How a Pastry Chef Thinks About Cookbook Recipes
Natasha Pickowicz's Nubby Granola Shortbread, to be specific!
Howdy cookbook fans!
And happy Tuesday to you all! A LITERAL treat today: NYC pastry chef and newly-minted cookbook author Natasha Pickowicz is here to discuss baking recipes and how she took a recipe, in this case her Nubby Granola Shortbread, from a museum cafe to a recipe written for home cooks. Plus also you get the recipe! Natasha’s fantastic new cookbook, More Than Cake, is out today.
Natasha, take it away!
How a Recipe Goes From a Restaurant to a Cookbook
—By Natasha Pickowicz
There isn’t one correct or standardized way to write a recipe. I’ve been collecting cookbooks my entire adult life, and wow are there a lot of ways to write a solid recipe. For me, writing More Than Cake was an opportunity to synthesize everything I had learned from reading books and working in restaurants into one (hopefully) luminous and (definitely) bulging text.
Initially, I fantasized about writing a book that would feel as pleasurable to read as a novel, eliminating step numbers and instead shaping recipes into lean paragraphs. The iconic cookbook author and Provençal party host Richard Olney almost exclusively constructed recipes as short, matter-of-fact essays, often leaving the reader to wonder if there was more information left on the cutting room floor. His recipe for Grantineed Spinach Loaf, from Simple French Food, is a single perplexing sentence that both seems like just the right length and also deeply insufficient:
Beat the cream, the egg, and the seasonings together, stir in the spinach, pour into a buttered gratin dish, sprinkle with grated cheese, distribute shavings of butter over the surface, and bake at 450 for 20 minutes or until well colored.
A contemporary author like Brooks Headley (Fancy Desserts, Superiority Burger Cookbook) organizes recipes into an orderly set of steps, but the actual words are as witty and sharp as any humorist writing today: “Add a little hot polenta to the eggs to temper them, otherwise they will cook themselves and be nasty.” “Add salt—a considerable amount. Seriously, more than you think you need. Taste it. It should taste like all three ingredients.”
And then there are the technical decisions that get made, which hopefully allow for the recipe to be replicated by any person in any place at any time. In the case of More Than Cake, its bespoke “style guide” was the result of both my own tedious preferences as well as my publisher’s “house” style. Some things I fought for—yes, I will tell you to separate a raw yolk from the whites with your clean fingers, as any sensible restaurant cook will do—and many other decisions benefitted from the expertise of my editor. For example, every baking recipe will remind you to preheat your oven before you begin, something I always forget to do.
The level of detail and thought that goes into writing a single recipe is staggering when you think about it. For example: is the ingredient list written in order of quantity used, as with cocktail books, or chronologically? (Mine is in the Artisan house style, in which ingredients are organized by order of use.) Are measurements presented in metric or American volume? I personally loathe volume measurements—call it a byproduct of scooping the “37 cups of flour” that the old biscuit recipe we used at Marlow & Sons called for. I grudgingly included them next to the metric measurements as a concession to readers across the country, but not before including a slightly aggressive diatribe in my “Essential Tools” chapter to please, for the love of all that is good, buy a small digital scale.
Should I include the amount of time the recipe will take to complete? (Yes.) Or the approximate yield of the recipe? (Yes.) Or gentle suggestions for how to refrigerate, freeze, or otherwise store the finished bake? (Yes!) In short, I wanted to include as much as I had observed and experienced about any given recipe, including the failures, mistakes, and moments where a recipe could go sideways.
I have been accused of “over-communicating” in past jobs, and I admit that I apply my overzealous nature to the process of recipe writing as well. But that is only because my single, number 1, only, mega priority is that I, as the author, am setting you, the reader, up for success. I provide bake time ranges, temperatures to hit, sensory cues to look for, approved substitutions, historical context—as much as my mind can attempt to patch together. (Though my editor did recommend I cut the 600-word sidebar essay on Morello cherries as they appear in Chekhov short stories.)
This Nubby Granola Shortbread appears in the first chapter of More Than Cake, “Never-Ending Cookies.” It is actually an adaptation of one of my most popular recipes from my years spent running the pastry program at Flora Bar in the old Met Breuer on the Upper East Side of NYC. I also helped run Flora Coffee, a small cafe that fed the hungry museum guests; we sold giant pecan sticky buns, pies bursting with kale and caramelized onions, buckwheat chocolate chip cookies (that recipe is in the book too!), and my sole nod to the Uptown gluten-free crowd, the rice flour and walnut shortbread.
At the time, we were also selling layered yogurt parfaits with fresh fruit and granola, which I ordered from the great Dr-Cow in Williamsburg. It remains one of the most delicious granolas I’ve ever had in my life: it was raw yet toasty, tasted like sucking on a vanilla bean, and had sprouted buckwheat and, I think, pumpkin seeds in it. I had been working on a shortbread recipe the entire summer before Flora opened (on my birthday, October 11), finally having arrived at the perfect flour (Vietnamese white rice flour, for the perfect sandy, crumbly texture) and perfect nut (untoasted walnuts, buzzed up into a fine crumb). But I knew it was missing something special. I had a little granola leftover from that day’s parfaits, and threw that in too—and thus the recipe was born.
Guests went crazy for the sweet-and-salty, crumbly-and-crunchy, powdered sugar-dusted slabs. I knew I wanted to include the recipe in my cookbook, and then began the long process of scaling it down and retesting for the home baker. I tried it with other brands of granola, not just the heaven-sent one I spent $80/pound for, and it was still good. Great, even. I tried it in different shaped pans, scored into wedges, squares, and rectangles, swapped out other brands of rice flour, other nuts, other sugars, other butters. I tested it in a stand mixer with a paddle, but came back to the (easier, faster) food processor method. I baked it from fresh, from frozen, from the refrigerator. Every time I test a recipe, I learn a little bit more about how an ingredient, technique, or piece of equipment works. And this shortbread recipe felt bulletproof. Give it a try—I hope you love it.
Nubby Granola Shortbread
Makes twenty-four 1½-inch (4 cm) bars * 15 minutes active time * 2 hours inactive time
2 cups (200 g) your favorite granola
¾ cup (85 g) walnut pieces
2 cups (300 g) white rice flour
¾ cup (150 g) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 ounces (225 g) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch (1.25 cm) cubes, well chilled
Flaky sea salt
Powdered sugar, for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Tuck a sheet of parchment paper into a quarter-sheet pan (9 by 13 inches/13 by 33 cm). Lightly mist the parchment with cooking spray.
2. In a food processor, combine the granola, walnut pieces, white rice flour, granulated sugar, and kosher salt and pulse until the mixture is pebbly and fine.
3. Add the butter and pulse another 8 to 10 times, until the mixture feels like damp, coarse bread crumbs.
4. Scatter the dough evenly in the prepared sheet pan. Use your knuckles to lightly press the crumb into an even layer. Do not apply too much pressure, as this would make the shortbread dense and gummy.
5. Bake until the edges of the shortbread are lightly browned and the center feels soft but cooked through, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the surface with flaky sea salt. While the shortbread is still hot, use a small knife to score it into 24 squares.
6. Let cool completely, then cut the cookies, still in the pan, along the scored lines and dust with powdered sugar. The shortbread can be stored, tightly wrapped at room temperature, for up to 1 week.
Excerpted from More Than Cake by Natasha Pickowicz (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2023. Photographs by Graydon Herriot.