January 3, 2018
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Hi, I’m America’s Best Worst Cook

I write cookbooks for a living, but I’ve never even made piecrust.

Pop, pop, pop! More explosions. I cover my head and race toward safety, ducking behind my open fridge door to block shrapnel, then peering over to see if the worst is over. I grab a pot lid and hold it in front of me, a knight with a shield. I inch forward to survey the damage. It’s a grisly scene—oil splattered everywhere, a few limp shishito peppers in the pan gasping their last breaths, others scattered across the stovetop and floor in pieces. Alas, I’m used to this sort of tragedy. It’s just another day in the life of America’s best worst cook.

I should be a good cook—after all, I’ve had some of the best teachers in the business. As the coauthor of a dozen cookbooks, I’ve scribbled notes as April Bloomfield sautéed veal kidneys, looked on as Eric Ripert extracted sea urchin gonads and emulsified them with butter, and held my iPhone aloft to record Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker as he enclosed curry-paste-slathered fish in banana leaves, only to review the footage on loop for an hour as I struggled to adequately describe how to execute the persnickety wrapping.

Yet while I help chefs write meticulous instructions for their recipes, I rarely follow them myself. That’s a job for my small army of recipe testers, who shop, cook, and diagnose problems to ensure that the results match the high standards of the chefs in question. Meanwhile, I’m at home trying not to die in a hail of exploding peppers.

I know so much but have done so little, which makes me a peculiar kind of expert. When friends call to ask for advice on, say, making piecrust, I can school them on the virtues of lard over butter, butter over lard, and vegetable shortening over both. I share all the secrets—very cold butter, a little vodka, the goal of almond-sized clumps of fat—except one: I’ve never made piecrust myself.

Few share my strange occupation, but I think it’s safe to say that most home cooks in my cohort know the feeling of their knowledge vastly outpacing their know-how. Call us Generation Food TV. We’ve seen countless Iron Chefs, Top Chefs, and Master Chefs slice, chop, and mince. We’ve watched women in Mexico make tortillas. We’ve watched men in Tokyo make ramen. We’ve watched Anthony Bourdain watch Ludo Lefebvre making oeufs en meurette. We know how to cook in the same way 15-year-olds know how to love.

And I’m the king of the heap. No one else can boast my skyscraping ratio of ambitious cooking observed to ambitious cooking actually accomplished. What’s stopping me from doing? So many things! A toddler. The genuine fear of killing my friends and family with the one-two punch of undercooked poultry and uncontainable grease fires. An ardent affection for lying on the couch. On top of all that, I’m cursed with a peculiar asymmetry—instead of an onion-steadying, pot-grabbing, meatball-forming right arm, I was born with a short, goofy appendage, inexplicably bent into an L shape and graced by just three fingers, dangling from my right shoulder. It’s not that I can’t dice onions, lug pots, or roll meatballs—I can also tie my shoes and do push-ups!—it’s just that for me those tasks are significantly more annoying.

In many ways, my challenges add up to a professional advantage: The shoddier my culinary skills, the better an advocate I can be for a cookbook’s potential readers, who share at least some of my doltishness, when I ask chefs the questions that drive them crazy: Do you have to chop vegetables into microscopic cubes? Can you really add battered chicken to six inches of hot oil without donning a suit of armor first? How do you know when the noxious bacteria inside your fried chicken are adequately neutralized? Still, only some of the details I elicit end up in the recipes, since for some unknown reason publishers balk at the idea of discursive directions that are about three times as long as necessary.

Call us Generation Food TV. We’ve seen countless Iron Chefs, Top Chefs, and Master Chefs slice, chop, and mince. We’ve watched women in Mexico make tortillas. We’ve watched men in Tokyo make ramen. We’ve watched Anthony Bourdain watch Ludo Lefebvre making oeufs en meurette. We know how to cook in the same way 15-year-olds know how to love.

Yet now, for this column, I’m sitting down to write recipes for cooks like me. They will be directions that encourage the fearful, reassure the paranoid, and most important, work even for those of us without the hard-won culinary instincts gleaned from decades at restaurant stoves or kitchen counters.

You’ll find no tautological instructions that tell you to cook chicken until it’s “cooked through” and mix ingredients for a dough until they “look like dough.” You won’t find much of the typical recipe shorthand—“cut in the butter,” “fold in the egg whites”—that member’s-only vernacular that only seasoned cooks understand. When a recipe tells me to “turn out” dough onto “a work surface,” the anxious me wonders whether I did the right thing in simply dumping the mixture onto my counter. Whenever one directs me to “beat until incorporated” I wonder if I’m meant to violently compel eggs and flour to form a company. So many common instructions leave so much unsaid. Mine will trade patrician pith for a Jewish grandmother’s restraint.

