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Nearly two years ago, I wrote an article about making bread in a cast-iron skillet on your stove, no oven necessary. A few months later, Doris Cooper at Clarkson Potter, who, sorry to spoil the ending, emerges as the hero of My Struggle: Charlotte Druckman’s Meandering Career Path, 2012-2016, asked if I had any interest in expanding that story into a book about baking in cast iron.
Aside from the fact that I’d never once, for even a millisecond, entertained the idea of writing my own cookbook, my first thoughts were of campfires, cornbread, and burly men with plaid flannel shirts and thick beards. For some reason, I kept hearing “Hungry Man,” but in the same voice as the “Trojan Man!” jingle, even though I didn’t actually know what Hungry Man was until just now, when I googled it, while typing this.
That image—and audio accompaniment—is what both deterred and compelled me as I considered the project. Though “considered” makes it sound more measured than it was. The truth is, as soon as Doris mentioned it—while I was laughing at the thought of a New York City-raised kid whose notion of “backyard smoking” looked something like sneaking cigarettes on the East River Promenade producing a cookbook for the guy pictured on the Brawny paper towel roll—I could see exactly how I’d structure it, and whom I’d write it for.
Cast iron is practically a national birthright—for many Americans, it’s a legitimate heirloom, passed down generationally. It’s functional, and if you’ve ever seen a well-used, cared-for, seasoned skillet, you know how beautiful its patina is; the smooth, dark surface that might look black from afar, but is really a composite of oxidized layers.
Cooking used to be something we passed along, too—but we’ve lost that a bit. Today, when people want to cook, it’s so they can show you that they made the dish they saw in a magazine or had at a restaurant and were able to replicate, down to the drizzled splotches of sauce on the plate, but they’re often scared to try. That makes me sad. There will always be those culinary feats that require more derring-do, but, if we’re talking about home cooking, those are—or should be—the exceptions. It pains me that cooking is so often presumed an aspirational activity for people who buy cookbooks or read magazines and blogs. As a reader and home cook, I want to be motivated and empowered to get in my kitchen—not intimidated— and I want this to be the case whether I’m cooking because I have to or not.
What if, I asked myself, cast iron could be the entry point, not just for baking, but for cooking too? It’s versatile and forgiving and accessible; all the things a tentative cook—or cookbook writer—could want. If ever there was a control variable that could make me feel like I might be able to try something new, it was this pan. Creating a cookbook, from scratch, was a new and terrifying prospect. And baking had always been my Everest. I got skittish every time I made a tart. Cast iron, though; it seemed friendly.
My mission, and I pretty much accepted it the moment I conceived it, was to write the cookbook I wish someone had written for me. I’d become my own test case, teaching myself to bake in order to do the same for others. If we could all end up enjoying the process, that would be the ultimate victory. (And if, incidentally, the loggers and rock climbers and cowboys of the world were encouraged to do something new with their cornbread or prepare some coconut roti or a fig clafouti, I wouldn’t mind in the slightest.)
How do you organize a baking primer? You could take the shove-‘em-into-the-deep-end approach, but that wouldn’t lure me farther than the threshold of my kitchen and, ultimately, would lead me straight to the nearest and best bakery. I like to be eased in.
I started with flatbreads, the stuff you can make on the stove. I’m not saying they’re always a total cinch to manage, but they’re not as difficult as you think, and there’s something magical—and instantly gratifying—about seeing bread happen right before your eyes, without a double-glass oven window getting in the way. The next chapter takes you into the oven with all the expected basics—brownies and other bars, teacake, the prerequisite skillet cookie, scones, crostada, cornbread (DUH and more on that later)… Once you’ve advanced this far, you start to believe you can bake. It’s time to graduate to the yeasted, proofed goods—the sticky buns, the layer cake, the soufflé.
Then you arrive at my favorite chapter, the one that takes the leftover stuff you made in the skillet and uses it to make other stuff in the skillet: Your challah turns into bostock, your biscuits into gnocchi.
