Award-Winning Cookbook Author Offers a Fresh Take on New England Cuisine

Tammy Donroe Inman, J95, focuses on regional desserts in her most recent cookbook, which was named ‘Book of the Year’ 

A profile photo of Tammy Donroe Inman, wearing black-framed glasses and a sleeveless blouse.

Tammy Donroe Inman, J95.

When Tammy Donroe Inman, J95, was a Tufts undergraduate majoring in Spanish, she was the worst cook in her apartment of four women, she admits. But that all changed after an immersive study abroad experience in Spain. 

She was inspired to pursue a career that married culture, food, and art. In her second cookbook, New England Desserts: Classic and Creative Recipes for All Seasons, Donroe Inman highlights locally grown produce in recipes that emphasize the beauty of New England’s history and rich food culture. The book was named the 2022 New England Book of the Year by Readable Feast. 

In a recent Tufts Now interview, Tammy recalled how she crafted a career in food. She also shared a few of her favorite recipes from New England Desserts.

A slice of lemon blueberry cake on a white plate with a fork.

Photo: Tammy Donroe Inman

Blueberry and lemon are such a classic combination, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to speckle a layer cake with wild blueberries and then slather it with a lemony cream cheese frosting. I prefer to use the little wild blueberries in this cake because, if given the choice, I’d rather have more small pops of flavor than fewer big ones. But the bigger, plumper blueberries do make an enticing garnish. That said, use what you have. (I don't recommend using frozen blueberries, however, as they tend to turn the batter gray.) While this is the perfect cake to serve at your summer picnic or garden party, the frosting doesn’t stand up well to heat. Keep refrigerated until absolutely ready to serve.

SERVES 12–16

For the cake:

1 teaspoon lemon zest (from 2 medium lemons)

1 1/3 cups granulated sugar

11/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

3 large eggs, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1 tablespoon to dredge the blueberries

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk, shaken

2 cups fresh wild blueberries (about 1 pint)

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the frosting:

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at cool room temperature

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, at cool room temperature

3 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted

1 teaspoon lemon zest (from 2 medium lemons)

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

For the garnish:

Fresh blueberries and lemon zest

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two 8-inch cake pans, then line each with a circle of parchment paper.

Rub the lemon zest into the sugar until moist and fragrant. With an electric mixer (preferably fitted with a paddle attachment), beat the butter on medium-high speed for 1 minute. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl as needed. Add the lemon sugar and continue to beat 2–3 more minutes until very fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Then mix in the vanilla.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Gently heat the buttermilk in the microwave just to get the chill out (don’t overheat). Add half of the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix on low speed until combined. Slowly add the buttermilk with the mixer running on low, scraping down the bottom and sides of the bowl as needed. Then add the rest of the dry ingredients and mix on low.

Toss the washed blueberries with 1 tablespoon of flour and the cinnamon until coated. Gently fold the blueberries into the batter with a rubber spatula. Spread the batter into the prepared pans and bake 30–35 minutes. Let cool completely.

For the frosting, beat the cream cheese and butter together with an electric mixer (preferably fitted with a paddle attachment) until very smooth, 2–3 minutes. Add the sifted confectioner’s sugar in three batches, starting on low then increasing speed, mixing well after each addition. Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, vanilla, and salt. Mix on medium until combined. (If the frosting is very soft, let it chill in the refrigerator for 20–30 minutes to firm up a bit.)

To assemble the layer cake, remove the individual cakes from the pans by running a knife along the edges and flipping them out onto a plate. Remove the parchment paper. Flip one cake right-side-up onto a serving plate. Spread a layer of frosting across the top. Flip the second cake upside-down on top and center. Frost the sides of the cake, then the top. Decorate with blueberries and lemon zest. The cake can be kept covered in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Excerpted from New England Desserts by Tammy Donroe Inman (Globe Pequot, 2022). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Tufts Now: Your career wasn’t always food-based. How did you transition from earning a degree in Spanish and working in marketing to creating an award-winning food blog and eventually writing cookbooks?

Tammy Donroe Inman: I was a biology major all the way through my junior year. But I credit the Tufts Study Abroad program with pulling me away from a path that I thought I should go down and allowing me to figure out what I really wanted to do, which I realized was centered on words and food. 

Were there specific dishes, restaurants, or cultural experiences that you had in Spain that really sparked your interest in switching career paths? 

Studying abroad in Spain exposed me to more art, theater, and culture. And, of course, food. Eating my way across the tapas bars in Madrid was one of my favorite things to do, sampling gambas al ajillo (garlic shrimp), boquerones (marinated anchovies), and manchego con membrillo (sheep’s milk cheese with quince paste). I returned home with a stick blender I saw in a store window as a souvenir. I hadn’t ever seen one before in the U.S. and I wanted to make gazpacho when I got home. 

