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cookbook reviews with kristina: baking

by Grace Bonney

How do I choose a cookbook? Instinctively, I will pick up any book with great photography (Gordon Ramsay’s Cooking for Friends shot by Ditte Isager). Next I will skim the recipes to see how many I would actually make. I have been known to buy a book for just *one* recipe such as a great tart dough or pie crust, or something unique (Jamie at Home’s cheeky chilli-pepper chutney– the one recipe is worth the price of the book). Later I may fall in love with the whole book, or may just stick to that one recipe. I may buy a book because I am craving a particular food (Marcel Desaulniers’ Death by Chocolate Cakes). I may buy a book because I need a reference (Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise). Or I may buy a book because its simplicity inspires me to develop my own recipes. In short, the one book which is the end all be all has rarely crossed through my hands. Instead, I prefer to recognize each book’s individual strengths and value it for that (just like people!). You may ask if there are books I don’t buy. Yes. Thousands of them, and they are generally the ones that come up woefully short on one or more of the criteria listed above.

After last week’s scones, and this week’s Peach Ginger Ice Cream Blondies, I thought some baking titles would be in order.

I have taken note of your suggestions on last week’s column and will be working hard to bring you what you’ve asked for. Keep the ideas coming and thanks for sharing some of your favorite titles! For more recipe ideas from these books and others, and to let me know what your favorites are from these books, follow me on Twitter.

CLICK HERE for the full cookbook reviews after the jump!

Brownies and Blondies by Lisa Yockelson from her American Baking Classics series (Harper Collins Publishers): Anyone who has ever used a Lisa Yockelson recipe knows that she is one of the best in the business. Brownies and Blondies is a tiny book with no pictures or illustrations. But you already know what brownies and blondies look like, so you’ll be focused on how easy the recipes are. No need for mixers, just a bowl and a spoon. Try the classic blondies, the coconut blondies, and the Rum Raisin Blondies…just three of the 21 blondie recipes. Lisa also provides notes on which recipes freeze well, and a bunch of other useful tidbits. This is a perfect one (two) topic cookbook, which is out of print, but unlike some of Lisa’s other out of print books (which are collector’s items!), this one is available for under $2 so there’s no excuse not to have one! I have bought several as given as gifts.

Mary Berry’s Baking Bible by Mary Berry (BBC Books): This brand new release is an anthology of baking, savory and sweet, just the kind I love. It is a collection of popular British food personality Mary Berry’s best recipes, and the type of book you’ll come to again and again when you need just the right dessert to make on a whim. The recipes are tested and accurate, the technique well explained (when necessary) and the book is dotted with baking tips throughout. It’s so new, I’ve only had a chance to to try the Lemon Yogurt Cake and the Cappuccino Cake. But my office on skeletal staff managed to devour them all (plus a plum tart) in less than 90 minutes. I love the recipe collection so much, I promise to make her Lavender Biscuits (cookies), Chocolate Eclairs, and English Muffins, too! (Few photos, but very nice ones)

Tips for Better Baking by Lucy Young (EBury Press): This little book of baking tips is great reading for beginners and to fill in gaps for intermediate bakers. More like a mini informal text book than a quick resource, it covers tools, ingredients, technique and storage, and offers recipes to “practice” her points. Unfortunately it has no index or easy reference to enable you to return quickly to certain sections, and there’s no tips on “folding” ingredients into batters, something I am always scared to mess up! Despite these inconveniences, it’s still worth keeping around for all the useful info within that I haven’t seen elsewhere! Lucy Young was Mary Berry’s assistant for many years helping her on her recipes and books, so you know she’s got her facts straight! (No photos!)

Eric Kayser’s Sweet and Savory Tarts by Eric Kayser (Flammarion)
Eric Kayser, a French bread baker by trade, has produced a beautiful book, it really took my breath away. But this book is exactly why I rarely buy translated cookbooks, preferring original language books with the occasional dictionary over a translation. That’s not a problem though if you know how to trouble shoot recipes. In this particular case, the need to troubleshoot makes this a book for intermediate bakers or those who use a scale and metric measures or simply anyone familiar with the properties of tart doughs. Still, Kayser’s book is fantastic for great not-so-common tart and quiche fillings like the creamed Beet and Broccoli Quiche, the Sweet Potato, Gorgonzola and Walnut Quiche, the Artichoke, Tapenade, and Parmesan Quiche, and the Matcha Green Tea and Currant tart. To make the pastry work, however, you will need patience or experience, or both (or your own tried and true dough recipe if you don’t want to try his). In addition to liking the filling ideas, I like that many of the pastry recipes yield enough for three tarts, so that you can use one and freeze the rest and are ready to go the next time you feel like baking a tart. If you’re new to tarts/quiches, don’t be scared off by the need to use a scale and get your hands dirty in the beginning while you learn Kayser’s recipes. Practice makes perfect!

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  • I absolutely swear by Mary Berry – I’ve got her ‘Ultimate Cake Book’ and it’s the one I turn to all the time. Absolutely failsafe, i used it for my wedding cake. How’s that for trust?

  • My checklist for cookbooks is: Page layout, Photography (this comes 2nd, because some great cookbooks have no pictures) and paper stock. I only buy cookbooks printed on uncoated paper. No matter how beautiful or useful the book if it’s printed on shiny, coated paper I can’t bring myself to buy it. It’s like finding a beautiful coat only to find it’s nylon…

  • @RKW – Great to hear! This is the first book of hers I have, and I love it! There’s something about the collection of recipes that is attractive!

    @Pieter: Yes I tend to agree about the paper, 99% of the time!! I can take coated sometimes if the pages are not thick. And you’re right about good cookbooks not always having photos– I think the books published by Slow Food Editore (Italian) are some of the best ones out there. Nary a photo…