Erika Swyler is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY, and has had pieces featured on Story Chord and Anderbo. Erika has also been writing a tumblr since 2010 called Cookie Dough and Regret: Baking and Shame, located at ieatbutter.tumblr.com. ieatbutter has developed a following over the past couple years, and I can say with confidence it is the only baking and shame blog written in the second person.
All photos posted on ieatbutter are taken by Erika of things that she has baked…then she adds her hilarious commentary to cap off the delicious imagery. Occasionally she posts recipes, and answers the questions from her loyal followers.
My introduction to Erika’s amazing blog was this post that she sent over:
This coming Monday, April 30th, is Story Chord’s 50th Birthday Party at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. Erika will be reading a new piece that she wrote specifically for the event, Emperor X will be performing, and there is an art installation by Amy Sly. Not to mention free cup cakes from Butter Lane to the first 24 attendees!
The person who bakes in second person finally speaks in the first person. More about Erika’s non-food writing and Story Chord’s Party after one of the most fun interviews I’ve done yet!
P.S. All photos and captions come from ieatbutter.
When did you develop your passion for baking?
My mom baked with my sister and me when we were little, so I developed a sweet tooth pretty early. We did the basics, cookies, open top pies–things a kid could really get into. A few years back my sister gave me a cookbook for my birthday and it started me on a tear. As a writer I collect hobbies like some people collect matchbooks. I was poised to dive into something and that cookbook opened up a world for me. I decided that now that I’m a grownup I’m allowed to try impressive looking things like three-layer cakes and things involving sauces, curds and caramel. I figure the major benefits to being an adult are that nobody can kick me out of my kitchen when things go wrong, and that nobody can yell at me to not eat the batter. That first cookbook from the guys at Baked was an inspiration. Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. Seriously, it’s brilliant.
Are there any local bakeries that you currently look to for inspiration besides Baked?
Sweet Melissa Patisserie in Park Slope is an old standby. Clafoutis is pretty much the way to go for me. In my neighborhood in Crown Heights, Basil has some truly fantastic desserts. I had a lavender dusted funnel cake with lavender ice cream there not long ago that was absolutely amazing. That probably has a lot to do with my recent fascination with frying things. It’s interesting because it’s a Kosher establishment that does Italian cuisine, then has this insane pastry and dessert menu. I dream about that funnel cake. For cupcakes, hands down Butter Lane. Their cupcakes are the perfect size, and the frosting isn’t too sweet. I took a class with them specifically because of the frosting. I’ll never forget, the instructor told us not to bother measuring vanilla, that we could just throw it in. I love that. I like haphazard baking. People have this idea that baking is uptight with no room for fun or experimentation. I think that’s a terrible attitude and scares people away from trying things. Throw in that vanilla. Don’t think about it. Just do it and see.
Are you still following cook books, or do you make it up as you go along?
I’ve definitely started making up my own recipes. I’ve got a go-to way of making pie crusts, so that opens the world of basic pastry right up. I mean, what isn’t good in a pie? I’ll put anything in a pie. I don’t have leftovers anymore–they all go into pie or pie crust cookies. Same goes for cake. If you get down a basic feel for vanilla cake, you can do almost anything. Strawberry cake, citrus cakes, hazelnut cakes, you name it. With cookies I tend to mix and match different recipes until I come up with something I like. When I want to learn something totally new to me, I hit the books. I mean, there’s no way I’d ever attempt baklava or anything like it without someone there to hold my hand.
As a person who loves baking pies has vodka worked it’s way into your crust? I have a friend who swears by it, and I’ve started using it myself.
I’ve tried vodka in crusts, but I don’t find it to be quite as miraculous as people suggest. I get great results using just ice water. The trick is to have your dough be just a little drier than you think it should be, almost shaggy. If you use a good butter it’ll come together like it should when you roll it out. That said, vodka is a great safety net if you’re scared of working with a dough that feels a little on the dry side. People are so scared of crusts! I don’t know why. I absolutely manhandle mine and they still turn out.
