Home cooking is hot these days. In theory, anyway. Cookbooks keep coming from the publishers as people at least consider making meals for their families instead of bringing home takeout. Well, it's a step in the right direction, people. Start anywhere - with breakfast, with the simple satisfaction of a homemade cookie. Branch out into homemade ice cream, and you may never bring home a carton again. This year's worth of cookbook reviews is excerpted from "Cookbook Cues," a column that runs twice monthly on TheDailyPage.com/eats.
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, by Jeni Britton Bauer
Bauer uses a multi-tiered approach that evaporates extra water and adds ingredients such as a little corn syrup and cornstarch to bind what's left behind. If you like traditional vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, they're here (but even better than you remember). There are also some shockingly creative innovations, including an Influenza Rx sorbet that combines citrus juices, honey, cayenne and bourbon in a cure-all dessert.
Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito
Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $30
The photography is gorgeous and inventive. And the recipes push the envelope by using the finest ingredients - these are often favorites from childhood, gussied up. Check out the recipe for Speculaas, ringers for those crisp spice cookies doled out on Delta flights (you aren't asking for the pretzels, are you?).
Cakespy Presents Sweet Treats for a Sugar Filled Life, by Jessie Oleson
Sasquatch Books, $23
Oleson's recipes tend to be over-the-top affairs, a celebration of junk food: cupcakes baked within cupcakes, fudge made with Velveeta cheese, doughnut upside-down cake, even grilled cheesecake, which is a slice of cheesecake grilled between two slices of buttered pound cake. Better are the simpler takes, simpler being relative, like the salty-sweet brunch cookies, with bacon bits and Grape Nuts, or Pop Rocks cookies, studded with the exploding candy. So: not for serious seasonal chefs, but if you're someone who occasionally enjoys indulging your inner 12-year-old, this one's sweet.
Piece of Cake! by Camilla Saulsbury
Robert Rose, $30
Saulsbury has created a one-bowl method and 175 cake recipes, with over 50 frostings and fillings. Cakes are all about structure, rising and maintaining a tender crumb. Here, you are using none of the standard techniques (cake flour, sifting, alternating wet and dry ingredients), so there is no room for error. Butter needs to be soft, but not too soft. Eggs need to be room temperature. And you cannot overbeat, or your flour will develop gluten and your cake will be tough.
If you're a novice baker, it may take a few times to get the hang of how everything should come together. But with a little practice, you can have a cake in the oven in less than 10 minutes.
Homemade Soda, by Andrew Schloss
The sodas we drink out of cans from supermarkets and machines are much degraded from the birth of such concoctions at soda fountains at pharmacies back in the 19th century. There's a world of other flavors that can be mixed with seltzer water. The book is divided into chapters devoted to sparkling waters, fruit sodas, root beers and colas, herbal sodas and healing waters, fizzy juices, sparkling teas and coffees, ice cream drinks, and "shrubs, switchels and other vinegar drinks." A honey shrub is a quick way to see if vinegar sodas appeal - a very simple syrup of honey and sherry vinegar is mixed with seltzer. A little riff I did on a honey shrub, with balsamic vinegar, was plenty sweet.
The Best Veggie Burgers on the Planet, by Joni Marie Newman
Fair Winds Press, $20
Newman doesn't stick to what mimics a hamburger. These vegan patties are all over the map. Some are more like mock crab cakes, some go the Sloppy Joe route, and some are meant for breakfast in a very unburgerlike way. The "Peaches and Cream Burger" is, as Newman admits, "a cross between a thick pancake and a sweet biscuit." But most of what's here is more burger-like.
There are a number of standard approaches to a veggie burger base - grains, like rice, often in a combo with mushrooms, nuts, mashed beans and even potatoes. If I learned just one thing, it's that tahini almost always improves a veggie patty.
Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook, by Richard Hetzler
Hetzler, the executive chef of the cafe at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, has put together a beautiful and appealing book. Dishes are drawn from foods used by tribes in the northeast woodlands, Great Lakes, Great Plains, north Pacific coast, Mesoamerica and South America, and the culinary range reflects the geographic range. There are lots of salads and soups. Fresh and seasonal - yes. What might be most surprising is how familiar many of these dishes are - ceviche, squash soup, clam chowder, baked beans, chili, tacos.
The exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian are honest about the ways that European culture was destructive to native ways. Here too, the recipe for fry bread explains how the U.S. government pawned off surplus food that was bad for Indian diets on the tribes stuck on reservations. Make fry bread if you must, or fry bread tacos, as they have become part of tradition too.
