Interview with Dinah Bucholz, Author of “The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook”
Keith Hawk, MuggleNet: I’m sitting with Dinah Bucholz of Philadelphia, and she has just released her new book, titled The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook. First, Dinah, I’d like to welcome you tonight, and thank you for joining us here on MuggleNet, and congratulations on your book.
Dinah Bucholz: Well, thank you very much. I’m delighted to be here.
Keith: Tell us, when was the idea first originated, and how did it evolve since that first origination?
Dinah Well, it sounds a little crazy to say this, but it just popped into my head one day. I just had a flash of inspiration. I even remember exactly where I was. I was returning home from errands, [and] I was turning from Route 1 onto Woodward Street (Northeast Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), when all of a sudden the words “Harry Potter cookbook” actually flashed into my head. And I think that it must have been in my subconscious because we do have some literary cookbooks at home. We have The Little House Cookbook, which is based on the series – The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – and we have an American Girls Cookbook.
It must have been – somehow that connection must have been made in my brain. That’s the only explanation I can give for the fact that this just popped into my head one day.
I was always interested in the food in Harry Potter just out of curiosity. I always felt you can’t read Harry Potter without getting hungry. There is such good food described in there, and the feast sounds amazing. But I had no idea what the food was. I was wondering, “What in the world is treacle tart? It sounds so good.” Or, “What is knickerbocker glory? What are these things?” And I did try treacle tart once because I happened to see it in a cookbook that I just happened to have in my house, but that was before I conceived the idea to write the cookbook. When that thought popped into my head, the first thing I did was rush straight home [and] put my baby to bed – she was just about to have her nap anyway – and I grabbed the very first Harry Potter book and started flipping through the pages and jotted down the foods. And as soon as my husband came home from work, I said, I have such a great idea for a book. It’s such a great idea for a book. And when I told him, he said, That is a really good idea! And he was very enthusiastic. But it was not as easy to find an agent as I thought. I went through all the books, I wrote down all the foods, and I started putting together a proposal, and I sent it out to lots of agents, and I got lots and lots of rejections, one after the other. And finally, George Beahm, who wrote Muggles and Magic, I think it’s called… and he wrote another one on Harry Potter; I can’t remember what it is called [Fact, Fiction and Folklore in the Harry Potter Series]. So my husband suggested that I ask him how he did it because the little feedback I was getting was basically referring to copyright. The very few agents who actually did tell me why they were rejecting my idea said they were worried about copyright.
So I sent him [George Beahm] an email, and he was very kind to respond right away, and he provided lots and lots of information, and I was still getting lots of rejections. Finally, he said, You have nothing to lose, just write a letter to J.K. Rowling’s lawyer and find out if you can do this, and that’s what I did.
Keith: Did you actually hear back from them?
Dinah: I did hear back from them, and I never thought I would. But six weeks later, I had an email in my inbox from J.K. Rowling’s law firm, and I was so scared to open that email. I was shaking. But I opened that email, and basically, the email just told me that there [are] no copyright problems with the sample material I sent them. I just have to put the word “unofficial” in the title, and they want to review the entire manuscript before publication. And with that letter, I was able to snag an agent. That was Mary Sue Seymour of the Seymour Agency.
Keith: Now, I imagine with J.K. Rowling, she has some copyrights on some of the items that are in there, such as Butterbeer, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, et cetera, et cetera. So how did you overcome those? Or did you have to exclude those from the book?
Dinah: I had to exclude those recipes from the book. There is no recipe for Butterbeer. There is no recipe for different flavored jelly beans anyway; it would be impossible. That would require specialized equipment, and to replicate different flavors, you really need chemists or chemical engineers or whatever they are called who actually experiment with different flavors and flavor combinations. They use natural flavors that are really different chemical combinations that are not available to a home cook. So that would have been impossible to try to attempt anyway. But there is no recipe for Butterbeer, there is no recipe for Sugar Quill or… I’m trying to remember what other magical foods are in the books.
