Those were the reasons
And that was New York
– Leonard Cohen
I have never been to New York, but I do have a New York of dreams. And a Berlin of dreams. A Rome of dreams …
But you never get to go every place you want to go & cookbooks can be a way of travelling as well as learning to cook food. Chelsea Market Makers is perfect for this escapism, because it’s a guided tour of the “million-plus-square-foot-space” of former Nabisco factory in New York’s historic Meatpacking District that is Chelsea Market.
Meandering around the book you’ll meet bakers, butchers, food shops, winesellers, knife experts, baristas, cocktail folk. Nearly all have a favourite recipe to share, or expertise to pass on. It would take weeks to actually walk around the market and pick all this up in conversation, so here it is: an almanac of the daily inspirations in the life of Chelsea Market.
Right up front, there are two recipes in this book for me that are just enormous, fabulous. Like Julia Turshen’s Turkey + Ricotta Meatballs which I discovered recently, I absolutely love it when I discover new dishes so good & so clear to make they join that instinctive ledger of answers to the question:”What will I make to eat today?”
Enter the slow cooked salty pork belly and brownies of Chelsea Market Makers. For me, both of these are so epic they need a scrolling screen and the music from Star Wars.
I love pork belly, but I’ve never had enormous success cooking it. Until the recipe here, a Chelsea Market Original with the Filling Station. It involves vigorously salting the belly slices with Alderwood Smoked Salt, and then cooking really low & brave for up to 5 hours. I’d never tried this before – as a fairly basic home cook I suppose I assumed they would incinerate. Not a bit of it. As the book says, you have to “practically try to burn the meat at this temperature.” The issue is losing the smoky flavour gained from a more regular approach, so Laura Nuter of the Filling Station uses fine salts, in this case the Alderwood. Now, I don’t have Laura’s salt so I had to improvise, because I was so intrigued by the method.
What I used instead was the Hebridean Sea Salt company’s gorgeous Peat Smoked sea salt, which really does have a richly smokey, barbecue-like personality. It’s not like the faintly medicinal tang you get with something like Laphroaig (which, incidentally I adore – but in a different way) and is more akin to a deep old earth-hewn smokiness. If the peat-reeky late summer evenings of an island crofting village have an actual taste, this is it.
Anyway, I’m always a bit giddy if I ever cook anything I would go so far as to describe as delicious – but after five hours of relative anxiety, I was completely ecstatic by my long-form adventure in salty belly. There was a sort of deep, satisfying salty succulence about the belly slices that took me totally by surprise. Unsure if I was imagining it, I made more, then more. I tested it on people. Adjusted amounts. And it was always completely beautiful. As they say in the book, perfect to put in a ramen maybe, but also just eaten on its own, with a beer, or as I did, an icy vodka. The Filling Station pork belly may very well turn out to be the North Sea Scullery taste spree of the year. May well do. As long as I am able to turn on an oven, I’m going to crave it.
Like pork belly, brownies are deceptive. They’re simple in theory, but when you taste a really, really good brownie, you know that somehow you’ve never quite mastered it and your own ones are really a stodgy flour-fest. As a right old disaster of a baker, Florence Knight’s Hazelnut brownie recipe in One is super, and the only one I’ve ever used and been proud of the result. Until now.
In Chelsea Market Makers, the recipe from the famous Fat Witch bakery creates an equally fantastic, but different brownie. And it is a consistent recipe – even for me. I have made them three times testing for this book, and every single time, they are exactly the same, exactly fine. Bomb-proof. Bullet-proof. The resulting brownies are soft, dark, delicate and I love them. If I had a storage brain, I would memorize the recipe and pretend it was mine. There is a lovely concoction by Nigella, from Nigelissima, for olive oil chocolate cake – and that is something like the light, pleasantly bitter chocolate of these brownies. But again, only quite like. Fat Witch brownies just have their own thing going on.
These two recipes will change the way I cook and bake, and I don’t like to especially sing their praises in this way because I also made lots of other things from Chelsea Market Makers, and all were really fine. My favourites were definitely Niall’s Lamb Carrot, Barley and Mint Pie from the Tuck Shop – I cheated with the pastry, but it was still excellent – and Mimmo’s Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino from the Buon Italia store. I often get “oily” spaghetti dishes wrong – I think in large part because of the oil – but this one was a success. I loved the combination of walnut and chilli. There is something immensely satisfying about this kind of dish and something unexpected, somehow. It is not oily as such, but smooth – silky against the crunch of the walnuts.
But I can’t really do the range of the book justice. There’s ice cream, cocktails, nuts & seeds, coffee, wine, chef’s knives, rice dishes. There are 300, 000 bottles of wine in the cellar of the Chelsea Wine Vault. There are “crucial tricks we’ve learned from Hugh” on pumpkin carving & many recipes demanding a future return to the book, like Cleaver-Chopped Jerk-Rubbed Duck on the Grill, Pork Sausage with Roasted Chiles & Black Bean Broth with Korean Noodles, Pork Belly, and Scallions.
There is just so much to read. Imagine walking around a giant food market, and every single stallholder hands you a sheet of A4 with their favourite recipe or their best hints and tips for their particular specialty. Chelsea Market Makers is exciting stuff and you could cook through it for years.
