Q & A With Nancy Silverton: The Mozza Cookbook, The Problem of Gelato + Doing One Thing at a Time Very, Very Well
Nancy Silverton and her new cookbook at Mozza
Nancy Silverton, who is an over-achiever in much the same way as is, say, Malcolm Gladwell, has had a productive summer even by her standards. Mozzas in Newport Beach and Singapore recently opened; Amy Pressman's burger project, Short Order, which Silverton consulted on, is coming next month; and her new cookbook is due out next week. The Mozza Cookbook is not your ordinary restaurant cookbook as much as a translation of technique and ethos, and a testament to attention. Written with Mozza executive chef Matt Molina and Carolynn Carreño, a Beard-winner who also co-wrote Silverton's A Twist of the Wrist, the book is a collection of the recipes, or most of them, from both the Pizzeria and the Osteria. Pizza dough! Gelato! That famous Butterscotch budino!
A little backstory for those of you who haven't spent the better part of the last decade or two on the bench between La Brea Bakery and Campanile, a sourdough boule beside you. Silverton grew up in Encino, went to college at Sonoma State ("I started cooking in the dorms") and dropped out in her senior year to cook somewhere outside of her dorm room. She went to Europe, cooked some more in the Valley ("pseudo-French bistros were very popular at the time") and then attended Le Cordon Bleu in London before coming back home and beginning her cooking career at Michael's, where she worked behind the cash register, of all places, before moving to the pastry kitchen. From Michael's to Spago to Campanile, with a few stops here and there, and thus to Mozza. For more about that, turn the page.
Squid Ink: How long did it take you guys to do this book?
Nancy Silverton: Well, remember that the difference between a restaurant cookbook and a non-restaurant cookbook is that the restaurant already has a lot of recipes in its repertoire. You'd think, Oh, this book is going to be really easy because I've got all these recipes. Then when you try and break them down and write them up, it's really hard. This book was pretty much on time. They [the publisher] will probably say no, but once we signed the contract I don't think they gave us more than a year to do it. And then corrections, didn't come in a timely form -- just because it's daunting. They cut out... I have probably a whole other book that didn't make it into this one.
SI: Very cool. Mozza, Part 2.
NS: So it took probably a year and a half. It never seems like enough time.
SI: It's all the recipes from both Mozza's?
NS: Yes, recipes from the Pizzeria and the Osteria. But not all of them, because it would have just been too big.
SI: How did you decide?
NS: What went on the cutting room floor? Some recipes were a little bit repetitive. For example, we do this bucatini alla Amatriciana, right? Which is tomato, guanciale, and black pepper. And then we do this pasta alla Gricia, which is the same thing without the tomato. So it was easy to pick one of them.
SI: In this book you address the issue of things being done differently in a restaurant than they would be at home. Like pesto, which you say you prefer to make with a mortar and pestle. You don't do that at the restaurant.
NS: You could.
SI: If you had elves. Italian elves, maybe.
NS: But certainly it's a lot more difficult, a lot more costly. And so you try to do as little as possible that's hurtful, but in an economical way. You know, the hardest chapter was the gelato chapter. Most Italian cookbooks label their frozen custard section as gelato, because gelato is the Italian word for frozen Italian custard -- but it's made completely differently than American and French frozen custards. It's like when I say we a chapter on biscotti -- which we don't, we have some biscotti recipes -- and in your mind you might think, Oh, I know what biscotti are. But biscotti are cookies, even though it also means twice-cooked. It's the same with panini. Panini are sandwiches, although now we've come to think they're pressed sandwiches. Anyway, back to gelato. I set out to try and make sure that the mouthfeel of that frozen dessert was as close to gelato as possible without what gelato makers use, which are emulsifiers and some stabilizers.
The key differences between a gelato and a French ice cream are that there's far less butterfat in an Italian gelato. So if you look at Italian cookbooks, the gelato recipes they're giving use the French technique: half milk, half cream. There's much more milk than cream in all gelatos. Gelatos don't have to contain egg yolks, so we have some that have them and some that don't. But if there aren't egg yolks, your frozen dessert is going to taste a lot icier. So how do you get away with that without using commercial emulsifiers? We found using cornstarch to be a huge help. There were some gelatos that, no matter what we did and no matter how hard we tried, they didn't taste right. So we didn't include them.
SI: You don't use cornstarch at the restaurant.
NS: No. But we also use emulsifiers to help bind it together. The other thing is that they don't all contain eggs. So we use milk powder. Well, we use milk powder anyway. You hate to get too technical. You want to give a little information, but you don't want too much. If you don't make a gelato correctly, especially a sorbetto, it just falls apart. If anything is out of balance, it just won't work. So this was a really difficult chapter, and Dahlia [Mozza pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez] worked really hard on it.
SI: What about pizza dough? Because the recipe in the book isn't the same as the one you use in the restaurant.
making pizza dough at the Scuola
NS: It's not exactly the same, but it's all the same ingredients. The only thing different is that our pizza dough here is on a much longer sponge. That dough did not work well in a home oven. The dough in the book is the dough that we teach in our classes, and it's the dough that we use in a home oven and it's a great dough. It wasn't done because I wanted to hold anything back; it was done because it works better. Also because when we hold our dough overnight in the refrigerator, we can hold it at a much colder temperature than a home refrigerator that's full of all that stuff. It's going to way over-proof.
