A candid interview with the creators of Between Carpools and the latest cookbook sensation, Dinner Done!
With preorders already breaking sales records, everyone, it seems, is talking about Dinner Done, the fantabulous (no other word describes it!) soon-to-be-released cookbook, created by the team that brings us the uber-popular lifestyle site Between Carpools (BCP) and published by ArtScroll. Just to add to the excitement and the buzz, we decided to chat with the Between Carpools team about their lives, their accomplishments, and, of course, how they get Dinner Done!
So let’s meet and greet our BCP friends: Leah Schapira, Victoria Dwek, Renee Muller, Esti Waldman, and Shaindy Menzer.
ArtScroll: How did Between Carpools start?
Victoria: Four of us had been in the kosher food world and we had wanted to do something online together. Then Leah had an idea. She said, “It has to go beyond food. Food, yes, but also posts about kids, home, organizing, decor, baby gear, clothing … anything goes. A website that’s built around our lives.” Then she had the brilliant idea to call Shaindy ….
Shaindy: I knew Leah from my kids’ school and from the neighborhood. I got a message from her one day, asking if I would join BCP. Before she even had a chance to describe her vision, I remember telling her that I had no time for hobbies anymore. I’d join if it was something that she thought I’d be super passionate about. Of course, three minutes later I was super-excited about the idea and jumped onto the BCP team. It’s been the best decision ever.
Esti: It went from a vague idea of a safe and interesting online place for Jewish women to a full-steam-ahead project. Somehow, with a lot of siyata di’Shmaya, people started following along, and the trust they have in us has been unbelievable. It’s definitely become more than a little “side project” by now.
ArtScroll: This isn’t the first cookbook for three of you. Did you ever think you’d get together to write a book with your Between Carpools team?
Leah: The opposite! The three of us who have written books have frequently said that we’re not writing another one. We said, “We’re tired — and we’re retired.”
Victoria: All books should be written by a team of five! I absolutely loved being able to focus on writing … without having to worry about how the food looked, because Esti and Renee were on it! What I also loved about writing with a team is that we could all focus on the types of food we actually like to prepare. For example, first Leah and Renee worked on chicken, because Renee cooks fleishigs every night. Then Leah and I tackled the dairy chapter. Finally, Renee and I brainstormed the types of fish dishes we’d need.
ArtScroll: What did you look for in recipes for Dinner Done?
Esti: We don’t want you to have to spend a ton of time in the kitchen every day preparing dinner. So, quick prep was important. Featuring recipes that use pantry ingredients was also important. We want you to be able to pull out the book when it’s time to make dinner and be able to cook without a run to the grocery store.
ArtScroll: What are your favorite recipes in the book?
Renee: It’s hard to find a favorite. I am always working with food and I am rarely tempted to eat what I’m working with. When styling Dinner Done, it was just the opposite! Every recipe was like “Yay! Lunch!” Or, “I’m so excited; another dinner idea that I KNOW my kids will love.”
ArtScroll: How do you develop the recipes?
Victoria: If you pick any random recipe in the book, we can tell you a story behind it. I think the recipe that sums it up is the very last recipe we wrote, Salmon with Silan and Garlic Slices. One day, about two weeks before the book went to print, we had a meeting at ArtScroll. At that point, the book was almost done — we just needed one more salmon recipe. It had to be simple. And we knew we wanted to include silan. During the car ride home, we had a brainstorming session, deciding just which spices would pair well with silan and salmon. When I got home, I made the recipe, just as we had discussed. And it was spot on. The give-and-take really results in great recipes. There are so many recipes in the book that are better because we have partners we can discuss them with. But not all recipes are collaborative. Leah, tell them about the process behind Crispy Chicken.
So, basically the cookbook was all written up. And honestly, we had enough chicken recipes, but looking through the section I realized it was missing that one addictive special occasion fried sesame chicken recipe. (In my cookbook, Fresh and Easy, that recipe is iconic). Since everyone also loves takeout crispy beef, I started working on a combo: crispy sesame chicken takeout.
For the recipe to work I knew it needed a few specific elements.
1. The chicken had to be thin so that the coating would be significant enough to be crispy.
2. The coating had to have a real crisp/crunch factor.
3. The sauce had to have a good balance of sweet, to give it that addictive special occasion vibe.
Getting the chicken crispy was easy. I knew using a mix of flour and cornstarch and both baking powder and soda would give me the maximum crispy factor. And lately I love using apple juice in chicken and meat recipes, since it adds some flavor while keeping the chicken tender.
The sauce was a bit trickier. I fried up three pounds of chicken strips and tossed each half-pound with different sauces combinations, until we got the one we wanted.
In general, when writing recipes, I think of a few things:
- What do people like to buy in restaurants and take-outs? Can we make a great version at home, sometimes healthier, sometimes with a twist and sometimes as is?
- What recipes am I missing in my life? A new Friday-night fish, a new soup recipe that is similar enough to chicken soup so that the kids will be willing to try it?