What has been your most ambitious baking adventure?
My most ambitious baking exploit had to a bunch of mini mini lattice top apple pies.
They were really small, about the size of tassies, and it took forever to cut all the strips for the lattice. The amount of time it took to make something meant to be eaten in one bite was mind boggling. It’s far more difficult to make small things than large things.
Did any of the mini apple pies make it til morning? They look delicious!
Sadly, the mini apple pies did not survive the evening. I desperately wanted them for breakfast, but they were gone in about a half an hour. That’s another problem with baking small things, people eat them like potato chips. To be honest, I could absolutely eat a Pringles tube worth of mini pies in a single sitting.
What has been your most fun experience in the kitchen?
Hands down the most fun I’ve had was making pancake sandwich cookies with maple syrup buttercream.
Nobody told me how to make them, I just thought about it, hauled out the griddle, warmed up the oven, and went to work. I think these were probably the best idea I’ve ever had, largely because they’re so simple. I mean, who doesn’t want bite-sized breakfast? I got a ton of recipe requests for that, which surprised me because it’s very commonsense–make quarter-sized versions of your favorite pancakes, take out the extra moisture in the oven, do a basic buttercream with maple syrup, and sandwich it all together.
…and the most disastrous?
My worst kitchen disaster was hands down an orange curd cake. The curd part scared me as I’d never made one before. The consistency was strange and I had to start over a few times. After finally getting it right, I poured it into a container to set aside, and then promptly tipped that container over, spilling almost a quart of orange curd down into my stove. I’m not a person who cries in the kitchen. I cried. It was horrible. That curd slapped me in the face. We don’t speak of that cake in my house anymore. The other total disaster was a lemon fluff pie. I got the recipe from my grandmother’s cookbook from the 1940s. It looked fantastic coming out of the oven, but within about 30 seconds it had deflated into this totally unappealing yellow goo. It tasted fine, but looked just awful. I did get a picture off during the 30 seconds it looked almost appetizing. No, I’m lying. It was a fail from beginning to end.
If you are going to splurge on dinner in NYC where are you most likely to go?
I’m kind of a seafood nut, so I tend to gravitate that way. Esca is a favorite of mine. The last time I was there I had monk fish that just bowled me over it was so good. Not to mention the gelato. Oh, and the cheese! How could I forget the cheese? The Mermaid Inn is where I take people I really like. It’s refined comfort food. Really fresh food that’s just cooked perfectly. They also give you a tiny chocolate pudding at the end–no choice, just pudding. I love that! It’s delicious pudding.
Have you traveled specifically for food? What is your dream destinations and what would you eat?
I haven’t yet gone anywhere specifically for food, but it’s always a factor in travel. I lived in Florida for a little while and I’d be lying if I said I don’t occasionally plan a trip back to visit a favorite BBQ joint. I did travel to Italy last year and that was just a parade of delicious food excess. I probably overdosed on gelato. I also had the best espresso I’ve ever had in my entire life in Tuscany. Yes, yes, the wine, but that espresso was just delicious. Also, I’d like to go back to France and eat my weight in baguettes. The flour is different there and the crumb has a little more oomph; I think it’s the protein content. Oh, and Vienna for the pastries. Basically, it’s my dream to take the Orient-Express and eat my way across Europe. Banoffee pie and scones in London, baguettes and pain au chocolat in Paris, pastry in Vienna, gelato and panna cotta in Venice, baklava in Istanbul. I don’t think you can even do that all on one trip. I’d obviously need some sort of exorbitant food budget.
Do you consider yourself an adventurous eater?
I’m a fairly adventurous eater. As long as it doesn’t smell like it’s dangerous, I’m on board. I’ve eaten alligator, frog legss, escargot, some simple things that make people cringe. My mother is from Pennsylvania, so I’ve eaten and liked scrapple, which makes a lot of people cringe. I suppose a lot of people would be turned off by eating sea urchin or jellyfish, but I find them both delicious. Durian (stinky fruit) is off limits for me. Durian smells dangerous.
