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April 19, 2021
Baz to Basics
Article-Molly-Baz-Cook-This-Book

Molly Baz is rethinking the way we engage with cookbooks—starting with 10-second technique videos, a streamlined approach to recipes, and loads of lemon.

“Obviously, I love lemons,” Molly Baz asserts when I ask her about cooking through the winter blues. She’s transmitting from her new home on the Eastside of Los Angeles, and we’re talking about her recipe development process and some of the ideas she’s drawn to when writing her weekly newsletter and “recipe drops” for her Patreon-backed Recipe Club. The club is part of the ebullient and, honestly, quite edgy Molly Baz experience, which is informed not only by her time working in the Bon Appétit test kitchen but through her formative experiences cooking professionally at the Beacon Hill Bistro in Boston and at New York’s Picholine. “I got my ass kicked, and I feel like I learned how to be a pretty badass line cook,” she recalls of her time working the roast station, among other spots in the brigade. “It was one of those typical scary kitchens with scary men screaming at you.”

Baz is releasing her debut cookbook, Cook This Book, tomorrow. In addition to including a version of her signature Caesar salad (“Cae Sal”), the recipes are penned with a real talent for translating the urban, IG-cool restaurant sensibility for the home cook. There are inspired dishes channeling all the minty, yogurt-y, zaatar-y flavors of the Middle East (as well as something called Frispy Chickpeas). There are sizzling cheeses, party mixes, an “extremely fried egg” featuring a crack basting tutorial, and slow-roasted cod tostados. And, speaking of how-tos, a 747 jetliner of an idea that landed beautifully was the inclusion of QR codes within the recipe directions. Long found at the receiving end of internet-savvy snark, QRs returned to public life in a big way during the pandemic, and here, they represent the moments in recipes that Baz concluded were too complicated to write out. Now it’s a simple matter of using your phone to access links to the author demonstrating knife skills like peeling an onion, chopping a shallot, obliquing cucumbers, and supreming perfect lemon slices.

Baz admits that her obsession with lemons may be providing too much of a good thing. “I’ve become a little bit fatigued, probably because I developed one hundred recipes with lemon zest in them.” But the Baz brand is strong, and when life gives you lemons, in Molly’s case, it means you write a recipe. “If people tasted my food, they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, lemons, that’s Molly.” In this lively conversation, we talk about missing her former coworkers at Bon Appétit, avoiding “regular-ass oatmeal cookies,” and how to write a viral recipe.

I saw you were recipe testing a spatchcocked chicken the other day. It seemed fun and a little intense. How do you develop or test your recipes?
Usually, a recipe starts out as dinner, and then, if it makes the cut at dinner, it gets repeatedly tested in the coming days and weeks. I feel really, really strongly about the need for a strike of inspiration in recipe development. In the past, I have tried to develop recipes that I wasn’t inspired by, and when you put parameters on yourself, I just feel like the food really suffers. So that’s what was really hard about working at BA [Bon Appétit] sometimes. You’ll get assigned a recipe that’s not your idea, because they’re like, “We need a recipe for carbonara,” or whatever, and you’re like, “But I don’t see into that recipe’s soul.” But that’s also your job.

Not when you’re the boss of the Recipe Club, though.
Exactly! It’s pretty amazing now. I see the soul of every recipe I develop, because they’re all mine, and I won’t develop it if I don’t see through to it and it’s not inspiring. So really, it starts from a moment, like a strike of inspiration—it could be the name of a dish, or what the dish reminds me of, or how I see it looking, and then it goes from there. I usually test recipes two to three times; the recipe that’s coming out next is for these miso brown butter oatmeal cookies. And I think I’ve made them eight times. Some things just take longer. And then, on my final test, I usually shoot them on my iPhone—I get all the photography and do the food styling myself.

Oh, so you shoot all the recipes for the club, too? Cool.
Yeah. It’s all on iPhone. It’s like a total one-woman show over here. I mean, it’s a little intense, because it’s like, “Okay, I’m a recipe developer, but I also have to write the copy for the recipes; I send a newsletter with it; I’m also the food stylist; I’m also the food photographer; my mom is the copy editor.” I send her the recipes, and she sends them back with edits, and then I go and publish. Actually, I also have a recipe tester who I pay to test them all, because I just refuse to put recipes out in the world that are untested.

Tell me, when you think about miso, and you think about oatmeal, and you think about cookie, what’s your inspiration?
I’ve been thinking about oatmeal cookies a lot recently; I think because my husband recently shared with me—and I don’t know how it took this long for him to reveal—that oatmeal cookies are his favorite cookie. I was just like, “This is so random,” but then I was like, “Yeah, I do love an oatmeal raisin cookie.” He has a really weird relationship to dessert, so I kind of don’t believe him, but anyway, I was like, “Well I need to make a fucking oatmeal cookie recipe for him, because that’s his favorite thing! But I’m not just going to make a regular-ass oatmeal cookie recipe, because there’s one million versions of that.” So then I started thinking about what the flavor profiles are that I can play around with, and actually, I had been working on a recipe for the club that was a miso crumb cake.

So, honest question. Why actually write a cookbook? You’re doing all sorts of video, you’re great at it, and you’ve got your club, so why go through the pain of a cookbook?
Well, I will start by saying I didn’t know how painful it was going to be [laughing]. Because this is the first one, so no one can prepare you for the intense amount of work it is. That said, I would-slash-will do it again, so it clearly wasn’t that painful. A cookbook because I live in an aesthetic world, and I love objects and things around me. My husband is a spatial designer, so he’s infiltrated my brain in a way where I think a lot more about the objects around me. And I’ve always loved cookbooks because they are a designed object in the world.

