Nancy Baggett on Natural Food Coloring, Peach Cobbler and Simply Sensational Cookies

Nancy BaggettWith over 2,000 cookbooks in my library (can you say hoarder?) it should be no surprise that I first “met” many of my friends and colleagues through their published works. Way before I ever met author Nancy Baggett in professional circles, I was getting to know her through some of her earlier books, the International Chocolate Cookbook and the International Cookie Cookbook. I loved her writing style; the headnotes always told a full story. It felt like I wasn’t just about to make a recipe, I was about to create something that had a history. I sat down with Nancy to chat about her newest book, Simply Sensational Cookies(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) and her extensive sections on natural food colorings and decorations, both purchased and homemade. Indeed, the subheading for her book is “Bright Fresh Flavors, Natural Colors and Easy, Streamlined Techniques” and it really caught my eye.

Sensational Cookies

Nancy, thank you so much for doing this interview. I was really taken in with the fact that your cookie book feels new, which is quite a feat as the subject has been done so many times. My first question is, when people ask “What do you do”, how do you answer?
I say I am a cookbook author, but most people don’t know what that means. They often follow up with, “where do you get your recipes?” [Laughs.] Well, I do create my own recipes and write the introductions, that’s among the most important part of what we do. It is your opportunity to connect with reader versus all of those recipes you are competing with on the internet. Here, you can bring information that isn’t anywhere else. [You are] giving them a part of who you are, you can explain why it is worthy of their time. Many times people are skeptical. They ask, “Do you actually test your recipes?” Or they think because only so many recipes were photographed that that means only those were tested. Oh my goodness! They have no idea the amount of work that goes into this, and I have always felt an obligation. If I am recommending expensive chocolate and pricey macadamia nuts, I don’t want people to have a bad experience.

Well, we certainly agree, which is why we have a test kitchen for Bakepedia.
Julia Child used to say she would develop every recipe so if that was the recipe the editor decided to make at home, they would be happy with it. It raises the bar considerably.

Do you have a moment, event or recipe from your career of which you are most proud?
I do! I was going to an Arkansas folk festival and one of the organizers told me that there was a local woman whom I had to speak with, that she made the best peach cobbler. Eventually I found myself in her kitchen watching, and she gets out the Crisco and starts without measuring anything, and I ask her if anything is written down and she says no! She had learned from watching her mom. She had daughters but they didn’t bake. She had never shown them or written it down, so I stopped her and backed her up and made her measure everything. She used a pie crust on top and cut her vents with a spoon and the crust was so tender. It took me quite a while to reenact her version, but it is the best peach cobbler I have ever eaten. It was worth the research. Two years later I heard that she had died. I saved the recipe. I had saved that recipe from disappearing. No one in her family would have had it. None of us would have had access to it. It is so poignant and it touched me.

What a wonderful story. Recipes can live on, even beyond their original creator, and you saved it for the future generations of her family and for everyone else. 

Tell us about your use of natural food-based colors in your decorations. Is that new for you?
Allergies run in my family and when the grandchildren came along, I really started to think about it. I am allergic to red lipstick dye and to dyes in fabrics, which are similar to those that are food-safe. I wanted to incorporate that knowledge into this book. Cookies are so beloved by children of all ages and I wanted them to be safe and accessible to those that might have allergic reactions to the more usual colorings and decorations.

We are featuring your section titled “‘Au Naturel’ Rainbow of Powdered Sugar Icings and Homemade Decorator Sprinkles,” which has great information for all types of decorating with baked goods.
I began baking with my grandson when he was a toddler, baking in the sense that I took my hand over his hand and helped him cut out cookies, things like that. He got it quickly, but then we couldn’t use the commercial decorations. Kids like the decorations and want to eat them, but the standard kinds are filled with petro chemicals and are the same dyes that practically give me a chemical peel!

I began researching botanical-based colorants and using what you have in the kitchen, like cranberry-juice concentrate. My grandson loved it. The colors were more delicate, but the thing is that kids don’t have a need for saturated colors. We might be used to that, but they aren’t, so I started expanding more and more and used orange-juice concentrate for yellow and green tea for a green color and grape-juice concentrate for purple. The flavors remain fairly neutral. What if I wanted flavor? So I started experimenting with herbs and spices.

[Chocolatier] Michael Recchiuti inspired me. I was reading about a truffle with candied grapefruit and tarragon and I realized, this would work with cookies, too – cross-pollination of ideas and flavors. Lavender has been an amazing exploration; it has such an affinity for berry flavors and other fruit flavors. My other cookie books  limited me in scope and topic. This new book, Simply Sensational Cookies, allowed me to explore.

This approach will truly add to our cookie creating and our baking in general. Nancy, thank you for your time and these new ideas!
Thank you, Dédé.

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