But there are some recipes that I didn’t include, just because it’s too simple to make – you don’t need a cookbook – like Chocolate Frogs. You buy a chocolate frog mold, melt chocolate, and pour it in. But that’s the one disappointing thing that readers have told me: There’s no recipe for Butterbeer in there. But they didn’t even let me use the word “Muggle” in the title of the book or in the subtitle. The original subtitle was supposed to be “150 Recipes for Muggles and Wizards.” And they didn’t let us use that. So since they didn’t even let us use the word “Muggles,” I didn’t think there was any chance they would let me use food that J.K. Rowling invented.
Keith: That is now a copyrighted word by J.K. Rowling. “Muggles” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary by her.
Dinah: Oh, is that right? I did not even know that.
Dinah: Well, that is interesting. There is a previous [definition] of “Muggle” that means something else, like from the 1920s, but I can’t remember what it means. I think it means something like “common” or something like that. But her use of that word [that she invented for non-magical people], that is her own made-up word.
Keith: Now, you said that you had tried the treacle tart before, and that was one of the inspirations for it. I recently did try that myself with my daughter, and it was pretty successful. It was pretty sweet, and it definitely was unique to cook. But I did have a problem finding one of the ingredients, treacle, here in the States.
Dinah: The golden syrup?
Keith: No, the golden syrup I found was Lyles Golden Syrup. But the treacle, which was more of a molasses type…
Dinah: Dark treacle?
Keith: Yes. Where would you recommend people who are in the States here go to get some items that are traditional UK fare?
Dinah: I found the black treacle together with the golden syrup on the same shelf, so I don’t know what to say. I think that a well-stocked supermarket that carries the golden syrup would probably have black treacle. Specialty food stores. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine that stores in Manhattan, for example, with famous stores like Zabar’s and Fairways, would probably have it. But you can use blackstrap molasses instead of the black treacle or some very dark molasses. It tastes almost identical.
Keith: Yeah, I used blackstrap molasses for mine.
Dinah: It also smells tremendous, and it has a strong, strong sulfur smell.
Keith: Would you consider a majority of the recipes in the book to be centered for children or more for adults?
Dinah: That’s a really good question. My goal was to create recipes that were as authentically British as possible, or as true to the original dish as possible. So I did not consider how easy it would be for children to make the recipes, so it really is kind of a toss-up. Some recipes are easy for kids to make, some recipes are not. Some recipes should not be made without adult supervision. I put this in the “Helpful Hints” section in the book. The recipes that call for boiling sugar should not be attempted without an adult supervising, as this would be dangerous. Molten sugar is very, very, very hot. Deep-frying recipes also should not be attempted without an adult. Unless you’re talking about a 17-year-old, or even a 15-year-old [who] is experienced in the kitchen.
But some recipes are complex in the sense that there are a lot of steps, but each step is easy. Like the chocolate gâteau: It calls for you having to bake the cake, then you have to make the custard, then you have to make the glaze, and then you have to assemble it.
Every recipe that has those kinds of steps in it can be made easier: You can use a cake mix for the cake; you can use instant pudding for the custard. A friend of mine asked me for a recipe about pumpkin pasties. She said, “I don’t want to go through the bother of making that dough. So I said, You can just buy pre-rolled, frozen pie dough. You can get that.“ You can get… any recipe that calls for puff pastry, you can just buy the frozen puff pastry. You don’t have to make it from scratch. I never make puff pastry from scratch; I only did it for the cookbook. I do make my own pie dough. Pie dough is fairly easy, but since it’s an extra step and you want to save yourself the bother, just go ahead and buy the frozen pie dough.
Keith: Now, you mentioned that you’re not [familiar with] traditional English cooking, so where did you learn how to do traditional English and Scottish fare like this? Did you have some help from a professional chef, or did you just try to sample it all on your own until you got it right?
Dinah: I had no help at all. I have absolutely no culinary training. I’m just a home cook who really loves to cook, especially to bake. I love to make desserts and cakes and pies and different things like that. Everything I learned, I learned out of books. It took me a long time to master pie crust, and I learned just by reading out of books. But when I started doing my research for this book – basically the way I did it – I just did a lot of research.
