Catching Up with Jim Fobel
Jim Fobel is the author of Jim Fobel’s Old-Fashioned Baking Book, a collection of iconic American baked goods culled from the recipe cards of his grandmother, mother and aunts, that have been enjoyed in home kitchens since 1987. We caught up with the prolific writer and conversationalist to discuss the book and his writing process. For an inside look into how Fobel got his start in food, see our earlier post on Fobel here.
Do you have a favorite recipe in Old-Fashioned Baking?
I’m not really a favorite person. If I had to pick a recipe that’s special to me I would say Nisua, which is a Finnish cardamom bread. I grew up with it, it’s like comfort food for me, it’s just such a part of my life. My family is from Finland, my maternal grandparents immigrated here, and everyone makes Nisua.
What are some recipe recommendations for the winter months, when there aren't very many fresh fruits to highlight in baked goods?
For me, I make the carrot cake a lot. I still use that recipe for the cake, but I’ve adjusted the frosting recipe. I add some lemon zest. Other good winter recipes would probably be chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies. My mother would make dozens, hundreds of dozens of cookies around Christmas and we always loved them for lunch, as after school snacks or whenever.
This book is really a tribute to the women who baked the backdrop of your childhood: your grandmother, mother and aunts. Did you get to share this book with any of the women who inspired it?
Unfortunately most of them were gone by the time the book was published. Aunt Myra was the only one that got to see it, but she was my favorite aunt so that was special. She really liked it. I sent her cases of the book, so she could show everyone.
These recipes are comfortingly nostalgic. What would you say is the biggest difference between “old fashioned” baked goods and modern baking? What are some of the best reasons to indulge in old-fashioned baking?
Obviously the history and the memories associated them, but also [the fact that] these recipes have been around forever. They’re tried and true.
In a more concrete sense, there were fewer ingredients available back then so the flavors are a bit simpler. One major issue that came up while making the book was that the recipes as written by my relatives tended to have too much sugar for today’s taste. I had to retest them, trying to figure out how much sugar could I take out of the recipe and still have the same results as far as texture and taste goes.
How do you go about developing a recipe?
The creative process is like painting or any kind of artwork. You think of all the ideas that you want to do and narrow it down. You have to envision what you want to do in your mind’s eye.
Often, down in the lower right hand corner in a column, I list all the possible ingredients that could go into what I’m making. I might not use them all, but it sort of gives me a flavor profile to refer to.
The writing process has evolved over the years because I didn’t have any formal training in recipe development. I don’t try to keep recipes in my head, it would clutter my brain too much, so I would just take notes as I worked. Now I pretty much write out the recipe before I even start cooking or baking.
I leave blanks spaces – for example, I’ll say, “combine __ cups of sugar with __ maple syrup,” or, “bring to a boil and simmer over medium heat for __ minutes.” I go through the entire recipe and there are blanks everywhere that have to be filled in, and when I cook the recipe I fill them in.
It’s a process. I leave some space between lines so I can add things in, and I always date the recipe in case pages get mixed up later. That way I know which one is the most recent version.
Your recipes seem to be exceedingly well tested. What is this process like? How many iterations do you typically go through to get a recipe just right?
You have to be careful to weigh and measure everything exactly, and you have to be sure your measuring tools and your oven are accurate. I have an oven thermometer, and I measure and weigh everything. I won’t adjust a recipe without testing it again.
When I was test kitchen director at Food and Wine I felt like some of the measuring utensils were off. I sent an assistant to a scientific supply store for accurate measuring utensils and I was horrified by how imprecise some of our tools were. We went through all the utensils in the test kitchen and threw away the ones that weren’t accurate. I still have a set of cups and spoons in my home kitchen that I know are right so I can compare anything else I buy.
As far as testing the actual recipes goes, I trust my own taste the most. A lot of cookbook writers will hire people to test their recipes, but I’ve never found that necessary.
Most importantly, who gets to eat the results of your testing?
I usually try to give them away. A lot of people in my building have benefitted – my doorman, the people at the front desk, the handyman, the neighbors. But then, with everything I test I try to keep some of it. I like to see what things taste like the next day and the day after that, to see how they hold up. So when you do that you really can’t give it away.
Are you working on anything right now?
A few years ago I thought I would retire, so I started painting. I painted for a year or two, and then I thought, ‘I’m cooking for myself anyway, maybe I should start writing the recipes down.’ One recipe at a time, then all the sudden I got really into it. I’ve been working on this book for about seven years. I have almost 2,000 recipes, but that makes a book better because you narrow it down to the very best. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. In the past I planned everything beforehand, but not this one. We’ll see.
Thanks to Jim for the detailed and thoughtful interview! We look forward to tasting whatever he cooks up next.
Brianne Mirecki is a student and runner who attempts to bake gourment treats in less-than-gourmet college dorm kitchens.