Many years ago I sat down in the Yale Co-op and read Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything from cover to cover. I was thinking about buying it, and I wanted to be sure that before I bought this BIG FAT BOOK that it had enough stuff in it that I’d want to cook. I was not smart enough to discern whether or not it was a good cookbook; but I somehow had faith that it was. The question was, Was it operating at a level that I, then a real novice in the kitchen, could deal with?
The answer was Yes, and I bought the book and never regretted it. Many of the recipes in it became standards from which I’ve barely deviated over the years. The one category where I often ran into trouble was the sweet stuff: desserts. Baked goods. These were almost always failures. I eventually decided that Bittman’s tastes in desserts were just really different from mine, and accepted this. His biscuits never let me down; the cornbreads and variations were spot-on; innumerable entrees and pasta dishes work beautifully. But with desserts — I could have removed those pages from the binding and been ok with that. (And given the shoddy quality of the binding of those early printings, it might not have been a bad idea to lessen the weight that that poor spine had to bear.)
It was only a few years ago that I gleaned — in a roundabout way, via Smitten Kitchen — that Bittman’s How to Cook Everything did, in fact, have one gem of a dessert in it: the recipe for blondies. Blondies are like brownies but without the chocolate; it’s a bar cooky that should taste of brown sugar and butterscotch and be a little sludgy and have a ripply, craggy top. Sometimes you put in chocolate chips. Sometimes you don’t. A good blondie is a wonderful, wonderful thing, and finding a perfect recipe is a miracle.
One of the great things about the Bittman blondies from that original cookbook is that you mix it up in one pot; it takes about four minutes to put it all together. You take a stick of butter and melt it in a pot. You whisk in a cup of brown sugar and let it smooth out into the butter; then you whisk in an egg, a bit of vanilla, about 1/8 of a teaspoon of salt, and a cup of flour. Stir this all together, and plop it into a greased and parchmented 8×8 pan; bake for about 20-25 minutes in a 350 degree oven. Done. You can do all of this in the pot you melted the butter in. It could not be simpler. And it is delicious.
This week, my husband asked me if I’d like to receive Bittman’s new cookbook, How to Bake Everything, as a Chanukkah or Christmas gift. I said, “Let me read it first and let you know.” When I was at the public library on Tuesday, I found the book on the shelf and was pleased to check it out. I began to read it while I waited for the bus home. I finished reading it that day, and decided that while it was interesting, and there were a few recipes I was curious about, I didn’t think it had enough original material to be worth taking up residence on our very very overcrowded shelves.
But today, I wanted to bake something nice. I had this lingering obligation to send some cookies to school with my daughter — to give to her teacher — and while no one’s pressing me on it at all (in fact, the obligation is entirely in my head), I thought it’d be nice to get the treat to school before the Christmas vacation started. “I’ll use the new Bittman book,” I thought brightly. “Surely the blondie recipe is in there.” I looked in the index — there it was — I turned the pages, and I took an egg out of the fridge and set it on the counter. Bittman’s introduction reads: “This bar has less in common with the brownie and more with a chocolate chip cookie, if that cookie didn’t have chips in it and was baked in a pan. Blondies have a rich butterscotch flavor and a wonderfully chewy texture.” This is all true. In fact, in How to Cook Everything, the blondies are called “Butterscotch Brownies,” not blondies. But we know the truth: they’re blondies. And Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen knew that, too, which is why when she wrote up her experiments with Bittman’s butterscotch brownies, she restored the correct name, blondies.
Assuming that I had landed on the correct recipe in How to Bake Everything, because I naively assumed that the recipe as it appeared in one book would be essentially the same as what I remembered from the other book, I started melting the butter. Next, I thought, the brown sugar. How much brown sugar? I checked the book. “Wait,” I said to myself. I looked at the page. This recipe called for white sugar, not brown sugar. “Really?” I asked myself. “How can this be?” But instructions are instructions. I thought it was weird, but didn’t argue, a fact I would later regret. I added my 3/4 of a cup of granulated sugar to the butter, whisked it smooth, and added the egg. I added the vanilla; I added the salt; I added the flour. I whipped it all into a nice smooth batter, and it looked exactly as I remembered it, except that it was a creamy yellow color instead of being the rich tan I remembered from previous blondie-baking sessions. I sighed: this wasn’t going to be the same thing at all.
But I decided to make the most of it. Feeling whimsical, madcap — Fran Lebowitzy, if you will, if Fran Lebowitz gave a shit about baking cookies — I added some mini marshmallows and some shredded coconut. I spooned the mixture into my prepared 8×8″ pan and then I sprinkled some mini-chocolate chips on top. I drew a knife through the top of the batter to marble it slightly, and then I put the pan into the oven. “This batter is not like I remember it,” I said to myself. “But it’ll be fine.”
Two hours later, when I went to cut these blondies and serve them to my family, I had the sad realization that these were not the blondies of our dreams or our memories; worse, they weren’t even that good on their own terms. “Goddamnit,” I said, as I took a bite. “You’re not taking any of these to your teacher,” I said to my daughter, who was eagerly cramming a blondie into her uncritical maw. “Why not?” she demanded. “They’re good!”
“They suck,” I said. “I am not sending these out into the world.” “They don’t suck!” my daughter insisted.
“Well, ok, they don’t suck,” I admitted. After all, it wasn’t like they tasted of salt, or had some other awful flavor you wouldn’t want in a cookie; it wasn’t as though they tasted oddly of hot dogs. “But they’re boring, stupid cookies.”
Mark Bittman — whether by design or through editorial error — has taken a perfect blondie recipe and turned it into something insipid and sad. Even my coconut and marshmallow embellishments cannot rescue these blondies. They are so boring I am mad I wasted a stick of butter on them. How did this happen? Did Bittman consciously decide to change the type of sugar, and in the process ruin the recipe? I don’t believe so, because his introduction specifically mentions the butterscotch flavor — a flavor that only comes with brown sugar. Whether it was an editorial decision, or a copyediting oversight, either way: this recipe is crap.
Mark Bittman and his staff and editors need to make an effort to fix this problem. Future editions of this book should be amended.
It did not inspire faith in this book, let me tell you, to have the first recipe I cook out of it be such a dud. But this morning I decided to give it a second chance (mostly because my daughter had asked I make chocolate brownies today, so that she could bring cookies to hear teacher). I examined Bittman’s new brownie recipe, which is significantly different from the old one in How to Cook Everything. I dimly remembered that the one in that book was boring, so I decided to give this new one a roll. The batter mixed up nicely, it baked beautifully, and the resulting brownies are good. They’re very sludgy — two bites was quite enough for me, and that was one-half of a brownie! — and rich. I needed to drink eight ounces of milk after eating two bites. But it’s not a child’s brownie, it’s an adult’s brownie. It’s not a bake sale brownie. It’s a “put this out for guests with a bowl of candied nuts and maybe some port, or a little glass of nocino.” I’m once again left thinking, “Bittman’s not at his best with desserts.” It may be I need to temper my expectations, but I can’t help but feel frustrated.
I wish I could recommend this book. Maybe I will try a couple more recipes and see how they go. For example, I should try the bialy recipe and see how it goes. But sadly, I really can’t recommend it right now, and my instinct is to say, “Even you novice bakers: skip it.” I suspect Bittman’s spreading himself too thin these days. He’s been busy — leaving the Times to go be a Purple Carrot, and then leaving Purple Carrot a few months ago… and it’s showing in the books. The books always had their flaws, but really, this recent work is not showing well so far. Not a good thing. Not a good thing.