The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Jesse Szewczyk is a cookbook author, writer, and food stylist best known for his cookbook, Cookies. We joined Jesse in his kitchen to discuss how he made his way from culinary to pastry and his career in the media world. He also took Stud Muffin for a spin and shared one sweet and one savory muffin recipe.
When I was a kid, my mom supported my sister and me by starting a candy business. She became known for her caramels. I grew up in this small town in Illinois, and she became a sensation. She would trade caramels for our haircuts, or during the holidays she was super busy selling them. I grew up helping her make them. I do love baking caramels. I have this running joke that I can make anything into a caramel, like balsamic caramels.
I worked in restaurants throughout high school, and for college I went to the Culinary Institute of America and studied cooking and business management. When I started working in restaurants, I kind of rebelled and studied culinary. Of course, later in my career I specialized in baking, and it was like … duh.
I have this running joke that I can make anything into a caramel.
My first job was doing research and development, but I didn’t like it very much, so it lasted a year and a half. When I was 25 I got my first media job at BuzzFeed. I was there for several years, working as a special projects editor. The big project I left on was a charity book for 75 essays and stories by queer chefs. It raised $50,000 for GLAAD. I had this amazing editor at BuzzFeed, and I told her I had this really big, never-gonna-happen pipe dream for the book; I pitched her the idea, and it got green-lit pretty quickly. I wrote it in three months. I just turned to friends and a lot of DMs and asked for introductions to a lot of people for the book. We paid every contributor for the book.
From there I went to The Kitchn, where I would write recipes and style in the studio. During that time I also published my first book, Cookies. Now I’m freelancing and split my time writing and styling. I originally started baking because I was cooking so much professionally. I saw baking as a hobby — as something I do to destress or have fun. I always thought, Oh, who cares if it’s not perfect? But that was the entry point to doing it professionally. I have a lot of fun and am easier on myself;it’s still something I approach as a hobby.
I originally started baking because I was cooking so much professionally. I saw baking as a hobby.
I also love bakes that are borderline savory and sweet. For inspiration, I definitely turn to these fringe pastry chefs, like Elizabeth Falkner, who grew up in the savory world, and you can see that in their baking. I’m fascinated by those people. They really reimagine baked goods with strong savory flavors. I try to skew savory a lot. In my book, I had a whole chapter on savory cookies. Artistically, that’s what I work toward, but, having worked for Buzzfeed and The Kitchn, I want to make baking more approachable for everyone.
I want to make baking more approachable for everyone.
People were really happy with Cookies because you could make the recipes without a mixer. I’m really fascinated by pushing that further. I want to make more recipes that don’t require a mixer or blender — just the barest of bones. I want to bring really interesting bakes to the masses on an extremely accessible level. I would love to know the data on what percentage of home cooks have an electric mixer. I’m sure that it’s a small number, so why are recipe writers pretending everyone has them?
I want to make more recipes that don’t require a mixer or blender — just the barest of bones.
My current cooking is a lot of random bits and pieces from recipe tests. I’m in the kitchen almost every day for work, so I always have random ingredients around. Cooking is a way to use up those excess work ingredients. It’s fun because it forces me to be creative and make something random sometimes. It does inspire me sometimes, too, especially when they are just really specific ingredients. Right now I have a ton of matcha left over from a baked good I was making, so I’m like, Okay, I have to find a way to use the rest of this.
For work I write, style, and test recipes. So, if I’m feeling myself burnt out on one of those, I can always lean on one of those other things. With cooking at home I love slow, low-stress things like braises. It feels less like an assignment and brings the joy back into cooking. I kind of refuse to follow a recipe in my own life, too. Even with my own recipes, I can’t follow them. It happens all the time that the recipe doesn’t turn out right.
I kind of refuse to follow a recipe in my own life, too. Even with my own recipes, I can’t follow them.
I’ve made two recipes today in Stud Muffin. One is savory, and one is sweet. The savory one is a leek-and-cheddar corn muffin. I wanted to play on a sour-cream-and-onion vibe. This recipe borrows a technique from Cook’s Illustrated where you combine some cornmeal with milk and then add that to the batter. That locks in moisture and helps it puff up.
The second recipe is a blueberry coffee-cake muffin. It’s a blueberry muffin batter and gets topped with a streusel and drizzle of icing. This one was kind of a selfish stylist move because I knew I could make something beautiful.
I used Stud Muffin for both of these, and it’s so smooth that I didn’t have to use liners. I just gave them a quick spray, and they came right out. I’ve also learned with muffins to fill them very high because the lip on the pan is what helps them continue to rise and not collapse on themselves. I also love the colors. I made the coffee cake muffin in the blue one because I knew it would pop in there.
I used Stud Muffin for both of these, and it’s so smooth that I didn’t have to use liners.
I generally work from ideas first and then go to execute it. The blueberry muffin is an iteration of something I’ve made before. But the process for the corn muffin came from tweaking a bunch of things I’ve made before.
Looking back, I was like, Damn, I could’ve made a cookie! Dorie Greenspan makes cookies in muffin tins, so I want to play with that idea in the future. I think a brownie cookie, in a way, could be interesting. Like the little brownie cups from Costco, that’s what I’m imagining … I think something like that is up next.
I was like, Damn, I could’ve made a cookie!