Aha! moment during pandemic inspires cookbook by Silverton

| October 26, 2023 | 0 Comments

CHEF / AUTHOR Nancy Silverton in her element.            Photo by Anne Fishbein

For Proust, a delicious Madeleine cookie launched his acclaimed book, “In Search of Lost Time.” For Nancy Silverton, an excellent peanut butter cookie sent her on a baking journey that filled the lost time of the pandemic.

At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Silverton noticed all the social media posts of people learning how to make sourdough bread, but at that point, “It didn’t occur to me that I needed something to latch onto in order to give those days and months some validity.”

Flash forward to January 2021: her partner, the writer Michael Krikorian, is in the habit of bringing home a cookie, usually chocolate chip, oatmeal or peanut butter, from bakeries around town in order to find the best one. On one particular occasion, he brought home a peanut butter cookie from Friends & Family, an East Hollywood breakfast and lunch place from baker Roxana Jullapat and chef Daniel Mattern.

Silverton tried it. “It was chewy and tasted like peanut butter. It had a rounded edge — just what this type of cookie needs. A great cookie.” She pauses. “It was better than mine.”

That touched a nerve.  “I’m very competitive,” admits the chef and co-owner of Pizzeria Mozza, Mozza2Go, chi SPACCA, the Michelin-starred Osteria Mozza and the co-founder of La Brea Bakery and the late Campanile. “I had fairly recently done a blurb for Roxana’s cookbook — she had worked for me at Campanile — and so I had her recipe.”

Challenge accepted. Silverton set about baking the best, most peanut-butteriest cookie in the universe. After tasting and analyzing and trying different tweaks, she put a divot in the center of the cookie, filled it with pure peanut butter … and topped it with toasted peanuts. “It’s the ultimate peanut butter cookie. It’s a cookie that thinks it’s a tart.”


That was the Windsor Square resident’s “Aha” moment. Tasting Jullapat’s cookie led Silverton to work her way through classic baked goods during the remainder of the pandemic, perfecting them as she went, resulting in the publication this month of her 11th cookbook, “The Cookie That Changed My Life and More Than 100 Other Classic Cakes, Cookies, Muffins, and Pies That Will Change Yours.”

In perfecting the recipes, Silverton emphasizes, “I really tried to explore all the possibilities, not some crazy version. Pound cake is still pound cake. Is it moist enough?” Likewise, she notes, carrot cake should taste of carrots. The secret? Use roasted carrots as well as grated ones.

The most transformed recipe in the book, says Silverton, is the cornbread. “It should taste like corn. I already had been using a cast iron pan to get a good crust, but I was determined to perfect it.” She added creamed corn. “So gross, the texture.” She grated the corn with a Japanese grater, using the solid pieces. Still not what she wanted. Then she decided to keep the corn milk that fell away when grating the kernels. “I heated the milk, like heating corn starch. It made a pudding. I folded it back into the batter.” And voila! Moist cornbread that tasted like corn. Slathered with spiced honey butter, it is the perfect version she sought.

In some cases she found existing versions of baked goods she thought were already perfect and included those recipes in the book, such as a Kentucky Butter Cake recipe that was the 1964 Pillsbury Bake-off winner and the oatmeal cookie recipe from Republique’s pastry chef and owner Margarita Manzke.

Silverton warns that the long recipes might look daunting, but that’s because they include detailed instructions so even the novice home baker can understand exactly what’s expected. “I set people up for success,” she assures, adding that a good place for beginners to start is the banana bread recipe. “It’s super simple with large slices of bananas on top.” She specifies baking it in a square brownie pan to get more whole banana flavor per piece.

The baking frenzy that led to the creation of this cookbook wasn’t the only life-changing “Aha” moment for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef. An earlier one started her culinary career itself. 

As a freshman at Sonoma State University aiming for a career in law like her father, Silverton hatched a plan to meet a cute fellow student who was in charge of the vegetarian food selections in the food service center in her dorm. She approached him about a job, mentioning her love of cooking (she didn’t know how to cook) and her vegetarianism (she had become a vegetarian the day before.) He hired her, and somewhere along the line she was struck with the “Aha!” thunderbolt and realized that she really did love cooking.

She dropped out of university her senior year, attended culinary school at Cordon Bleu London in 1977 and began working in restaurant kitchens. When offered a job on the pastry side, she discovered her love of baking and furthered her pastry arts knowledge with stints at the École Lenôtre Culinary Institute in Paris.

Expert in savory as well as sweet, Silverton admits, “Baking is my comfort zone. I’m most comfortable with a rolling pin.”

And, we should add, that rolling pin should be the kind without handles, for better control.

“The Cookie That Changed My Life and More Than 100 Other Classic Cakes, Cookies, Muffins, and Pies That Will Change Yours” by Nancy Silverton, with Carolynn Carreño. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, November 14, 2023.

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