I read British cookbooks, I went to British websites, and I have a huge food encyclopedia. So when I developed a recipe for this book… let’s take treacle tart: I looked at a whole bunch of different recipes of treacle tart in different British cookbooks and on different British websites. And then I got an idea of what the basic ingredients are in treacle tart and the basic method of making it, and then I cobbled together my own recipe. What I then did was test the recipe that I cobbled together and taste it. And if it didn’t taste right, I’d retest it.
Treacle tart was easy for me because it’s basically a very simple recipe. It’s a tart dough with a filling that’s similar to shoo-fly pie filling, which is breadcrumbs and molasses. But I had absolutely no experience in things like fudge and toffee; that took a lot of experimentation, and I must have made about 20 batches of the fudge before I got it right. My kids loved it; they loved the gloop. You can’t go wrong; in terms of flavor, you can’t go wrong with melted butter and sugar. But the toffee was very challenging until I got it to that… when you chewed it, it didn’t stick to your teeth too much. It’s still a little sticky, but it did take a lot of trial and error… a lot! But I learned a tremendous amount from that experience.
Keith: Wonderful. Now, looking at your book – and I really enjoyed your book – there’s, like you said, 150 recipes. All of the recipes start out with an explanation of where they are featured at in the Harry Potter series itself. And then you also have this little blurb as to the history of the food, where it came from or where the name came from, how it originated, something like that for each one. Which of these recipes did you find the most enjoyable to learn about?
Dinah: Well, I think my favorite story is about carrots, believe it or not. I discovered so many odd facts about food during my research. One of the things I discovered about carrots… I don’t even remember now if I included it in the fun facts, but I think it is there. My favorite fact about the carrots was that during World War II, the British fighter pilots were using radar technology to track German fighter jets. They wanted to hide this technology from the Germans, so they kind of let it leak that the reason they had such super night vision was from eating a lot of carrots. But the Germans actually bought the story because it fit in with their old wives’ tales that carrots are good for your eyes. Well, they are good for your eyes, and they are good for night vision, but they won’t give you radar vision. And you’ll still have to wear your glasses.
Keith: That’s a wonderful story. Which of the recipes do you think, Dinah, would be the best for a family to create? What was the most fun for your kids to participate in?
Dinah: My kids mostly participated [in] tasting the food. I did a lot of the recipe testing when they were not home because it was a little stressful to do. It was very intense; I had to test a lot of recipes a day to meet my deadline. So I did most of my testing when they were in school. On days off, my husband was off from work that day. Like a Sunday, for example, he often took them out on a trip so that I could work. So they really enjoyed the food. They loved the ice cream. They loved the fudge and the toffee, all the sweet stuff. I can’t say they were crazy about the stews and the soups.
Keith: The bouillabaisse soup?
Dinah: The bouillabaisse soup, I actually did not test. That was given out to… I contracted that out to Chris Koch, a professional chef, because it’s a shellfish stew, and we’re Orthodox Jews, and we don’t eat shellfish. It’s part of our cultural diet.
Keith: So in order to keep kosher, you had to subcontract some of the items out to try to test it and have them get it down to the perfected level of recipe that you were happy with, is that correct?
Dinah: Yes. Chris Koch took care of all the recipes that have pork, which is forbidden for Jews to eat, and like I said, shellfish, bacon… all of those recipes. We also don’t mix milk and meat products, but what I was able to do was to test the meat recipe that called for milk; I was able to test it using substitutions. And I put that up on my website because a lot of people do have milk allergies or do keep a kosher diet. They can find out how to use substitutions for those recipes on my website.
Keith: And that’s really good because a lot of people can’t find some of the traditional items that are used in these European fares – some of the French items and some of the English items – so they do need to have a substitute as to what they can use to put into their recipe as well.
Dinah: Well, yes, [for] ingredients like golden syrup, I always write that you can always use corn syrup instead or a molasses or a maple syrup depending on the recipe. They do have different flavors, but they kind of behave the same way in a recipe. And they can be used as a substitution. So I tried as much as I can to do that because I wanted the recipes to be accessible so that any home cook could pretty much find the ingredients in their pantry or just run around the corner to the local supermarket and get it. There are some ingredients that do call for ingredients that are hard to find, that you have to get online, especially the candied recipes like the nougat. I tried really hard to make it without wafer paper or rice paper, but it is so, so sticky, it will stick to anything. The only way to get it out of the pan and to slice it is to coat it on top and bottom with the paper. And that was something I had to order online.
