Let’s be honest: cookbooks make awesome gifts. They teach skills, flavors, cuisines. They transport you to another place, far far away or just around the block. Give one to the right person and you’ll get a meal out of it. They can be used over and over (how terribly green!) or put on a coffeetable to be admired (how terribly chic!). Trust me; I know. I’ve bought and received hundreds of them and right now have a stack next to my couch waiting to be thumbed through. I know my books and I’ve put together a list of my favorites. Some are new, some have been kicking around for a while. You see, I’ve looked at a lot of lists in the last week and one thing that bugs me about book lists that come out this time of year is they’re almost always based on the newest releases. This doesn’t set well with me – the new shiny model doesn’t always replace the old classic. I’m not entirely convinced that a book released two months ago is better than the one I’ve had for 10 years. I have a couple hundred and there are certain volumes I go to again and again and frankly, some are timeless. So let’s talk about my favorites, most are baking related but I’ve got others too …
For the new and enthusiastic cook in your life: Ruhlman’s Twenty; Michael Ruhlman. The skills pay the bills folks and this book breaks them down into 20 key topics. Julie worked her way through Julia? Well work your way through this one and you’ll be a better cook for it. I gave this to my Dad for his birthday and he said “Well, 14 weeks until Christmas so I can work through one lesson a week until then and be nearly 75% done by the time I see you again.” Such the methodical engineer. Every so often, he sends me a progress report and I’ve really enjoyed hearing how he’s doing. He said the chapter on salt was particularly eye-opening and I have to agree. After hearing him go on, I bought myself a copy and read it cover to cover one weekend. Full disclosure: I haven’t cooked from it – yet – but I’ve already learned quite a bit and if his recipes are anything like his other books (Ratio, Chacuterie) I have no doubt they’ll be good. I think homemade bacon may be in my near future.
For the cook who knows everything: How to Cook Everything; Mark Bittman. The 10th Anniversary edition released in 2008 and I’ve yet to find anything as successfully comprehensive as this one. Mark Bittman, of the NY Times, is a born teacher. His book is a great reference tome for just about everything covering all ingredients, ethnicities and techniques. A friend recently asked me how to cook a pheasant. Having no idea, I turned to Bittman and sure enough, there was a recipe. Problem solved. There are recipes for everything, just like the title promises. It’s a great one to have on the shelf and one I turn to frequently, often first. His How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is a good one too.
For the beginner cook: How to Cook without a Book – Recipes and Techniques Every Cook Should Know By Heart; Pam Anderson. It’s been out for while but I love the format – a few key techniques (vinaigrettes, supper soups, omelets) then variations on those base recipes. For instance, the chapter on sautés and pan sauces gives multiple ideas on how to take a basic technique (sauté), pick a protein (chicken, pork, fish, steak) and create a simple pan sauce in infinite variations. It’s a technique you’ll come back to again and again. This is one of my go-to wedding gifts, along with Bittman’s book (above.) A vegetarian edition was just released that looks to be pretty good too (it’s in the pile by the couch – I’ll get to it.)
For the all-round baker: Baking from My Home to Yours; Dorie Greenspan. My favorite go-to baking book for just about anything. Solid, well-written and well-tested recipe covering a wide variety of topics. The World Peace Cookies will become a staple and have developed their own cult-like following, for good reason. Basics to fancy pants – it’s all here. If there’s one baking book an enthusiastic pastry cook should have, this is the one. And c’mon, it’s Dorie. We love her.
Honorable baking mention: Tartine; Elisabeth Prueitt & Chad Robertson, because I just love this book. Released in 2006 it has stood the test of time in my kitchen. Good, solid, tasty recipes from their San Francisco bakery of which the almond tea cake (posted here) has become a favorite and is referred to by my friends as “THE Cake.” That and the shortbread alone are worth the price of admission. I hear great praise for their bread book as well – Tartine Bread – though I haven’t spent much time with it.