I ended up changing my major to Spanish my senior year. After graduation, I went through years of trying to figure out what I wanted to do, before I decided to go to culinary school right down the road from Tufts.

Strawberry shortcake is served on a white plate with a glass of milk and a white cloth napkin.

Photo: Tammy Donroe Inman

While I can’t be certain exactly where this classic American dessert originated, it certainly has the hallmarks of a New England dessert: just-picked strawberries in their own flavorful syrup; rustic, not-too-sweet shortcakes for soaking up said juices; and a pillow of fresh whipped cream. Together they combine to create dessert perfection. What’s clear is that shortcakes are a British contribution. The rest was up to season, circumstance, and the anticipation of summer after a long winter. No one in their right mind should ever let strawberry season pass them by without having strawberry shortcake grace the table at least once.


For the topping:

2 quarts fresh strawberries, hulled, sliced

¹⁄³ cup granulated sugar

For the shortcake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

1 cup buttermilk (or 1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed, stirred into 1 cup milk)

For the cream:

1 pint heavy cream

2 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar

Vanilla extract, to taste

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Grease a cookie sheet or line it with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, gently stir together the sliced strawberries with the sugar. Set aside, covered, at room temperature.

For the shortcakes, mix together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add the butter pieces and process 15–20 seconds until the butter pieces are pea-sized or smaller. Transfer to a medium bowl. (You can skip the food processor and cut in the butter by hand or with a pastry blender.) Add the buttermilk and mix until just blended. Drop large, heaping tablespoonfuls of the batter in mounds onto the prepared pans at least 2 inches apart. 

Bake for 10–12 minutes until the tops start to brown.

Remove from the oven and let cool.

Excerpted from New England Desserts by Tammy Donroe Inman (Globe Pequot, 2022). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

That’s quite a pivot. What was it like to make that decision? 

It was a hard decision, because I was essentially taking a year off from work, going into debt, and I didn’t intend to work in restaurants at all. I really just wanted to be a food writer, and to be more informed about food in general. I thought I would maybe become a restaurant reviewer or just write about the cultural aspects of food. It felt like a huge risk at the time, but I made the case that, “If this doesn’t work out, at least I’ll be a better cook!”

But it did end up working out, and it sounds like you really enjoyed the program.

Going to the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts was a wonderful experience. I did not grow up cooking. I wasn't really interested in cooking as a kid because my meals just appeared in front of me like magic. But then I came out into the real world and realized, “Ah, I have to cook for myself. Nobody's gonna cook for me.” 

It was a great program, and I learned so much. I ended up graduating at the top of my class, but it was funny because I was also named “Most Improved.” Clearly, I was, by far, the least skilled person when I enrolled. 

I also worked part-time at Cook's Illustrated during that year, which was an interesting, formative experience in a very different way.

How so? I’ve always wondered what the inner workings of Cook’s and America’s Test Kitchen were really like.

In culinary school we were constantly told, “don't blindly follow a recipe.” Learn the technique, then build on it. They want you to be creative, to gain experience, to make mistakes that you can learn from. You always want to be experimenting and expressing yourself in different ways. 

The opposite was true at Cook’s. My job as a test kitchen assistant was to recreate a specific recipe to a tee. Don’t take any liberties—follow the recipe, don't make any mistakes. 

There was a little bit of a clash because I kept mixing up the philosophies. I think I wasn’t yet ready for the perfectionism the Cook’s Illustrated test kitchen demanded. Honestly, I felt like a failure most of the time I was there. But over the years, I learned that I like to approach food from a position of freedom and joy. That’s where my creativity comes from. I’m at a place now where I can appreciate the Cook’s Illustrated level of precision, tweaking one variable at a time to see how it changes the outcome of a dish. I use a lot of those skills for my own books. But I had to get there my own way and it took time.

That speaks to your scientific background a bit. How did your studies at Tufts influence your personal philosophy on cooking?

It definitely helped as part of my foundation. I enjoy experiments and I’ve always been a very curious person—sometimes it drives my husband crazy because I just have to try something to see what happens. I’ll be working on a cake recipe thinking, “Nobody does it this way, everyone else does it that other way.” But I’m still compelled to try the new technique, then taste it and compare it to my control cake. That’s science. (We didn’t get to eat very much of what came out of our chemistry lab at Tufts, though.)

Rhubarb oat crisp is presented in a tart dish, and a portion has already been served.

