Obituaries

Barbara Kafka, 84, cookbook author who turned up the heat

Mrs. Kafka chopped sorrel for a dish of sauteed spinach and sorrel she prepared in her kitchen in 2006.
Richard Drew/Associated Press/file
Mrs. Kafka chopped sorrel for a dish of sauteed spinach and sorrel she prepared in her kitchen in 2006.

WASHINGTON — Barbara Kafka, a popular and sometimes pugnacious cookbook author who touted the utility of the microwave oven and whose recipes for high-heat roasting were considered shocking and even dangerous, died June 1 at her home in Manhattan. She was 84.

She had Parkinson’s disease and other ailments, said her husband, Ernest Kafka.

Mrs. Kafka, who said she took an interest in cooking ‘‘because it was the one thing my mother couldn’t do well,’’ wrote columns for newspapers and magazines and published more than half a dozen books that collectively sold millions of copies.

Advertisement

Her tastes were eclectic, with recipes for snails and Rice Krispies treats in the same cookbook. She had a consulting firm that helped develop menus and restaurants, including Windows on the World, which was atop one of the World Trade Center towers destroyed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Mrs. Kafka was known for the lively, no-nonsense style of her cookbooks and her columns for Gourmet — tellingly called ‘‘The Opinionated Palate’’ — Family Circle, Vogue, and The New York Times.

‘‘I do try to write in English, I don’t write ‘kitchen’ and I don’t write French,’’ she said in 2005. ‘‘What’s wrong with saying matchsticks instead of julienne?’’

She often gave cooking demonstrations with the late James Beard, a cookbook author often called the driving force behind modern American cuisine.

‘‘She helped create [and] translate trends in food for everyone at home,’’ Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2012. ‘‘She managed to speak to a lot of people about how to make really good food, how to make it simple, but without compromising in any way.’’

Advertisement

Her books, such as ‘‘Roasting: A Simple Art’’ (1995), ‘‘Soup: A Way of Life’’ (1998), and the 700-page ‘‘Vegetable Love’’ (2005), were more than straightforward collections of recipes for the home cook. They were explorations of regional cooking traditions, family lore, and a lifetime of kitchen discoveries.

‘‘I cook with endless curiosity,’’ she told the Denver Post in 1996. ‘‘That’s how recipes evolve and change. I’m saying, ‘What would happen if — ’ ’’

Mrs. Kafka had her breakthrough in 1987 with ‘‘Microwave Gourmet,’’ a book inspired by her daughter.

‘‘She gave me a microwave when I went to medical school,’’ Nicole Kafka said Friday in an interview. Once, while talking to her daughter on the phone, Mrs. Kafka said she had to start boiling water for artichokes.

‘‘I said, ‘That takes me five minutes in the microwave,’ ‘‘ Nicole Kafka recalled.

Advertisement

The next day, Mrs. Kafka bought her own microwave and cooked an artichoke.

‘‘It wasn’t fibrous, it wasn’t waterlogged, it had all its flavor, its color was better, and it didn’t leak water onto the plate,’’ she told Newsweek in 1987. ‘‘It was a better artichoke.’’

With as many as 13 microwaves stacked in her kitchen, she spent three years experimenting with recipes for everything from risotto to chicken pate to brownies. ‘‘Microwave Gourmet,’’ the first full-scale cookbook of its kind, went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

‘‘I got these really weird reactions from food people,’’ Mrs. Kafka said in 1990. ‘‘That book was the most uncultivated food thing I could do. It was like tearing up your library card.’’

Some chefs scoffed, saying the microwave was not a legitimate way to cook, and others were aghast at some of Mrs. Kafka’s methods. Most infamously, she ignored manufacturers’ recommendations and used the microwave for deep-fat-frying.

Although only four of the book’s 600 recipes called for deep-frying, the ‘‘Kafka controversy’’ divided the culinary world. Some said it was irresponsible and hazardous to heat oil in a microwave, especially in a glass vessel that could break.

Home cooks would have no problems, Mrs. Kafka said, if they carefully followed her instructions. Besides, she added, deep-frying was safer in an enclosed microwave oven than on a kitchen range.

With ‘‘Roasting,’’ Mrs. Kafka ignited another kitchen brouhaha by recommending that vegetables, poultry, and meats be cooked in an oven heated to 500 degrees.

Previously, most recipes had called for slow-roasting at 325 to 400 degrees, with frequent basting to keep the poultry or meat from drying out.

‘‘People are afraid of high heat,’’ Mrs. Kafka told the San Jose Mercury News in 1995. ‘‘It takes some nerve to say that other, long-recommended temperatures are wimpy, to say to do it this way. But people have been taught to be chicken about temperature!’’

She maintained that her high-temperature method cut cooking times in half and eliminated the need for basting. A turkey or chicken roasted at 500 degrees would have a crisp, golden skin and would be moist and succulent inside.

Not everyone was persuaded. ‘‘I hate it, I just hate it,’’ Julia Child, the longtime cookbook author and TV host, said of Mrs. Kafka’s poultry recipes in 1996. ‘‘All that smoke! And then you can’t really tell if the bird is done.’’

She leaves her husband, Ernest Kafka, a psychiatrist; two children, Nicole and Michael ; and two grandchildren.

After childhood sensitivities to dairy and gluten reappeared, Kafka published her final cookbook in 2011, ‘‘The Intolerant Gourmet,’’ emphasizing tasty dishes that could be made without grains, cheese or milk.

‘‘I think the hardest thing about going on a gluten-free diet was being deprived of sandwiches,’’ she wrote. ‘‘I still haven’t gotten over it.’’

In 2007, she received one of the food world’s highest honors, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation. She received the foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame award in 2015.

Kafka had little patience for fussy culinary trends and often said that simple foods, prepared well, were the best.

‘‘When in doubt, roast a chicken,’’ she wrote. ‘‘When hurried, roast a chicken. Seeking simple pleasure? Roast a chicken.’’

kafka-obit