French food and flaming kitchens

  • "Around My French Table" by Dorie Greenspan

    "Around My French Table" by Dorie Greenspan

  • Dorie Greenspan, a best-selling cookbook author, made her name by writing about the recipes of masters like Julia Child, Daniel Boulud and French pastry chef Pierre Herme with near-papal infallibility.

    Dorie Greenspan, a best-selling cookbook author, made her name by writing about the recipes of masters like Julia Child, Daniel Boulud and French pastry chef Pierre Herme with near-papal infallibility. Associated Press photos

By Michele Kayal
Updated 2/15/2011 1:17 PM

A few pecans. A sprinkle of Armagnac. Why not? Dorie Greenspan thought.

A bottom-rung baker in a chi-chi New York kitchen, Greenspan was bored making the same cake day after day, and decided substituting pecans and Armagnac for almonds and whiskey in the restaurant's signature confection would shake things up. It was such a success she was called into the boss' office at the end of the day.


And fired.

"She fired me for 'creative insubordination,'" Greenspan says. "Now, as a grown-up, I think that's a good thing to be, creatively insubordinate. At the time it made me miserable."

The best-selling cookbook author made her name by writing about the recipes of masters like Julia Child, Daniel Boulud and French pastry chef Pierre Herme with near-papal infallibility. But today Greenspan has put her voice -- a wry, anecdotal style that has won her legions of fans -- and her own creative vision first.

"Around My French Table," her 10th and latest cookbook, is full-frontal Greenspan, a companion to her 2007 James Beard award winner, "Baking from My Home to Yours."

The new book marks a shift in her identity from baker to all-around cook, and captures the glamour of her life as a part-time Parisian.

"It's the essence of Dorie's personality and of everything she loves," says Bon Appetit Editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild, a friend for nearly two decades. "Her writing has always been very, very good. But over the years it's become more personal. Her personality comes through now more than ever."

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And there's more of that to come. For her next book -- to be released in 2013 -- Greenspan will apprentice with master chefs and use what she learns to create yet more of her own recipes.

Greenspan leads the kind of charmed existence you only get by having saved a boatload of orphans in a previous life. From her home base in Manhattan, she spends a few months a year in Paris, and now and then visits her house in Connecticut. She has worked elbow-to-elbow with Jean-Georges Vongericheten, Alain Ducasse and, of course, Child. She has cooked for Jacques Pepin, and had Herme over for Thanksgiving. She counts illustrious food writers like Patricia Wells, Alexander Lobrano and David Lebovitz as friends. And though she's unknown to Food Network junkies and celebrity chef groupies, Greenspan is one of the best-recognized names in the cookbook world with a low-key but loyal fan base that has devoted entire blogs to cooking from her books.

Plus, she's really, really nice.

"She is a very thoughtful person," says Laurie Woodward, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mother of three who created "Tuesdays With Dorie," a blog devoted to making the more than 230 recipes in "Baking From My Home to Yours." "She really appreciates that everyone cooks from her books, and she's been very supportive of the group. If you e-mail her she e-mails you back within 10 minutes."

"Tuesdays with Dorie" has about 200 members, some of whom will wait more than a year for their turn to bake. But Woodward's next project, "French Fridays with Dorie," already has signed up nearly 700 people to cook from the new book. Why such devotion?


"Her books become like a friend in the kitchen," Woodward says. "Her style is so familiar. It's like your grandma in the kitchen with you telling you what to do."

Not bad for a woman whose cooking career could have ended in 7th grade, when she burned down her mother's newly renovated kitchen. She didn't touch a stove again until she had to, as a young bride. In a kitchen no bigger than a closet, Greenspan learned to cook from books. And discovered that she loved it.

"I was a passionate, crazy, obsessed home cook and baker," she says.

A brief turn in restaurant kitchens (and the infamous pecans-and-Armagnac incident) convinced Greenspan that she wasn't made for restaurant life, and she turned to writing. She landed her first magazine piece in the 1980s by sending Food and Wine editors a basket of delectable truffles and tarts. More pieces followed. And then books. A book about pancakes. A book about sweets. Three small books, and then the jackpot: the best-selling "Baking with Julia," a companion to the public television series, which put Greenspan on the culinary map.

"I never could have expected I would have this life," Greenspan says. "But I also feel like I always say 'yes.'. Saying 'yes' has really been part of my being able to have this amazingly lucky life."

But it hasn't been all luck. Greenspan is known for the precision and eminent readability of her recipes. She often gesticulates above her keyboard to figure out how best to describe a kneading or mixing technique, and tests each recipe multiple times before turning it over to professionals. "She's very, very concerned about details," says Herme, France's most famous pasty chef, whom Greenspan calls her "friend and mentor in all things sweet." "When she writes a recipe she bakes it once, twice, three times, just to make sure the person reading will be able to do the recipe."

"She is a very great cook and great pastry chef," Herme adds. "But when you tell this to her, she says 'No, no, no, I'm nothing.' When I make some compliment, she hates that."

Like cooking, Paris was love at first sight. After a brief, budget-conscious trip as a newlywed Greenspan devoted her life to going back as often as possible -- and to one day having a home there. "I had ideas about Paris, I'd seen movies," she says. "But I could not have predicted that I would have reacted this way. Nothing had ever hit me like that, and nothing has hit me like that since."

A little more than a decade ago, Greenspan and her husband, Michael, finally found a flat in the Left Bank. "This was a charming apartment right across from the Church of St.-Germain-Des-Pres, the heart of the most romantic, the most written-about part of Paris," she says. "It was an amazing place to be." With one tiny drawback.

"It didn't have an oven," she says.

A baker with no oven? "I couldn't bake," she says. "But what you can do on two burners with a Dutch oven is amazing."

Apparently you can do creamy mushroom soup with white wine and chives; chicken tagine sweetened with saffron and prunes; and a springtime veal stew laced with arugula and spinach. And you can serve them on your French table, which, if you're Greenspan, is always groaning with food and people.

"Dorie will tell you when she invites you that eight people are coming, and then she ends up inviting 14," Fairchild says. "Somehow, magically 14 people appear. But there's always enough food."

Greenspan is blunt that her new recipes are not classically French, that they are her specific take on Paris, a thoroughly modern interpretation of what real Parisians are really cooking today. Which makes her a bit like Child, who translated the ways of French cooking for an earlier generation of Americans. Of course, Greenspan is wary of putting herself in such grand company. "This is my view," Greenspan insists. "This is my little personal world. I think this is food that anybody would love, that Julia would love. She loved knowing what's new. But it's definitely French. Today's French."