Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cookbook Redux (part one)

So, I don't really own that many cookbooks.

That's probably because I can't really cook. Can't cook? But you have food pictures up here! Yes, well, I can bake, but I can't cook. So while I could make you a wedding cake, you're out of luck if you want anything more complicated than toast and eggs (although today I screwed up a fried egg by leaving on the stove too long and turning it into a hard-boiled yolk on a blackened white. But, Dear Reader, I ate it anyway).

I think baking is a lot less intuitive and more of an exact science than cooking. If you have a good recipe and you can follow it fairly competently, you'll probably get more or less the same results when you bake, which is why having a few good baking cookbooks on hand is better and more fail-safe than just Googling recipes.

With that said, here are short reviews of my baking book shelf:

Chocolate, American Style, by Lora Brody.

Laura Brody is a prolific cookbook writer, wrote the Chocolate book for the Williams-Sonoma Cookbook Library, has a bazillion published recipes, and has appeared on a bunch of cooking shows. She knows her stuff and approaches her recipes with a welcome lack of pretentiousness. Although some recipes are more complicated than others, she doesn't seem to have jumped on the unfortunate trend of trying to dig up the hardest to find ingredients or most arcane techniques, and Chocolate, American Style is a solid, dependable cookbook.

Brody divides up her chapters by type, including chapters on candy, ice cream, old world desserts, and chocolate to go. Brody's Jewish heritage also lends itself well to some interesting twists on favorites like rugelach, hamentaschen, and linzer torte. My particular favorite is the Mint Chocolate Brownie recipe.

Michael Turback's Mocha.

This little book is a decent buy if you really, really like chocolate and coffee together. If you don't, skip it. Mocha has three sections, drinks, cocktails, and desserts. The usefulness of the drinks and cocktails sections is debatable - you're probably not going to spend a lot of time and effort making complicated coffee drinks or coffee based cocktails unless you're really, really into it. Mocha's recipes also call for stuff that's hard to find or expensive, like cocoa nibs or Amarula Cream liqueur. (Really? Making your own cardamom-scented marshmallows? Please.)

The desserts section does yield some good recipes. My favorite is the Espresso Walnut Brownie, a dark, dense and very adult coffee-spiked brownie.

Food Editor's Favorite Desserts, edited by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann and Jane Baker.
Jeez, this book is so old that I can't even find a picture of it online and is probably out of print. It's been knocking around my mom's cabinets for ages and I took it with me when I moved out (sorry, Mom). This book brings together recipes from food writers across America and includes a lot of previously published or reader-submitted recipes. Each one includes a little note about its provenance. I've had good results from every recipe I've tried, although the recipes don't go into detail about technique, and the recipes vary widely in how challenging they are. Two I've made over and over are Black Bottom Cups (those cream cheese-filled dark chocolate cupcakes) and the Cornmeal Pound Cake, a delicious twist on pound cake with a pleasing gritty texture that I use as the base for fruit and ice cream parfaits. The recipes are fairly straightforward and with few exceptions, pure Americana.

How to Be A Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson (American version).

Skip it. This expensive hardbound book's recipes vary hugely in quality. I suspect, based on my own experiences with this book and other online reviews, that the American version of this book has really badly converted measurements.

The recipes call for ingredients that are hard to find here, like walnut paste, candied peel, and chestnuts. Although Nigella's schtick seems to be claiming that all her recipes are really wondrously easy, she doesn't bother to explain a lot of stuff that a novice baker won't know - for example, her creme brulee recipes doesn't explain that you need to temper the eggs, or you'll end up with a bowl of sweetened scrambled eggs instead of a smooth custard. I have had good luck with some of the recipes (I like the Cherry-Almond Loaf cake) but other ones, such as her meringue cookie recipes, fail miserably, and others, like many of the muffin recipes, are just mediocre. It's a shame; the book's photography is lovely and her writing is witty and smart, making it a pleasure just to read, but the recipes are undependable enough to make it unwise to rely on this book unless you have the time and patience to test recipes first.


This dense, no-nonsense book collects approximately a bazillion dessert recipes from New York restaurants, cookbook and food writers, and other sources. Each recipe includes a paragraph explaining the recipe's origins, and some are fascinating. Recipes range from the exotic (Coco-Mamie) to the Old World (linzer torte) to the innovative (Pluot Carpaccio with Ginger Sauce) so you'll never not be able to find a recipe to suit what you're craving. There are very few pictures except for a section in the middle, and the pictures are somewhat random (I like cookbooks with pictures, especially of the more complicated recipes, so I at least know if mine is approximating the original). The book's organization is rather odd, with types of desserts (Pies, Tarts, and Cakes) and ingredients (Fruit Desserts, etc.) getting their own section, so desserts aren't always where you think you'll find them. Overall, a solid book, and varied enough that you'll almost always be able to find something new in it.


  1. I like the multiple mentions of Linzertorte :)


    Never let it be said I don't care about my readership!