Cookbook Digest–Sweet Stuff

It’s county fair time, an opportunity for the nicest competition there is, the baking contest. Up your game with these books, reviewed for Cookbook Digest. Bake with Anna Olsen will give you some pro tips to ensure your genoise is a spongy delight and Flapper Pie and Blue Prairie Sky will appeal to the judges’ nostalgia for all-American home baking.

Aprons on!

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Cleaning Out the Basement–Cordon Bleu Baking I


Cordon Bleu Baking I, B.P.C. Publishing, 1971

I think baking cookies is equal to Queen Victoria running an empire. There’s no difference in how seriously you take the job, how seriously you approach your whole life.

Martha Stewart

And if you run a good empire, perhaps you’ll get a cake named after you. And if you find this book, you can bake that cake.

There are plenty of jokes about British food and cooking (though in this day of Borough Market, Ottolenghi, and Mary Berry, most  are unwarranted). But there is and always has been something wonderful about British baking.

Elizabeth David recognized years ago in her book, English Bread and Yeast Cookery. She recorded the home-based and regional breads–something warm and floury for breakfast and tea. Recipes made different with a change in ingredient proportions, or cooking technique, or serving tradition.

You can find all of that in this little book, which I found at my usual haunt, The Saint John’s Opportunity Shop. It starts out with the basics, parsing a simple loaf of yeast risen bread into Household Bread, Light Bread, Wholemeal Bread, Fine Wholemeal Bread, and Cottage Loaf. And then there are the appealing oddities–Baps (a soft roll), Girdle Scones (cooked on a griddle), Crumpets (a wet batter, cooked in molds on a griddle), Huffkins (oval cakes with a hole in the middle), Revel Buns (saffron), Chelsea Buns (currants), Parkin (oatmeal), and Singin’ Hinnie (a kind of giant currant scone cooked on a griddle).

And like Elizabeth David, the directions, especially for an instructional book, are pretty scanty. In fact, refreshingly scant directions–no descriptions of types of flour or exhortations to weigh your ingredients. That said, there are no small ambitions here. This little book covers a lot of ground–croissants, American cakes, and gingerbread. There are recipes for a tiered wedding cake, a maypole birthday cake, and a chocolate swiss roll.

But let’s not forget the cake of empire–a brilliantly simple Victoria Sandwich–a sponge cake split, spread with lemon curd or jam, and dusted with powdered sugar. It’s good to be with the queen!



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Fictitious Dishes


Fictitious Dishes, An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals by Dinah Freed, Harper Design 2014, hardback $19.99, 126 pages

I think that my love of cooking grew out of my love of reading about cooking. When I was a kid, we had a bookcase in the kitchen filled with cookbooks. I would eat all my meals reading about meals I could have been having.

Samantha Bee

We all develop personal relationships with books. As you read, you develop, almost unconsciously, what the heroine looks like. Or particular passages stand in your mind as shorthand for the whole book. Or a phrase sticks for no reason you can identify.

These are not the themes and motifs of our English teachers, but our own little illuminations of character, place, or plot. And nothing illuminates like food–revealing of class, obsessions, options, and situation. Remember  Mr. Woodhouse who offers his guests gruel while his daughter Emma, offers more conventional hospitality and sweetmeats? The meal shows us he is not miserly but concerned for their health, and we see at base, that Emma has good sense.

In this book of passages and pictures, designer and educator Dinah Fried illustrates the library. They’re all here–Gatsby’s “glistening hors d’oeuvres,” Ishmael’s bowl of chowder with its “small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts,” and Beezus’ confounding jelly in her mashed potatoes.

You may quibble with Fried’s choices–the slashed grapefruits from Fear and Loathing look far too neat, and how could she leave out Harriet the Spy’s tomato sandwich?! But that’s actually part of the book’s fun, you can immerse yourself in your favorites all over again. Her image of Turkish Delight in the snow sent me zinging back to the town library of my childhood where I borrowed The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and made a note to get myself some of this amazing confection. If a 10-year old can have a bucket list, Turkish Delight was on mine.

My favorite image is the feast of garbage that Grete Samsa collects for her metamorphosed brother, Gregor, and how, in the passage, he eats it like a gourmet, determinedly pushing away the fresh food in favor of cheese and sauce.




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Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

cover image

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat, Simon & Schuster 2017, hardback $35.00, 462 pages

A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness.

Elsa Schiaparelli

You may think you know what you’re doing in the kitchen. You don’t. But Samin Nosrat does and she can explain it brilliantly.

In reading this book, you’ll find yourself wiling away an afternoon on the couch learning how and when salt diffuses itself through food, that browning food actually creates acidic flavor compounds, and that you monitor heat by looking at the food, not the fuel.

Rather than making dietary judgments–we eat too much salt and fat, or acids rot your teeth–Nosrat approaches these ingredients as a cook–there is no flavor without them. And then as a scientist explaining how salt works to both make foods more moist and more dry. Or how fat is indispensable as a cooking medium, a main ingredient, and a seasoning. Or how acid in tomatoes will balance the sweetness of onions.

