Steak and Cake | Elizabeth Karmel

Intro: Welcome to the Cookery By the Book Podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.

Elizabeth: I'm Elizabeth Karmel, and my new cookbook is Steak and Cake: More Than 100 Recipes to Make Any Meal a Smash Hit.

Suzy Chase: It was so nice meeting you at your book party last month, here in New York City. The food was incredible, the crowd was incredible, and I had such a great time tasting so many things out of this amazing cookbook. So, this cookbook is an offshoot of your Steak and Cake classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. What we're all thinking is, why steak and cake? Usually, it's steak and potatoes or steak and lobster.

Elizabeth: So, you know, it's interesting, this book did grow from the class that I taught, at the Institute of Culinary Education. And the way that I came up with the idea for the class, and it was a recreational class, so I was teaching home cooks, I was not teaching professional students, is that, I thought, I was teaching rec classes on Friday, Saturday and Sundays. And I thought, "You know what, I want to come up with an idea for Saturday night, that is, number one, going to be a fun class and a fun evening out. And number two, is going to give people real tips and techniques and tools, to go home with, so they can cook better at home." And I thought to myself, "What's everyone's favorite Saturday night meal? Steak and cake." Steak and a slice of chocolate cake or carrot cake or whatever your favorite cake is. And so, I thought, "That's it. That's going to be my class, steak and cake." And so, I wrote it up, and it was a huge success. It had a long waiting list, and I taught it for many, many years, and much of the same menu that I taught during that class is actually in this book.

Elizabeth: And of course, it's widely expanded, but the reason that I turned it into a book is, this is going to sound really cheesy, but this is 100% true. People would come into the class, the hands-on classes are 16 people, and I would gather them around one of the work tables before we started, and everyone would go around in a circle and introduce themselves and tell me why they signed up for this class. Because I really wanted to know, personally, but also, I wanted to make sure that anything they wanted to learn, that I taught them. Even if it was a little bit off the curriculum. And so, in doing that, people were really kind of anxious, and their body language was very closed and they were really nervous, they had never made a steak. They had never baked a cake before. They didn't even know how to buy a steak. And so, by the end of four hours, after they had made their own steak, baked their cake, ate it, and declared everything delicious, they, literally, were walking taller. They were smiling, they were sending me pictures of what they were making at home, steaks and cakes. And I thought, "You know what? I can't believe a class like this, I could visibly see peoples' self esteem rising." And it was so gratifying to me that I thought, "You know what, I need to turn this into a book."

Suzy Chase: So, Steak and Cake is also full of recipes from your friends and family. For example, the POTUS carrot cake originated with your cousin Carol, who was Gerald Ford's chef. Tell me about that carrot cake.

Elizabeth: That carrot cake, she would make for family functions. And my mother had it, first, before I had it, and she said, "Elizabeth, this cake, this carrot cake is so delicious, you have to try it." And I said, "Well get me the recipe." And, the truth of the story, is that my cousin would not give my mother the recipe, but my mother got it from my aunt, her sister-in-law, and then gave it to me, and I tried it. And really, the addition of crushed pineapple, which is usually reserved for a hummingbird cake, makes all the difference. And then, because I can't leave good enough alone, and I'm a much more packet-full-of-flavor kind of person than my cousin Carol, I added a number of ingredients to it, but I kept the essence of her carrot cake, which was adding that can of crushed pineapple to it. Most of the recipes in the book, have some kind of inspiration, and I tell that story in the head notes. I mean, one of my favorite recipes is my key lime cheesecake, and my sister, Mary Pat, is a fabulous Baker. We call her Sticky Fingers or Sticky Pat. And oftentimes, she makes three desserts for a function because one, of course, is not enough and two, it's almost sad. And so, three is the perfect number of homemade desserts for a function.