As an amateur cook, though, I have to say: I’m not ever going to be able to make everything in Chelsea Market Makers. A lot of this is down to skill, true, but also time, ingredient availability, that sort of thing. Some of the dishes are complex and accomplished. If you prefer your cookbooks to be essentially complete with easily attainable recipes, this might be an issue. But I don’t always rate cookbooks specifically on whether or not I can cook everything that’s in them; you can perfectly cherish a cookbook that’s out of your league skillswise because it’s enthralling, yet regret buying another that is outwardly straightforward, but turns out a complicated faff, with recipes that cost half a day’s wages to make. Chelsea Market Makers is from the outset and in declaration a book filled with artisan recipes from exceptionally talented makers – some straightforward, others more involved – and I’m fine with that.
I love the design of the book, which has a kind of manila folder look, and a really interesting index-tab A-Z styling down the edge of each right side page. The file style A-Z tabs don’t always work for me, but they’re a great feature, and a really interesting design with lots of possibilities. So for example, tea turns up in ‘T’ and Lobster rolls in ‘L’ and I really like it and it’s nearly always logical but it isn’t always; Dark Chocolate Fruit, Nut and See Bark is in ‘S’, for instance; my Pork Belly is in ‘O’. But there is an index as well so this is a quibble. The sparky & inventive Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook doesn’t have A-Z tabs but it shares some of the design thinking, and the sketched illustrations are very similar.
The issue I do have with the A-Z file visual though, and this also includes the page numbers unfortunately, is that the type is too faint – to me anyway – and someone I showed the book to didn’t even see the page numbers at first. It’s beautiful and subtle type, but frankly difficult to see. If your eyesight isn’t great, or if you’re at a distance from the book with a rolling pin and covered in dough & despair like I usually am, it doesn’t work. I think this is probably unintentional and maybe the designers thought it would be darker on the recycled notepaper effect pages. I hate nit-picking with such a super book, and it’s a shame, because in all respects – the cover, dish pics, the colouring pencil illustrations on grid paper that mark the book sections, and the typography and layout on recipe pages – the book looks wonderful. Sadly it is a problem though, because in practice, the navigation system is the engine oil of cookbooks.
Chelsea Market Makers is a really, really fascinating & exciting cookbook. It makes me want to board the next ship bound for New York and spend days wandering around the market, sampling and delighting in these dishes and drinks – actually made by the people who invented them – and buying cookware, coffee and wine like they were all strange things discovered anew.
And, the book has those brownies & that long-cooked salt belly. Of these two recipes, are addictions born.
So enthralled were we by the Fat Witch Bakery brownie recipe, there was really only thing to do: talk to Patricia, the owner!
NSS: On your Brownie page in the Chelsea Market book you say that “you can’t do without a really good brownie recipe” & the book says you’ve been working on perfecting brownies since 1998! Why do you think we so love a good Chocolate Brownie?
FWB: Brownies are one of the few American pastry recipes. Most of our pastries are German or French based. Brownies are considered a home-made treat. They are not fancy, but almost everyone in the USA makes them or knows what they are. My mom made brownies at least once a week. I took her recipe and added more butter and make more varieties.
NSS: At Fat Witch Bakery, there’s an enormous range of brownies available – Emerald City, Caramel Witch, Breakfast Witch, Blonde Baby … and you have lots of recipes on your site. Can you say a bit about how they came to be known as witches, how the bakery got its name? Do you have a favourite?
FWB: I used to trade equity options on Wall Street and would bring in a batch of brownies baked the night before to the trading floor. One trader had a laugh like a witch and used to eat lots of them. I would tell her, “be careful or you’ll be a fat witch.” When I decided to leave Wall Street and open a brownie business, I figured it would be a memorable name. I am partial to the Walnut Witch which I think is the perfect combination of sweet with a savory kick. In the first cookbook, the lemon bar is a fantastic recipe and I make it all the time at home. And we sell a lot of these at our store.
NSS: If you could give away one trade secret to the Fat Witch’s brownie success, what would that be?
FWB: We really don’t have any trade secrets. We bake just like folks bake at home, but in bigger batches! If there is any advice to impart, it would be to use quality chocolate. There are so many good choices available.
NSS: You have a branch in Japan – how did that come about? Do you have plans for other worldwide branches – Dundee maybe : )
FWB: Many of our customers are Japanese, so it was a natural extension to partner with someone in Japan. At the moment that is our only overseas store. Dundee sounds interesting!
NSS: I’m always interested in cooking equipment – what would you say is the key brownie gear, and do you have a cherished piece of cooking equipment?
FWB: The wonderful thing about brownies is that very little equipment is needed. We give directions for a 9” square baking pan, but if you have an 8” square pan, leave it in the oven longer! I do have a favorite mixing bowl and timer (strictly uncommercial). I still love to bake at home.
NSS: Just finally, can you say a bit about Chelsea Market Makers. To me, it seems a real celebration of an amazing place?
FWB: Chelsea Market is an amazing place. The entrepreneurial spirit reigns! Something new is always happening including collaboration on a cook book!
NSS: Thank you!