Today we present our interview with blogger Kathy Strahs of Panini Happy. Her first book, The Ultimate Panini Press Cookbook (Harvard Common Press, 2013) just arrived on the shelves (and we’re giving one away, contest details at the end of the post!), so we sat down with her to talk about how it feels to be a first-time cookbook author, how she came to be “panini happy,” and how to make ice cream cones from scratch using a panini maker! As usual with our Q&As, we have asked her the same questions we ask all of our visiting bakers and cooks, while allowing some room for chitchat.
Bakepedia: When people ask what you do, how do you answer?
Kathy Strahs: A lot of the time I guess I appear to be a stay-at-home Mom, but I am a food blogger and cookbook author.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
I love trying new things. I love coming up with ideas and wondering, will that work? Will it be a “good” idea, an easier way or a better way to do something? Can I make it tastier than before? I love taking pictures, especially of the process and having the immediacy of sharing on Instagram. If I have some triumph, then the real camera comes out! (Kathy laughs). I like the process. It’s not about caring where we end up, the fun is the “what if…?”
How are you inspired to create recipes?
Deadlines can work (laughs), but other than that, ideas just come to me. I will look at food while I’m eating out or see something on Pinterest, I read magazines, and then my kids and husband come up with harebrained ideas. Everything can inspire me.
Do you have a moment, event or recipe from your career of which you are most proud?
A big one for me was when I was testing duck breast for the panini press book. I struggled with it. I wanted a crisp skin and to render the fat without overcooking the meat. Panini makers heat up fast and tend to cook fast, which is a liability as well as a benefit. In this case, it was working against me; I was troubleshooting. I finally figured out to start with the breasts fat side down on direct heat, cooking till crisp and the fat rendered, then flip them over and cook just until done. Once I figured it out, it was so triumphant for me. I like having a goal and then persevering, finding the solution to the problem.
What are the most important things that you think the home baker should know?
If you change an ingredient, there will be a different result. With baking, results can really change. I don’t want to tell people not to experiment or make adaptations, because that can lead to happy accidents, but they should understand that the results will be different.
I also like to point out to novices, who are maybe still baking from boxed mixes, that measuring takes just seconds and you will know what’s in your finished dish. Baking from scratch is so much more gratifying, and for those with kids, it offers learning opportunities, too. Baking is a great activity to do with your kids. Gluten-free can be the exception. That’s not so easy (laughs).
Tell us about what you are doing currently.
I maintain my two blogs. [Panini Happy and Cooking On the Side]
How did you come to focus on panini presses?
I started Panini Happy in 2008. It all came about because I wanted to buy a press for my sister–in law. Oprah had just done her “favorite things” episode and was going on and on about a Breville model. So, of course, because of the Oprah Effect, I couldn’t find one anywhere! They were all sold out. Ironically, that very Christmas, my sister gave me one. She found the Oprah-approved one (laughs).
When I got mine, I wasn’t sure how much I would use it. I started with sandwiches, of course, but then quickly began thinking about what else I could use it for. It really is a small tabletop grill! It doesn’t have to be a specialized apparatus.
Speaking of special apparatus, the thing with panini presses is that people know they can make sandwiches, but is that really enough to keep it out on the counter? I hear people say all the time, “Oh I think I got one when we got married,” or “It’s up on a shelf somewhere,” or even “I gave ours away!” My book shows you how versatile your panini maker really is.
In the book I don’t go into recommending actual brands or models, but there is an introduction to what they are in general, and the fact that you can get one for $20 all the way up to high-end models at Williams-Sonoma for $120. I also write about 10 special tools that are really helpful, like the Oxo Good Grips Electric Grill and Panini Press Brush, silicone tongs, instant-read thermometers, and the like.
Tell us how you came to make ice cream cones on the Panini maker.
One day I was in Baskin Robbins and was watching them make a waffle cone. I had never thought of making them from scratch at home – I don’t think most people do – but as I watched him put some dough on a textured grill and close and press down the top part of the iron, all of a sudden I thought – I have the panini press and I bet it can do the same thing! I think most people would assume you would need a special apparatus to make an ice cream cone, but I was sure the panini press would work. It takes about 90 seconds, and you can only do one at a time, but waiting for it to come off the grill, watching them mold it around a form, allowing it to cool and firm up for a few minutes, kids love the anticipation! So here is one more reason not to have your panini maker packed away, and making the cones is fun! The batter can be made ahead, in fact it needs to rest a little bit. You don’t need a special mold to create the cone shape. I just use cardstock and have a template on my blog. After cooling, they end up with a firm, chewy texture. If you want them crisp, you can toast them a bit in the oven.
What other desserts can you make on a panini press?
Cake? Wait a minute…how?
I actually figured out how to bake cakes in little ramekins. The batter comes about halfway up within the ramekins and the top of the panini maker closes down flush on top. The ramekin creates its own little oven environment.
(Ed. Note: At this point we looked at her blog together for pictures of the cakes and to say we were impressed with this ingenuity is an understatement.)
What do you hope to do next?
I have more book concepts in my head. I would like to do another cookbook. I learned a lot, and yet there is so much to learn. I took a year to write my book, trying very hard to make it comprehensive. Who knows what will come next?
Kathy, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Now we just have to decide which flavor ice cream will go with our homemade cones!
For any readers who would like a personalized bookplate to go with their book, please visit Kathy here.
We are giving away a copy of the brand new The Ultimate Panini Press Cookbook by Kathy Strahs (Harvard Common Press, 2013), who has shown us how to make ice cream cones from scratch! Her book has 200 recipes to keep your panini maker humming, from sandwiches to Grilled Strawberry Shortcake!
Enter the contest below, and share on Facebook and Twitter for bonus entries! We’ll announce one lucky winner on Wednesday, September 18.