My secret weapon (Hint: it’s a person)

courtesy of marthastewart.com

courtesy of marthastewart.com

Because the holidays are upon us, and I’m feeling generous, I’m going to let you in on something that I’ve relied on for years, that makes me a better baker and cook than I actually am. For example, last night I served this gingerbread snacking cake to my book club. I knew it would be a big hit—I’ve been making it for years and it always is. And whenever someone asks where I got the recipe, I tell them: “It’s an old Martha Stewart recipe.” But if someone seems truly curious about it, I’ll tell them the real secret: “It’s a Susan Spungen-era Martha Stewart recipe.”

Susan Spungen was the editorial director of food for Martha Stewart’s company when I joined in 1999, as she had been since the early 90s. And I can attest, this woman is an absolute genius. Whole categories of things I thought I disliked—fruit pies, meringue, anything with roasted red peppers—were absolutely delicious in her hands, truly the best specimen of its kind every time.

And many of my current go-to recipes, the ones I have been making for years, and the ones I just know will turn out perfect, are from this era. The gingerbread cake. The chewy chocolate ginger cookies that I make every Christmas, that my husband has pretty much forbidden me from taking to cookie swaps (“You leave the house with excellent cookies, and come home with someone else’s cookies?!”). The acorn squash and honey pie with cornmeal crust that converts everyone who hates pumpkin to squash pies. The chocolate babka that I make every Easter, that is so unbelievable that my cousins are still trying to get me to start a mail-order business (babka.com, they say).

Now, granted, Susan headed a kitchen with lots of talented cooks, and I credit her for finding them, just as I credit Martha for finding her. So do I have proof that she is the source of all of these wonderful recipes? Not at all. But the truth of the matter is, if you ever do a search for a recipe on the Martha Stewart site and the date it was published falls during Spungen’s reign (between ’91 and ’03), or if you cook from a Martha book published during that time, the recipe will just always be a winner. You draw your own conclusions as to why. (Full disclosure: I have also tested recipes for Spungen, and I can attest that there are no skeletons in her closet.) And also, N. B.: That chocolate ginger cookie recipe above was changed after Spungen left the company. I baked from the new recipe without realizing it once and detected that the cookies were just somehow not as good as I remembered—the perfect balance of chocolate-spicy gingery-molasses that I loved had skewed to be too molassesy all of a sudden. In a panic, I called my friend, also a former Martha employee, Laura Wallis, to figure out if I had put too much molasses in or how I could have possibly screwed it up. She finally shot me an email: “You were right! Those cookies were SO GREAT. I have a beat-up, stained copy of the original, and it is 1/4 cup, not 1/2 cup molasses.” So if you want to experience the magic of those cookies, you’ve been warned.

In reality, Susan Spungen is hardly a secret. Even Hollywood has figured her out—she was the mastermind behind all that gorgeous-looking food in Julie & Julia, among other movies. But today’s food world is full of smoke and mirrors—lots of people become stars that maybe need a bit more time in training—and this woman’s low-profile has always struck me as something that should change. But then again, some of our era’s greatest culinary minds aren’t concerned with multiple restaurants or TV shows or world domination—they just quietly make our lives tastier, dish by dish.

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8 thoughts on “My secret weapon (Hint: it’s a person)

  1. Fabulous post as always, Lesley! Now here’s a question: I made your tomato sauce last week using strained POM tomatoes rather than canned whole ones, and it didn’t turn out well. Help?

  2. I really enjoyed this blog entry! But you realize of course that many readers won’t read past the sentence that begins “The chocolate babka…” because, like me, they will rush to follow the hyperlink. I’m definitely going to try it…

  3. I always had such incredible regard for Susan! She was very exacting, very precise. She had talented cooks–but she also held them to a very high standard.

    But Susan was not a food snob. She was very, very focused on real people enjoying real food. She wanted things to work for cooks who weren’t all that good. She wanted wording that helped cooks feel confident and informed in the kitchen.

  4. Those chocolate ginger cookies are my holiday mainstay, and I always make the original recipe. I feel bad for people who get suckered by the new version. (I imagine that they were just too good, and some greedy editor decided to tweak the ingredients so no one else could get them quite right.) Anyway, you’re so right about the Susan era recipes!

    • There is so much good about this post and the comments that follow it. And I agree with your cousins that a mail-order business should be your next pursuit!

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