Julia Turshen is no stranger to the cookbook industry. She's worked as a co-writer and recipe developer for authors like Mario Batali, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Dana Cowin. Now she's stepping into the limelight with her debut, Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home Cooking Triumphs, due out from Chronicle Books on September 6.
The book, which features a foreword from friend Ina Garten, includes 160 recipes linked by Turshen's "small victories," lessons learned in her life and career in the kitchen.
What was it like to write your own cookbook, as opposed to collaborating?
It was wonderful in a whole different way. Logistically, it was a much quieter process and scheduling time to work on the book was much easier! Emotionally, I have never felt more proud of anything I've worked on, which feels really rewarding.
How did you arrive at the concept?
The moment it occurred to me to use the idea of small victories as both a title and an organizing principle was a bit of a slap-my-forehead, aha! moment. I am passionate about getting people both excited to cook and also comfortable once they're cooking. Pointing out small victories in the kitchen and pausing to celebrate them seemed like a really positive way to do this.
The book is incredibly personal. Every headnote incorporates a memory, or an anecdote about a person close to you. Did you go into the process knowing this would be such an intimate cookbook?
Yes, that was definitely intentional because I think everything tastes better if it has a story behind it. I loved having the opportunity to write my experiences down to give context to the recipes and hopefully encourage people to think about the stories behind some of their favorite foods and memories.
In the headnote for Parmesan Soup with Tiny Pasta + Peas, you call Gabrielle Hamilton one of the best chefs around, and her cookbook, Prune, one of your favorites. What other cookbook authors have inspired you in cooking and cookbook writing?
Thinking back, Lee Bailey's books hold a special place in my heart, as does Edna Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking and Laurie Colwin's books, too. Thinking now, Ina Garten, to me, is the queen of modern cookbooks.
Speaking of Garten, how did your friendship with her come about? Did she influence the book in any way?
I met Ina few years ago when I was cooking for a dinner party she was attending. Her devotion to well-written, thoroughly-tested recipes absolutely influenced Small Victories.
What advice do you give to burgeoning home cooks who are intimidated by the process?
Don't be afraid! Cooking doesn't have to be complicated to be satisfying. In fact, the simplest things are often the best.
MAKES ONE 8-INCH CAKE
This not-too-sweet, very simple cake is perfect for that “it’s four o’clock and I need a little something with a cup of coffee” moment. Fragrant with orange, rich with ground nuts, and not at all dry since there’s plenty of olive oil, the cake needs nothing, though a spoonful of crème fraîche on top of a slice certainly wouldn’t be unwelcome. The only thing more satisfying than eating this cake is making it—it is seriously easy and therefore hard for even a complete baking novice to screw up. It’s also one of those baked goods that just gets better if it sits for a few hours, even a day or two. The small victory is not just having a straightforward cake up your sleeve but also embracing parchment paper, one of my favorite kitchen tools.
To cut a piece of parchment paper into a perfect circle to fit your cake pan (which is like an insurance policy that your cake won’t stick), rip off a piece of parchment that’s a bit bigger than your pan. Fold it into a square, then fold it in half to make a triangle and fold it in half again to make an even more narrow triangle. Place the tip of the triangle in the center of the pan. Use scissors to cut off the excess parchment that extends beyond the sides of the pan. Unfold the parchment and, voilà, you have a perfect circle that fits into your pan. Another small victory for parchment? Put a piece on your work surface and use it almost like a placemat when you are measuring a dry ingredient like flour. Then you can pick up the edges of the paper when you’re done and scoot the excess flour back into its container.
1 cup [120 g] all-purpose flour
½ cup [50 g] finely ground nuts (see Note)
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp kosher salt
½ cup [120 ml] extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup [100 g] granulated sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 orange, plus ¼ cup [60 ml] fresh orange juice
Powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat your oven to 350°F [180°C]. Use your hands to butter the bottom and sides of an 8-in [20-cm] cake pan, then line the bottom with a circle of parchment paper. For good measure, butter the parchment paper. Set the pan aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, ground nuts, baking powder, and salt.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until the whites and yolks are fully combined. Add the olive oil and granulated sugar and whisk until the sugar is dissolved (test by rubbing some of the mixture between two fingers). Whisk in the vanilla, orange zest, and orange juice. Whisk in the flour mixture.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, being sure to use a rubber spatula to get it all out of the bowl. Hold the pan just a little bit above the counter and then drop it on the counter to eliminate any air bubbles.
Bake until the cake is beautifully golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer the cake, still in its pan, to a wire rack and let it cool completely. Once cool, use a dinner knife to loosen the edges of the cake from the pan and invert it onto your work surface (you might need to give the pan a little whack). Peel off and discard the parchment. Invert the cake one more time onto a serving platter so the flat side is down and the domed side is up.
Just before serving, dust the cake with powdered sugar.
note: Any nut works well in this cake. To make ground nuts, just put whichever type of nut you’d like (I’ve made this cake successfully with walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios, and am sure pecans and pine nuts would also be great) in the food processor and blitz until they’re as fine as cornmeal. Or use a mortar and pestle. Or purchase ground nuts, which often go by the name “meal” or “flour” as in “almond meal” or “almond flour.” For a nut-free cake, simply omit the ground nuts and add an additional ½ cup [60 g] flour.
From Small Victories by Julia Turshen, photographs by Gentl + Hyers (Chronicle Books, 2016).
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Turshen had previously ghostwritten books.