In an online world where all aspects of lifestyle culture can seem to be about achieving perfection, it’s wonderfully refreshing to see someone who is respected and established admit that they still have a few things to learn. Dana Cowin, the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine, set out to write her first cookbook with that very theme in mind: mastering the mistakes she still made while cooking at home. Throughout the course of Mastering My Mistakes In The Kitchen, Dana learns to cook a wide range of recipes, from snacks and breakfast dishes to decadent desserts, and gets tips from some of the country’s top chefs along the way. And while I generally get excited about cookbooks this time of year (I seem to gravitate toward the kitchen when the weather gets colder), I’m especially excited about this one because I got to see parts of it come together in my own home.
My wife Julia worked with Dana on this cookbook, helping to develop and test all sorts of delicious recipes. And while there were many that stood out to me, there was one that I still can’t stop thinking about: Pear + Brown Sugar Upside-Down Cake. Julia saved me a tiny sliver when she tested the recipe and I immediately requested (politely) that she make us another cake to have at home. So I was thrilled when Dana agreed to not only chat with me for an interview, but to share that recipe here today (both after the jump). Dana also kindly offered to give two lucky D*S readers a free copy of her book! All you need to do to enter the contest is share the story of YOUR biggest cooking mistake and how you learned to overcome it. Leave your story in the comment section below and we’ll pick two winners next week to receive a copy of Mastering My Mistakes In The Kitchen. I’m so excited to hear everyone’s stories (I’ll leave mine below, too). Thanks so much to Dana and everyone at Ecco for sharing this with us today! xo, grace
Click through for Dana’s interview and her delicious Pear Cake recipe after the jump!
Design*Sponge: It’s so refreshing to see the editor of a major food publication admit that they struggle with recipes. What gave you the courage to focus on that issue for your cookbook?
Dana Cowin: I finally had enough confidence that sharing the truth wouldn’t make the readers lose faith in me, or the chefs think less of me. In fact, the response has been overwhelmingly warm and encouraging. Readers have told me they’ve benefitted from my mess-ups. And the chefs have recounted some of their epic mistakes in the kitchen and what they learned from them.
D*S: Did you grow up cooking at home? Do you cook now with your children? If so, what are their favorite things to make?
Dana Cowin: The only things I made at home growing up were popcorn and white rice. I perfected them and continue to make both for my family. My kids and I cook together all the time. My 14-year-old daughter challenges me to TV-style cook-offs. Our most recent one was pasta with tomatoes and eggplant. I made a rustic sauce, she made lasagna. She won for ingenuity (she pre-cooked the noodles in tomato broth). I’m guessing there are more cook-offs in my future. My son and I make gigantic batches of searingly hot salsa.
D*S: I felt so lucky to try a tiny bite here and there of some of these recipes while they were in development and the pear cake we’re running here today was my favorite. Did you end up having a favorite recipe among the list? If not, which 3 recipes from the book would you pair together for a perfect meal?
Dana Cowin: I definitely came away from the testing process with favorite recipes. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are the dishes that are hard to screw up, good for a crowd, easy to make ahead, not too expensive, great for kids and adults (as long as they aren’t vegetarians). They are: Korean Meatloaf, Baked Ziti Arrabbiata, and Chili of Forgiveness.
D*S: I love the wide range of chefs you consulted for expert tips, and how refreshingly simple some of their suggestions were (I love Josey Baker’s idea to put butter under peanut butter – delicious!). Were there any tips or suggestions from chefs that surprised you?
Dana Cowin: I loved working with the chefs and finding out their secrets, particularly when they were super simple. For example, the excellent baker Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery in Boston suggests putting crepe batter in the blender to ensure that there aren’t any lumps. And Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Jean Georges in NYC insisted that home cooks should boil beets instead of roasting them. I’d always been told that you need to roast beets to intensify the flavor, but Jean-Georges explained it was faster to cook and easier to test for done-ness if you boil them. Radical!
D*S: So much of the food world these days, online and off, seems to be focused on perfection and finding not just the perfect recipe but the perfect photograph of that perfect recipe. How has embracing imperfection in the kitchen changed the way you look at food and cooking in general?
Dana Cowin: I’m sure I’m embracing imperfection. I’d like to be a whole lot more perfect myself. I’m hoping, though, to encourage people who think they are incompetent in the kitchen to give it another shot, to realize they can do better and it will be fun. I’m trying to erase the embarrassment that sometimes comes with kitchen mistakes and embrace the power of practice and learning.
D*S: I can’t imagine you have much free time in your schedule, but when you do, what’s your go-to snack or meal to make?
Dana Cowin: My go-to snack is a piece of aged Gouda and dried California apricots. And my fast meal is the chicken soup with shredded Parm, lemon and eggs from my book. It’s fast, pretty healthy and soothing. It’s actually the one recipe in the book that I learned from my husband.
D*S: Last but not least, what meal or food reminds you most of home?
Dana Cowin: Home is such a fascinating concept. When you ask that, I immediately flash to my childhood memories of eating fried chicken and apple pie at home with my family. But home is also the place or the feeling I’ve created with my husband and kids, in which case it would have to be soup. Chicken soup that’s different every time! We make it almost every weekend.
Pear + Brown Sugar Upside-Down Cake (Excerpt from MASTERING MY MISTAKES IN THE KITCHEN by Dana Cowin)
Making caramel—heating water and sugar until you have a golden amber syrup—is a fundamental element of many desserts that I love, none of which I’m predisposed to replicate. I have made mistakes over and over again when I have tried to tackle caramel: I’ve overcooked it, I’ve undercooked it and I’ve ended up with gritty crystallized cooked sugar. Grace Parisi, Food & Wine’s longtime recipe goddess, solved the problem with a brilliant shortcut in her recipe for an upside-down apple cake. She got the flavor without actually making caramel by laying the fruit on top of a brown sugar and butter mixture; then she poured over the simple batter. I’ve adapted her method here with pears instead of apples. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to work around it.
Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes + cooling
Makes 8 to 10 servings
1⁄2 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature, for the pan
FOR THE PEARS
4 tablespoons (1⁄2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1⁄2 cup packed dark brown sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
2 ripe but firm pears, such as Bosc or Bartlett, peeled, cored and cut into thin wedges (about 1⁄3 inch thick)
FOR THE CAKE
2 large eggs
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1⁄3 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
12 tablespoons (11⁄2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
11⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
FOR THE GLAZE
1⁄4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon whole milk
1⁄4 teaspoon almond extract
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with the 1⁄2 tablespoon butter and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper.
2. For the pears, using a rubber spatula, mash the butter with the dark brown sugar and salt in a large bowl until combined. Using your fingers, spread the mixture evenly in the prepared cake pan. Arrange the pear wedges in the pan in concentric circles (filling in any gaps as necessary with smaller pear wedges).
3. For the cake, whisk together the eggs, brown sugar, milk and extracts in the bowl you used for the butter mixture; whisk in the melted butter. Whisk the flour with the baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl, then whisk into the wet ingredients until the batter is just smooth. Scrape the batter over the pears and spread it in an even layer, without disturbing the pears.
4. Bake the cake until it is golden and springy to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool on a rack for 30 minutes.
5. Run a dinner knife around the inside of the pan to loosen the cake. Place a serving plate over the pan, carefully invert the cake onto the plate and remove the pan. Peel off the parchment paper. Let the cake cool completely.
6. For the glaze, whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, milk and almond extract in a small bowl.
7. Drizzle the glaze over the cooled cake. Cut into wedges and serve.
The cake can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.
From Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen by Dana Cowin. Copyright 2014 Dana Cowin. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.