Photos courtesy of Leo Gong/Chronicle Books
Summer fruits from the farmers market are the supermodels of the produce world. Just like Heidi Klum doesn’t need makeup to be beautiful, a super-fresh White Lady peach or Seascape strawberry doesn’t need extra sweetening or seasoning to shine. But given the right recipe—one designed expressly for fruit and vegetables at their peak ripeness and flavor, not for their wooden supermarket facsimiles—they can really wow your tastebuds.
Just in time for June’s bounty of stone fruits and berries comes Farmers’ Market Desserts. Author Jennie Schacht and photographer Leo Gong visited dozens of farmers markets as well as farms in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Schacht lives; New York City and the Hudson Valley; Wisconsin; Maui; and elsewhere to compile this visually appetizing collection. Grouped according to the season, the recipes hit all the right dessert notes, from familiar ones like sorbets and tarts to more exotic granitas and parfaits. And it’s not all strawberry fields forever—there’s a section for in-between seasons, using dried fruits and nuts and even winter vegetables like squash. Suggestions for substitutions abound, and “Farm Journal” boxes share tidbits from farms Schacht visited, such as Weston’s Antique Apple Orchard, where a Wisconsin family grows some of the last remaining examples of certain apple varieties.
Grist quizzed Schacht by phone this week about how she got into food writing, why she prefers shopping at farmers markets to Safeway, and why the buzzword “organic” rates hardly a mention in her book. And in case you feel inspired to bake over this holiday weekend, she’s also shared her recipes for Strawberries & Cream Cake Roll and Chilled Plum Soup with Sour Cream after the jump.
How do you pronounce your name?
“Shacked,” like shacked up. Or “Shaq attack,” with a “t” at the end and without the “attack” part.
In addition to writing about food, you also consult for food and hunger nonprofits and government agencies. Which came first? Cookbooks or grant proposals?
My background is actually in social welfare—I am a licensed clinical social worker, though currently on inactive status. I worked in community-based health care, for example running a prenatal care program at a Native American health center. In January 1991, I started Schacht & Associates, which helps nonprofit and public organizations to develop health care programs and get them funded.
At some point I realized I had raised around $20 million in grants, and that obviously my third-grade teacher was wrong—I could write! I grew up being told I was a terrible writer. Even my parents, who were extraordinarily supportive, said it wasn’t my strong suit.
When I realized I was able to persuade funders to give these groups large amounts of money, I decided to try and do some food writing, which I had always wanted to do. I’ve always loved to cook. At a young age I’d tackle stuff from Mastering the Art of French Cooking or from the Julia Child TV show. Looking back now, I had a predisposition toward math and science. One of the things I love about baking and pastry are the marriage of art and science. It’s creative and artistic, so many scientific principles involved.
So I went to Cornell for a summer and got a certificate in food and beverage management, because I thought it was good to have some academia behind me. I wrote a few food articles, and then one day I went to a chocolate tasting with chef Mary Cech, who developed the pastry program at Greystone [the Culinary Institute of America]. I handed her my business card and said, “If you ever want to do a book, call me.” And she did! And that book was The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook.
Farmers’ Market Desserts is your first solo cookbook, right? Was that hard?
Yes, it’s the first I’ve done entirely myself. It’s very touching that Chronicle Books had faith in me, since I don’t have a culinary background, no restaurant or catering company as a portfolio of work. I just went to farmers markets and bought stuff and brought it home and thought, “OK, what would be fun to make with this?”
I’ve always wondered how people create recipes. Do you start with someone else’s and then modify it, or make it up “from scratch”?
I have files and files and notebooks of things I’ve cooked, notes on what I’ve done so I can make it again if I like it, or a variation to try next time. The recipes I’ve developed are things that have worked with my own kitchen experiments over the years. Also, I have a very strong mental taste capacity—a flavor imagination. Sometimes I can actually write a recipe on my computer, print it out, and take it into the kitchen and more often than not it works exactly as I imagined it.
Most Americans seem to view cooking as a chore, something to be outsourced. With cookbooks on their way to becoming anachronisms, how can we entice people to make their own ice cream?
Well, I know even people who cook are intimidated by desserts. I had someone tell me that making granita sounded too complicated because you had to open the freezer and scratch it with a fork every 30 minutes or so. And granita is one of the easiest desserts to make, I think. So I tried to have plenty of things in this book that are really simple, like avocado pudding, that would work even for people who are easily intimidated.
A lot of people are just busy and overtaxed, and they do rely on packaged foods. But there seems to be a new and increasing interest in home cooking, as evidenced by the growth in farmers markets, the Edible publications, the Slow Food movement, and backyard gardening. So I am hopeful. I’ve noticed that when people make something themselves and have the satisfaction of it coming out edible—or better yet, fantastically delicious, better than something in a restaurant—it’s sort of self-igniting.
Why the “Farmers’ Market” Dessert Cookbook? Why not the “Supermarket” Fruit Dessert Cookbook?
First of all, I just love the farmers market. I love that you can talk to and ask questions of the people who grow the food you’re eating. I love that you can see it, touch it, and taste it before you make it. You can try three different kinds of strawberries, and one week one vendor will have the ones you like best and the next week it might be a different one. I love that it’s shopping and community.
With cooking, your outcome to a large degree is only as good as your inputs. It depends where you live. If you want to make dessert and the farmers market isn’t open, if you have a produce stand with good fresh local produce, use it. But if you buy products that have been flown from somewhere far away, they’ve likely been picked before they are ripe, or selected for their durability in shipping, and they’re just not going to taste as good. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a farmers market or a produce stand, then just try to find a reliable source. Even our neighborhood Trader Joe’s has organic produce, and it’s often local. Ask the produce person in your supermarket if you can taste the fruit. They’ll usually let you.
You don’t talk much at all about the organic label in your book.
I prefer organic. But when I go up to someone’s booth and they say they haven’t gotten their certification because they haven’t been doing it long enough, or it’s too expensive, but they don’t spray or use pesticides, then why shouldn’t I buy it? Why should they be penalized? I’m more interested in a combination of food that’s been grown healthfully, with respect to the environment, that’s good tasting, and local. I am not an organic über-alles person.
OK, so what’s your secret junk-food weakness?
I don’t think I have one! I can honestly say I really don’t like processed food. Even when I was growing up, we ate home-cooked food always. We baked our own bread or got it from the local bakery. We used very few packaged products. I don’t think I have ever eaten a McDonald’s hamburger in my life—I stopped eating meat in college. I eat dark chocolate. And I do like a pretzel. Maybe even the two together.