FEBRUARY 22, 2012
A Zabar Does Cookies
By RALPH GARDNER JR.
I was somewhat concerned when Tracey Zabar told me we had to meet by 11 a.m. because she had a photo shoot with a rival newspaper at noon. I understood, of course, but simply as a matter of personal and journalistic pride I prefer to avoid getting scooped.
Tracey Zabar prepares cookies at her home on the Upper West Side. Her new book, ‘One Sweet Cookie,’ features favorite cookie recipes from 70 of the city’s most famous chefs. Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street Journal
However, I was relieved to learn that they were photographing her for an entirely different project. My interview concerned her new book, “One Sweet Cookie” (Rizzoli), for which she asked 70 of the city’s most famous chefs to supply their favorite cookie recipes; they were talking to her about an earlier volume devoted to charm bracelets.
I frankly didn’t know that much about Ms. Zabar going into our meeting at Dominique Ansel, a bakery on Spring Street owned by Daniel Boulud’s former pastry chef. (Mr. Ansel supplied the book a recipe for pecan and chocolate cookies; Mr. Boulud gave two recipes—for Trao-Mad, a buttery cookie from Brittany with peach compote; and for Bugnes De Lyon, some sort of cruller-like butter- and sugar-delivery system made by his mother and typical of Lyon, his hometown.)
I first learned about Ms. Zabar when her publicist and father-in-law, Stanley Zabar, one of the owners of the Zabar’s gourmet-food empire, slipped me a postcard with a picture of the book on one side and a recipe for Sugar Valentines on the reverse. We were attending a live broadcast of Jonathan Schwartz’s WNYC Christmas show. I was listening to Mr. Zabar with one ear and trying to take in Judy Collins, or whoever it was serenading Mr. Schwartz and his audience, with the other.
It turns out that Ms. Zabar has her hand in many pots, only a few of them containing sugar and shortening. She’s also a jewelry designer and collector, and she’s written or co-written books on subjects as varied as baby names and flower arranging. She’s not trying to find herself; apparently, she’s just passionate about lots of different things simultaneously, or at least in rapid succession. By the way, she and her husband, David Zabar, who helps run the family business, also have four sons, ranging from age 30 down to 18.
Whatever she is, she’s not without ambition. “I’m not a chef or baker by profession,” she explained as she plied me with one of Mr. Ansel’s DKA, short for Dominique’s Kouign Amann. It resembles a caramel-coated croissant and ought to be on everyone’s bucket list. However, she added: “I’m an amazing baker. I know I am.”
Ms. Zabar’s charm is that such lines usher from her mouth sounding almost modest, so infused are they with enthusiasm for whatever it is she’s discussing. “My goal,” she added, “is if you find a chocolate-chip cookie recipe, you want to make a chocolate chip better than anybody in the world and then you’re done.”
Indeed, the first recipe she got for her book was Jacques Torres’s celebrated chocolate chip. “It was such a good recipe I went to the other chefs and said, ‘Give me other recipes, not chocolate chip unless it’s your favorite.’ I potentially could have had 70 chocolate-chip cookie recipes.”
Ms. Zabar explained the genesis of “One Sweet Cookie.” “I knew so many chefs,” both through previous writing projects and because one apparently tends to cross paths with lots of them if you’re a Zabar; sort of the way you would world leaders were your name Clinton or Kissinger. “I’d wanted to ask them, ‘When you go home, what do you bake on a Sunday when you have the day off and your kids want something?’ I didn’t know if chefs made these fabulous concoctions with foam infusions of olive oil and grapefruit. I didn’t think that’s what those chefs made at home.”
Initially, Ms. Zabar said that she was worried about gaining their cooperation. After all, in the contemporary celebrity firmament famous chefs rank right up there with Lady Gaga and Nicole Kidman, actually probably slightly higher than Ms. Kidman. But the Zabar name and the opportunity to share recipes that meant something to them personally opened doors—such as the one from Mr. Boulud’s mother’s; there seem to be several maternally inspired cookies and cakes in the volume. “I didn’t think anybody would say yes,” she confided. “I thought I’d get 20 recipes. I was shocked. Three said no, but 70 said yes.”
Bryan Derballa for The Wall Street Journal Tracey Zabar prepares cookies at her home.
And she wasn’t shy about sharing her own recipes if she thought there were holes in the compendium. For whoopie pies, for example. “There’s only one traditional whoopie pie,” stated Ms. Zabar, who grew up in New England, home of that All-American treat. “Even though people have done carrot cake and gingerbread, it’s traditionally chocolate with a marshmallowy center.”
I couldn’t agree more. A whoopie pie made of anything other than chocolate cake with an achingly sweet cream filling is a sacrilege. But what about peanut butter whoopie pies? They seem to be everywhere. “A bastardization,” Ms. Zabar pronounced.
That doesn’t mean she’s against peanut butter in general as a cooking ingredient. “I wanted there to be at least one peanut butter recipe in the book,” she said. So she hit up Marc Murphy of Landmarc at the Time Warner Center for his peanut butter sandwich with nutella filling. If the accompanying photo is any indication, it’s to drool for.
Ms. Zabar didn’t want to offend any of the souffléd egos in the book by picking her favorite recipe—among the superstar chefs included are Andre Soltner, Francois Payard, Waldy Malouf, Sarabeth Levine, Marcus Samuelsson, Mario Batali and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Instead, she cited the special place in her heart reserved for her own mother’s recipe for Pizzelle, snowflake-shaped cookies for Italian brides, and Eli Zabar’s mother’s butter sugar cookies. “If I ever said what my favorite was the other chefs would come to kill me,” she said.
Ms. Zabar tested all the recipes herself in her own kitchen, reducing what were often restaurant metrics to those for the home baker. “I got to bake every single day for a year,” she said. “I’d eat one cookie from each batch and save a few for David and the kids and I’d take the dog for a walk and give them to anybody—doormen, homeless people. The problem is now when I walk the dog people will say, ‘Where are my cookies?’ I’m obligated.”