Minnesota Lunch: From Pasties to Banh Mi, edited by James Norton
Minnesota Historical Society Press, $20
You'd suppose that what folks eat in Minnesota is not all that different from what we Cheeseheads chow down on, come noontime. But editor James Norton has put a stamp on what Minnesotans eat for lunch and come up with a nice volume of regional food history to boot. That regional food specialties remain amid the onslaught of Hardee's, Olive Gardens and Applebee's nationwide is noteworthy, but regional guidebooks that cover them are so often dreadfully written, in exclamatory Chamber of Commerce style. Not so Minnesota Lunch - it's well written and a pleasurable read.
Oh so healthy
Super Natural Every Day, by Heidi Swanson
Ten Speed Press, $23
Swanson writes the popular blog 101 Cookbooks and cooks vegetarian food, but I didn't miss meat here a bit. The combination of luscious photographs, excellent design, and recipes that are both accessible and a little offbeat make this the first book I have wanted to cook from front to back. Swanson places a high priority on fresh ingredients and healthy, delicious food for every meal. It's not for dieters; you'll find plenty of crÃme fraiche here, but little white flour or refined grains. This book is meant to inspire connection between readers and every meal they cook and eat.
The Food Matters Cookbook, by Mark Bittman
Simon & Schuster, $35
Like Bittman's other works, this is a no-frills affair - no food-porn photos. Sometimes the recipes are healthed-up versions of familiar foods, like a cheese-nut ball that forgoes the processed cheese in favor of more nuts, and real Gorgonzola, or tofu. The chipotle quinoa with corn and black beans is a solid keeper - delicious warm or cold, spicy, smoky, and very adaptable. A riff on quinoa tabbouleh was also a success. This book won me over to making my own vegetable stock, too (it's easy). Lots to cook here, but if the recipe sounds too good to be true, you might want to listen to that internal voice.
Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton
Random House, $26
Hamilton was brought up in an idyllic post-hippie household in rural Pennsylvania. Her relationship with food is intense and sensual. When her parents' marriage dissolves, so does the family. Underage, Hamilton ends up waitressing, serving drinks and developing a drug addiction in Manhattan. Stints in college and catering follow, as she cleans up.
Many passages in the book distill this era's local-simple-sensuous approach to food as well as anything that's been written. They're hymns to such dining, but as exhilarating as they are to read, Hamilton's prickly and sometimes contentious personality destroys or at the very least puts a damper on the communal euphoria that such eating is assumed to create.
Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge, by Gordon Edgar
Chelsea Green, $17
Although we consume a lot of cheese in Wisconsin, we are not all-knowing or sometimes even very smart when it comes to cheese varieties, or what to do when faced with an upscale cheese counter. Gordon Edgar is cheesemonger at the Rainbow Grocery Cooperative in San Francisco, the Bay's biggest natural food store. As he becomes more learned in cheese, so does the reader. And Edgar has great taste in cheese - judging from the fact that some of his favorites are from right around these parts.
The Essential New York Times Cookbook, by Amanda Hesser
W.W. Norton, $40
While this is a serious book for serious cooks, it's also one of the most fun cookbooks I've read in a long time. The recipes in the NYT Cookbook were hand-culled by Hesser from issues of the Times dating back to the 1850s. She retooled some for modern kitchens, but as much as possible has left them intact. Hesser also contributes funny commentary and cooking notes to the recipes, making this book a great one for just sitting around and reading. The recipes span the trends and traditions of a century and a half of American cooking and range from quick to elaborate.
In my opinion, buying a cookbook is a decision not to be taken lightly. The food we make is important to good living, and I don't like to keep a cookbook around if I can only get one or two good recipes from it. Given those criteria, this book is a steal at $40. It's good reading and good eating, and will keep you happy and busy in the kitchen for years to come.
The Flavor Thesaurus: A Compendium of Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook, by Niki Segnit
Segnit came up with a list of 99 "essential" flavors grouped roughly into 16 areas, from the expected ("meaty," "cheesy") to the enticing ("brine and salt," "woodland") to the verging-on-frightening ("sulfurous"). From there, it's annotated lists of matchups of ingredients, the culinary equivalent of speed-dating. But The Flavor Thesaurus isn't about weird combinations. It's about combos of all stripes, big and small, comforting and surprising. It's all about coming out, as a cook, from dependence on the recipe alone and learning what works together, and why. It is like some sort of massive food geek smorgasbord.
The Cook's Book of Intense Flavors, by Robert and Molly Krause
Fair Winds Press, $26
The idea is to combine ingredients in unexpected but harmonious ways. Chapters are grouped according to "timeless," "unexpected," "complex," "bright and light," "sweet and sour," "exotic," and "decadent" flavor combinations. So in the table of contents, you see not recipe names, but lists of three ingredients - "chestnut + miso + orange," say, or "watermelon + cheese + vinegar" (both from the "unexpected pleasures" chapter). The whole book is an as-you-like-it proposition: "Let your mood guide where to jump in - the book has no real beginning or end."