Gwyneth Paltrow's Cookbook: Actually Pretty Good

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It may be bogged down in agave syrup, but My Father's Daughter reveals Paltrow as someone who really does love food

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By a conservative estimate, it would take a cooking novice $450 and five days' shipping time to acquire the "essential" ingredients of Gwyneth Paltrow's pantry. It would cost an additional $1300 to upgrade a standard kitchen to one with all her "essential tools," such as earthenware bowls, butcher block countertops, Global knives, a Vitamix blender, and a Le Creuset Dutch oven. That's before you get anywhere near the organic duck.

Paltrow, of course, has been enraging people for ages, even before she handed them GOOP, a lifestyle site and newsletter geared towards those with plenty of disposable income and a high tolerance for being told what to do. So the public was pretty well prepped when some sentences from her cookbook, My Father's Daughter (released today), got outed early by reviewers. Take, for example, this one: "One evening when I had my wood-burning stove going I realized I hadn't thought of dessert." Talk about a first-world crisis.

Paltrow also dives deep into unintentional self-parody with a substitutions chart. For example: Bacon will suffice if you haven't any duck bacon on hand, and mayonnaise will do if Vegenaise is out of town. And it's not clear how many people will benefit from her note that light agave nectar may be replaced with brown rice syrup.

9780446557313_388X586_sized.jpg But both shopping lists and a dose of ideology are fairly standard for cookbooks. Readers of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook require a real chef's knife and a lifetime's supply of shallots and veal bones, as well as patience with profanity and impulsive diatribes against veganism. Paltrow's need a trip to a health food store, and have to swallow some odd nutritional claims. If Paltrow doesn't have as much training as Bourdain, she's hardly the only amateur out there. Putting prejudice aside then, the questions become: (1) are the nutritional claims valid? and (2) is the food good?

Turning to experts for some fact-checking on this one produced some interesting reactions. "I don't know why she's getting such a hard time," wrote pastry chef David Lebovitz, who got his start at Alice Waters's Chez Panisse, though he noted that he hadn't seen the book yet. "Celebrities (whether they deserve it or not) are writing cookbooks. At least she's using real food and cooking it!" He added that a friend working on the book said Paltrow "was really involved."

There's certainly plenty of real food: Though packaged as an homage to Paltrow's departed father, the book does not skimp on recipes, starting out with basics like stocks and sauces (homemade Sriracha—that's one you don't get every day) then proceeding to soups, salads, burgers and sandwiches, pastas, main courses, side dishes, breakfast, and desserts. The offerings range from the classic chicken and dumplings to the more niche homemade veggie burgers, from duck ragu to miso soup. And of course, though there are deliberately reckless indulgences like macaroni and cheese, or her father's pancake recipe (with eye-poppingly large quantities of buttermilk, butter, and eggs), a macrobiotic or vegan option, or a recipe using spelt instead of wheat, is usually only a few pages away.

Do the healthful options make sense? From a culinary perspective, the reliance on spelt rather than wheat, or maple syrup and agave nectar rather than sugar, isn't all that outrageous. "People were making dessert with honey before the advent of white refined sugar," Lebovitz pointed out, and "usually whole grains and alternative flours provide another dimension of flavor to a lot of baked goods." Nor is it completely nuts to try to bake muffins without eggs, I found out from Susan Reid, a baking expert with King Arthur Flour who had just completed an eggless chocolate cake recipe.

In fact, if a single late-night testing session is any indication, Paltrow's vegan, spelt-based blueberry muffin recipe works pretty well, despite the unusual ingredients. "I have to admit, that is an impressive muffin recipe, given its proportions and the fact that it has to hold up a lot of berries," Reid said, perusing the forwarded recipe along with my testament to its success. That said, "white spelt seems kind of ridiculous to me; if you're going to go for a grain like that, why wouldn't you want the whole grain version?"

These ingredients can be somewhat limiting, too. Although most cookie recipes rely on beating together butter and sugar for structure, "you can't cream butter with a liquid sweetener," Reid noted. Reasoning from that, it's probably wise that Paltrow confines her enthusiasm for syrups to muffin recipes and permits butter when it comes to cookies. In general, Paltrow doesn't push the limits of her alternative ingredients that far: there are no spelt souffles, and Paltrow is admittedly not one for chocolate desserts—the closest we get are some entirely vegan brownies with a white spelt base and the usual sweetening syrups. Any thoughts from pastry authority David Lebovitz on that one? "If she'd ever like me to come over and make some chocolate desserts with her, vegan or otherwise, I'm available."

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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