WATERTOWN — Cookbook author Dorie Greenspan is in my kitchen, about to make desserts from her new book, “Baking Chez Moi.” She’s up from Connecticut, having arrived at Back Bay station earlier that morning looking so stylish she might have stepped off the high-speed train from Paris. She’s wearing a navy Ines de la Fressange jacket (from Uniqlo), which she now slips off, and straps a denim apron over a starched white shirt. A Hermes scarf is tied around her neck, though it’s usually “one of my son’s pocket squares.” In Paris, where she spends about four months a year, she says, “fashion is part of everyday life.”
Greenspan knows the City of Light as well as she knows her native New York. She also understands (and is especially forgiving of) French women and loves to debunk common assumptions. “My French friends will not allow you into their kitchen. You have to know them for 500 years before they invite you in.” In the apartment in the fashionable Saint-Germain-des-Pres district she shares with her husband, Michael, she invites everyone in. “They don’t want to leave,” she says.
In my kitchen, Greenspan is making crunchy dried fruit and nut cookies she calls croquants, something like biscotti or mandelbrot, except they are baked only once, along with a simple apple cake. Although all the recipes in the new book come with stories — “It’s why food is endlessly interesting,” she says — the women she knows in Paris do not cook. “French women don’t learn from their mothers,” she says. “They buy food.”
As she works, she weaves in baking tips, rubbing grated orange rind into granulated sugar with her fingers, until the oil in the fruit permeates the granules, and later the cookies. She’s making croquants by hand, though she has KitchenAid stand mixers, food processors, blenders, and more in New York, Connecticut, and Paris residences.
The recipe is typical of other cookies from the South of France, often made with orange-flower water, which came into the region during the Arab occupation of Spain. Greenspan’s version is from a small bakery in Lyon, where they were not flavored with orange-flower. In “Baking Chez Moi,” she writes, those croquants were crunchy outside and a little softer and chewier inside, so “they didn’t quite live up to their name (or their nickname: casse-dents, which means ‘tooth breakers’).” At various times, she has incorporated into the dough cashews, walnuts, skinned hazelnuts, macadamias, dried cherries, pieces of dried apricots, and slim wedges of dried figs.
Today, she is using unskinned almonds, unsalted pistachios, and golden raisins. The firm, sticky dough is bursting with the pieces. She presses it into logs on parchment paper, and bakes them until golden. She pulls the sheet from the oven and though the logs look ready, she slides them back in for a few minutes. “People don’t bake things long enough,” she says. The croquants are sliced while warm, and they are surprisingly crunchy and addictive.
Greenspan and her husband went to Paris for the first time 40 years ago. Both were raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., “when it was like small-town life,” she says. (Today, she is surprised by the interest in her childhood city. “Brooklyn is a big deal in Paris,” she says.) Before they went abroad, neither she nor Michael had ever been to Europe. “This is a cliche,” she says, “but I felt like I belonged there.”
She was working on a doctorate in gerontology, and had a job with the elderly at a social research center in New York. Returning to Paris often, she decided not to pursue the doctorate and instead started cooking. She began writing cookbooks in 1991. One day, writing a story on chestnuts for The New York Times, she called the celebrated French pastry chef Pierre Herme at Fauchon, where he was working at the time. The two hit it off.
After Greenspan did the writing for “Baking With Julia,” a companion to Julia Child’s TV show of the same name, she and Herme wrote “Desserts by Pierre Herme,” which won the International Association of Cooking Professionals’ Cookbook of the Year award. Then she worked on “Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud Cookbook” with the French-born celebrity chef.
Two more books followed: “Baking From My Home to Yours” (for which she won one of her six James Beard awards), then her 10th, “Around My French Table,” about life in France. Fans formed online groups. One, Tuesdays With Dorie, cooked its way through “Baking From My Home to Yours,” and French Fridays With Dorie, another group, is almost finished exploring “Around My French Table.”
You would think after all those books and awards, 160,000 Twitter followers, and more than 13,000 Instagram followers, Greenspan would have a set way of doing things and everyone around her would toe the line.
But she isn’t the least bit demanding. She picks up an egg to break it for the apple cake and asks other cooks in the room if they like to tap the egg on the counter or on the edge of the bowl, which she is about to do. The unanimous answer comes back: on the counter (less chance the shell will crush). She’ll change the way she does this, she announces. A few minutes later, she seems honestly delighted to see a batch of her croquants, which I had already made, go from the tin to the serving plate. “I love to see other people bake and arrange my things,” she says.
She calls her apple cake “custardy apple squares.” “Through some magic of chemistry,” she writes in “Baking Chez Moi,” “the apples, which go into the pan in a mishmash, seem to line themselves up and they come out baked through but retaining just enough structure to give you something to bite into.”
The cake is quick work. Apples are sliced on a mandoline, the simple crepe batter made, the two mixed together. In the pan it looks lumpy. In less than an hour later, it’s golden, puffed, and beautiful. This recipe, and many others in her volumes, is accompanied by “bonne idee” (good idea), in which Greenspan offers variations, such as adding Calvados or Armagnac, using pears or quince, or brushing the golden cake with warm apple jelly to form a kind of glaze.
‘Through some magic of chemistry, the apples, which go into the pan in a mishmash, seem to line themselves up and they come out baked through.’
On the page, Greenspan talks as if she’s having coffee with you, about where she found recipes, about the person who gave them to her, and when she might serve them. She offers a fancy chocolate cake inspired by Herme and layered with chocolate mousse (it adorns the book cover). She has recipes for lemon-flavored Madeleines and another version swirled with chocolate, and Parisian macarons with a handful of ingredients and three pages of explanation. “This recipe is long,” she writes, “not because there’s so much to do or because what you have to do is difficult, but because there are so many things to look for.”
But the heart of the book is sweets that aren’t a bit difficult. She tells a story about a time early in her career when she baked “with the fervor of a religious convert.” She presented a tall, glazed chocolate cake layered with ganache to her Parisian guests and they wanted to know where she bought it. When she announced that she had made it herself, their reaction was, “Why?” “Real French people don’t bake!” she writes. “At least they don’t bake anything complicated, finicky, tricky, or unreliable.”
So she set out to find the little cakes and confections for picnics or “le week-end”: Martine’s gateau de Savoie, from one of the most stylish women she knows; apple tarte flambee (which looks like pizza), from an Alsatian chef; Odile’s fresh orange cake, which is covered with slices of the fruit and soaked in syrup until “humide, meme mouille” (moist, even wet).
She would ask friends for recipes and they would come back and tell her that it was too simple for her, “extremement,” they said. That, she answered, is what she wanted. As she writes, “These recipes are the record not only of discoveries, but also of friendships.”
Friendships that this American takes so seriously, she’s invited into their Paris kitchens. And she didn’t have to wait 500 years.
Dorie Greenspan will be signing books on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. at Wellesley Books, 82 Central St., Wellesley, 781-431-1160; on Nov 19 at noon at Northeastern University Xhibition Kitchen, Stetson West Eatery, 11 Speare Place, Boston, 617-353-2530; and on Nov 19 at 7 p.m. at Harvard Bookstore, 1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-661-1515.
Related recipes:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.