Elizabeth: And she is famous for her key lime pie, and key lime pie, of course, it's as a steakhouse favorite. But since this book was about steak and cake, I couldn't have a key lime pie recipe in here, so I took, sort of, the best of her key lime pie recipe, which I think is her pecan and graham cracker crust, and I turned it into a cheese cake, and I love it. And then, I upped the ante, by making a key lime curd, that I put on the top, which is optional. You don't have to do it. But, if you really liked that tart key lime flavor, you can do that. And so, she never made the recipe until the book was out. And now that the book has been out, she's made it four times. She's making it again for father's Day because key lime pie is her husband's favorite dessert. And now, this is sort of shuffled in, to take over the key lime pie. And the other day, I was talking to her and she goes, "I don't know if I've told you yet, but I just love that recipe. That recipe is so great." And that's so gratifying to me because I was kind of giving a nod to her key lime pie, in here, and now that she's making the cheesecake instead of her key lime pie, that really makes me happy.

Suzy Chase: How did you determine the pairings? Like, the porterhouse for two with the My Mother's Freshly Grated Coconut Cake?

Elizabeth: The truth of the matter is, when I started out to write this book, I ended up writing two single subject books. One on steak, and one on cake. And I got so excited about steak and cake because this really is a passion project for me, that I created twice as many recipes as we could print. And so, at the end of the day, what happened is, all the recipes that I created to balance out the book... So, my editor, Suzanne Rafer, in her wisdom, she said, "You know what, I don't care if this book is balanced, I just want your favorites." And so, all of my favorites, many things that I grew up with, like my mother's fresh grated coconut cake, are the recipes that made the cut. And so, once I had the recipes that made the cut, in terms of creating pairings, I wanted to make sure that it was balanced, so that if it was a really rich steak, maybe the cake wasn't quite as rich, or vice versa. If the cake was really rich, the steak was, maybe, a little bit plainer.

Suzy Chase: You say the best steaks are cooked simply. What are your two methods?

Elizabeth: That is something that, when I sat down to write this book, I realized there are really only three. I think there are three essential ways to cook a steak. There are two main ways and then one sort of new-fangled way. An outdoor grill, a cast iron skillet, and then the new-fangled way, is to sous-vide your steak, the day before you want to serve it. You can do it in the morning too, but I like to do it the day before you serve it. Then, let it rest all day, refrigerate it, and right before serving, coat it with a little bit of olive oil, season it, and then either char it on the grill or give it a great crust on a cast iron skillet.

Suzy Chase: Describe how you sous-vide, for people who aren't familiar with it.

Elizabeth: Okay. I'm so glad you asked me that question because people... home cooks are a little afraid of sous-viding, but sous-viding is actually easier than cooking. And today, there are lots of choices of sous-vide circulators, that you can purchase. My favorite one happens to be made by a company called Chef Steps, and it's called Joule, J-O-U-L-E. And the reason I like it is, it is, probably, no longer than 12 inches, so it's very portable. It has a magnet at the bottom, so that you can sous-vide in a Dutch oven, or in any kind of pan that's magnetized, and you don't have to buy a big plastic Cambro, which, you used to have to buy this big plastic tub, back in the early days of sous-viding. And so, now, to actually answer your question, sous-vide basically means that you are cooking food by letting it sit in circulating warm water. And essentially, the water is set at the temperature that you want the internal temperature of the meat to be. So for example, if I sous-vide a tomahawk steak, that's my favorite way to make it, that's what's pictured on the cover of my book. And I love cooking a tomahawk steak because it's full of drama. It's a long, bone-in Ribeye. That's all it is. And one tomahawk state can feed 10 people, but I mean, there's nothing like the presentation of a tomahawk steak.

Elizabeth: And so, the day before, I buy it from a butcher, already vacuum sealed, and I put it in a large Dutch oven with my sous-vide circulator set at 142 degrees. And then, it cooks for about four hours. And I take it out and cool it, and then put it in the refrigerator and let it rest overnight, refrigerated. And then, right before I'm about to serve it, I brush it with olive oil, all over, because I have a mantra, "Oil the food, not the grate." And that goes for if you're cooking indoors, too, but it came from my outdoor cooking experience, and that will keep all the juices inside. It'll promote caramelization, and it'll help prevent sticking, or stickage, as I call it. And so, it is just the most delicious way to make meat for a crowd because it cooks at the same temperature, from end to end. So you know, if you cook a beef tenderloin, for example, the ends of that tenderloin, which are thinner, are generally more well done than the center. And that's true with a lot of steaks, and everything. With sous-vide cooking, it's exactly the same temperature from end to end.

