Nearly 10 years ago, former New York Times food editor Amanda Hesser published a once-in-a-generation book, “The Essential New York Times Cookbook.” In its 2010 review, Saveur extolled the work as a “tremendously appealing collection of recipes that tells the story of American cooking.” In addition to being a New York Times bestseller, it went on to win a James Beard Award.
To mark the tin anniversary of her cookbook, Hesser, who is now the CEO of Food52, updated the modern-day classic for a new contingency of home cooks living in a world impacted by a pandemic. In doing so, she had the difficult task of narrowing down 120 new recipes to add to a book that already numbered 960 pages. One of the new classics that made the cut was Samin Nosrat’s celebrated Sabzi Polo (Herbed Rice with Tahdig).
However, one of the foods that appears the most often in Hesser’s cookbook is chicken. Perhaps that’s no surprise, since current New York Times food editor Sam Sifton began his own cookbook “See You on Sunday” with an entire chapter on chicken. He writes that “a roast chicken dinner is a complete explanation of why we cook.” And he has data to back that claim up: “Chicken” tends to be the most-searched term on The New York Times website. It’s also one of the easiest meals you can cook in the comfort of your own home, no matter your skill level.
That’s likely why Hesser jokingly suggested that the “The Essential New York Times Cookbook” should instead be called simply “Chicken and Dessert.” When Hesser recently appeared on “Salon Talks,” we talked about how to cook better chicken using classic New York Times techniques, as well as the Gray Lady’s top dessert of all time. To learn more, watch our conversation here or read our Q&A below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Yes, I do — and I’ve learned them really through many New York Times recipes. I feel like there’s a couple of different ways that you can go. In fact, there’s a really amazing roast chicken recipe. It’s called Green Goddess Roast Chicken, and it’s by Melissa Clark. You’re essentially brining/marinating the chicken in this green goddess dressing and then roasting it. In that marination process, it absorbs all the perfume of the herbs and the tanginess, and it also tenderizes the chicken — and it’s so delicious. That’s one way to go.
The other thing that I’ve learned from recipes is really seeing roasted chicken as very easy, but seeing it as a two-day process like you do with your turkey, where you’re heavily seasoning it and leaving it uncovered in your fridge for a day before you roast it. It just helps get a much crisper skin, and I think also you end up with a moister bird. I mean, people debate about the roasting temperature, and I think everyone’s into that with turkey. Now there’s a whole contingent of slow-roasting turkey versus high heat roasters. I feel like you want to do one or the other.
In the updated version of the cookbook, you talk about the evolution of New York Times recipes in the sense that chicken thighs now outweigh chicken breasts. What is it about chicken thighs that we love so much?
Well, yay! I’m so pleased we’ve made this shift because chicken thighs have darker meat, and darker meat generally has more flavor. I think it’s as simple as that.
One recipe that stood out to me in particular was Julia Moskin’s Flattened Chicken Thighs with Roasted Lemon Slices, which you wrote is essentially a reinvention of a classic chicken under a brick.
Oh, yes. She cooks the lemons with it, and that infuses the sauce. Chicken under a brick — that’s also just a great technique where you are essentially using weight to help compress the skin against the cooking surface. It just helps create a crisper skin all around. It condenses the heat around the chicken as it’s cooking, and it has a really nice effect on it.
The New York Times is located in New York, and New Yorkers love their cheesecake. I know you have several recipes for cheesecake in the book.
I actually included at least four, maybe five cheesecakes in there because they’re a recipe that you see iterations of through many decades of The Times archive. But also because as I tested a bunch of different ones, you just saw that there are distinct varieties of cheesecake. Some are very, very dense and creamy, and to me, it was worth including a couple of variations.
Chocolate chip cookies are another thing that you see lots of variations on over the years and even in recent years. I think I included maybe two new ones in the new edition because they were wildly different techniques that create a very different cookie. Clearly readers are fascinated by this, which is why The Times publishes chocolate chip recipes repeatedly. Butternut squash soup is another one that I have a couple of variations on and gazpacho. There are so many gazpacho recipes in The Times, and I think I ended up including about four or five in the book.
I know you are familiar with this recipe because it’s not only the most popular dessert recipe, but it’s also the most popular recipe of all time. The Original Plum Torte — what is it about this recipe?
What has made that recipe a success very much speaks to what we were talking about earlier. It’s a seemingly familiar recipe that has a little bit of a twist, and I think that its twist is that you can’t overmix the batter. You can do a simple ball. It’s mostly ingredients that are probably in your pantry. Then all you need are plums, which you cut in half. So you don’t have to do special slicing like you might for a tart or a pie. You just cut them in half, take the pits out and then drop them into the batter and stick it in the oven. It travels well. It freezes well. It takes almost no time to put together.
I’ve heard of people who will make 10 at a time and then put them in the freezer for the winter. And that, to me, embodies what readers really hope for — something that anyone who tastes it is going to love, but it’s not going to take hours to make. And it feels special — it’s a very beautiful cake that has these little embedded jewels. The plums look like embedded jewels.