Photo: Tammy Donroe Inman

Strawberry and rhubarb are a classic pairing, but sometimes rhubarb likes to stand alone. A pinch of cinnamon and a touch of vanilla temper rhubarb’s wildness, while the buttery, crisp topping scattered with wholesome oats provides rustic texture. Serve this sweet-tart dessert with a scoop of Connecticut Valley Vanilla Ice Cream (page 193) or Maine Buttermilk and Sea Salt Ice Cream (page 204). Or you can simply drizzle some cold heavy cream right over the top of the warm crisp and call it a day.


For the filling:

1 pound rhubarb, cut into 3/4-inch pieces

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of cinnamon

For the topping:

1⁄3 cup all-purpose flour

1⁄3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt

6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces

1/4 cup rolled oats

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter the inside of an 8 × 8-inch baking dish or 9-inch pie plate.

For the filling, combine the rhubarb, sugar, flour, lemon juice, vanilla, and cinnamon in the prepared dish. Set aside.

For the topping, combine the flour, brown sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process briefly to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture is crumbly. Stir in the oats with a spoon. (You can also make the topping by hand, cutting the butter into the dry ingredients with your hands or a pastry blender.)

Scatter the mixture over the rhubarb and bake 50–55 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the rhubarb juices are bubbly. Remove from the oven and let it cool slightly before serving.

Leftovers can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator 2–3 days. Reheat in the oven or microwave (if the latter, the topping will lose its crispness).

Excerpted from New England Desserts by Tammy Donroe Inman (Globe Pequot, 2022). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Speaking of experiences, after you finished culinary school, what inspired you to create your food blog, Food on the Food?

I worked at Cook’s Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen until I graduated from culinary school. Then I got a job at Boston magazine as a research editor and did some food writing on the side. But when I had my first child, I realized the deadline-oriented nature of the magazine business was going to conflict with my parenting duties. I quickly turned freelance in the hopes of having more control over my schedule, only to find I didn’t have quite enough work. I thought, “I want to keep writing about food. Why don’t I start a blog?”

I ended up writing that blog for 10 years. It focused on local foods and my kids, because that's where I was at that time. 

I got very into eating locally, joining community supported agriculture for our vegetables, our meat, our fish. I was very inspired by that aspect of eating. It was the blog in a lot of ways that set me on my current path because I'm still writing about seasonal food in New England, and the stories behind some of these recipes that I grew up eating.

Was there anything unique to blogging that helped you break into the cookbook and publishing worlds?

I feel like if it wasn't for the blog, I probably would not have gotten my first book deal. It's so hard to get a publisher interested. You have to have something. You can’t just be a writer; you’ve got to have some kind of audience that you can point to. Either that or the audacity to keep spamming the publishing world until you finally get a break. 

At that time, I didn't have an amazingly popular blog, but it had enough of a following that publishers paid attention. The blog also gave me some valuable practice with food photography. Let’s just say I didn’t have a natural talent for food styling and photography at first–I really had to practice that skill over and over again. I credit the blog for that opportunity. And though I didn’t take the photographs for my first cookbook, I did do all the styling and photography for New England Desserts as well as my next cookbook that’s coming out in 2024. Having those skills is very attractive to publishers these days.

That’s a great lead into my next questions, which are: How did you begin writing your first cookbook, Wintersweet, and what were the growing points between publishing it and your second and most recent book, New England Desserts

An image of the cover of Tammy Donroe Inman's cookbook, "New England Desserts."

Photo: Courtesy of Globe Pequot

The first book was going to be a seasonal cookbook for all seasons. I had managed to find an agent, but we saw that the field was crowded in terms of what cookbooks had come out at that time. So, we thought, “how can we make this book different?” And obviously summer is a season that has been done to death, but winter, not so much. 

At first, I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to find enough winter recipes, because nothing grows in the winter. But my experience in eating local throughout the winter through local farm shares and other local options prepared me.

I started writing an outline of all the recipes that I could think of. And before I knew it, I had a book. It wasn't just for New England–it was for the whole country–so I could work with citrus, I could work with persimmons and pomegranates and other ingredients that New England doesn't have access to locally. The book wasn’t a bestseller, but it got excellent reviews. 

There’s been almost 10 years between the two books. Five of those years I spent on other non-culinary writing projects, and the other five teaching adults and kids how to cook. I’ve definitely grown as a cook myself. I notice it in the recipe testing. It takes a lot less time to perfect a recipe than it did for the first book, thank goodness, because it's just me, you know? I don't have a team helping me develop the recipes. 

What sets New England Desserts apart from other regionally focused cookbooks?

There's such an identity that New Englanders have: thrifty and hard-scrabble with a particular devotion for cranberries, apples, and pumpkins. I don’t think this culinary identity has been talked about much in a modern context. I wanted a more modern take on New England cuisine. 

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