New York Social Diary: Tracey Zabar (archived article)
APRIL 27, 2012
Well we did say that we were going to share the cookies that Tracey Zabar baked for us with our kids—and we meant it—but somehow it just didn’t happen. Later that evening, we exchanged guilty emails about gorging. Oh my! They were good. Tracey is among other things, a trained pastry chef and her new book, ‘One Sweet Cookie’ (Rizzoli) has just come out. It contains recipes from well-known chefs and talented bakers, all of whom have submitted their favorite cookie recipe often accompanied by a little story as to why the particular recipe is special to them. Cookies and childhood are inextricably linked, it would seem, even for grand names such as Danny Meyer and Jacques Torres. If you don’t already know, his chocolate chip cookie should win some kind of baked goods Nobel prize and it’s in the book!
Now, you have been known to swipe cookies from places and put them in your purse …
You mean from what I wrote in the intro in the book? But I didn’t swipe the cookies. I wanted to.
Oh! I actually take the cookies and put them in my purse.
Now the terrible thing is that everybody kind of knows me … the nice thing is that the pastry chef will come and say hello and I’ll get little goodies but the not-nice thing is that because everyone knows me, even though I want to lick the plate and take the cookies, I can’t.
I don’t really like cooking very much but I really like baking – there just seems to be a separate pleasure to baking. Can you tell me what you think that might be?
What’s interesting to me is that people say, “I’m a tremendously good cook but I’m a terrible baker, or the other way around. I think when you bake you have to be very precise. You have to follow the directions, make no substitutions … at the beginning. When you become experienced as a baker and also experienced with that recipe, you understand where you can improvise and where you cannot. It’s very, very precise. With cooking, it’s not … you can add a little more spice or maybe some wine or a little butter …
And yet people are frightened of baking. You’d think the precision would make them more secure – you just follow the directions to the letter.
People may have had the experience that they have screwed up. I also think there has been this explosion of fancy desserts in restaurants and I was very specific with this book that this was not what I wanted. I didn’t want a foam infusion of grapefruit and olive oil and something I couldn’t identify. I wanted a cookie or a little cake. I wanted the best brownie in the world.
What kind of pleasure are you hoping to give? A kind of Proustian madeleine moment I guess?
I think that’s a tremendously important thing for people to think, “I never thought I would taste that again.”
Baking is the ultimate home smell … the smell of security.
I think it is. And what I did with the book was that I went to these chefs, some very important and some not important, some people I just knew were amazingly talented bakers and I said, “Tell me what your favorite cookie is. I want to know when you’re home on a Sunday and you’re with your family and you want to bake something, what do you bake?” Most of them made [their cookies] from their childhood, you know, Daniel Boulud talking to me about his mother and his grandmother. That was very charming to me.
Cookies are humble things—they’re the first things you learn to bake.
And it’s the thing that’s in your lunchbox.
They’re very American. Although I suppose tea with biscuits is very English as well.
Well when I researched this they were first called teacakes. They started out as little cakes. I went to a very famous Chinese chef and he said nobody makes cookies at home in China. Fortune cookies are from American restaurants.
And there are hard cookie people and soft cookie people.
There absolutely are.
I have a cookie every morning when I wake up. My husband brings me a cup of tea and a cookie while I’m still I bed, although they’re British “biscuits” really.
What kind of cookie do you have?
This morning I had two chocolate digestives but normally they’re plain wholemeal digestives.
That’s like schoolhouse biscuits.
When do you like to eat cookies?
Well, through this book … I didn’t. I didn’t want to come to the end of the project and really hate cookies so I would make one batch or two batches every day. I would eat one cookie from each batch. I would put a few away for David and the boys and then I would walk down the street with a bag, doorman … doorman … homeless person … I gave away maybe 10,000 cookies.
So what were your favorites?
Cookies or the [chefs’] stories? It really became a beautiful collection [of recipes] but I was interested in the stories. I’ll tell you one favorite story. It’s actually Scottish, from Mark Tasker who is the baker at Balthazar. They don’t give their recipes out but Mr. McNally was very kind. And this is Mark’s Granny Rennie’s shortbread. During the war they had to go into the air raid shelters and she would make this shortbread as treat for [his mother and her siblings] only when they went there so that they wouldn’t be scared. He said they had to wear gas masks, so he wondered how they ate the shortbread.
That is a nice story. So what is your attitude towards … well, sugar?
I’ve known people who have forbidden their children to eat any sugar and it is disastrous. Everything in moderation. Me personally, I think you should have one of the most perfect cookies, or the most perfect little tart. Just eat it and love it and enjoy it.
Did you or do you give your kids dessert every day?
Yes. Sometimes it was fruit and sometimes cookies. What we always did [when all four boys were at home] was leave work early, or I would only work when the kids were in school and we’d come home at four o’clock. And we would make a big platter of fruits and vegetables, mostly vegetables, celery, little tomatoes, we’d put nuts and cheese on it and we would put that on the table while we were in the kitchen making dinner, which would be ready by six o’clock. By the time dinner came, everyone had had a huge amount of vegetables because they were hungry and that’s what was there.
Do you cook as well?
A little bit. David cooks.
And a favorite chef?
I will never say. They all know where I live and they would come and kill me.