The Life of an Edible Gardener, Cook, Author and Musician

Alice Garbarini Hurley | Ysanne, did you eat your vegetables as a child?
Ysanne Spevack | I grew up in the 1970s. Vegetables were often overcooked or frozen, but I remember enjoying cucumbers and salad greens, particularly butter lettuce, the standard variety of lettuce in London at that time.

Alice | Do you live a farm-to-table lifestyle?
Ysanne | I am an advocate for growing your own food, and cooking from scratch when possible. I ran edible estates in California for many years, a minimum of 2 acres per garden – they were mini-farms. I grew 100 percent of the produce I ate then. Now I’m nomadic – living in London, New York City and Los Angeles – so things are different! But I still like to sprout seeds on my countertop and grow baby greens in my kitchen. It doesn’t take much, just a flat tray of soil, some lettuce seeds and a little light, and you have mesclun salad wherever you live in the depths of winter, when you need fresh greens the most.

Alice | You’ve written this captivating “Vegetable Cakes” cookbook. Why should we bake with veggies?
Ysanne | Every major health organization worldwide agrees with the science. When humans eat vegetables, they get vitamins, minerals, enzymes, phytonutrients, water and fiber that they need for healthy immunity, inflammation control, stronger blood and bones and mood elevation. And they taste great!

Alice | The beautiful photos by Nicki Dowey in the book inspired me to bake a pan of Beetroot Rose Chocolate Brownies, with three large beets, boiled and pureed. My vegan daughter liked them chilled. Are many of the recipes vegan?
Ysanne | I’m not advocating a vegan diet with this book; a lot of the recipes contain ingredients like butter or eggs. I’m not vegan, and while I’m flattered that many vegans are embracing my book, there’s nothing about it that shouts out ‘vegan.’ Everyone eats carrot cake. Whether you’re eating a standard American diet or a superfood, raw, vegan, paleo, or keto diet, there’s a carrot cake variation. But why stop at carrots, when there are so many other vegetables with wonderful qualities for baking desserts? It’s about being open to new things.

Alice | How new?
Ysanne | Well, cauliflower gets very soft when baked, so I’ve used it to make moist cakes, grating it into the batter. My Okra Cacao Bundt Cake brings the texture of cooked okra to create a rich, dense chocolate cake. The sweetness of caramelized parsnips shines in my Parsnip Upside Down Tarte, which is super sticky and buttery.

Alice | Do you use refined sugar in the recipes?
Ysanne | Only one recipe in the book calls for it. Unless you’re making a meringue (my beautiful Radish Pavlova), refined sugar is a lazy option. Why use sugar to sweeten when you can add flavor at the same time as sweetness? That’s why I prefer coconut sugar, made from the nectar of coconut flowers. It’s an ancient heirloom ingredient from Indonesia and contains a wealth of phytonutrients that help slow down the release of sugars into the bloodstream, easing highs and lows that cause many of us, including children, to feel sugar crashes. Caramelizing also makes anything, from onion to zucchini, sweeter.

Alice | Are these vegetable cakes beautiful?
Ysanne | Everyone is always happy to come back for seconds but to be honest, I’ve been writing cookbooks since 2001 and I’m not as interested in presentation as younger cooks who are obsessed with Instagram. The wow factor is important sometimes when it comes to dessert, but for me, it’s taste that matters. You can add visual appeal with plates and props, candles and soft furnishings, but beauty is not the primary motivation. Take my parsnip tarte. A truly ugly duckling of a cake, all brown and flat, nothing cute about it. But browned parsnips lend gorgeous, sweet flavor, and browned buckwheat dough adds delicate nuttiness and a sumptuous, unusual texture. None of this would exist if I simply focused on the visual aspects – and that would be a shame for everyone.

Alice | Are the sweets pricey to make?
Ysanne | There are 46 recipes in this book, including cakes, tarts, pies, bars and cookies, and I developed them to suit a wide cross-section of people and pockets – and the price for the hardcover is just $15. For some, the expense of ingredients is a big factor but others are going to celebrate a special occasion, so they’d prefer me to include more luxurious ingredients, like almond flour.

Alice | Which recipes do you think will be most popular for home bakers?
Ysanne | Everything in my book is aimed at home bakers. I am a home cook myself. I’ve never worked in restaurants, and don’t intend to. I learned from my mother. I don’t know restaurant stuff, and neither do my readers – so they can easily re-create my recipes. One of the easiest is Velvet Artichoke Hearts, which my little friend Aasha made a few weeks ago, and she’s 8 years old! The Brooklyn Scones (featuring green beans) and Beetroot Rose Brownies are both super-simple.

Alice | You’ve designed edible gardens for celebs, including William Shatner. What was that like?
Ysanne | I love working with creative people like him. He and his family are warm and wonderful. They were receptive to fun ideas, such as the passionfruit vines I planted along the driveway. The flower looks similar to a classic UFO, which we all thought was appropriate, given William’s “Star Trek” role [ as Captain Kirk ] – and they could enjoy the delicious fruit later.

Alice | You’re also a celebrated musician and composer, having toured and recorded with the Smashing Pumpkins, Elton John and others. Do you see a correlation between food writing and music?
Ysanne | I see them as flip sides of the same coin and I have done both for over 20 years. Music and food both have a similar ability to connect with people on an intimate level.


Surprising cheesecake ingredient?
I have six cheesecakes in this book, and none contain cheese! All of them include either cashews or silken tofu for the cheesecake layer.

Birthday cake you loved as a girl?
My mother’s Stuffed Monkey Cake, a Jewish cake she made with mixed candied fruit peels added to almond flour and butter.

Best spring veggie?
Fiddlehead ferns, purely because their season is so short – it makes them even more special.

Most humble vegetable?
Possibly also fiddlehead ferns, because they can only be found in the wild, and never cultivated. They’re available to anyone inclined to roam outside and pick them.

Do you grow your own vegetables?
I have grown everything at some time. The Malibu climate allows almost every edible crop to flourish – and anything that doesn’t, I’ve grown in London or New York.

Any veg you hate?

What’s a secret from The Ranch Malibu, where you worked as head gardener?
Make a salad dressing by removing the stone (or “pit”) from a super-ripe summer peach. Throw the peach into a blender with a little olive oil, pepper and sea salt.

Do you listen to music in the kitchen?
I can’t make a Pumpkin Ginger Cheesecake without listening to the Smashing Pumpkins. But silence when I’m concentrating on a new recipe, or when I want to find peace. Cooking is my meditation, so honestly, I usually cook without any music or background noise.

How do you take your coffee?
I haven’t had coffee since the mid-1990s. I drink English breakfast tea with milk, no sugar.

Do you exercise a lot?
In New York and London, I cycle everywhere and love it. In L.A., I drive, so I love to hike and do yoga. Gardening is also great exercise.

Favorite parks?
This changes, but for New York now, it’s Brooklyn Botanic Garden; for L.A., Runyon Canyon; and for London, it’s definitely Hampstead Heath.

Prettiest beaches?
Shimoda in Japan, Latigo in Malibu and Shelter Island in New York.

Indispensable veg prep kitchen tool?
My paring knife, the only knife I use – other than a bread knife.

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