My Favorite Cookbooks

While everyone’s an expert in the blogosphere, cook book writers with a distinctive voice and dependable information endure. I just attended a presentation, Food Writing Today: A Panel Discussion on Where We Are and Where We’re Going, organized by the NYWCA (New York Women’s Culinary Alliance), which hammered at this theme. The panel included Deb Perelman, author of the wildly popular blog, smittenkitchen.com; Irena Chalmers, cooking school owner and author of Food Jobs; Judith Weber, a top literary agent; and Susan Schwartzman, a successful publicist, and was moderated by Sarah Moulton, chef, author and TV personality.

Despite being a nation of foodies, there have been serious cutbacks in cookbook publishing budgets. Publishers previously had cookbook editors; now, editors have broader responsibilities. Newspapers have in some cases abandoned their food sections.

The look has changed, too. Cookbooks previously had no illustrations or photographs; now, 4-color photographs are required. Process photographs have become more popular than beauty shots. Natural looks that a home cook can achieve have overtaken perfectly plated dishes that only a professional chef aided by a food stylist can achieve.

There are more self-publishing options now, but they have drawbacks. If you self-publish, it is more difficult to get publicity. Blogging can lead to a book contract, but requires constant posting. Apps are a viable publishing vehicle, but it’s difficult to recoup your costs, even for an author with an established reputation.

In the short term, celebrity books sell well. But in the long-term, a book remains relevant if it’s usable, teaches something, is well written, its recipes work, the recipes are tested, it’s dependable, informative and has a voice.

The panel was most complimentary of the classics — Julia Child and The Joy of Cooking, as well as cook books by Michele Scicolone, Rick Bayless, Steve Raichlen and Sarah Moulton. My favorites:

The Classic Italian Cook Book/The art of Italian cooking and the Italian art of eating by Marcella Hazan. I’ve used recipes from this book for years and know Marcella Hazan’s written voice very well. What a shock when she became a facebook friend! I’ve used this cookbook to re-create dishes I tasted while abroad. Vitello tonnato (cold sliced veal with tuna sauce) and Ossobuccco alla Milanese (braised veal shanks, Milan style) are favorites to this day. As a home cook, I have total confidence that the recipes will work. No photos, only a few illustrations.  When I bought the book, I heard that Knopf had an amazing cookbook editor who tested every recipe of the books she published.

Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts. Another heavily used cookbook, which I’ve annotated over the years. My husband and I have always loved Maida Heatter’s French Custard Rice Pudding, and I put several stars next to the recipe years ago. I laughed when I read my old note next to French Sandwich Cookies with Chocolate Filling: “but a bitch to make.” They’re not that hard to make, I just wasn’t accustomed to multi-step preparations back then, and, they’re dramatically beautiful and delicious. Also published by Knopf, no photos, only a few illustrations.

Grand Finales The Art of the Plated Dessert , A Modernist View of Plated Desserts, and A Neoclassic View of Plated Desserts, by Tish Boyle and Timothy Moriarty. Tish lives across the street from me and we’ve played tennis together for years. I have all of her cookbooks, and marvel at the intelligence, sophistication and haute couture tone of these books. It’s fascinating to read about impressionist, architectural, performance art and neoclassic desserts. For home cooks, the good cookie/over 250 delicious recipes, from simple to sublime has yummy, easy-to-follow recipes for Amy-oes, which are floral-shaped dark sandwich cookies with kahlùa buttercream and Bittersweet Chocolate Madeleines. I also like the tips about storing, wrapping and shipping cookies and the troublshooting guide.

It’s All American Food by David Rosengarten. This book has been well used by both my kids and me. In addition to my notes, there are lots of ☺ annotations beside Maryland Crab Cakes and Crabhouse Tartar Sauce.  I love to cook with my daughters. We weave in and out of each others’ dishes, chopping, stirring, and secretly adjusting the flavors and textures. We also love to make Lobster Rolls and Coleslaw. Every recipe we’ve tried has worked and has been delicious. No illustrations.

A Good Day for Soup by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer.I have used this book heavily because my kids will eat soup for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or midnight snack. I like to make soup because it can be made in quantity and tastes even better the next day. I make Asparagus and Prosciutto Soup with Parmesan Toast, Pappa al Pomodoro and Cool Minted Pea Soup for my kids when they come home from college.

The Family Meal: Home cooking with Ferran Adrià. This is new and really brilliant. The menus and recipes are conveyed via step-by-step photos that are overlaid with translucent clouds containing succinct instructions. The ingredients are clearly laid for two, six, 20 or 75 people. I like to cook a whole menu from this book. It is so well thought-out, well-organized and clear, and the results are well-balanced and tasty.

The Fundamental Techniques of Classical Cuisine by The French Culinary Institute with Judith Choate. This is a great 500-page reference book. I use it to verify how to make Poisson en Papillote (a current obsession), cut fillets from flat fish, truss a chicken or poach an egg (eggs benedict became popular in our house). There are lots of photographs and clear instructions to guide you through the steps. Recipes are in metric quantities; just translate.

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