Gwyneth Paltrow's Cookbook: Actually Pretty Good

By Heather Horn

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

photo-blueberry-pavlova_wide.jpg
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."

Well what about the nutritional side of things? There it seems Paltrow may be pushing her luck a bit. The blueberry muffin recipe mentioned earlier, for example, bears the following description: "These muffins made from spelt flour don't have any sugar and are vegan. They still rock the house." They are pretty good, but they also rock 166 added grams of sugar, calculated roughly from the 1/2 cup of maple syrup and 1/4 cup of agave nectar in the recipe. Doesn't this sugar count? Time to turn to Marion Nestle, NYU nutrition professor and a regular at TheAtlantic.com. Health nuts should take note: "Not only does it count," Nestle said, "but agave sugars are especially high in fructose, the one that seems to be causing a lot of trouble and is best avoided."

How about calling maple syrup "great source of manganese and zinc," or saying that "agave is super low on the glycemic index and has lots of minerals"? Responds Nestle: "Oh please. They have minerals, but 'lots' is a gross exaggeration. Sugars are sugars."

The reliance on spelt doesn't necessarily make more sense from the nutrition side either. "Whole grain flours have more nutrients and fiber and are a better bet nutritionally," Nestle said, but it's not clear that white spelt flour would be that much better than white wheat flour. "Spelt is trendy," she noted. "I would consider it nutritionally equivalent, or close to equivalent, to wheat flour at the same level of processing." Paltrow's claim that unrefined brown sugar is better for you than supermarket brown is actually true, on the other hand, "but the differences are marginal."

And then, of course, there is the question of Paltrow's tone. Though critics might tire of her lines about family life, the book actually isn't all that preachy. Despite her own dietary restrictions, she includes a recipe for brisket, taste-tested by food writer and personal chef Julia Turshen, who helped her with the book. In fact, the inescapable sense one gets when paging through the book—when not wondering how many different whites and pastels Paltrow can possibly own, and whether she has ever entered a climate that got below 60 degrees—is that it was put together by someone who really does love food and cooking. It's hard to hate someone who suggests cutting the richness of a bread pudding with a mimosa. And recipes for breakfast sausage are not necessarily trendy, but the recipe for turkey breakfast sausage, which I also tested a few days ago, is exactly the kind of simple, tasty item a home cook might stumble upon and immediately decide to try.

All other things being equal, the book is an eyeful, which is as much as many cookbook buyers ask, to judge from the countless books sitting cleanly on bookshelves as inspiration rather than practical guides. And what if the recipes work, too? Though there's nothing like walking out of Whole Foods laden down with agave nectar and spelt to make all but the most determined of yuppies question their purpose in life, this conflicted urbanite wound up at the end of the night two-for-two on recipe tests. In fact, since Paltrow—like Whole Foods, for that matter, if you take food writer Michael Pollan's view—is selling a lifestyle as much as recipes, there are probably worse things than being trendy about spelt.

You can take or leave Paltrow's over-the-top delight at her children chowing down on kale. If you're not a fan, peruse the parade of corn fritters, fried fish, and sweet potato ravioli instead. We're left with celebrity chef Mario Batali's instructions in the forward: "The best way to truly understand this book? Take the Perfect Roasted Chinese Duck recipe (page 179) and follow the careful instructions to the T. Eat it with some people you love."

Okay, Gwyneth: How about a deal? We'll make this roasted organic duck of yours. You go learn about chocolate from David Lebovitz. Hold the agave.

Images: Courtesy of Hachette

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/04/gwyneth-paltrows-cookbook-actually-pretty-good/237288/