interview with Marisa Churchill
Prepare a cup of tea or coffee, grab a cookie (besides oatmeal and raisins, the cookies in the photo have pieces of chocolate and of walnuts), make yourself comfortable, and read on.
On March 24, I attended the Women's PowerStrategy Conference in Marin County, CA. What I have to tell about that day won't fit into one post, so I'll start by talking about meeting Marisa Churchill, pastry chef and author of the dessert cookbook Sweet & Skinny, 100 recipes for enjoying life's sweeter side without tipping the scales. Readers of this blog know that my recipes tend to be light on both sugar and fat. That's the way I like to eat. Listening to, and then conversing with a pastry chef that challenged herself to create 100 light desserts that are generous in flavor and satisfaction, was a special treat.
Before meeting Marisa in person, I read about her career as pastry chef, her Greek heritage, and her passion for swimming. And before sitting down for a one-to-one conversation with her, I listened to her lively presentation at the conference. Marisa organized her talk around the main ingredients of desserts: butter, eggs, sugar, chocolate, cream, flour, oil. For each ingredient, she discussed lighter alternatives that do the job, provide nutritional value and/or satisfy the requirements of people with special dietary needs. An example Marisa referenced in her presentation is her Chocolate-Buttermilk Cake, in which a finely shredded red beet disappears into the batter in terms of texture leaving behind its sweetness, while creamy buttermilk and yogurt enrich the cake and keep it light. Other examples I found particularly interesting are: a lighter version of whipped cream that uses gelatin, the use of crushed pineapple as sweetener (for example, in the macaroons that conference participants tasted during lunch), and browned butter.
Marisa told the story of a particular tough challenge she faced in creating a light version of kourabiethes, traditional Greek butter cookies. When Marisa's grandmother was a young woman, the king of Greece visited her town. For the occasion, she prepared a batch of kourabiethes. Upon tasting them, the king declared them the best he'd ever eaten. In thinking how she could win the challenge, Marisa had the idea of using browned butter, which is more intensely flavored and of which therefore she could use less. Pasta with browned butter and mizythra cheese is a dish her grandmother used to prepare for her and the flavorful memory put her on the right track.
As soon as I got home that day, I made a small batch of browned butter and used some to prepare scones (more details when I write a post about them). I hereby declare that I am a convert. Marisa explains how to make browned butter and other "sweet foundations" in the first chapter of "Sweet & Skinny", which then goes on to cover, among other topics, American classics, sweet treats, and Holiday favorites.
For Marisa, creating the recipes for the book was a nice challenge at a point in her career when she was looking for one. She worked in her own kitchen to develop and perfect all the recipes, some of them taking longer than expected to obtain the desired balance of lightness without sacrificing flavor and texture (for example, this PB & J cookies). Besides the ones already referenced, two more recipes are available on this page.
My conversation with Marisa flowed easily and I can see how we could have continued chatting for a long time, as you'd expect if you bring together Greek and Italian blood over the topic of food.
I know I have readers in Greece, so I want to let them know that Marisa has been featured in the press and on television there, as you can see on her website's home page.
A few words about the cookies in the top photo. The originals are called Oatmeal-Sour Cherry Cookies (page 47) and are included in the chapter dedicated to Americal classics. The alternative use of raisins is included in the recipe, while the use of finely chopped chocolate instead of chocolate chips is my idea. The book does not show a photo of the cookies as they came out of Marisa's oven, so I don't know how my rendition fares next to them. I hope Marisa will be satisfied. During our conversation, we talked about the use of flax meal and water as egg substitute, something with which I have just started to experiment and which I used in this recipe.
Oops! I'd better bake more cookies: those are all gone.
FTC disclosure: I have purchased the copy of the book mentioned in this post. I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for discussing the book on my blog. The views expressed in the post are my own.