. That was my aha experience. I just fell in love with pastry through the process of making it. I still do. I love the magic of baking. It sounds odd, but after all these years, there's still something I enjoy. I love making something with my hands, and I like having something to share. To me, that kind of sums up baking.

Food makes people happy, but there's something about a good dessert that elicits a stronger reaction.

Exactly. This is a strange thing for me of all people to be saying, but we don't have to have dessert. It would be horrible to live without desserts, but we could. So when we make a dessert, when we bake something and we share it, it's really special; it feels like a gift.

What was the experience of going to France for the first time like?

Over the weekend, my husband found these boxes of slides; he bought a scanner and was spending hours scanning them to digitize our pictures. He called me into the room and said, "Look at this." There's this picture of me, from that first trip, and I have this huge, huge grin on my face. He said, "You know, what else, other than your son has made you smile like this?" It was just wonderful and funny. I hadn't seen the picture since a year after he had taken it, and like I said, this was over 40 years ago. I looked at it and thought, boy, when I say I loved Paris from the minute I got there, this proves it really was true. My smile is so big my eyes are closed, because there's no room for them to stay open on my face.

I had this dream of what Paris would be like. Happily, joyfully, that dream was intact afterwards. It was almost 20 years ago that we started living in Paris part-time. But what ended up connecting me to Paris was the food. I was so interested in food. I was so interested in French food. And learning about food helps you really learn about a culture. So my first connection with Paris was really about the food. In writing about the food, I met spectacular people, and I learned more about French culture, French tradition, more about French regions and agriculture. It's a wonderful way to learn about any culture.

How did you get your first book deal?

I came to food writing kind of late. I did a dissertation for a doctorate in gerontology. I was working in a research center at a university. Then after I had a kid, I just didn't want to go back. My husband said, "You know, you love baking; why don't you try to get a job as a baker?" That was kind of a flop for me: I got fired after a month. Then a friend said, "You know how to write. Why don't you write about food?" I was very lucky, Food & Wine Magazine bought the first piece from me. So that was a good start. Then I started working with Jean-Georges Vongerichten on a project that we just never finished. We worked and we worked and we worked, and it was fabulous, but it just was the wrong time for both of us. But that kind of got me thinking, I like this whole book idea. And you know, I've just been lucky all through my life. I had met an editor; she really liked my work, and she said, "Let's think about a book for you." And that was my first work; it was called Sweet Times. My mother bought it. I think my mother, my next-door neighbor -- we could say it had a cult following.

Do you think the Food Network had something to do with opening kitchens to women?

No, that was already happening, but I think it made being involved with food sexy, glamorous, exciting. It probably made it more OK in parents' minds for their kids to go into food. I don't know; I can't put my finger on it. Even in the '90s, people made a big deal of Oh, this restaurant, the chef is a woman. I know that pastry changed first; that was the entry place for women in the kitchen. I think it came from the thought that women aren't strong enough to haul those big stock pots around and things like that. In France, not recently, there was a real antipathy to having women in the kitchen. Women were respected as home cooks. Lyon had fabulous bistros that were run by women, a very homey kind of cooking; there was a great respect for homey mom's cooking. But when you got to the fancy-restaurant level, that was not women's work. France was slower than America to open kitchens to women, but still, I feel like the media has to make a special effort to find women to balance the men in the field. It's so different now, though, and it's so exciting because there are so many super-, supertalented women doing great work, encouraging other women to come into the field.

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.

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