Have you tried anything weird recently?
I had chicken feet for the first time not too long ago. I guess that could be considered adventurous, though it’s such a staple for a large group of people, I don’t know. I actually really enjoyed them. Fried, of course. I guess that’s probably the best way to introduce someone to a food they might think is strange. ”Don’t worry, it’s fried!” It’s a difficult food to eat in front of other people, the entire process is sort of continually picking something from your teeth, but they were delicious.
I like to ask every New Yorker these next two questions…what are your go to cheap eats?
Oh, the Chat ‘n Chew on E. 16th is an old standby. I regularly fantasize about their sweet potato fries. Tom’s in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn; they’re the only place up here I trust to do grits. And their egg creams–oh my. Also, I still swear by the Olive Tree Cafe in Greenwich Village. Nothing is better than a mountain of freshly made tabouleh. They also play Charlie Chaplin movies, which is a huge bonus.
…and what is your favorite pizza shop?
Oh, I’m insanely lucky because I live near a terrific shop that nobody’s heard of outside the neighborhood. Kingston Pizza is brilliant. It’s a total hole in the wall, but their crust is perfect–thin on the bottom, just the right puff at the edge, and none of that cornmeal business. It’s great New York pizza, perfect for folding in half and letting the oil run off. Nothing is worse than a pizza crust that snaps when you bend the slice. Kingston’s got that handled. Also, their chicken rolls are super good. I think I prefer Brooklyn pizza over Manhattan pizza. It feels less fussy to me. I might be over thinking this, but it’s pizza, so it’s personal.
Are you a beer, wine, or cocktail gal? How about coffee vs tea? Where is your favorite spot to get your fix?
My standard drink is usually beer, because it’s difficult for me to drink quickly. Delirium Tremens is a favorite, as is Edelweiss Weissbier Hefetrüb. In the past few years I’ve developed an appreciation for bourbon, but I’m still an embarrassingly cheap date. That said, the best alcohol I’ve had in ages was Thomas Handy Sazerac, which is rye, and absolute perfection. I drink coffee like it’s going out of style. I’m terrible at it and use one of those Keurig machines at home, as I’m usually too asleep to make the first cup in a percolator. One of my favorite place for coffee is Birch Coffee, up in the Flat Iron District. The coffee is great, the staff is lovely, and the people watching couldn’t be better. You get to see all these odd characters stumbling in and out of the Gershwin Hotel.
Why did you start writing ieatbutter?
ieatbutter started for a couple of reasons. Once I began baking sort of adventurously I started taking pictures of everything–because food is so temporary, you know? Pretty soon I’d accumulated a mountain of photos I had no idea what to do with. At the same time this was going on, I also belonged to a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm share group. I met a lot of people who were absolutely militant about what they ate. Groups of people would sit around discussing the evils of flour, rice–and sugar. Heaven forbid anyone should mention sugar. It all felt very holier than thou. Seriously, don’t even bother trying to convince me that cake isn’t wonderful. I’ll immediately know you for a liar. We’re so shamed about the way we eat these days, and I don’t think it’s particularly helpful. I got it stuck in my head that each night these people went home and ate bowlfuls of raw cookie dough while hiding in the secrecy of their closets. It cracked me up, and a blog was born.
Are there any questions that people have asked through “Ask Me Anything” on ieatbutter that you would like to address here?
I get lots of recipe requests and I never quite know how to respond. First, because I consider myself to be more of a humor blogger and jack of all trades than any sort of kitchen authority; second, I think the best part of baking for me has been working my way through cookbooks, the internet, and figuring things out for myself. If it’s something that I invented on my own I’m happy to share, but believe me, there are a million and a half great recipes for brownies and cupcakes out in the world, mine isn’t really going to be earth shattering.