Citric acid was another ingredient that is kind of hard to find in your local supermarket, so I had to order that online as well. But there are very few recipes like that in the book.
Keith: Well, you certainly do have a lot to choose from in the book. Some of your recipes on the website have alcohol in them, and they are not in the books; you separated them from the website and the book. What was the reason behind that one?
Dinah: The original recipes that I tested appeared like that. They all had alcohol in them. Everything was fine, everything was hunky dory, and then, as we got through several rounds of editing, my editor told me that I had to modify the recipes because now they found out that they will be shelving… the bookstores will be shelving The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook with the children’s books. And it’s a problem because if children are making it, it shouldn’t have alcohol in it. And Barnes & Noble and Borders are pretty strict about what they would allow to have in a cookbook for children. And so I had to modify the recipes. I was so disappointed because it’s not authentic. Christmas pudding is just not authentic if it doesn’t have brandy in it. But I really didn’t have much choice, so I modified the recipes, and I just posted on my website the original. I was allowed for some recipes to include a sidebar explaining how to make the recipe if you’re an adult and you want to have it in the traditional way, but I wasn’t allowed to do that with all of the recipes.
Keith: And your website is at www.unofficialharrypottercookbook.com, where you can find these recipes, is that correct?
Dinah: That is correct, yes!
Keith: Now, what is your next project? Do you have another book lined up for yourself?
Dinah: I don’t have it quite lined up. I am working on another literary cookbook. I did get a new agent for that, and we’re working on the proposal right now. So I don’t have a publisher yet, so I don’t want to say too much about it until I actually have a contract.
Keith: Well, congratulations!
Dinah: Thank you!
Keith: Now, your book is available at Barnes & Noble and at Borders. Where else can people get the book?
Dinah: It’s available at all of the online booksellers and all the major bookstores.
Keith: And also available through your website?
Dinah: Oh, yes, thank you. It is available through my website, yes. Yes, you can just click on the “Buy the Book” link, and you can order it through my website, sure.
Keith: Great! Now, do you have any book signings lined up for yourself?
Dinah: I do. I have so far one book signing in December. Everything is just starting now. The events are just starting, and my calendar is slowly filling up now. One book signing in December in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I have a food demo in Paramus, New Jersey, in November. And I’m just trying to remember… another interview in October, and I plan to set up some more book signings as I go along. But I haven’t really gotten around to doing that.
Keith: Well, now November is a full calendar because, as you know, we do have the Harry Potter movie coming out.
Dinah: Oh, yes!
Keith: Are you ready to see that?
Dinah: I cannot wait. I am so looking forward.
Keith: They’ve had some really good food in those feasts in the movies, and I imagine that you have a lot of those recipes down.
Dinah: Oh, yes! Those tables loaded with food, you just want to reach out into the screen and take a bite.
Keith: Well, it’s interesting because reading your book, like I said it to you earlier, I really had no idea what spotted dick and chocolate gâteau was when Ron mentions it to Hermione, and he’s teasing her. I had no idea what that was, so it was interesting to read what that actually is.
Dinah: Well, I felt the same way when I saw treacle tart; I just had no idea what that was. I’ve had sort of an idea of what the chocolate gâteau was because I remember from French class that gâteau means “cake” in French. But I didn’t know why that would be different from cake. So that was interesting for me to find out what the difference is. And there really isn’t much of a difference. There is a minor distinction that pastry chefs in England make between gâteau and cake, but the average [person] doesn’t even know. But it was fascinating for me to learn what the foods were. I had no idea what they were, and I was oh, so curious because they sounded so good.
Keith: Well, it really is a wonderful book. You did a great job. I’ve read almost all of it, and I’m anxious to try some of these with my kids. So thank you very much for spending some time with me today.
Dinah: Thank you for interviewing me, and enjoy the food.
Keith: On behalf of MuggleNet and MuggleCast, we want to thank you, and good luck with the book. I’m sure it’s going to be a great success.
Dinah: Thank you.
Check out this video of Dinah Bucholz making Harry’s favorite treacle tart dessert below.