SI: It doesn't do you any good to give us the exact recipe that you use here -- because you're not giving us the restaurant. Sadly.
NS: Right. And so this recipe works 100% at room temperature, and it's also a great dough.
SI: You have rye flour in it.
NS: Rye flour, and I give a choice of honey or barley. There's no olive oil in the dough. With the longer fermentation for the dough that we have here, it gives it a little more complexity and a little sweetness. That's why I added wheat germ to the dough here. We don't add wheat germ to the dough that we make, because we don't need to. But I added it because wheat germ gives a little flavor, very subtle, to mimic that.
SI: That's interesting, because those are the two recipes that you'd kind of wonder about as being different in a restaurant: the gelato and the pizza dough, because of the equipment issue. Is there anything else that was appreciably different?
NS: Those two were the trickiest. The pasta dough: we really knead our pasta dough for a long time and we didn't use 00 flour [in the book] either.
SI: You write that you knead it for up to an hour in the restaurant -- by machine. How long in the book?
NS: 20-25 minutes.
SI: By hand.
NS: Yeah, because you'll just ruin your machine.
SI: You would blow out your KitchenAid pretty quickly.
NS: We didn't give any recipes for any of our homemade salumi, because that's a whole other thing. I gave a good ricotta recipe. I had gone around and gotten ricotta from a lot of places, and it's terrible. I made the homemade stuff -- well, it's not really ricotta, it's the homemade that textured pressed cheese -- and at the time I felt like it was too lemony, and then I retried it, actually it was in Singapore, and that's when I put it in the book. It was almost at the press and I said, Wait a minute, I have to add this to the book. I was just beating my head against the wall. The stuff that you buy is terrible, I don't care which brand you buy, it's awful. And I thought, you know what I really like is cottage cheese. If you can't find good ricotta, just try good cottage cheese. Even not good cottage cheese is better.
SI: So many people look down on cottage cheese.
NS: I love cottage cheese.
SI: If you look at the big picture, you seem to have phases. You pick one thing, you get really interested in it, you do it really, really well: sourdough, pizza, mozzarella, focaccia, burgers, which we'll get to in a minute. Do you think that's an accurate way of looking at it?
pizza made at the Scuola using the recipe from the book
NS: I think it's about getting really interested in something. If you look at my books, right, each one is so different. I guess you can exclude [the book about] Campanile, because that's obvious. But if you think of themes, I never repeated a theme. I feel like I got it all out in that one. And I've never signed, like, a three-book deal. So it's not putting the horse before the cart.
SI: It's a very instructive paradigm. People tend to get scattered. So, what's up with Short Order? [Short Order is the burger bar Amy Pressman is opening at the 3rd and Fairfax Farmers Market; Silverton is partnering in the project; check out their Facebook page for progress.]
NS: So initially the farmers market had contacted me and asked if I'd open up a place. That was awhile ago, and I couldn't. It was just too much. But I had a friend, Amy, [Amy Pressman] who was looking to do something and she would be great, and so there was a long conversation and they thought it would be a good fit. And she asked if I'd help to come up with the recipes. And she's sort of as obsessed as I am. I think that often people are too willing to just be satisfied, right? And she's very similar. So in the process of working closely with our meat purveyor, there was a lot of tweaking -- because there is. But when you work with a large company, once you tweak your formula, then that's your formula.
SI: When's that going to open?
NS: Probably the middle of October. She's doing the bakery [Short Cake] next door too. For both of us, it was about letting the meat be the star and having condiments that complement it without trying to be too cutting edge.
SI: So this book is coming out, the Mozza in Newport is open, and the Mozza in Singapore is up and running. Can we ask you what's next, or is that just too idiotic?
NS: As far as projects? We're talking about a pizzeria in San Diego. Otherwise? Well, a cookbook that I'd love to do -- although I don't know if my agent would want to -- is a family dinners book. It would be an odd thing to do, because no one at home would do the whole menus [the special menus that Mozza's Chad Colby does at the Scuola: pork menus, tomato menus, etc.], but from that menu they'd pick some of the dishes. We'd organize it that way: you could look at pork or tomatoes or fish. Because there are a lot of really terrific recipes. That would be a great book.
Well, there are many reasons why I both love and hate books. I hate to do books because I can't stand the process of editing. It's lucky that I've worked with such great writers, because that I could never do. But what I don't like is how many times you have to read the book. You just get so sick of it. I can't stand having to sign off on a recipe. Today, you know, you might feel differently than you do tomorrow. To say, Well, okay, that's going in the book, that's done. Then you go back to test it and you're like, Wait a minute. But what I do like is when it's thoroughly tested, it's so much nicer to have this [picks up the book] than all those dirty pages with the notes.
SI: It's a perfect document.
NS: And I like having that perfect document. But you do get sick of how many times you have to read it. And then I get really obsessed. My feeling is this: when I used to read cookbooks, I would take them very literally. For instance, if a recipe started out "put a cup of water in a medium-sized pot and turn the heat up to high." And then the next recipe said "put a cup of water in a large pot." The person was probably just being sloppy, but why was it medium there and now large in this one? So I'd be like, From now on, whenever we put a cup of water in a pot, it has to be a small pot, right? The worst thing about cookbooks is when people put them out and they don't care if the recipes work or not. And I can tell you... [pats the book].
SI: How many times did these recipes get tested?
NS: So many. It's been really, really tested. And I guess at the end, you do have a book, right?
Nancy Silverton with the Mozza book
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