For the francophile baker in your life: Macarons; Pierre Herme. Oh yes, it’s here. The Grand Puhbah of them all, Mousieur Herme, the King of all Macarons has finally released his definitive tome in English. The British version has been kicking around for the last year but in November the English verision with American weights and measures was released into the world. Stand back or fear the stampede. People go nuts over these things and rightly so, they’re tasty and oh so elegant. It’s technique that once mastered, satisfies like nothing else (except maybe a solo pig butchery attempt but that’s an unusual skill to have.) Get this book and your recipient will freak out. Freak. Out. I ordered mine a month ago and am still waiting for delivery and though there’s plenty of information out there on macarons, if there’s one person I want to learn from, it’s Herme. No question. UPDATE: I received another email from Amazon this morning (12/8) that there’s a problem with their supply and I won’t receive this until after 12/25 with no definitive arrival date. I’m not sure what’s up with this but if you’re hoping for a Christmas gift, short of finding it in a store, I don’t think it will happen. Wonder if there’s a frenzy. Wouldn’t be surprised.
For the bread baker in your life: My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method; Jim Lahey and Rick Flaste. This isn’t a new book either but it’s a good one. This is the guy that revolutionized the no-knead method and every single thing I’ve made from this book has turned out fantastic. The basic, classic no-knead loaf is so ridiculously easy to make and emerges from the oven crackling brown and absolutely stunning. My students ooh and aah every single time we make this. Bread baking can be frustrating – so many variables! – and I haven’t had that problem with this book whatsoever. Here’s the other bonus – this book is not intimidating in the least. I have other books that leave me perplexed at times with ratios, hydration points and 4 day pre-fermentation processes. This one, on the other hand, is easy, straight-forward and you’ll be amazed at what you can produce with such little effort.
Honorable bread mention: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice; Peter Reinhard. Peter is the man and writes fantastic bread books. Yes, I have – and recommend – them all. He’s rather scientific and detailed but persevere through the recipes and you’ll be rewarded not only with a beautiful artisan loaf but an understanding on the science behind how you got there. I like this book best because of the solid, classic recipes contained within. If you ever get a chance to see Peter speak, go. He’s a wonderful teacher and a passionate baker.
For the adventurous baker in your life: Momofuku MilkBar; Christina Tosi & David Chang. This is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered, months before release. Really. I haven’t been lucky enough to dine at any of the restaurants in the Momofuku empire – yet – but I’ve been reading about Christina Tosi for years. When the UPS man dropped this off last month, I could barely contain my excitement. I immediately read it cover to cover. Wow. I read a lot of cookbooks and this is truly unique full of quirky, fun recipes written with a distinct voice. It is by no means a beginner book as there’s a lot of technique buried in the recipes and you have to have a bit of an adventurous streak but they are most certainly do-able and so very interesting. I’ve made a few things – corn cookies, cereal milk ice cream – that have been crazy delicious. Amazing, actually. For a slightly off-kilter perspective on desserts, this is the one.
For the healthy baker in your life: Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole Grain Flours; Kim Boyce. Yes, this one came out last year but it is still in regular rotation in my kitchen. Working various whole grain flavors into my baking repotoire has been really interesting – at some point I stopped thinking about them as healthy (which they are) and thinking about them as tasty (which they are!) The whole wheat chocolate chip cookies (posted here) should be on your to-do list immediately.
And a few others, just because I love them:
For the dumping lover in your life: Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More, Andrea Nguyen. Again, not a new one but I love dumplings like nothing else and I adore this book. Andrea is a skilled teacher and breaks down what can seems like complicated processes into very do-able recipes. Sure there are potstickers and won tons, but also samosas and my very favorite har gow. For the days I can’t make the trek to Chinatown, I sometimes just pull out this book and look at the pictures. True story. One day I’m going to make a dumpling feast for the Chinese New Year from this book. Mark my words.
For the free-spirited traveler in your life: A Culinary Journey in Gascony; Kate Hill. In July, I spent two glorious weeks at Kate’s home, Camont, in Southwest France. She’s a remarkable woman and this book is full of stories of her life on the barge The Julia Hoyt, cruising the canals of Gascony and cooking all the way. I read it while I was there and again when I came home and it instantly transports me right back to that magical, lovely place. That it is also full of Kate’s delicious Gascon recipes is an added bonus. If you can go for a visit, do; if you can’t, make the recipes and experience Camont yourself via her food. The tomato tart (posted here) is definitely a keeper and one I make often.
So what are your favorites? Did I miss anything you find indispensable? And don’t forget – post a comment here by Friday 5pm CST for a chance to win the Spice Islands baking case!