Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Deb Perelman's comforting food and advice generates huge success for debut cookbook

Deb Perelman will share her story and sign copies of  The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook  at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, at Quail Ridge Books, and from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, at Flyleaf Books with samples of breakfast recipes provided by Foster’s Market.

As the beloved author of the food blog Smitten Kitchen – and the best-selling cookbook of the same name – Deb Perelman serves up comforting advice and encouragement to millions of devoted fans who view her as a sort of patron saint of aspiring home cooks.

“It’s always a little surprising to do a book tour and meet people,” Perelman says during a recent call from her famously tiny New York City kitchen, where she creates and tests her recipes. “It’s like, OK, you are real people, and there are a lot of you.

“It’s totally surreal and fun,” she adds with a modest chuckle. “It’s nothing like I do in my regular life. Nobody applauds when I walk into my living room.”

Perelman is not a manufactured overnight success, but it is notable that the blog she started just 6½ years ago has more than 4 million subscribers and logs more than 7 million page views each month. Her book, released in time for holiday sales last October, competed well against titles by better-known authors. Richly illustrated with her own photos, it quickly sold out of its first printing of 80,000 copies.
It is now in its fifth printing. 

Interest is being punched up this week by Food52's annual Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks, where it is scoring an easy decision against another critically acclaimed work, Roots: The Definitive Compendium, by Diane Morgan. Fans are praising Perelman's accessibility and humor, as well as the clear directions and deep flavors of her recipes.

Perelman is beginning to get accustomed to the acclaim, but she never imagined it would happen so fast or on such a grand scale when she first launched her blog.

"I wasn’t sure what I was doing in the beginning other than really enjoying myself," she says. "I knew there was a readership. I knew I had ‘good numbers,’ but it’s hard to conceptualize what it meant to have millions of followers. It’s not an easy thing to make sense of.”

It makes sense to her fans. Perelman’s appeal is rooted in her low-key, you-can-do-it approach to cooking. Each recipe includes a headnote about how it came to be, why it’s great for entertaining or how even a fussy toddler will eat it – like her own 3-year-old Jacob, whose younger, bibbed countenance is seen chowing down with gusto.

Perelman’s pace quickens and her voice fills with excitement when she talks about developing recipes for her blog. “When I figured out that I could make chicken noodle soup in under an hour on a weeknight, I felt like I had to tell people immediately,” she says. “I love things that solve the dinner time drama.”

One of her favorite challenges is to remake time-consuming traditional recipes in ways that can be assembled quickly. “I made something great for dinner about three weeks about that I really want to share but haven’t had time,” she says of an Italian-style deconstructed stuffed cabbage. “It’s killing me to put it off. I’ve made it three times already and it’s really good.”

The stuffed cabbage recipe finally appeared on the Smitten Kitchen blog early this morning. If you're more in the mood for dessert, Perelman offers her take on a dessert classic.

Tres Leches Rice Pudding
Excerpted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. Copyright © 2012 by Deb Perelman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Yield: serves 8

1 cup (180 grams) long-grain white rice
¾ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg
One 12-ounce can (1½ cups or 355 ml) evaporated milk
One 13.5-ounce can (17/8 cups or 415 ml) unsweetened coconut milk
One 14-ounce can (1¼ cups or 390 grams) sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (240 ml) heavy or whipping cream, chilled
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
Ground cinnamon, to finish

My list of rice pudding loves is long. There’s the Danish risalamande, with chopped almonds, whipped cream, and a sour cherry sauce, usually served at Christmas with a prize inside— one that I never win, not that I’ve been trying for thirteen years at my best friend’s house or anything. There’s kheer, with cardamom, cashews or pistachios, and saffron. There’s rice pudding the way our grandmothers made it, baked for what feels like an eternity, with milk, eggs, and sugar. And there’s arroz con leche, which is kind of like your Kozy Shack went down to Costa Rica for a lazy weekend and came back enviously tan, sultry, and smelling of sandy shores. As you can tell, I really like arroz con leche.

But this—a riff on one of the best variants of arroz con leche I’ve made, which, in its original incarnation on my site, I adapted from Ingrid Hoffmann’s wonderful recipe—is my favorite, for two reasons: First, it knows me. (That’s the funny thing about the recipes I create!) It knows how preposterously bad I am at keeping stuff in stock in my kitchen, like milk, but that I seem always to have an unmoved collection of canned items and grains. Second, it’s so creamy that it’s like a pudding stirred into another pudding.

The rice is cooked first in water. I prefer to start my rice pudding recipes like this, because I’m convinced that cooking the rice first in milk takes twice as long and doesn’t get the pudding half as creamy. Also, it gives me a use for those cartons of white rice left over from the Chinese take- out I only occasionally (cough) succumb to. Then you basically cook another pudding on top of it, with one egg and three milks— coconut, evaporated, and sweetened condensed— and the end result will be the richest and most luxurious rice pudding imaginable. But why stop there? For the times when the word “Enough!” has escaped your vocabulary, I recommend topping it with a dollop of cinnamon- dusted whipped cream, for the icing on the proverbial cake.

Cook the rice:  Put the rice, 2 cups of water, and the salt in a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil—you should hear the pot going all a flutter under the lid and puffing steam out the seam. Reduce to a low simmer, and let the rice cook for 15 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Remove the rice pot from the heat.
Once the rice is cooked, whisk the egg in a medium bowl, and then whisk in the evaporated milk. Stir the coconut and sweetened condensed milks into the rice, then add the egg mixture. Return the saucepan to heat and cook the mixture over medium-low heat until it looks mostly, or about 90 percent, absorbed (the pudding will thicken a lot as it cools), about 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in the vanilla extract, then divide the pudding among serving dishes. Keep the puddings in the fridge until fully chilled, about 1 to 2 hours.

To serve: Whip the heavy cream with the confectioners’ sugar until soft peaks form. Dollop a spoonful of whipped cream on top of each bowl of rice pudding, dust with ground cinnamon, then enjoy.

Cooking note: If you have 2 cups of leftover white rice, you can skip the first step, and jump in with the egg and three milks.

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