For this column, I’ll share recipes for difficult dishes that are actually easy (if you do them my way), easy recipes that are actually difficult (if you worry like I do), tasty treatments for a one-armed cook’s favorite vegetables (no chopping necessary), and many more. For my first recipe, I present to you instructions for making piecrust, which at long last I’ve made (and several times, at that). I will tell you what most cookbook authors do not—it isn’t easy. Not even close. But you can do it, and the flavor and flaky texture are worth the trouble.

Halfway-There Piecrust

Halfway-There Piecrust

1 9-inch crust


  • Stuff You'll Need
  • 7- to 9-cup capacity food processor
  • Rolling pin
  • 9-inch metal, glass, or ceramic pie dish
  • 12(ish)-inch square of parchment paper
  • Ingredients
  • 1 ¼ cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 10 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons very cold water
  • 2 tablespoons very cold vodka
  • 2½ cups uncooked beans or rice

I want to tell you that my few times making piecrust was easier than I thought it would be. But I can’t. At every step—whizzing the flour and butter in a food processor, adding the liquid, packing the mixture into a sorta ball—I expected the mixture to, you know, resemble piecrust. It doesn’t. And so at every step, I was sure I’d screwed up, despite first consulting dozens of how-to videos and step-by-steps, including Melissa Clark’s incredibly useful guide. Even she couldn’t envision a cook as dim and fearful as I am. (Don’t even get me started on the hell of rolling.) Yet courageous me, I persevered. The result is a damn-good crust that has been baked about halfway so it’s ready to fill and finish in the oven. To guide you the rest of the way, do what I would do: Google.

    Make and Chill the Dough

  1. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a medium container and stir well. Cut the butter into approximately ½-inch chunks, add them to the container, and freeze, uncovered, for 30 minutes.1
    1Taking extreme measures to keep everything cold gives you leeway to work more slowly during the tricky parts.
  2. Dump the flour mixture into the food processor, then poke and prod so the mixture is in a more or less even layer. It’s OK that the butter chunks stick together.
  3. Hold down the pulse for three seconds, then do it twice more. Remove the top of the processor and take a look: You’ll see a mixture of loose flour and various sizes of flour-coated butter chunks.2 It will not and should not look like pie dough just yet. Poke around in the mixture, and if you spot any chunks of butter that are larger than almonds, give it one or two one-second pulses.
    2The fear of not getting the perfect-size chunks is part of what kept me from making piecrust for all these years. As long as they’re somewhere between the size of peas and almonds, you’re good.
  4. Remove the top again and drizzle the water and vodka more or less evenly over the mixture. Give the mixture two more three-second pulses. Dump it all onto your counter.3 Gently press and pat the pieces of dough together until you have a rough ball with plenty of crags and cracks and some visible chunks of butter. Press down on the ball to make a disk that’s an inch or so thick. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or up to 5 days.
    3You’ll still think, WTF, this does not look like pie dough! Instead, it’ll be a mess of large, medium, and small clumps and even a little loose flour.

Roll the Dough and Line the Pan

  1. Spread a very thin layer of flour on your counter. Unwrap the disk and put it on the floured surface. Sprinkle on just enough flour so the rolling pin doesn’t stick to the dough and rub it onto the surface of the dough. Do this again whenever the pin sticks to the dough.
  2. Now you’re going to roll4 this small, thick disk into a large, flat sort-of circle. Start with the rolling pin across the center of the disk and roll (about six or seven firm back-and-forths) with the goal of evenly expanding the disk, pressing the dough downward and toward the far edge. Start from the center again and do the same, but this time toward the close edge. Rotate the dough disk 45-ish degrees, roll it the same way, and repeat until the dough is a fairly even circle5 that’s about 11 inches wide and about 1/8 inch thick.
    4Consider yourself lucky you have two working arms.
    5Ragged, cracked edges are OK.
  3. Now you want to get the dough into the pie pan without it tearing.6 Here’s the best way: Put the rolling pin on the dough a few inches from one of the edges. Lift the edge onto the pin and roll the pin so the dough wraps around it. Lift up the pin and dough, set it down on the pie dish, and unroll so the dough lays centered on the pan. Very gently press the dough against the surface (bottom and sides) of the pan. Trim off overhang so the edges are neat(ish) and use the trim to patch up any holes or tears.7 Freeze uncovered for 30 minutes (otherwise, it’ll shrink when it bakes) or wrap tightly in plastic wrap and freeze for up to 1 month.
    6But if it does, don’t worry, you can fix it!

Halfway-Bake the Crust

  1. Put one of your oven racks in the center position, and preheat the oven to 425°F. Once it’s preheated, take the pie pan from the fridge or freezer, line the dough with the parchment paper, and pour in the beans or rice in a more or less even layer. Bake on the center rack until the edges are very light golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Carefully remove the parchment and its contents and bake again until the surface no longer has that shiny raw look and turns a very light golden color, about 5 minutes more. Take it out of the oven and let it cool fully, and fill according to Google.

JJ Goode

JJ Goode helps great chefs write cookbooks.

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