- Can I find a new twist on an old favorite? For example, I wrote a mashup of everyone’s favorite two soups — onion soup and chicken noodle soup — so now DD has an Onion Noodle Soup!
ArtScroll: Esti and Shaindy, you have some contributions in there, too. Tell us about your own recipe testing experiences.
Esti: I’m not a recipe developer — I just take the pictures! But don’t tell that to my kids. They insist that all my food is worthy of publishing!
Shaindy: Every once in a while, Leah would try to pick my brain for recipes. “C’mon, I know you have some good stuff you’re not sharing ….” And I’m always like, “Me? Recipes? I start dinner at 3:30 without knowing what it will be! From start to finish, my dinners usually take max an hour to prepare … trust me, you don’t want my recipes.” And Leah says, “YES! We want exactly that!” I have so many recipes that I wouldn’t even think to call recipes. Like my Maple OJ Chicken … is that even a recipe? Apparently, it is!
ArtScroll: Can you share with us a little about the design and styling processes of the book?
Shaindy: I was called in pretty early on, to come up with a layout design. First, we needed the layout for the actual recipe pages, so Victoria would know how much room will be allowed for the description and for the tips and hacks. I did a lot of cookbook browsing to get inspired and ultimately, I knew I wanted a book that would be clean, easy to read and follow, yet beautiful visually. It had to connect with the style of Between Carpools, so there had to be some sketches and we had to stick to similar fonts and the color palette from the blog. Once I came up with the layout, I presented it to the team. I’m lucky to have a team that is so easy, and they approved it right away. Then I got a little break time while they all worked tirelessly writing, styling, and shooting.
The last few weeks before print is when all the “extra pages” were designed and created. I’m a real last-minute kind of person and work really well under pressure, so that worked for me. I spotted some inspiration that was awesome — it was a combo of images and sketches. I showed it to the team and everyone loved it! There! The hard part was over — we had a “look and style” for these pages. Once the concept is there, the rest flows. You’ll see these creative pages throughout the book, especially in the divider pages and front matter. I have to say this was such a thrilling project and it was fun to use my creative cells to make it work!
Renee: I wanted the book to have a casual dinner vibe. Something achievable, familiar, and unpretentious. Like your good denim skirt. So — don’t laugh — I added denims to the palette. Denim is definitely weekday. Right? And it’s comfy. Look through the book and you’ll see denim throughout, or shades of it. At one point, when we wanted to get a specific shade of dark denim, we used an actual skirt. Yup. True story. See if you can spot the real skirt on two pages!
ArtScroll: Tell us a bit about the “9 x 13 Life”
Renee: We starting posting 9 x 13 recipes on the site — that is, meals you can make in one 9 x 13-inch pan — and they became our most popular. It’s because that’s what people need. This is real life; there are so many days when we simply don’t have time to cook or can’t manage having a mess to clean up. So we decided to begin the book with a whole chapter of 9 x 13 recipes. It’s easy to turn to when you’re in a pinch or just want a great, mess-free meal. There are lots of baked goods in the chapter too, for the time when your child comes home and says he has a siyum tomorrow and needs something to take to his class, or when you realize you need an extra dessert on a Friday … we have you covered!
ArtScroll: Who is this cookbook for?
Esti: It’s literally for everyone who has to make dinner on a regular basis.
Renee: Us. All of us. Dinner happens 6x a week. We need solutions. Quick and easy ones. Walk through the door and need dinner done in 30 minutes? It’s possible. Leave for the day and you want to have a meal cooking and waiting for you when you return? It’s in the book. We know and understand what women need these days. We put it into the book.
Victoria: This is a book that’s even for the woman who never buys cookbooks! Those who love to cook will love it, but those who simply cook to feed their family need it, too.
Shaindy: To me, a cookbook is something you pull out before Yom Tov or when making a simchah. I honestly own maybe 3 cookbooks. (I don’t own Leah’s or Victoria’s either … shhh, don’t tell them!) I’ve always said about myself, “Me? Recipes? I don’t follow instructions like that …. Like, you’re gonna tell me what to do?”
As much as we said this book is going to be simple, I never really believed them until I was called on to test some recipes. I geared myself up to go grocery shopping and I put away some extra time to prepare. And then it suddenly hit me …. “Whoa, these recipes fit right into my daily last-minute routine … I have every single one of the ingredients, and hey … this is sooo easy!” Every single recipe I tested was a hit in my home. The idea of this whole cookbook really started to get to me. I was finally getting into it. This is not just another book … this one was going to be awesome!
Now that I have the printout proofs, these recipes are all I make for dinner. Honestly, I can close my eyes and pick any page and it will work for me. It’s amazing how every single recipe is a GOOD OPTION.
Another point: These recipes were tested and approved by our (bli ayin hara, many) kids. Different households, different palates, and yes, if it wasn’t great, it didn’t make the cut. We cooked the book constantly while writing it. These recipes work for our families. And they’ll work for yours.