I want to hear about the QR codes, because I love them and I think there’s a real future for them being written into cookbooks. Obviously, QR codes in the past have been clunky and lame, but now they’re really part of our everyday lives. How did that idea come about, and how do you think readers will interact with those codes?
I can’t recall the exact conversation, but I was on the phone with a friend of mine, Declan, two and a half years ago as I was writing the book proposal. I was talking him through all of the elements of my book, and I think what I had said was that I really want this to be dynamic and that I want to figure out a way to bridge the gap between this physical book and the fact that I’m on the internet and all of my followers and everyone who’s going to buy this book is on the internet. There’s a weird disconnect there. And so came the idea of bridging the gap through QR codes, and creating supporting content for the book—specifically content that would be better served in a visual format than it would be in the book.

Like what?
For the very technical technique concepts in the book, like how to chop an onion—I don’t know if you’ve ever actually tried to write that out—I’m sure you haven’t, but maybe you have? I wrote it out into one of the steps and I was like, “I just spent three paragraphs teaching someone how to chop a frickin’ onion.”

Okay, so, big question, but I know you’ll have a take. How do you create a viral recipe?
What I think is that you cannot. You cannot decide what’s going to be viral. I’ve tried, and it’s something that I think we put a lot of energy into at BA. And, you know, it was always the most random-ass recipes that would go viral, and I will never understand virality—like, I don’t get it at all—but it’s just not up to you, and that’s what’s so cool about it. There’s no equation. That’s why something going viral is so special, because it’s like, “Why is this? Why is this being circulated around?”

Why does this coffee drink blended for 45 seconds become a hit?
Or the feta pasta? I looked at that, and I was just like, “That looks pretty lame, and kind of disgusting. Why is this going viral?” You just cannot predict any of it, and so I don’t think there’s a point in trying, and you’re just lucky if it happens.

I just wonder, do you feel like certain foods tend to pop a little bit more?
I would say, my experience has shown that pasta recipes outperform everything else I’ve ever developed—like, bar none. Anytime I develop a pasta, it’s the one that gets the most likes, and then it’s the one that gets cooked, repeatedly and repeatedly. And then, a lot of times, I’ll come out with a recipe, especially with Recipe Club, and it feels like everyone’s making it for a week. And that’s fun, having its own very small viral moment. I actually don’t understand it, because I never cook pasta at home, so I can’t really relate to it, but for whatever reason, every time I come out with a pasta recipe, it’s on constant rotation.

Which concepts gives you struggle, or at least—it’s not a negative question—what do you want to learn more about?
I want to learn more about everything I don’t know enough about—which is to say, everything in the world, basically. There’s so much nuance to cuisines that I feel like I haven’t had the opportunity to even tap or explore. I think about living in LA—now I eat so much more Mexican food than I ever had. I eat tacos three times a week now, and it’s made me realize that my understanding of Mexican food was so surface-level, and will be so surface-level, for a very long time. I’m excited about the proximity to Mexico now, because I feel like there’s just so much that I want to learn. I wish I was Anthony Bourdain—so does everyone in the world. But I could just learn everything about every cuisine.

Do you miss BA and your friends there, and working with a team?
Yeah, I mean, I miss other people’s ideas; I miss eating other people’s food and other people’s ideas of what tastes good, and flavor combinations, and all of that. There aren’t four or five badass cooks around me in my kitchen just cranking things out and asking me to taste them and having me think about what’s going on in their skillet or on their plate. That, for me, is the biggest loss of going out on my own. There were so many ideas in that kitchen, and we all had so much to learn from each other—that’s totally the thing I miss the most.

And all the friendships—I miss just shooting the shit. Because now I just shoot the shit with my husband, which is great but . . . you know. The test kitchen was fun. It was a lot of work, but there was also a lot of fun that was had, you know, on the daily, and it’s definitely solitary now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marinated Lentils

FOUR EXCITING RECIPES FROM COOK THIS BOOK

Marinated Lentils With Lots of Basil
“Once you know how to properly cook lentils—like pasta, in a pot of heavily salted water—you’ve got one of the greatest canvases upon which to express your creativity.”

The Cae Sal
“If you only knew the things I’d do for a Cae Sal. Or perhaps you already do. To call it my brand would be to grossly underrepresent what this salad means to me. It is the Greatest Salad of All Time (GSOAT).”

Crispy McCrisperson Chicken Thighs With Herby Peas and Fennel
“If you’ve ever wondered how to make juicy, tender chicken thighs with shatteringly crisp skin, well, this is your lucky day.”

Brown Butter and Labneh Banana Bread Cake
“Can we please stop lying to ourselves and acknowledge that banana bread is really just banana cake??”

MORE BOOKS TO BUY, READ, AND COOK FROM:

Last week we spoke with Posie Brien, an editor at a 200-year-old flour company called King Arthur. You may very well know their flour. It’s a great read.

Last year, Oakland chef and activist Bryant Terry released one of the most exciting vegetable cookbooks in years. Vegetable Kingdom is a must for your cookbook collection.

It’s starting to feel warm and sunny and like, shall we say, tiki weather? Easy Tiki, by Chloe Frechette (senior editor over at PUNCH), is a must for your weekend (or Monday 5:00 hour).

You know that handful of ingredients you somehow always have in your refrigerator? These are the starting points Lukas Volger uses to jump into a slew of never-boring meals to get you through the week in his latest book, Start Simple.

Stained Page News has an excellent spring cookbook preview. Spring is the best time to buy a cookbook—and to support our favorite cookbook Substack.

Matt Rodbard

Matt Rodbard is the editor in chief of TASTE and author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, a New York Times best-seller.