What do you get when you combine six great friends, a love of food, and a passion for telling stories?
A new cookbook from the Monday Morning Cooking Club.
This group is made of six women from Sydney, Australia, who began meeting once a week to talk about food and share family recipes. Eventually, the women sought out recipes from the best cooks they knew to re-create and taste test on their own.
The result is a cookbook (praised by fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman and food writer Nigella Lawson) called "Monday Morning Cooking Club," on sale September 17.
We caught up with three of the club's members: Lisa Goldberg, Merelyn Frank Chalmers and Natanya Eskin, to find out how what they've learned both in and out of the kitchen, what it takes to put a cookbook together and if there is such a thing as "too many cooks in the kitchen."
How have you grown as cooks in putting this book together?
Merelyn: The Monday Morning Cooking Club project encouraged me to get in the kitchen with my Hungarian mother while she was preparing her classic dishes, weigh her ingredients (which she never did), document and photograph her technique. Mum passed away four years ago, and I am so relieved I can recreate my favorite meals of hers and fill my home with the aromas of her kitchen. The project has also taught me that baking with yeast is not scary, and making pastry really isn’t all that difficult.
Lisa: I have so much more confidence as a cook simply from the fact that over the last seven years I have spent a huge amount of time in the kitchen. The biggest lesson for me is that anyone can become a near-expert …Practice really does make perfect in the kitchen.
Natanya: I was introduced to so many new dishes from different origins and cultures. This in itself has taught me so much. I am now not afraid at all to try new things in the kitchen.
What has been your biggest kitchen disaster? Biggest cooking triumph?
Merelyn: Kitchen disaster? There are plenty, which is a good thing, because that is how you learn. Success comes from failure, right? One of the most hilarious disasters happened at the beginning of the MMCC [Monday Morning Cooking Club] girls working together. Lisa had a different brand of electric mixer to me, and we were testing recipes in her kitchen. Instead of turning the electric mixer off, I lifted the beaters up, sending cake batter flying all over the kitchen! Needless to say, I cleaned it up quick smart! I’ve since bought the same brand of stand mixer, so we’re in sync now.
My biggest triumph would be both making Hungarian poppy seed Beigli (strudel) with a sour cream pastry and my weekly challah bread for the family Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner each Friday. My mother was famous for her strudel, but I think the one from Monday Morning Cooking Club tastes even better. I love how you freeze the sour cream pastry, so there is generally some in my freezer, ready to roll at the ring of the doorbell. Our Challah recipe comes from a rabbi’s wife who grew up in Crown Heights Brooklyn. Everyone says it is the best challah they’ve ever tasted.
Lisa: I can’t even recall how many pine nuts or sesame seeds I have burnt. When I was newly married, we were hosting a dinner party at home. My husband came into the kitchen at 6p.m. on the day of the dinner to find me in tears — all I had managed to do (all day!) was make the petit fours to serve with coffee. And the guests were due to arrive in an hour!
Biggest cooking triumph? Probably when the girls and I served Sara’s pickled brisket (page 66!) to some of Sydney’s top food writers, chefs and critics for lunch — and they absolutely swooned over it!
Natanya: I have had many disasters, I think it’s part of cooking — chiffon cakes falling out of the tin, under and overcooking my cakes, forgetting to include an ingredient. Actually this happened once when I was making pastry in front of a cooking demo and I couldn't work out why the pastry wasn't coming together (as I am telling the class how easy it is to make) Oops!
Before MMCC I had never made my own challah, and I was secretly envious of the women who managed to do this every Friday morning. Testing recipes for the book forced me to give it a go, and I discovered that it really was achievable and such a pleasurable thing to do. What really makes it my greatest triumph is the time I spend with my two daughters making the dough, kneading it, and then plaiting the loaves.
If you could only pick one thing to make for the rest of your lives, what would it be?
Merelyn: Choosing only ONE thing is too hard! For me it would be any of the Hungarian cakes in the book, because they warm my soul and remind me of my heritage.
Lisa: If I had to pick one, it would be the chicken soup. Nothing in the world nurtures and comforts sick kids, ailing parents, grieving friends than a pot of homemade rich hot chicken soup. And this recipe is a keeper!
Natanya: Definitely something sweet, and probably containing chocolate. I think it has to be the Celebration Chocolate Cake…It is the perfect cake, easy to make, versatile and so delicious.
4. What is your favorite aspect of the Monday Morning Cooking Club?
Merelyn: Gathering in a kitchen with my girlfriends. There is something quite tribal about it; it is a friendship circle. And spreading the word that cooking and sharing food is one of the most simple ways in the world to find and share joy.
Lisa: I have enjoyed the roller coaster of challenges and successes that we have experienced together as a sisterhood — from the low of our first rejection from a publisher in the early days, through the joy of Nigella Lawson and Nicole Kidman telling the world how they love the book, to the ultimate high of being published worldwide.
Natanya: Of course I love all the cooking but for me the most important aspect of MMCC is finding and preserving the special recipes, often from the older generation and often recipes that have never been written down. I love talking to people about their childhood memories of food and family. There is such a strong connection there and our book has inspired so many to search out their own family favorites and preserve them for future generations.
How did the group settle any disputes over which recipes to include?
Natanya: We are all passionate, strong-minded women and we all like to be heard. So, often we would vote, then discuss, then argue, then retry the recipe, then discuss some more and then vote again. We would always agree in the end but we often took a long time getting there!
Merelyn, you prefer precision when it comes to following recipes. Have you ever allowed yourself to throw some things together and see what happens? If so, how did it turn out?
I think if someone has taken the time and care to write a recipe then it is worth making it to their specifications, at least for the first time, to taste the result they were aiming for. With savory cooking, I’m then happy to adjust, mix and match to my (and my family’s) taste. But baking is a science, and the best way to be a successful baker is to follow the recipe exactly.
Lisa, you expect perfection in the test kitchen. How do you balance such high standards with keeping things fun?We have all become really great friends (as well as co-authors and cooking buddies) and I always keep that in mind when, from time to time, I do need to be the bossy one. We all still laugh about the ‘orange incident’ where a couple of the girls spent hours slicing oranges ‘perfectly’ for the photo shoot. I came in, saw the (almost perfectly sliced!) oranges and I think my face said it all. I found it very difficult to tell them we had to start again…but I did, and now guess who gets the orange-slicing job every time we make our blood orange compote?