Can you guess whose cookbook we cooked out of this week?
You can’t? What, have you been hiding under a big old rock the past couple of months? That’s Ree Drummon, the Pioneer Woman herself, force of nature, damned good writer, authentic being, hilarious hoot, and amazing woman. Her cookbook has been on the New York Times bestseller list. At her first reading, people waited in line five hours just to see her. She’s the Beatles, people. She’s bigger than us all.
She’s cool, as Little Bean might say.
So, you probably don’t need me to tell you about this cookbook, do you?
Well, let me tell you this part first.
I adore Ree Drummond. I’ve been reading her site since nearly the beginning, when her photographs were washed out and she shot straight from the heart in every sentence. My dear friend Tea alerted me to The Pioneer Woman. “You have to read her,” she told me in an email. “She’s a real writer. And she’s a hell of a lot better than she wants people to believe.” I’ve been reading, faithfully, since then. (And I especially love her multi-part series on how she met and fell in love with her husband. Look, I’m still dizzy-crazy in love with my husband. I’m a sucker for a good love story.) After all these years, like many of us do, I feel like I’ve been on that ranch, that I know those kids, that I can smell Charlie’s breath. Meeting Ree at the BlogHer conference in San Francisco, and being astonished that she knows who I am, was one of the best parts of last year. No one was cheering for The Pioneer Woman more than me when her book came out.
(And I’m still mortified that one time, when she and I were writing a couple of emails back and forth, I asked her if she needed an agent, because she should really write a book. Yeah, this cookbook was coming out in about a month. She was so polite when she told me, though. She didn’t call me an idiot at all. What can I say? My blog reading slowed down when Little Bean was born.)
As much as I love Pioneer Woman (and I have a hard time calling her anything but Pioneer Woman), I don’t really love the layout of this book. Her vivid photographs of the step-by-step preparations of dishes deserved larger space, not tiny dime-sized pictures crammed together on a page. And am I the only one confused at first, because the steps read top to bottom, in columns, and then you skip to the next column to the right? I tried to read the recipe photographs left to right, the way our eyes naturally go, with reading. Every recipe felt entirely strange until I realized how I was supposed to read it. Even though I love Ree, and her writing, I didn’t entirely feel called to cook out of this book, at first.
It started last week with the pancakes, the thin-as-whisper Edna Mae sour cream pancakes. My friend Judy told me, “You really should make them. They only have 7 tablespoons of flour in the whole recipe.” That did it. I made them. And loved them.
(That’s sorghum syrup in that photograph above. Danny’s pouring. We ended up drenching the pancakes in that slightly molasses, thicker and more bitter than maple syrup concoction. He didn’t like the pancakes for that. I’m making them again soon so he can see the error of his ways.)
Seven tablespoons of flour? Easy. These were lacey and present, full of flavor yet delicate. (This is starting to sound like a feminine anti-perspirant ad, so I’ll be quiet.) These are pancakes you can stack 12 high and not feel guilty as you slam your fork through them. Go ahead. Enjoy.
After those pancakes, I made a long list of all the dishes we should cook last week. It was longer than my hand could write. I stopped and started putting post-its in the book instead. The top of it now looks like the sidewalk filled with smashed flags, after a parade. I couldn’t get to them all.
I’m going back.
The recipes in this book are homey. Do I intend that as an insult? Absolutely not. They’re recipes you make in the home, not in a restaurant, not to impress, not at a party. They’re family dinner food, recipes handed down from grandmothers and trusted friends. They’re recipes that have been tested in the belly, many times before making it into print. This book is filled with comfort meatballs, chicken-fried steak, blackberry cobbler, meatloaf, chicken pot pie, and oatmeal crispies. This food is filled with butter, sugar, beef, cream, and breading. This is food intended to fill the stomachs of hungry cowboys and little kids both.
This food is good.
I had some funny reactions when I posted updates of our food adventures cooking from The Pioneer Woman Cooks this week on Twitter. A couple of people asked if this food wasn’t “…beneath us,” with Danny a chef and the two of us making such “complicated” recipes. Are you kidding me? Have you looked at these photos? Nothing in this cookbook is less delicious than what you might see in far more expensive books. (And frankly, I’d far rather eat those pancakes than anything that comes in foam form.) This is good food.
On our first date, Danny told me he is a chef because “…I like to give people joy in the belly.”
When he came home from work the first night I was cooking from this cookbook, and handed him a plate full of roast chicken and crisp potato skins filled with bacon, cheddar cheese, and sour cream, with the promise of chocolate sheet cake after, he sat on the couch and munched and moaned. That man was happy, in this primal, important way. He felt well fed. He ate everything.
And then he asked me to marry him again.
Sometimes I think we all make too much a fuss over food. The only thing it’s really good for is that joy in the belly. We had plenty of that this week.
We made pico de gallo from scratch(bought hothouse tomatoes for the occasion). Danny braised short ribs for the enchiladas. And the next morning we had leftovers.
Last night, we had nachos with homemade tortilla chips, the last of the braised short ribs, ripe avocado, the last of the pico de gallo, and sour cream. We lifted our chips into the air to thank Ree.
Look at this skillet cornbread. Gluten-free. It was twice as easy to make (one-pot meal, on the stove, then in the oven) than any other cornbread before it, for me.