When you know how these basics work, you can use them to best advantage. After a thorough and good-natured discussion of kitchen science, Nosrat supplies recipes, but they are really starting points that prove her point. She suggests Pasta all Vongole, for example, to practice layering acids–cooking the clams in wine, and finishing with a squeeze of lemon and the crunch of toasted sourdough breadcrumbs.

But Nosrat is skeptical of recipes; she doesn’t view cooking as a linear process, but a circular one–connected like a spiderweb, “touch one part and the entire thing will quiver.” She views recipes as snapshots and being in the kitchen as reality. The book’s recipes include measurements for Classic Pumpkin Pie, Roman Egg Drop Soup, and Chicken with Lentil Rice, but Nosrat also includes salsa math, a vegetable cooking matrix, and a pasta sauce family tree that encourage you to cook intuitively.

You need to riff on the recipe, tweaking a measurement, adjusting a cooking time, swapping an ingredient, all based on your kitchen, your palate, and your application of salt, fat, acid, and heat. Let the music begin!

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Real Pizza, Secrets of the Neapolitan Tradition

real pizza cover image

Real Pizza, Secrets of the Neapolitan Tradition by Enzo de Angelis and Antonio Sorrentino, Mondadori 2017, $29.95 hardback, 160 pages

As a chef and as a father, I am very upset by what’s on the menu at most schools: chicken nuggets and tater tots and ketchup and pizza.

Jose Andres

He’s not talking about the pizza in this book. The spongy sweet mess served in American schools and by American fast food purveyors is disgusting and not worth eating.

And it’s so sad that we do eat it, because making good pizza at home is pretty easy. But making great pizza, a master’s pizza deemed worthy of protection by the European Union, takes expertise developed over time and some inside information.

In this book the authors, who are executive chefs with Rossopomodoro (perhaps a chain worth eating at), take a road trip, via vespa of course, around Naples to 11 pizza parlors where they learn the secrets, hear the stories, and gather the recipes.

They start with the dough and recommend using Tipo 00 Italian flour (if you can find it) and fresh yeast. And they provide a recipe that makes enough for 6 pizzas. But most importantly, they let the “pizzaioli” speak. Domenico de Luca says the dough should be thin, fine ‘e pasta. Raimondo Cinque says to use room temperature water for a good dough. Gennaro Luciano says “Get a wooden bowl because dough left to rest in wood will be less moist and will yield a more fragrant pizza.”

Like all simple things, pizza requires attention. The pizzaioli call it heart and passion–taking the time to let the dough for eight or even 24 hours, seeking out the best ingredients, and learning how to spread it into a pie that is just right.

The recipes include classic combinations that focus on just the right cheese and tomatoes as well as creative interpretations like Teresa Iorio’s pear, guanciale, walnut and gorgonzola pizza. But if you can’t get an oxheart tomato from Sorrento, Fiordilatte cheese from Campania, Papacella pepper from Bresciano or Torzella–an “ancient broccoli–get the best tomatoes you can find from your garden or farm market, hunt up some Italian tuna or anchovies, and the freshest, whole-milk mozzarella you can find. Develop your own passion and skill (and dough) suited to your oven and your ingredients.

And lose the pizza delivery number.


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Happy Independence Day

This menu, served on the S. S. Atlantic on July 4, 1963, displays the kind of happy United States history we’ve come to know is a fraction of the story.

check out the red, white, and blue ribbon

check out the red, white, and blue ribbon

And check out the menu–more creativity in the word play than in the dishes. I love the contradiction in Carrots Vichy, Concord–talk about re-writing history!

I'll have the Undervaluing of my Labor After Dinner Mints, please

I’ll have the Undervaluing of my Labor After Dinner Mints, please

Celebrate your own way!

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La Bonne Table

title page

la bonne table title page

To be a gourmet you must start early, as you must begin riding early to be a good horseman. You must live in France, your father must have been a gourmet. Nothing in life must interest you but your stomach.

Ludwig Bemelmans

This is absolutely a book for the hammock on a summer afternoon. It will sweep you to 1914 when Bemelmans began as a busboy at  New York’s  long-gone Ritz Hotel at Madison and 46th Street and worked his way through commit de rang, waiter, and  banquet manager. It will lift you through space into crazed kitchens and plush dining rooms, and it will introduce you to characters who don’t exist anymore–the cooks and sou-chefs and dogs bodies who’ve

been replaced by media-glorified thug poseurs.

He was born in the Tyrol, crashed out at his Uncle’s hotel, where it was rumored he’d shot a waiter, and chose emigration over prison.With wit, happy good-luck, and connected friends he made his way as an artist and writer. In one essay in this book, a mentoring waiter buys him pencils, paper, and cartooning books, determined that this talented young man should not end up with the flat feet and sour disposition of a life-long waiter.

If his loose-lined drawings look familiar, it’s because you recognize the style from his   Madeline series. Their success funded and fueled more drawing and writing–essays here on taking the cure, visiting Cuba, eating caviar, Hollywood lunches at Romanoff’s and the studio commissary. And to complete the scrapbook feeling, are the reproduced menus from Grand Vefour, Lucas Carton, and New York’s own Le Pavillon.

Excuse me, I’m headed for an afternoon in the hammock.




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