Culture

5 Genius Desserts From 'Little Women' That You Can Bake Tonight

We sat down with Christine Tobin, the food stylist on Greta Gerwig's Oscar–nominated film, and got the inside scoop.

by:
February  7, 2020
Photo by James Ransom

"It's like working in a doll house," Little Women food stylist Christine Tobin tells Kristen and me over the phone. We're on a call with Tobin because we heard through the food-media grapevine that she used the Genius Recipes cookbook as a reference text for her food styling work on Greta Gerwig's Academy Award–nominated film.

Also, we're huge fans of hers.

Listening to Tobin talk about her work is like reliving the film, but from the inside. We learn that there's a lot of food audience members never even get to see, but it's there to fill out the time and place of Gerwig's world. The March girls' picnic baskets at the beach, for instance—though tightly sealed from shot to shot—are filled with beautiful baked goods, including a traditional pork pie, adorned with leaves and holly.

The food that we do see is there to enhance the mood, the characters, the story. On Christmas morning at the Laurence household, Tobin specifically chooses to flood the breakfast table with sepia-tinted foods like ham, quiche, and cold-pressed apple cider. "The dishes are important here," she says. "They reflect the depressive space of the Laurence dining room" (which is gray and starchy in contrast to the warm March house, which is filled with life).

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Top Comment:
“That Marian Burros plum torte is the BOMB. Ingredients and the unbaked batter look too simple. Then it comes out of the oven...The final product is almost mind-blowing. It's that good!”
— HalfPint
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The main thing Kristen and I learned was how much research, imagination, and mood-boarding went into every single food decision. For example, Marmee's birthday cake was baked with white flour, even though the March family overall baked with dark flour. "In this case," she tells me, "the cake scene is after the girls are grown and have the resources for such a luxury ingredient."

No expensive decorations, though: instead, acorns, twigs, and leaves from Jamaica Pond. In the final scene, Jo carries the cake across the yard like a torch for her mother, and indeed, it is hued like one: adorned on top with fiery red, orange, and green leaves, which Tobin picked with her own daughter—a full circle moment for the food stylist.

“I’m so impressed by Christine's transparency about her process—and her generosity in sharing the recipes she used, so that people who loved the film can take part by baking along," Kristen says. "Of course I was over the moon that Genius Recipes was one of the books she turned to!”

From the apple cake at Meg's wedding to the molasses cookies at the March house, here are five Genius Recipes that were featured in Little Women:

1. Eggless Lemon Curd

"The beauty of pastry chef Elizabeth Falkner’s lemon curd is that, by taking eggs out of the picture, the curd is more forgiving and stable and can be served at any temperature—even warm—without risk of curdling. As with Jeni Britton Bauer’s eggless ice cream technique, you also taste the lemon more clearly, without a filter of egg yolk." —Kristen

2. Fresh Ginger Cake

"But why has this cake an almost mystical quality? I invariably find myself baking it to celebrate significant occasions in my life. I think it is the deep down comfort of the dark sweeteners and knowing instinctively that ginger’s heat has had a pull on cultures universally." —Sylvia Thompson

3. Marie-Hélène's Apple Cake

"Cookbook author Dorie Greenspan built this recipe—an apple cake that’s more apples than cake—from the memory of one served by her friend Marie-Hélène, the frustrating sort of excellent cook who doesn’t measure or slow down enough to record her own recipes." —Kristen

4. Molasses Cookies

"The Silver Palate’s molasses cookie is one that’s spiced and sweetened delicately so it doesn’t feel out of place outside of December. It’s like a subtler, softer gingersnap that you could just as easily serve next to an iced coffee or bowl of plums or pot of rhubarb jam as you could a glass of eggnog." —Kristen

5. Purple Plum Torte

"Marian Burros published this torte recipe in The New York Times in 1982, bringing it back by request every September until 1989, rarely varying a thing. By the last year, the headline was 'Once More (Sigh), The Plum Torte.' Fifteen years later, when Amanda Hesser polled the Times' readership for their favorite (and most stained) recipes for The Essential New York Times Cookbook, this one still had more than three times the votes of any other." —Kristen

Recipes reprinted with permission from Genius Recipes by Kristen Miglore, copyright © 2015. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Photographs copyright © 2015 by James Ransom.
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The Genius Desserts cookbook is here! With more than 100 of the most beloved and talked-about desserts of our time (and the hidden gems soon to join their ranks) this book will make you a local legend, and a smarter baker to boot.

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Eric Kim is a senior editor at Food52, where his solo dining column, Table for One, runs Friday mornings. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he writes about food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

15 Comments

Pat February 9, 2020
I love Food 52 and Eric Kim. The plum cake is something to behold and taste. Now I must watch more movies.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2020
Thank you, Pat :)
 
Liz A. February 9, 2020
i'm always late to catching films - but i'm even more excited now to watch it <3
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2020
It's so good! Seeing it again tonight.
 
witloof February 9, 2020
I highly recommend that apple cake, especially if it's made with dark rum and with freshly picked heirloom apples from the farmers market.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2020
Delicious.
 
mcs3000 February 8, 2020
Super to see this. Wish this was a podcast interview. Tobin's work in Little Women is so dreamy!
 
Susanna February 8, 2020
There is a podcast interview with Tobin at Radio Cherry Bombe. It’s a fun listen.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2020
Yes! Right here: https://cherrybombe.com/radio-cherry-bombe/behind-the-scenes-christine-tobin
 
Shane L. February 8, 2020
That Plum Torte! My salivary glands are kicking into overdrive!!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2020
Slurp!
 
HalfPint February 7, 2020
That Marian Burros plum torte is the BOMB. Ingredients and the unbaked batter look too simple. Then it comes out of the oven...The final product is almost mind-blowing. It's that good!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2020
Thanks for confirming its deliciousness, HP!
 
M February 7, 2020
The only problem with this piece is when I finally see Little Women, I'll be bummed that it's not a Babette's Feast-style look at food!

Media could use more of this attention to detail.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. February 11, 2020
:)