Every single baked good I tried to convert from this book worked like the giant smile Little Bean flashes at us when she wants our attention. You know why? These recipes are family tested, belly tested. They work.
I could bake out of this book forever.
So we had potato leek pizza (you cook the leeks in bacon grease) one night. I grew so excited about the buttermilk biscuits that I guessed at the weight of the flours (our scale broke) and made them by feel. I ate pineapple upside down cake, warm out of the oven, for the first time since I was wearing OP shorts and Vans shoes in Claremont, California in 1982.
Damn, that cake was good. Moist and soft with vanilla, the brown sugar sort of caramelized, the pineapples burrowed into the cake we just couldn’t get enough. (And the cake was almost like a pudding cake, like custard that had set well. Three days later, it still tasted good.) No one cared that these were gluten-free. This was good food.
And I realized today that the photographs in this book (even if they are squinched together) are much more enticing than most styled shots. So many professional food photographs are gleaming and distant. When I see a cake book with the photograph of a mile-high chocolate cake with glossy ganache and frosting without any crumbs, I feel intimidated. It’s good, in a way, because it kicks me in the butt. However, I’ve just realized this week that I usually set myself up to this impossible standard. When I convert baked goods recipes to gluten-free, it’s not good enough for me that they look like they might be served on someone’s dinner table. I want them to look like the baked goods at the best bakeries in Paris.
It’s a little exhausting.
This week, however, I just flung flours into a bowl and baked with joy. When I looked at The Pioneer Woman’s pineapple upside down cake, I felt comforted. It looked a little schlumpy. It looked delicious. So I just baked to feed my family.
This week tasted good.
Ree Drummond just wants you to get into the kitchen and have fun feeding people. I would love to be in her kitchen with her, cracking jokes while the onions start cooking down in a hot pan. That probably will never happen. This book is as close as we’re all going to get.
I could not recommend this book more if I could write it in the sky. Buy it, people.
Then make yourself some pot roast.
We’re giving away a copy of this book to one lucky reader. Tell us why you want it, in a story. We’ll pick the winner at random next Monday night.
p.s. You want to know how cool Pioneer Woman is? When she read about this giveaway, she upped the ante. There are 10 signed copies of the cookbook to give away now. Thank you, Ree.
Chocolate Sheet Cake, Gluten-Free, Adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks
I have to admit, I was dubious about this recipe at first. How good could a cake only an inch high actually be? You pour the chocolate-rich batter into a rimmed sheet tray and bake it that way. I like my cakes fluffy and light, sky high if possible. A cake no taller than a sheet tray? I couldn’t see it.
However, when I read Ree’s headnote, I was convinced to at least try. “This is absolutely, without a doubt, the best chocolate sheet cake. Ever. It’s moist beyond imagination, chocolatey and rich like no one’s business, and 100% of the time it causes moans and groans from anyone who takes a bite.”
So? Does it live up to its reputation?
Oh dear lord. This is the most addictive chocolate anything I have ever eaten. The moist, fudgy cake with the icing clinging to its top could stop men in their tracks. It did in this house. I had to hide it from myself for fear of eating it all in one night.
Turns out, too, it’s pretty darned easy to convert to gluten-free goodness. Thank you, Ree.
10 ounces gluten-free flours (I used 3 ounces almond, 3 ounces super-fine brown rice, and 4 ounces potato starch)
2 teaspoons xanthan gum
1/2 teaspoon guar gum
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
4 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
For the icing
1 3/4 sticks (7 ounces) butter
4 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
6 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound (16 ounces) powdered sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans (I used cashews here)
Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 350°. Pull out a rimmed baking sheet (also called a jelly roll pan or half-sheet tray). Set a pan of water on to boil.
Mix the dry ingredients. Combine the gluten-free flours of your choice, the xanthan and guar gums, the sugar, and the salt. Whisk them together.
Mixing the wet ingredients. Combine the buttermilk, eggs, vanilla, and baking soda. Stir well.
Making the chocolate concoction. Melt the butter, then add the cocoa powder. Whisk them together to combine. Pour 1 cup of the boiling water into the chocolate mixture and let it sit for a moment. Turn off the heat. Stir.
Making the batter. Pour the chocolate mixture into the flours. Stir for a moment to cool the chocolate, then pour in the egg mixture. Go to town stirring with a rubber spatula until it is smooth.
Baking the cake. Pour the cake batter into the rimmed baking sheet. Slide it in the oven and bake until the cake is firm and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch: icing. Melt the butter in a large saucepan on medium-low heat. Add cocoa powder. Stir. Add milk and vanilla. Stir. Add that pound of powdered sugar. Stir. Add the chopped nuts. Stir.
Finishing the cake with icing. Remove the cake from the oven. Immediately, pour the icing over the cake evenly, covering the top. Let it sit until it is cool enough to eat, about 20 minutes.
I happen to know this cake freezes well. After I ate the first bite of it, I knew I was in danger. So we ate our dessert portions, then I sliced up the whole thing and stuck them in ziploc bags and flung them in the back of the freezer. Somehow, some of those frozen pieces have ended up in our mouths as well. (Tip: the frozen ones are great with ice cream.)