Citizen Food: Emily Johnson and Her Handmade Miniature Cookbooks

A graphic designer by day, the kitchen experimentalist cooked up her books after demand from friends and family.

“In one of the early books, I forgot to include a very important ingredient in my mac ’n’ cheese—the cheese!” says Seattle graphic designer Emily Johnson, laughing about the charming little 5˝-by-7˝ cookbooks she designs and produces. At least it was a friend who broke the news to her.

The art director for locally based Parent Map magazine, Johnson is also a great cook who loves to entertain and has grown a cult following of friends and neighbors who feast on her creations.

After consistently receiving requests for her recipes, she decided to marry her design expertise with her passion for cooking. Hedgehog FOOD: Favorite Family Recipes is the result. Johnson has designed and produced these colorful mini-cookbooks for a decade, and the current iteration includes 19 recipes—like her time-tested “Mexi-chili bake” and newer additions like her “onion naan” with “cilantro-yogurt dipping sauce.” “I’ve only been making the naan for over a year. I work with high-gluten flour for better texture. I usually go to Cash & Carry and get way too much flour,” she says with a chuckle.

The format of her cookbooks has changed through the years. “They started out even smaller, and were kind of hard to read. I just stapled them together and had a little plastic stand you could put it up on while you were cooking.” She’s since moved to a “larger” version with spiral binding.

The cookbooks were first distributed at a craft sale in her Ravenna neighborhood, where about 10 people sell homemade items from knitted scarves to pottery. She also gives them to friends, sometimes as holiday gifts, and takes them on vacations so she always has her recipes on hand.

New recipes are added with each edition, and Johnson worries that “they just keep getting bigger.” She asks me: “Do you think I should do themed ones?” I tell her that could be fun, and she says that she’d love to do a soup collection for her nearly 90-year-old mother who loves soup.

Along with her originals and some modifications to traditionals, a lot of the recipes were born from experiments cooking for her children when they were younger and from family recipes, like “Aunt Mary’s blueberry muffin cake” (another fan favorite and one of the oldest), the “molasses crinkles,” and the “orange-soaked pound cake” which she mails to her brother and mom each Christmas. She’s cooked many of the dishes at the dinner parties she loves to throw and at an annual Sunday-night summer potluck on the sidewalks of her neighborhood.

But back to that mac ’n’ cheese incident: Testing the recipes is something Johnson confesses she’s not always vigilant about, though with baking she’s more careful. Her goal is to start testing more rigorously. Made correctly, the mac ’n’ cheese, with its ground nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and mix of Cheddar and pecorino Romano, sounds very enticing.

As I flip through the cookbook, I’m anxious to try some recipes, like the buttermilk-garlic slaw with smoky paprika and the “minestrone-ish soup”—the “ish” comes from the less-traditional addition of chicken and sausage. While Johnson is enthusiastic about them all, it always comes back to the Mexi-chili bake. Her people just can’t get enough of it—even though, she says, “they don’t realize that most of it comes from a can!”

Citizen Food features willful adventurers in food culture—who typically have a day job outside a kitchen. Know someone who fits that bill? If so, send info to nsprinkle@seattleweekly.com.

 
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