All I had to do was execute it—you know, figure out how to make all the products of my culinary imagination real, without driving myself crazy or to a zombie-numbed state of boredom. Keeping it fun was a big part of the agenda. If I’d always wanted to use Wheat Thins as a crust or bake with duck fat, this was my moment. I made playlists to accompany a specific endeavor or a marathon of tasks. A variety of meals were purchased, because it seemed as good a time as any to start playing around with buckwheat, sorghum, and kamut flours and all the rest. (I mentioned those three because they quickly became my favorites and please, if you haven’t already, give them a shot.) And I wasn’t shy about asking for help. There’s no shame in asking for directions; this is true whether you are driving or cooking. Remember that, everyone (you too, Hungry Man and Brawny dude): It’s as important as seasoning your cast iron. I wanted a recipe for sticky buns, and I knew the person who makes the very best sticky buns I’ve ever eaten. So I asked her if she’d contribute to the cookbook.
Another rule: Whenever possible, learn and cook from the best. You may have tried Melissa Weller’s stickies at Roberta’s where she first started producing them, or at Sadelle’s. If you didn’t, you’ll get to try a version of them from my book, if you’re willing to do the work (not much, really). Melissa’s original buns are made with a laminated brioche dough. But your average laminated dough doesn’t fare so well in cast iron and rolling a block of butter into dough is one of those techniques that scares off a lot of people (like me). So I asked Melissa if she could come up with a cast iron-specific recipe that didn’t require any laminating and maybe ventured beyond the all-purpose flour sack. When I pulled her whole-wheat sticky buns out of my oven, it was like a choir of angels came flying out of there singing. The next day, I turned the leftovers into an oolong-infused bread pudding and I did all the singing myself.
There was fun to be had with the typical cast-iron fodder too. You can’t really do a book about baking in those skillets and exclude cornbread. You just can’t. What you can do, though, is veer off the usual cornbread course, because the last thing anyone needs is another “traditional” cornbread. I think Sean Brock stuck a fork in that. Google “cornbread recipe” and if you don’t pull up his, you’ll pull up another relatively similar example.
This meant I was free to do whatever I wanted, and I ended up wanting to do three different things. One involved a whole lot of cast-iron caramelized (the quickie way) onions; the second, a whole lot of Frito corn chips; and the third, melted vanilla ice cream. Why not? (Read more about how I got there in the recipe’s headnote.)
With the next day’s remnants of the cornbread with melted ice cream, I decided to stay on my Southern jag and mess around with a traditional midnight snack from that part of the country: Dried out, pieces of the morning’s loaf soaked in a glass of buttermilk (or sweet milk) and gulped down to combat sleeplessness. This appeals to my nite-owl sensibilities, so I thought I’d spin it into a parfait. Here’s one more lesson: If your light-bulb box lights up with a “new” food theorem and you want to know how to prove it, look it up on the internet. It’s probably not a new idea. No idea is new. I’ll give you an example:
ME to MYSELF: Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could make buttermilk but with coconut milk?
MYSELF to ME: That’s such a brilliant idea! You’re a visionary!
ME to MYSELF: It seems kinda obvious; if you can add lemon juice or vinegar to regular milk, why not coconut milk? I’m gonna look it up.
I revved the search engine. Found it! It really is just like making the basic stuff—and it’s terrific. I pour it over some of the skillet-toasted cornbread and top it with a resuscitated-dried fruit compote, some coconut shards, and crushed bodega sesame candy. It’s the one recipe that didn’t make it into the book. I went over the limit and was forced into Sophie’s Choice situation. The whole thing still makes me a little sad, but at least I can share it with you now. How much of each item you put in your bowl is entirely up to you. If you don’t want it too sweet, use less fruit and more of the coconut buttermilk—you can even leave the dried fruit out and maybe just add a little more of the sesame crunch.
You probably wouldn’t make this on a camping trip, although you could get the cornbread part accomplished over the fire—you’d buy the ice cream somewhere near your campsite, eat some of it cold, and let the rest melt. I might try that at some point. Believe it or not, I do know how to start a fire. I’ve been camping once or twice; I liked sleeping under the stars and making s’mores. Just don’t ask me to hike, please. And don’t ask me to write the Hungry Man Cast Iron Cookbook, or to eat a Hungry Man meal. What you can ask me to do is help you season your pan or dare me to try baking something weird in it. Since I wrote this cookbook, I can’t stop using my skillets—or cooking. Thank you, Doris Cooper.
Charlotte Druckman's (and psst: She's a Piglet co-founder) book—Stir, Sizzle, Bake: Recipes for Your Cast-Iron Skillet—is published by Clarkson Potter and will be out on shelves September 27th. Or you can pre-order it now.