Suzy Chase: When I'm at the butcher, I try to take in the visual clues of freshness. What should we look for, when purchasing beef?

Elizabeth: One of the things that really surprised me, in my classes, was that people didn't even know how to buy a steak. So, because of that, in my book, I put together a whole steak primer. Probably the biggest part of that primer, is what I call a steak grid. I have pictures of all the different cuts of steak, and I tell you, not only what muscle group it comes from, if there's another name for it, because across the country there are different names for different steaks, But I also came up with my version of tasting notes. When I first set out to do this, I wanted to create tasting notes, much like we create for wine or spirits. And then, when I was working on it, I realized that, you know what, "We don't have the vocabulary for tasting notes, for beef." And so, I turned that into texture and flavor intensity.

Elizabeth: And I also included a guideline, as to price, because I didn't want somebody to pick a recipe from this book, and go to the grocery store, or go to the butcher, and be shocked at what the cost was. And so, I give them an idea, with dollar signs, as to whether it's a one dollar sign kind of meat, or like the tomahawk, a four dollar sign cut of meat. And, if you don't have a butcher, who you trust, who is going to get you a great cut of meat, look for the certified Angus beef seal. The word Angus is probably in 200 brands of beef, so you have to look closely, and make sure it says CAB, certified Angus beef, because what that is, is that's, really, a quality program of lots and lots of small, family ranchers that have gotten together. They have such stringent quality standards, that most of the CAB beef that you buy, is high choice to low prime, even though it's all graded as choice. In my experience, when I go to an area that I don't have a butcher, if I go to a grocery store that sells CAB meat, then I'm always assured of getting a really great, flavorful piece of steak.

Suzy Chase: That's such a good tip if you're home cook, working on a budget, and you have to go to the grocery store.

Elizabeth: Yes, and there are lots of places in America that don't really have butchers, right?

Suzy Chase: Yeah, totally.

Elizabeth: I mean, there are, I mean, the New York area is very butcher friendly, but there are a lot of places where the butcher shop of the olden days, no longer exists.

Suzy Chase: In the cookbook, you quote Julia Child, "A party without a cake is just a meeting." Talk, for a moment, about your cake tour.

Elizabeth: Okay, so I couldn't resist that quote, right? I mean, it's been used many, many, many times, but it's so true. A cake signifies celebration, and a cake is for sharing. And so, when I sat out to start testing the recipes that I had created for this book, I thought to myself, "Well, with the steak recipe, I can make one steak and write the recipe for four steaks. But for a cake, I can't make one slice of cake. I have to make a whole cake." So instead, what I did is, I created my Steak and Cake Tour, and I went to five different friends and family houses, for a week each. It was great. Every single morning, I woke up and I said, "What cake shall I bake?" Every one of the smash hit cakes of the five different stops, made it into the book. So, once again, the cakes that people were like, "Oh, you know what? That's good. And that's interesting." Those were the ones that did not make it into the book. But, everybody's favorites made it into the book. That's why this book is so eclectic.

Suzy Chase: So, barbecue has had a big impact on my life. I grew up in Kansas City. I started my cookbook publicity career at a barbecue and grilling publisher, run by a woman, who wrote 14 BBQ cookbooks. Then, I moved to New York City in the mid nineties, and there weren't any good barbecue places until Hill Country came around, thanks to you.

Elizabeth: Aw, that's nice. Thank you for saying that. And of course, you must have worked for Karen Alders, right?

Suzy Chase: Karen Adler, yep.

Elizabeth: Yes, of course. Of course. So, everybody in the barbecue business knows her and knows... It was called Pig Out Publications, right?

Suzy Chase: Yep, it sure was.

