The cotton-candy-colored fore edges of the beautiful new baking title from Libbie Summers, Sweet and Vicious: Baking with Attitude (Rizzoli, 2014), had us sold even before we cracked the cover. And once we did, we were thrilled to find a refreshingly no-holds-barred recipe collection that encompasses everything baking can and should be—namely, fun.
In the following Q&A, we asked Summers to share her process in creating Sweet and Vicious, and how she is able to challenge readers—without leading them down a highbrow path to culinary self-doubt (quite a feat when homemade puff pastry is involved).
Relish: Tell us about the Sweet and Vicious title. What does it mean to bake with attitude?
Libbie Summers: Baking with attitude is about baking without fear. Trying new flavors and techniques and taking a simple recipe and elevating it with layers of flavor—sending it over the attitude edge with an extraordinary adornment! It’s bravado baking…but in a belly laughing kind of way. Vicious is the new fierce!
R: How did you learn to bake with such attitude, and so fearlessly?
LS: I couldn’t help but hone my baking skills while cooking in the galleys on sailing yachts. Trust me, when you’re trying to bake a cake in a confined space while the boat is rolling around in the ocean, you learn fast how to be fearless with baking. I’ve baked more bread then I care to remember while harnessed near a gimbaled oven that was smoking hot. I have the scars on my arms to prove it.
R: Did you have any commandments for yourself when writing Sweet and Vicious? Maybe ideals you wanted to uphold, beliefs you have about baking, or opinions on what a great cookbook should be?
LS: I always want to do cookbooks that are the kind I would buy. My favorite cookbooks contain recipes that are easy and [also] ones that challenge me. They are cookbooks filled with beautiful images and a stunning design. They are page-turners because of their engaging writing and stories. My favorite cookbooks are those that make my mouth salivate and make me smile. So, those aspirations kept me focused through the whole project.
R: What was it like jumping from your last cookbook project, which was all about pork, to a project on baking?
LS: There are actually a number of baking recipes in The Whole Hog Cookbook, so it wasn’t a huge jump. And, I MAY have added a little pork in the form of bacon to a couple of recipes in Sweet and Vicious—the decadent Hog Heaven Chocolate Layer Cake and a Primal Cut Cookie, which is a delicious iced bacon sugar cookie. I don’t think I could ever do a cookbook that didn’t have a little pork in it.
R: Have you always been sweet on sweets, and did you find yourself on a perpetual sugar high while piecing together the book?
LS: I have a big sweet tooth, that’s for sure. I try to exercise moderation—sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not. Luckily, I have a team of great people who test recipes for me. I really count on their feedback, not only for making sure the recipe directions I give them are correct, but also to get their thoughts on flavors … [but] it’s me that has to test the recipes again and again. So yes, there was an unnatural amount of sugar and butter that entered my body for the year I was working on the recipes.
R: What baking essentials should readers of Sweet and Vicious always have in their pantries?
LS: Everyone has to have fresh flour (all purpose, bread and cake), baking soda and baking powder. But it’s the infused sugars I share in the book that I would encourage every baker to have in their arsenal. Especially vanilla sugar. It’s so easy to have on hand and what it does to a recipe is very subtle, yet so present. Trust me. It will change your world.
R: Tell us about the videos that pair with many of the recipes in the book. They certainly aren’t your run-of-the-mill cooking how-to’s. What was the creative process like?
LS: Since part of what I do for a living is produce food-inspired creative content in video form, I wanted to have that represented in the book. So I met with a young, talented videographer, Eliza Barrera, and we made a plan to shoot 15 small videos to go along with the book. Eliza videoed the entire process of shooting the still photography for the book … Then she and I used the B-roll she shot, the beautiful still photos from Chia Chong and recipes to inspire us for the book videos. It was a year-long process.
Some are inspirational little films, some are how-to’s, and some are interviews. The thing I hope they all have in common is that they entertain and inspire the viewer to try the recipe or just get in the kitchen and bake for themselves or their family.
R: Which video was the most fun to film?
LS: Of course, I love the pie crimping video that we released early and exclusively to your Relish readers AND it just won the IACP Award for Best Single Food Focused Video, but just last night, I gave my final editing notes on the video that lives in the acknowledgements section of the book.
It’s a behind the scenes look of making the visual part of the book. I loved seeing all the wonderful creatives in Savannah that lent a hand to Sweet and Vicious. I had forgotten some of the fun stuff we did and was reminded how much I really care about all the people seen in the video. I am so humbled and honored to have their touch on the book. Not going to lie, I was crying at the end of the video.
R: Many of your recipes are partnered with stories documenting what inspired their creation. Do you have a person, place or thing that has inspired you more than anything else?
LS: With all of my writing, everything and every person that touches my life informs a story. Chia Chong, who photographed this book and whom I work with often, tells me it’s a sickness. I can wax on and on about a linen I picked up in a small town in Peru 15 years ago. How that tattered cloth reminds me of the wonderful girlfriends I had dinner with that night … how we might have been over-served Pisco Sours … how it was the first time I ate guinea pig and how the hand-stitched poncho I was wearing that night smelled of wet earth. I think Chia’s right. It’s a sickness.
With Sweet and Vicious, there seems to be a common thread of cute boys as inspiration. I fear I may have dated too much.
R: And if you could only make one recipe from Sweet and Vicious for the rest of forever, which would it be?
LS: I love that phrase—the rest of forever. My rest of forever recipe would be my Best Ever Red Velvet Cake. I make it every year for my husband, Josh, on his birthday. So, if I’m making it for the rest of forever I know I’ll be sitting next to Josh for all that forever—nothing could make me happier. Life is sweet.