After bashing Rose Levy Beranbaum’s sourdough starter recipe in my recent article “Raising Ryen,” I found out exactly what kind of person I had criticized. Beranbaum is a world-renowned author of over ten cookbooks, the winner of four James Beard Awards and the “Diva of Desserts.” And, apparently, a very forgiving receiver of criticism. Rather than ignore my article or complain, Beranbaum offered to tell me just how she managed to become the legendary author and innovator of baking she is today. So, if the baker or writer in you has ever thought about entering the great world of cookbooks, here’s the story of how one woman became famous for it.
When Beranbaum was a child, she liked to keep diaries. At the time, she wasn’t interested in baking. In fact, she didn’t have her first attempt at baking cookies until she was 19 years old, and even then, it was a complete failure.
“I decided to make the one on the back of the Quaker oatmeal box, and I followed the recipe and it was one big sheet of oatmeal,” Beranbaum said. “It was not a very well-written recipe, and it didn’t taste any good — because in baking when the texture is wrong, the flavor is usually not so good. And then I stopped [baking] for years.”
But although she wasn’t much of a baker, she loved writing and communicating with other people. She credits her later success at cookbook-writing to the fact she had “the soul of a writer, not the soul of a baker.” Although cookbooks are largely composed of technical recipes, a desire to write is crucial in order to jot down what could end up being a 1,000-page-long manuscript.
“It’s a question of — when people say ‘I want to be a writer’ — do you write?” Beranbaum said.
It wasn’t until she worked at the Educational Testing Center in Princeton, that she finally had success at baking.
“One of the women there gave me a recipe for almond crescents, and to this day — I may have varied it slightly, but I don’t remember how — it’s just so delicate, so buttery, so simple that my mouth’s watering right now and I’m not even hungry,” Beranbaum said.
Later on, she became the prodigy of Cecily Brownstone, former editor of the Associated Press, who advised her to go back to school.
“She [Brownstone] said, ‘Rose, you have to get a degree and then I’ll launch you in your career,’” Beranbaum said.
Beranbaum ended up getting her bachelor’s and master’s degree at New York University in food science and culinary arts.
“My master’s thesis was ‘Does sifting flour affect the quality of yellow cake,’ and ultimately that was the basis of ‘The Cake Bible,’ because I hypothesized that changing the way in which it’s mixed would be faster, easier and better,” Beranbaum said.
Through her thesis, Beranbaum discovered that mixing the flour with the fat first, would prevent the development of gluten in cake batter, allowing for a lighter, more tender cake. Using this concept, she spent the next decade compiling her first successful cookbook, “The Cake Bible.” When Corby Kummer from “The Atlantic” wrote an article about her book, explaining what she did differently from other bakers, “The Cake Bible” became an instant best-seller.
“I changed the way in which cakes were mixed, and people knew they would have to get the book in order to really be able to do it,” Beranbaum said. “But that’s the irony, that I went back to school just because Cecily said I had to, and that’s what led me to this kind of thinking. But everything I learned I learned on my own.”
Beranbaum explained that “The Cake Bible” had become a sort of child to her. She wanted everything about it to be perfect. Unlike many cookbook writers at the time, she extensively tested every recipe to ensure they would work every time.
“I was telling him [my editor’s husband] that the ideal way to write a cookbook would be — now since I hadn’t done “The Cake Bible” yet and was in the process of doing it — would be to have the whole book finished and copy-edited and then to retest every single recipe,” Beranbaum said. “And he said that there would be very few books then if that were the case. And I said that there should be very few.”
Beranbaum also meticulously went through “The Cake Bible” for mistakes, catching even more than the copy editors. And due to the need to pay copy editors to retype pages of the manuscript when there was a mistake, she spent a fortune perfecting it.
“The reason it was selling is because when people test-made recipes it worked,” Beranbaum said. “And that was not the usual case, especially not with baking. But that’s what it took. There was not a single mistake in ‘The Cake Bible,’ and even medical books have a certain percentage of mistakes and that’s a lot more critical.”
Even after perfecting the recipes and grammar of the book, Beranbaum remained desperate to do everything in her power to get it a wider distribution. She begged cookbook legend Maida Heatter to write her foreword. Claiming she would rather forgo one entirely, than have a foreword written by anyone else.
“I didn’t know her, but I called her and asked her,” Beranbaum said. “I said, ‘You’re the only person I want to write the foreword, I love the way you write about baking and I love your recipes, and if you don’t want to do it then I am not going to have a foreword. Would you consider looking at the manuscript?’”
Willing to do anything to get Heatter’s endorsement, Beranbaum spent an exorbitant amount of money photo-copying her 1,000-page manuscript and mailing it over. Once Heatter had the chance to look it over, she was impressed at how Beranbaum had innovated cakes and agreed to write the foreword.
But make no mistake, Beranbaum’s desire to get a wider distribution for her book wasn’t ever about making money. In fact, she initially attempted to waive her rights to royalties in exchange for getting a picture on every page of the book. She worked hard to sell “The Cake Bible” because it was her child. It was, at the time, her life’s work that she wanted the world to see.
And she was determined that the world would see it even if she was dead or alive. When she travelled in search of new recipes and techniques, she would put the book on a drive and write a note saying, “If anything happens to me, please give this to my editor.”
“You put so much work into something and so much love, what happens if it doesn’t get to the world?” Beranbaum said. “We were saying a [sourdough] starter is a live thing, but in a way, a book is too because it reflects who you are and the best work, hopefully, that you’ve done.”
And while Beranbaum’s road to becoming a famous cookbook writer was incredibly unique and complex, that doesn’t mean you can’t follow in her footsteps. She urges young cookbook writers to sit down and start writing.
“Just write the first sentence, and you might not be able to stop,” Beranbaum said.
Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.