Elizabeth: Yep. Yep, yep, yep, yep. So anyway, she was really a pioneer. So... well, that's so sweet of you to say. And I think that the reason that you feel that way, is that I grew up in North Carolina. I grew up on barbecue, and then when I moved away, it was really important, to me, that if I was going to create a barbecue restaurant, that it was going to be as authentic as it possibly could be, in New York City. All the way down to the fact that... Hill Country barbecue is based on the barbecue of central Texas, and in central Texas, it's a no sauce zone. But, I knew, in New York City, people would want sauce. So, I created a barbecue sauce using peaches, reminiscent of the hill country of Texas, and smoky chipoltes. And I called it If You Gotta Have It because I wanted Texans, who were familiar with central Texas barbecue, who came into the restaurant, to know that I knew that they didn't really use sauce on their barbecue.

Suzy Chase: That's funny. It was like a code.

Elizabeth: So there you got it. So, the reason that I think you say that there was no good barbecue until Hill Country, is because Hill Country was the first restaurant, in New York, the first barbecue restaurant to be created by someone who was a southerner, and who really had roots and authentic barbecue.

Suzy Chase: I made your recipe for a classic New York Steakhouse Strip, on page 41, and Barbuto-inspired roasted potatoes, on page 181. Why is this steak your favorite cut?

Elizabeth: Okay, because... I'm so glad you asked that. Now, first of all, steaks are subjective, just like cakes, right? So, I happen to love a strip steak because I love the texture of it. I like meat that still has a little bit of chew. To me, it's on the leaner side. It's certainly leaner than a ribeye, but it still has enough marbling to give it really great flavor, and so that's why it's my favorite. It literally is my absolute favorite. I love the texture. I love the flavor, and I like to eat it on the rare side of medium rare.

Suzy Chase: We live around the corner from Jonathan Waxman's Barbuto, and we're sad it closed. So, these were the potatoes that they served at Barbuto?

Elizabeth: Well, they're inspired by the potatoes served by Barbuto. I loved Barbuto. I was lucky enough to go to the party, the, sort of, friends and family party that they had, two days before they closed. And, I had those potatoes. I had these potatoes, no matter whether I went for brunch or for lunch or for dinner, every single time I went, because there is nothing like a baked potato that has cooled down, you crack it, then you fry it until it's craggy and crispy on all of the edges. And then, put a little bit of romano cheese and salt and rosemary on it. And, I don't know what his exact recipe was, but that's what I imagined I was eating, every single time I ate it. And so, I make them frequently, when I cook steak for people. And so, I had to put them in this book.

Suzy Chase: I also made your chocolate cake on page 230. This was the easiest... The one thing I love about this cookbook, is your cake recipes are easy. And then, I think you have three hard ones, right?

Elizabeth: I do have some advanced cakes. So, I like to say that this book has something from... literally for everyone. From tacos to tomahawks, and the Texmex chocolate sheet cake, which I think is the easiest cake in the book, and very, very satisfying, to my mother's fresh grated coconut cake, which is a little bit more advanced.

Suzy Chase: For my segment, called My Last Meal, what would you have for your last supper?

Elizabeth: Wow, that is a good question. And I deserve that question because one of the pairings in this book is my brother-in-laws' last meal, basically. And so, I asked him that question, and so I deserve to be asked that question. And it's so hard for me because my favorite thing to eat is, really, literally, whatever I'm cooking right now. But, I think that if I had to drill it down, my last meal... I think that I would love tomahawk steak with lobster, so I'm going a little rogue from the recipe in the book, and my mother's fresh grated coconut cake. And we got to throw those Barbuto potatoes in there, too.

Suzy Chase: Yeah, definitely. Thank you, Jonathan.

Elizabeth: Yes, thank you, Jonathan.

Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?

Elizabeth:, that is connected to my very first website, which is almost 20 years old. That's called Girls at The Grill. Instagram, I'm @ElizabethKarmel, and on Twitter, I'm @GrillGirl, and Facebook is also Elizabeth Karmel.

Suzy Chase: Let them eat cake and steak. Thanks, Elizabeth, for coming on Cookery by The Book Podcast.

Elizabeth: Oh, thank you so much for having me. This has been so much fun to talk about Steak and Cake, which really is my passion project.

Outro: Follow Suzy Chase on Instagram, @CookeryByTheBook, and subscribe at, or in Apple Podcasts. Thanks for listening to Cookery by The Book Podcast, the only podcast devoted to cookbooks, since 2015.

Pat Nunnari