People have asked about why I blog in the second person. I started doing it to take the “me” out of it, because well, we’ve all eaten too much at some point and felt embarrassed about it. It was important to me that the blog not be tied to a single person, but rather a common experience, so we could all laugh at ourselves a little bit. It also gives me a ton of leeway to fictionalize. I think ieatbutter has been through 8 roommates, 12 jobs, owns a chocolate enrober, and has been entirely disowned by three fictional families.
I have gotten some heavier questions about things like eating disorders, my overall health, and even Paula Deen’s diabetes. I have great sympathy for anyone struggling with food issues, I’ll say that right out. It’s again strange to me that people would send a faceless internet person these very personal questions. I guess what it boils down to is that we’re in a culture that’s decided that it’s acceptable to have an opinion about someone else’s health. That’s not okay. I do this for the joy of food, because baking really is a huge amount of fun. If anyone isn’t really enjoying what they’re cooking or eating, they’re doing it wrong. Believe me, if I ate nothing but pastries and butter, it wouldn’t be enjoyable.
Do you have any allergies that prohibit your eating and/or baking?
I’m allergic to almonds, which is a shame because I crave them pretty much nonstop. The fact that I can’t eat marzipan makes me cry.
Did it happen all of a sudden? It appears that almonds are a love once lost.
At my cousin’s wedding the little table gift was a bag of Jordan Almonds. I was happily munching away when my mouth began itching, I broke out in hives, and my throat started getting tight. About a week before I’d gone on an absolute almond binge with a friend. In hindsight, that’s probably what triggered my allergy. It’s the worst. I have such fond memories of that almond binge.
Do you have any kitchen ware shop you want to give a shout out to? I personally love Brooklyn Kitchen// The Meat Hook, but Whisk seduced me recently with their superior selection of pizza stones.
I would be a horrible baker if I didn’t spread the love for New York Cake and Baking Supplies (just Cake & Bake to most). It’s just a huge roomful of every kind of thing you could ever want to bake with, kind of like wandering into Grandma’s attic, but with cake pans, piping tips, and chocolate. It’s the perfect for exploring. I usually leave there with a 5-lbs bar of Valrhona chocolate, or Callebut. You can’t get me out of there without at least mini melon baller.
If you were a dessert what would you be?
Oh, I love this question! I’d be Crème brûlée. It’s got that lovely caramelized crust that you have to crack through to get to the good stuff. I like to think I’m sweet but with a little bit hard shell. Yeah, that’s horribly cliche. I should embarrassed, but I’m not. I just love that dessert. It’s got all the basics–sugar, vanilla, cream. I think that’s me, I’ve got good basic ingredients.
Erika will be reading new original work at Story Chord’s 50th Anniversary Party this Monday April 30th, 2012 along side Michael Barron, Tobias Carroll, and Anthony Jones. Emperor X (who has released music on my own Mirror Universe Tapes) will be performing, and Amy Sly will have an art installation up!
NYC, YOU ARE INVITED to celebrate Storychord.com‘s 50th issue release on Monday, April 30, from 7-9pm at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. The birthday-party themed evening will feature art, readings, and live music from past contributors.
Admission is FREE, and all food/drink/book purchase proceeds will benefit Housing Works’ mission to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS. Also: free Butter Lane cupcakes to the first 24 attendees to arrive!
If you aren’t familiar with Story Chord it is a website that features one story, one image, and one song every Monday each by underexposed talent. If you are interested in contributing to Story Chord check out their submission page!
If you aren’t already following ieatbutter you should do so now. It’s brought additional humor to my week, and I’m grateful for it.
Erika typically writes literary fiction, and found her way there through being a self-proclaimed “failed actor.” She currently has big things in the works, but details are yet to be revealed…in the mean time you can find her stories titled “Rattlesnake” over at Story Chord and “Transcontinental” over at Anderbo.